Refusing to shuffle quietly out the door, one local journalist stands tall –

April 15, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Post-2008-election, I felt as though our country was finally regaining consciousness.  I felt hope and optimism rise and my cynicism roll back ever-so-slightly, breezes of fresh thought dispersing the haze.  As my vision returned, I could once again engage in conversations that did not fizzle into frustrated non-verbal noise.

Image by Erich Vieth

Images by Erich Vieth

I began to see glimpses of a cultural evolution of thought through the wider population.  Just glimpses, but they were there, I know it.  I felt the whoosh of tired air as egos fat with imaginary power based on non-existent wealth were deflated by the reality  of financial correction.  I smiled as the facade of organized evangelical religion cracked under self-made storms of condescending hypocrisy.  I grinned with sincere joy every time I heard new dialogue about race and culture in the wake of electing our first minority president.

All in all, I saw daily reminders that people, all of us, are truly equal underneath all the cultural trappings. Eye contact became pleasant again.  The obvious human connections we share – that we all love and laugh and hurt and seethe and wonder and sigh and ache and even hate – I could see those commonalities beginning to connect us again.  We argue and bicker, we debate and discuss, we learn, we teach, we manage, we create, we err and we try.   We help, we care, sometimes we dismiss.  We each react to information and situations from our own perspectives, wrought upon our own personalities by our own life stories.   But we seemed to be listening to each other again.

I hoped anew that as a culture, we were learning that all of those life stories matter.  That each one of us brings a unique self to the cultural table and that even when we strenuously disagree, we do not dismiss each other simply because of it.

Silly me.

Last week, a friend of mine was fired.   Not a big deal, you might think, as people have been laid off in record numbers (including myself) over the past months of economic strife.  Sure, a big deal for him, maybe.  But, well, welcome to the masses.  Except that this friend represented something we cannot afford to lose, and his firing rips further into the frayed fiber of our local democracy.  Sadly, too many will dismiss the loss as no big deal – for the exact reason we so desperately needed Sylvester Brown to stay.

You can read the specifics of the story on his blog.  He tells it better than I; I can only share my feelings about the situation.  You can view his press conference here (video by Erich Vieth).

The newspaper from which he was let go posted a brief explanation, and that was that.  He’d violated their ethics policy.  But – he hadn’t.  If his short trip gave the appearance of such, perhaps he deserved a reprimand and penalty.  I have my doubts, but I’ll give the editors the benefit of the doubt here.  Had his “disciplinary action,” as it were, been in accord with what his colleagues received, though, he’d still be there.

But, Sylvester is an activist.  He’s a proud shit-disturber, to put it quite bluntly.  He’s good at what he does – he’s an actual journalist.  When the city mayor and his staff act like thugs, he calls them on it.  When he does, they fuss.  As one poster commented on the newspaper’s online forum, “To the victor go the spoils. Lots of self-satisfied smirking in the Mayor’s office tonight.”  Yup.  I bet there was.

As Erich has discussed here previously, our mayor and several other elected officials sit on a “community advisory board” at the newspaper.  Because this is ostensibly not governance, no legal conflict of interest exists.  I imagine we aren’t the only city with such a board, either.  Doesn’t make it right, of course, and ethically, I find it a slap in the face to the fundamentals of journalism.  The St. Louis Journalism Review covered it well back in 2007 – the timeline from quality to not-so-much is evident.  As the supposed stronghold of honorable free speech and its role as the “fourth branch of government,” charged with the responsibility of keeping the populace informed with all that happens in their locale, including the good, the bad and especially the ugly, journalism should be the vehicle through which we receive the information about why we need to speak up, when and where we need to get involved, who we need to hear and how we can work for better.

How, exactly, with 67 community “advisers” hanging their agendas over these writers’ shoulders, are the journalists able to compile anything of substance and value?

Seems to me that a big city daily really shouldn’t pander to any segment of its readership, powerful or otherwise, as one forum poster supposed it might be doing.  Especially if said daily is the city’s ONLY daily newspaper.  I responded that this rather sucks the wind right out of the whole “journalistic integrity” argument for me.  How can they say they are holding one of their writers to some ethical standard that the paper in its entirety does not honor?  Truly – aren’t the editors, in fact, saying, “Please-oh-please buy our paper and we’ll print whomever and whatever it is you want to hear, fair and balanced be damned?”

As I read the forum, I was startled not so much by the number of posters who labeled Mr. Brown a racist, but that they were so glad to be excused from having to read his “racist rhetoric” any longer.

Apparently these posters didn’t notice that he’d have a hard time being a good racist, really, as by definition, that would mean he believes anyone outside his own race is inferior, yes?  By not paying full attention, these folks missed the fact that his wife is white, his youngest daughters biracial.

What I wish all of these posters and their ilk might understand is that Sylvester sounded racist to some because he had the fortitude to continue pushing for a dialogue about race even as many want to pretend it isn’t necessary.  I admire him for continuing to put it out there, continuing to say not what people WANTED to hear, but what we NEEDED to hear. I admire him for his candor, his integrity, his values and high standards.cancel

Sylvester may be many things, but he is NOT a racist. I know him. I know his family. He speaks from his experiences as a black man, with the unique vantage point of living within a transracial family. He shared with readers the experiences of people of color who often don’t have a voice – certainly not one that many will hear.  He was that voice.  Sure, lots of people didn’t want to hear it, and to that I can only say – your loss, buddy.  But that makes those experiences no less valuable, and makes his views perhaps even more necessary.

Our mayor touts St. Louis as “one of the most integrated cities in the country.”  If only that were true.  We want to believe we’ve moved beyond racism, but just because people of all races live within the city limits does not mean we live together. We still suffer deep racial divides in St. Louis, divides exacerbated by poverty and culture, and anyone who believes we don’t is only kidding himself.  I live here.  I work here.  I see it every day.

My fervent hope for our country and culture is that we acknowledge our remaining racism, even though it exists more insidiously, perhaps, than in the past. I want to see us start TALKING ABOUT IT – face-to-face, gathering for conversations about our racial perceptions and how to disentangle race from culture as we expand our understanding. I’d like to see us be able to speak honestly and listen willingly, including admitting that most of us grew up with racism in our homes, to one degree or another.

Our parents learned it from their parents, and passed it on to us now middle-aged white folk. I challenge anyone over the age of 30 to honestly say they do not remember one single racist comment made by a parent or relative during their childhood. Really? C’mon.

I clearly remember my well-educated father making snotty comments about black athletes, sometimes being downright mean, and joking at the expense of other ethnicities and races throughout my childhood and beyond. I’m proud to say that over the years, he has worked hard to expand his worldview and now, in his mid 70s, embraces his black neighbors and adores his granddaughters, my daughters, who also happen to not be white. But his perspective was impressed upon him throughout his own rural midwestern childhood, and its residue will color the rest of his life. I give him credit for awareness, though, and his real efforts to rise above what he once believed was the truth.

By acknowledging what we truly believe and why, and by hearing from others who believe differently or who experienced a life vastly different from our own, we learn. Our minds open and expand and we find ways to see interest and creativity and20beauty in what we once ignored or even feared.

Sylvester Brown put us on notice that much work still needed to be done, right here in our own little corner of the world.

I would never wish unemployment upon the few remaining valuable writers, both columnists and reporters, at the Post Dispatch. But I have to wonder how long it can continue to limp along without honorable journalistic leadership.  And then I have to wonder, when it finally does go under, will anyone out here really care?

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Category: Communication, Community, Media

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Sylvester Brown was certainly ushered out of the Post-Dispatch unceremoniously. Check out this link from Sylvester Brown's blog, indicating the best approach the philistine corporate owner of the Post-Dispatch (Lee Enterprises) could think of to say good-bye to a much-loved and much-appreciated veteran journalist.

    Brown was fired because he allowed an entity to pay for his plane trip? Is this explanation, which accepts the PD's accusation at face value, credible? To me, this accusation lands with a thud. You simply don't fire veteran reporters for isolated infractions. Stir in Brown's detailed explanation for what he did and why, and the PD's accusations become wobbly indeed.

    I have met Sylvester Brown, but I should make it clear that I don't have any inside information regarding this controversy. I do have some common sense, though. And I do have experience with good people being run out of jobs. Here's how it's usually done. The organization starts not liking you, often because you arrogantly insist on doing your job rather than pretending to do your job. Then, your employer waits until it catches you breaking one of its hundreds of rules, the kinds of rules they overlook whenever they are broken by employees who play the game.

    This is not the first time the Post-Dispatch has reprehensibly damaged the career of a distinguished journalist for stated reasons that were disingenuous. Consider the 2005 case of Carolyn Tuft, who had the unmitigated gall to write a true story about Joyce Meyer Ministries. The PD's behavior in the aftermath of that story borders on surreal.

    Based on Brown's version of the story (which resonates as true to me), it is bewildering that the PD didn't take the time to learn the facts before throwing Brown out onto the pavement. On second thought, it's not so bewildering. The Post-Dispatch took steps to abandon first-rate investigative journalism a long time ago. It's been so incredibly long since the PD did investigative journalism that it no longer knows HOW to conduct a meaningful fact-finding. It's much easier to put sports stories on the front page, or to simply buy stories from conglomerates that couldn't care less about St. Louis. Or just crank out formula pieces like today's not-likely Pulitzer Prize nominee: "UPDATE: April 15 means the same thing across the country."

    There's a pattern here that is confirmed by Sylvester Brown's firing: Sylvester Brown covered local stories in depth. For the most part, the Post-Dispatch has an extended history of failing cover local news stores in any depth. If you doubt this, pick up any recent edition of the Post-Dispatch and note the paucity of local reporting by PD reporters. Especially since the paper was purchased by Lee Enterprises in 2005, the Post-Dispatch has fully earned its reputation that it does not give a crap about reporting meaningful news about the St. Louis community. I can name dozens of people who, in the past year, have expressed dismay over the lack of in-depth quality reporting by the PD. Most of these people have dropped their subscriptions. In fact, among my acquaintances, it is a rare bird who continues subscribing to the PD for the news reporting. What I currently hear as reasons to subscribe are the obituaries, the crosswords, the comics and, most of all, the sports page. The Post-Dispatch has become a laughable example of the Fourth Estate.

    I'd suggest two solutions to the problem that the only daily newspaper of a major metropolitan area doesn't take local news reporting seriously.

    #1: The Post-Dispatch should stop claiming that its reporting is inspired by Joseph Pulitzer's eloquent Platform.

    #2 The St. Louis Post-Dispatch should drop the words "St. Louis" from its title.

  2. Adam says:

    Hi, really nice post! I wrote something similar (although not nearly as well-crafted) here: http://stlactivisthub.blogspot.com/2009/04/going-… . I really think St. Louis needs a media alternative for its residents to be truly informed, and I'm not sure if the Beacon is up to the task.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Adam: Good job surveying what's left of progressive St. Louis media at St. Louis Activist Hub. It's clear that Lee Enterprises has no interest in making the Post-Dispatch into a reputable newspaper.

  4. Peter Martin says:

    Mindy, thank you for this eloquent piece. You have truly summed up Sylvester's voice and our need for it in this community. Much respect to you….

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