Spinning Affirmative Action at the New York Times

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:19

    TheNew York Times' consensus-manufacturing machine is gearing up for the2000 presidential race, and with mixed results. First there was Kevin Sack'slong May 8 story about George W. Bush's business dealings-an inconclusivepiece that served only to highlight the extent to which Bush possesses the samefaults that other unimaginative sons of mind boggling privilege do. More tothe point was the long June 7 piece detailing the fratboy Governor's supportfor the repellent and undemocratic business of "tort reform," an issuethat, if there were any justice, would be enough to sink any Republican candidateon its own. And then,on June 7, there was the Times' attempt to implicate Florida Gov. JebBush, and by extension his Texan brother, in the politically destructive messthat the anti-affirmative action movement generates-and that ambitious Republicanslike George W. do their crafty best to avoid. It's alwaysworthwhile to watch the mainstream media, and particularly the Times,address affirmative action. The policy is, on the face of it, so classist-soobviously the divide-and-conquer tool of an elite that fears more than anythingthe sort of transracial left-populist movement affirmative action renders impossible-thatthe media's reality-creating and consent-generating mechanisms are forced towork 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 powerfulAmerican institutions officially support affirmative action; why your universitysupports 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 equivocatingpoliticians' way, are willing to support it; why The New York Times supportsit. Maybe they're just really nice people? And it's of course when a mechanism'sworking close to the breaking point, stressed to the limit, that it's most possibleto notice its weaknesses and tactics.

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

    "WardConnerly," Bragg begins, "who campaigned successfully to end affirmativeaction in government hiring and school admissions in California and WashingtonState, has now aimed his crusade at Florida, to the sound of slamming doors."

    That's prettydramatic. Florida's slamming its doors in Connerly's vicious face. Thegood people of Florida are telling him to get the hell out and takehis vicious show somewhere else. They don't want anything to do withhim.

    Well, that'snot 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. Andthey definitely do not want his initiative on the ballot in the 2000 elections."

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

    So it'snot populist revulsion that we're talking about here, but rather elite politicking,perhaps even elite cynicism. Bragg gets around to admitting at least part ofthis-he couldn't avoid it-writing that Connerly's managed to "draw togetherthe 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'sa typical assortment of plutocrats and Ivy League sophisticates opposing Connerly.That might make him sympathetic. Thus the pretty extreme rhetoric that Bragguses in the subsequent text. Connerly, Bragg helpfully points out, is seen bya significant number of leaders as "a pariah, a traitor," bent on"robbing [blacks and Hispanics] of one of the results of the civil rightsstruggle."

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

    And Braggdonates the article's final paragraphs-the part of a newspaper article that'susually the most tendentious-to Alicia Hughes, who's a second-year law studentat the University of Miami and the president of the Black Law Student Association.

    "Aslong as there is a slanted scale," Bragg quotes Hughes, "it is necessarythat there are programs like affirmative action."

    Talk aboutbegging the question. Bragg then closes like this: "Mr. Connerly expectsmore hurdles to getting his proposition on the ballot, including state electionguidelines insisting that such initiatives be on a single subject. Calling foran end to affirmative action on the basis of race and sex could violate thatrule.

    "Butthose are just details, for a true believer."

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

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

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

    RuthShalit's newish advertising column in Salon-you'll remember thatShalit was the young New Republic writer who ran into plagiarism difficultiesand recently started a new career as an account planner at the fashionable NewYork 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 lastweek she's written three pieces. The first was about the uses and hazards offocus groups in conceiving advertising campaigns. The second was a funny evocationof her enthusiasms and compunctions as she begins her new career as a manipulatorof mass opinion, with a tangential discussion of how the advertising profession'sportrayed in some examples of pop culture. And the third's an examination ofthe shambolic process through which Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communicationsmanaged to create a disastrously racist and offensive Super Bowl advertisementfor the shoe chain Just For Feet, and about how the chain is now suing the agencyfor $10,000,000 in damages for what Shalit calls "advertising malpractice."

    People whopay attention to advertising will remember the controversy at the core of Shalit'sstory: Saatchi produced an ad that depicted a group of white hunters in a Humveetracking, catching, drugging and imposing a pair of Nikes upon the feet of ablack Kenyan runner. Unsurprisingly, outrage greeted the ad.

    Or maybewe should let Shalit tell it. "Chuck McBride," she writes, "creativedirector at Wieden, Kennedy and lead creative on the Nike account, remembershis 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 MadDogs & Englishmen's competitor Saatchi gets slammed (while, as long as we'vebrought it up, Wieden, Kennedy gets some nice free advertising).

    Shalit alsoquotes 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."

    Hopefullynobody who's going to be in a position to make a difference in this case readsRuth Shalit's column in Salon.

    Later Shalitwrites as follows: "Holiday Inn certainly accomplished that in 1997, whenit hired Fallon McElligot to produce a 30-second Super Bowl ad, the theme ofwhich was supposed to be the hotel chain's $1 billion renovation. To dramatizethis message of rebirth and renewal, the agency produced a spot about a voluptuoustranssexual, '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 anotherad agency for whom Shalit doesn't work gets criticized in a major online magazine.

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

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

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

    And yetthere they were, a handful of protesters waiting for a march to start, blinkingin the noon glare and wearing on their lapels the green advocacy ribbons ourad had insisted they wear. There was a middle-aged and bemused Asian man whothrew 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 overafter breakfast to see what the hell it was all about, anyway; and-horribly-ayoung woman in dirty sneakers and tight, ragged jeans who was wasting away withsome disease and with whom I stood for close to an hour as she cried and flungher arms in despair and lay her frazzled head on my shoulder, anxious that-nowthat the March Against Tragedy wasn't to occur-she'd lost her last chance topublicize her plight and get help, and might as well just die. She wrote meangry, unhappy letters for a while after that. Then she stopped.

    Still, thatwoman aside, it was, after all, only four or five people we attracted with ourprank, and those were relatively good-humored about it. But then, we're notin San Francisco, where there still exists a community of professional advocatesthat can be expected to haul itself out to demonstrate ineffectively againstanything (or perhaps it's just that the weather's better out there).

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

    Hispanic Mission District. According to the phony advertisement in the June2 SF Weekly, the justice-for-young-professionals demonstration was sponsoredby the Safe Parking for Utility Vehicles Working Group and by the Live-WorkOwners' Fairness Team (LOFT); callers to the ad's phone number were connectedto an answering machine on which instructions were provided by a rally organizercalling himself "Bradley." Amazingly,the San Francisco Examiner reported on the upcoming rally on its June4 front page; over 200 people showed up for the phony event in Mission DoloresPark, including participants in an anti-yuppie counterdemonstration. (Whichwas led, by the way, by some creep calling himself "Nestor Makhno,"after the great Ukrainian anarchist guerrilla who remains my favorite Ukrainianhistorical figure, and who doesn't deserve association with contemporary SanFranciscan hipsters.) Anyway, for a full, funny account of how the hoax proceeded,look up www.sfweekly.com. This isn'tthe first time that a New Times Inc. newspaper-SF Weekly's a New Timespaper-pulled off a great hoax. In its April 2, 1998 issue, New TimesLos Angeles published a long, brilliantly detailed phony article about thetremendous new youth indie filmmaking movement in the miserable, skinhead-infestedL.A. exurb of Palmdale that you had to read twice before you figured out anythingwas amiss.

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

    With almostany other writer on Earth you'd know that that second sentence in that passagewas meant self-deprecatingly. In other words, you'd know she was aware thather agreement with her pal indicated that they were both members of a socialstratum in which certain opinions were almost required; and that she was thereforecalling 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 herselfand Tanenhaus scandalously original thinkers. Like Braque and Picasso, or Engelsand Marx, thank God they found each other.

    Let's readon. June 1, and Pollitt has this to say: "...NYC schools get about $1000less per child than schools in the rest of the state," she complains. "WhenI 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 publicschools. 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 considerthis aperçu about not paying attention to the media: "Oh right,the newspaper! Didn't miss it at all. Or NPR either-those earnest, solicitousvoices are really getting on my nerves. What is the point, I wondered, of keepingup? 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 ifyou 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 tosomething. Are you a news junkie, Sam? And if so, why?"

    That's banalstuff: Yeah, screw the news. I'm gonna read important stuff-like maybeAnna Quindlen's latest novel-instead.In fact, a good writer could unpackand examine all the begged questions, easy assumptions and toast-ends of thoughtthat comprise that passage, and produce a sizable treatise. Pollitt smugly takesso much for granted. A professional writer shouldn't be able to get away withlax 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 wayisn't it true? And how does she know how "most Americans" feel? Andwhat'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 soundlike something Huck Finn's father would say.

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

    What Tanenhaussays is true, by the way. Pollitt really did use the words "sexist,""fake" and "conservative" to criticize literature in theletter to which Tanenhaus was replying, just like that girl in your modern poetryclass did back in sophomore year. It's never occurred to Pollitt to examine-toquestion-the language she uses to make a living, and to be self conscious enoughabout it so that she doesn't habitually and characteristically present to herreaders empty, trite, meaningless husks.

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