Spinning Affirmative Action at the New York Times

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:20

    The New York Times' consensus-manufacturing machine is gearing up for the 2000 presidential race, and with mixed results. First there was Kevin Sack's long May 8 story about George W. Bush's business dealings?an inconclusive piece that served only to highlight the extent to which Bush possesses the same faults that other unimaginative sons of mind boggling privilege do. More to the point was the long June 7 piece detailing the fratboy Governor's support for the repellent and undemocratic business of "tort reform," an issue that, if there were any justice, would be enough to sink any Republican candidate on its own. And then, on June 7, there was the Times' attempt to implicate Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and by extension his Texan brother, in the politically destructive mess that the anti-affirmative action movement generates?and that ambitious Republicans like George W. do their crafty best to avoid.

    It's always worthwhile to watch the mainstream media, and particularly the Times, address affirmative action. The policy is, on the face of it, so classist?so obviously the divide-and-conquer tool of an elite that fears more than anything the sort of transracial left-populist movement affirmative action renders impossible?that the media's reality-creating and consent-generating mechanisms are forced to work overtime to justify it and make it seem natural and inevitable and just. If you disagree with me, ask yourself why all of the most respectable and powerful American institutions officially support affirmative action; why your university supports it; why the federal government supports it; why the multinational corporation for which you work supports it; why Jeb and George W. Bush, in their own equivocating politicians' way, are willing to support it; why The New York Times supports it. Maybe they're just really nice people? And it's of course when a mechanism's working close to the breaking point, stressed to the limit, that it's most possible to notice its weaknesses and tactics.

    And so here's the usually very good Rick Bragg in last Monday's Times, shoveling coal into the consensus machine's engines:

    "Ward Connerly," Bragg begins, "who campaigned successfully to end affirmative action in government hiring and school admissions in California and Washington State, has now aimed his crusade at Florida, to the sound of slamming doors."

    That's pretty dramatic. Florida's slamming its doors in Connerly's vicious face. The good people of Florida are telling him to get the hell out and take his vicious show somewhere else. They don't want anything to do with him.

    Well, that's not exactly the case, as you learn if you keep reading. Here's the next sentence: "Political leaders here, Democratic and Republican, black, white and Hispanic, do not want Mr. Connerly, a conservative black businessman, in Florida. And they definitely do not want his initiative on the ballot in the 2000 elections."

    That second sentence changes things. Now it's not the doors of the Florida populace that are slamming in Connerly's face, but rather the doors of its multiracial political elite, which understandably wouldn't want to play with the affirmative-action powder keg Connerly's handing them. In fact, Bragg implies that there's a lot of popular support for Connerly's initiative. "Once it gets [on the ballot], it will pass," Bragg quotes Dario Moreno, a Florida International University professor of political science.

    So it's not populist revulsion that we're talking about here, but rather elite politicking, perhaps even elite cynicism. Bragg gets around to admitting at least part of this?he couldn't avoid it?writing that Connerly's managed to "draw together the political elite in this racially diverse and often discordant state."

    Obviously, though, Bragg wouldn't want to leave his readers with the impression that it's a typical assortment of plutocrats and Ivy League sophisticates opposing Connerly. That might make him sympathetic. Thus the pretty extreme rhetoric that Bragg uses in the subsequent text. Connerly, Bragg helpfully points out, is seen by a significant number of leaders as "a pariah, a traitor," bent on "robbing [blacks and Hispanics] of one of the results of the civil rights struggle."

    The suggestion that Connerly's an enemy of the sanctified "civil rights struggle" is typical of Bragg's mission, throughout the article, to reiterate the worst things that people have said of Connerly. Connerly, Bragg repeats for the record, "has provoked the disdain and outright dislike of many blacks and political leaders..." He's "been called an Uncle Tom and protesters have hurled rocks at his office." Changing tacks, Bragg warns Connerly away from Florida for the sake of conservatism's success itself, pointing out that the affirmative action issue "could...create cracks in the national Republican Party's ranks." That's what the fox sounds like when he's advising the hen.

    And Bragg donates the article's final paragraphs?the part of a newspaper article that's usually the most tendentious?to Alicia Hughes, who's a second-year law student at the University of Miami and the president of the Black Law Student Association.

    "As long as there is a slanted scale," Bragg quotes Hughes, "it is necessary that there are programs like affirmative action."

    Talk about begging the question. Bragg then closes like this: "Mr. Connerly expects more hurdles to getting his proposition on the ballot, including state election guidelines insisting that such initiatives be on a single subject. Calling for an end to affirmative action on the basis of race and sex could violate that rule.

    "But those are just details, for a true believer."

    In other words, Connerly's some sort of quasi-religious fanatic.

    The extent to which the Times, and Bragg, is willing to go to the mat for affirmative action is illustrated when you compare Bragg's article to Terry Neal and David Broder's treatment of the same story in the May 15 Washington Post (why was the Post on this story three weeks before the Times was?). While the Times story misleadingly claims that Floridians slammed the door in that creep Connerly's face, the Post's, more satisfyingly and honestly, is about the Republican Party's cravenness as it tries to deal with the loose cannon Connerly. You'd know from the Post's account that Jeb Bush was an equivocator, and you'd know that Connerly was a man with a mission?but you wouldn't necessarily know that many consider Connerly a monster, and that some newspaper reporters, at least, see him as a maniac. The story's lead starts with Bush, not Connerly. And its last line sends you away with an image of Jeb Bush as a double-talking pol: "His opposition to Connerly's initiative is 'good politics,' Bush said. 'And it's also the right thing to do.'"

    Not that The Washington Post is against affirmative action. It's just that it's a matter of degree: Connerly doesn't quite star as Bogeyman in the Post's movie. Small differences.

    Ruth Shalit's newish advertising column in Salon?you'll remember that Shalit was the young New Republic writer who ran into plagiarism difficulties and recently started a new career as an account planner at the fashionable New York ad agency Mad Dogs & Englishmen?is very good. Why shouldn't it be? No one ever accused Shalit of being a bad writer. A self destructive personality, maybe. But never a bad writer.

    As of last week she's written three pieces. The first was about the uses and hazards of focus groups in conceiving advertising campaigns. The second was a funny evocation of her enthusiasms and compunctions as she begins her new career as a manipulator of mass opinion, with a tangential discussion of how the advertising profession's portrayed in some examples of pop culture. And the third's an examination of the shambolic process through which Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications managed to create a disastrously racist and offensive Super Bowl advertisement for the shoe chain Just For Feet, and about how the chain is now suing the agency for $10,000,000 in damages for what Shalit calls "advertising malpractice."

    People who pay attention to advertising will remember the controversy at the core of Shalit's story: Saatchi produced an ad that depicted a group of white hunters in a Humvee tracking, catching, drugging and imposing a pair of Nikes upon the feet of a black Kenyan runner. Unsurprisingly, outrage greeted the ad.

    Or maybe we should let Shalit tell it. "Chuck McBride," she writes, "creative director at Wieden, Kennedy and lead creative on the Nike account, remembers his reaction on the evening of Jan. 31, when he first saw the 'Just for Feet' ad. 'The minute I saw it, I immediately went "Oh, shit," and I went, "This can't go on." I just couldn't believe that they had done this.'"

    And so Mad Dogs & Englishmen's competitor Saatchi gets slammed (while, as long as we've brought it up, Wieden, Kennedy gets some nice free advertising).

    Shalit also quotes a representative of the plaintiff in the case:

    "When [Saatchi] first came to Birmingham and showed it to us, we were flabbergasted,' [Just for Feet CEO Harold Ruttenberg] told me. 'We were frankly kind of horrified. But Saatchi & Saatchi assured us this was the best thing they had ever done."

    Hopefully nobody who's going to be in a position to make a difference in this case reads Ruth Shalit's column in Salon.

    Later Shalit writes as follows: "Holiday Inn certainly accomplished that in 1997, when it hired Fallon McElligot to produce a 30-second Super Bowl ad, the theme of which was supposed to be the hotel chain's $1 billion renovation. To dramatize this message of rebirth and renewal, the agency produced a spot about a voluptuous transsexual, 'Bob Johnson,' who surprises classmates at a 20-year college reunion. The ad was widely derided, and was eventually pulled after just one airing."

    And so another ad agency for whom Shalit doesn't work gets criticized in a major online magazine. 

    Again, Shalit's column is one of the best things Salon's got going for it; it's fun to read even if you don't care much about advertising. But these sorts of conflicts of interest should give someone at the magazine pause.

    And someone should give Shalit, whose sins look more and more venial the more you know about journalism, a real writing job, so that she doesn't have to do this anymore.

    One of my most memorable assignments working for this newspaper was heading up to the 92nd St. Y in December of 1997 to cover the phony "March Against Tragedy" that NYPress had advertised in its pages as a hoax earlier that month, complete with a phony list of speakers, a phony march route and a phony contact number. It was a freezing, bright day with that hard and lonely winter quality of light, and I was skeptical that anybody would have been fooled enough by the ad to show up.

    And yet there they were, a handful of protesters waiting for a march to start, blinking in the noon glare and wearing on their lapels the green advocacy ribbons our ad had insisted they wear. There was a middle-aged and bemused Asian man who threw his ribbon to the pavement when I informed him that it was all a joke; a merry older German woman who hadn't quite bought it, but had strolled over after breakfast to see what the hell it was all about, anyway; and?horribly?a young woman in dirty sneakers and tight, ragged jeans who was wasting away with some disease and with whom I stood for close to an hour as she cried and flung her arms in despair and lay her frazzled head on my shoulder, anxious that?now that the March Against Tragedy wasn't to occur?she'd lost her last chance to publicize her plight and get help, and might as well just die. She wrote me angry, unhappy letters for a while after that. Then she stopped.

    Still, that woman aside, it was, after all, only four or five people we attracted with our prank, and those were relatively good-humored about it. But then, we're not in San Francisco, where there still exists a community of professional advocates that can be expected to haul itself out to demonstrate ineffectively against anything (or perhaps it's just that the weather's better out there).

    Or so the SF Weekly proved recently when it orchestrated a wonderful hoax, publicizing a march against anti-yuppie hate crimes in the rapidly gentrifying hipster/

    Hispanic Mission District. According to the phony advertisement in the June 2 SF Weekly, the justice-for-young-professionals demonstration was sponsored by the Safe Parking for Utility Vehicles Working Group and by the Live-Work Owners' Fairness Team (LOFT); callers to the ad's phone number were connected to an answering machine on which instructions were provided by a rally organizer calling himself "Bradley." Amazingly, the San Francisco Examiner reported on the upcoming rally on its June 4 front page; over 200 people showed up for the phony event in Mission Dolores Park, including participants in an anti-yuppie counterdemonstration. (Which was led, by the way, by some creep calling himself "Nestor Makhno," after the great Ukrainian anarchist guerrilla who remains my favorite Ukrainian historical figure, and who doesn't deserve association with contemporary San Franciscan hipsters.) Anyway, for a full, funny account of how the hoax proceeded, look up www.sfweekly.com.

    This isn't the first time that a New Times Inc. newspaper?SF Weekly's a New Times paper?pulled off a great hoax. In its April 2, 1998 issue, New Times Los Angeles published a long, brilliantly detailed phony article about the tremendous new youth indie filmmaking movement in the miserable, skinhead-infested L.A. exurb of Palmdale that you had to read twice before you figured out anything was amiss.

    Back to the whipping post. She just gets stranger, this Pollitt woman. This time the issue's her "The Breakfast Table" dialogue in Slate two weeks ago with Sam Tanenhaus, who recently published Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. Here's Katha Pollitt starting off the June 2 dialogue: "Good morning, Sam. It seems that in addition to agreeing that school prayer and guns are bad and people problematical, we are both parents of young daughters. So I am wondering what you think about..." etc., etc.

    With almost any other writer on Earth you'd know that that second sentence in that passage was meant self-deprecatingly. In other words, you'd know she was aware that her agreement with her pal indicated that they were both members of a social stratum in which certain opinions were almost required; and that she was therefore calling attention, wittily, to the banality of their agreement. With Pollitt, though, you can't be sure of that. You get the feeling that she considers herself and Tanenhaus scandalously original thinkers. Like Braque and Picasso, or Engels and Marx, thank God they found each other.

    Let's read on. June 1, and Pollitt has this to say: "...NYC schools get about $1000 less per child than schools in the rest of the state," she complains. "When I think of what my daughter's school...could do with that money!"

    But in fact, good private schools almost always spend less money per child than bad public schools. That's fact. Bare, naked, unimpeachable, inexorable numerical fact. I suspect it wouldn't affect Pollitt's thinking if you told her, though. Indeed, she probably already knows it.

    Or consider this aperçu about not paying attention to the media: "Oh right, the newspaper! Didn't miss it at all. Or NPR either?those earnest, solicitous voices are really getting on my nerves. What is the point, I wondered, of keeping up? Half of what you read isn't true?trouble is, you don't even know which half, and by the time you figure it out, it's too late to have any effect, even if you were in a position to take some action, which, almost always, you're not. This is how most Americans feel all the time, of course. Maybe they're on to something. Are you a news junkie, Sam? And if so, why?"

    That's banal stuff: Yeah, screw the news. I'm gonna read important stuff?like maybe Anna Quindlen's latest novel?instead. In fact, a good writer could unpack and examine all the begged questions, easy assumptions and toast-ends of thought that comprise that passage, and produce a sizable treatise. Pollitt smugly takes so much for granted. A professional writer shouldn't be able to get away with lax thought like that, even in a casual "The Breakfast Table" item. What does she mean that half of what you read isn't true? In what way isn't it true? And how does she know how "most Americans" feel? And what's a news junkie, anyway? Read that passage in a bitter, querulous tone, instead of in the earnest one that's appropriate to Pollitt, and it would sound like something Huck Finn's father would say.

    In the end, it seems that even Tanenhaus can't take it. Consider his response to Pollitt's sophomoric intimation that Lord of the Flies commits sins against proper Establishment politics. "Anyway," writes Tanenhaus, "I'm struck by your sequence of criticisms: 'fake,' 'sexist,' conservative.' Is a piece of writing diminished ipso facto by its being 'conservative'? What do we make then of Shakespeare, Pope, Proust and Bellow? Or Austen and the two Eliots (George and Tom)?"

    What Tanenhaus says is true, by the way. Pollitt really did use the words "sexist," "fake" and "conservative" to criticize literature in the letter to which Tanenhaus was replying, just like that girl in your modern poetry class did back in sophomore year. It's never occurred to Pollitt to examine?to question?the language she uses to make a living, and to be self conscious enough about it so that she doesn't habitually and characteristically present to her readers empty, trite, meaningless husks.

    So "Tom" Eliot, who once helped revolutionize thought and language is "conservative"? Which makes Katha Pollitt...what?