One of the things that’s always worried me about American journalism is the “Bad News Is Good News” rule.
That is to say that a murder, riot, scandal, war or earthquake is “good” because it boosts circulation, while human interest stories about everyday life are run-of-the-mill, or “bad.”
True, it’s only human to be attracted to catastrophe and turn away from ho-hum goodness. But the job of the journalist, I’ve always thought, is to find the deeper story in the everyday, to write that story with a fresh angle and to bring to the surface every fact that might otherwise be overlooked.
President Obama spoke to this issue after the recent mass murders in Roseburg, Oregon, when he asked “news organizations to tally up the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks, and the number of Americans killed by gun violence, and post these side by side in your news reports.”
Funny how nobody’s done that before. As Vox.com’s subsequent graph reveals, no one has been killed by foreign terrorists since 9/11, while an astounding 10-12,000 Americans have been killed annually by homicidal crazy people acting on their own and armed to the teeth with guns.
“We spend over a trillion dollars,” Obama pointed out, “preventing terrorist attacks” but nothing “on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”
Well, it’s this insane “Bad News” rule: A mass shooting has occurred every day so far in 2015, and each time the press rushes in to exploit the Slaughter Scene with repeated coverage of bloodied victims, crowd hysteria, killer profiles, weeping families, think pieces on “how they [the killers] got their guns,” and the usual update about the “the divide” over anti-gun legislation that “reflects divisions between rich and poor, urban and rural areas” and zzzzzzzzz.
Deeper coverage happens before bloodshed. As Obama said, “our common life together” is at stake, It’s not the killer but the community we need to hear about. But each time it takes a killer to bring reporters into a community in the first place.
The “bad news” rule came to mind over the summer when the press rushed from one police shooting of an African American to another without providing wider or deeper coverage.
We did see quickie bios of victims on the news, parents worrying about drug and gang cultures and the endurance of the black church in the South. But these sidebars quickly moved aside for the guts of the story — outraged African Americans on the verge of terrible violence.
Then came the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the astonishing moments afterward when family members faced the white supremacist charged with the murders and said they forgave him.
— “I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”
— “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”
— “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”
This was not the usual media story of African Americans erupting with outrage after each episode of oppression and charging en mass to loot and destroy stores and homes.
This was, rather, a response of dignity and grace that called for sensitive discussions among journalists and a larger understanding of community life beyond the church.
Remember the Amish families who forgave the murderer of 10 girls in the Amish school in 2006 — and the Amish man who held the killer’s sobbing father in his arms for an hour? It was a cop-out for journalists to say “their religion” was the reason they could forgive. Acts of mercy are everywhere in American life, but perhaps that’s the kind of “good news” that’s too subtle to report.
Earlier this year, I expected more thoughtful news coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.
But the press kept emphasizing the “bad news” aspect that kept selling the familiar story — police use of tear gas, charging horses and billy clubs breaking the bones of marchers who were peacefully attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago.
That anniversary did call for film clips and articles showing the carnage on the bridge that occurred in 1965, of course. But there was a missing story, too, and this is what happened inside the African American community as protesters prepared for the the next try.
I’m taking the quotes below from Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins), an eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.
Their book takes us behind the scenes of Glide’s stunning history as a civil rights mover-and-shaker for the last 50+ years. But what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that they believe exist in all of us.
For example, after Cecil watched the Edmund Pettis Bridge attacks from his office at Glide, he got on a plane the next day and flew to Selma. He didn’t know anybody there but walked through the kind of community he knew well – organizers, ministers, teachers, healthcare workers and food vendors who were working out of store fronts and tailgates without much money or volunteers to start up the march all over again.
A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call from Glide for volunteers and contributions. Then he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash, which he divvied up among workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.
At that point, law enforcement was bolstering its ranks from every possible corner of Alabama while volunteers poured in from all over the country. When Cecil joined the organizers who were laying out strategies to lessen police power, something beautiful happened behind the headlines. As he recalls,
…the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.
Even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get.
When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayor’s home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city.
About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayor’s wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.
“I’ve got six bullets!” she yelled. “I can take six of you niggers out!” We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayor’s property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didn’t seem to know how to unlock the safety.
It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun. Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.
“You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, he’s the last person you’re gonna see.”
They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells — one for women and one for men … We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics. Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.
[Cecil goes on to say the marchers were so committed -- and having so much fun -- that the police decided to release all 600 people. Nobody moved.]
We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along.
To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance — we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.
“Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here,” the chief deputy said.
“Book us, then!” people called out. “We’re not moving.” As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) we’d tear the place up.
Quite the contrary — our message was nonviolent. It said:
“We’re not going to fight you. We’re going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because that’s who we are, in the face of who you are. Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.“
It’s too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere in diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality — and, too, on celebrity.
American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr., as a gifted and charismatic minister whose leadership inspired 25,000 demonstrators to take part in the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery. But the spirit that really did move mountains to change laws and cultural traditions came as well from millions of African Americans then, and continues to inspire millions today.
How that everyday trust among people binds communities in the face of an unknown future is the story of a lifetime for any serious journalist. But maybe it’s too “good” for mainstream media.
[Note to readers: I worked editorially with Cecil and Janice during the writing of Beyond the Possible.]