Monday, July 26, 2010

Dear NYT, please stop writing stories about Memphis politics.

Somebody, for the love of God, please make it stop.

Once again, the New York Times has given us embarrasingly reductive, bordering on cartoonish and condescending, reportage about Memphis politics. This time, it's an article provocatively entitled "Black Candidate Brings Race Into a Primary in Memphis." (I'm shocked that they were able to refrain from putting "black" in ALL CAPS or from putting "race" in scare quotes.) The last time I sighed in exasperation over the NYT's misguided foray into Memphis politics was just a month ago, when they reported on the so-called "new poor" (read: blacks) in our admittedly less-than-fair city. Given their usually subtle, probative and complex treatments of cities like Baltimore and New Orleans, it's just a mystery to me why the country's most well-respected newspaper continues to give Memphis the short-shrift.

Let me be clear. I'm glad to see things like the effects of the housing crisis in Memphis or the heated contest for the 9th Congressional District race, both of which are heavily inflected with racial politics, covered by a national media outlet. But, I mean, c'mon... can't we do better than stupidly simple stories that basically amount to "guess what? blacks and whites don't get along in the South!"? And why does the NYT feel obligated to preface every story about Memphis with a reminder that this is the place where MLK, Jr. was assasinated? Who doesn't know that? (Okay, okay, I'll relunctantly concede that maybe there are people who don't know that, but still, that's no justification for pretending like you can frame the racial issues of 2010 as if they were the same as 1968.) One of the more interesting things about politics in Memphis, in my view, is the fact that-- largely because of our history-- we serve as a kind of petri dish for racial politics in America. Unlike the rest of the country, nobody here bothers to pretend like race isn't a main ingredient in everything political. There's no "race card." The whole freaking deck is raced. (Seriously, check out your deck. You'll notice that it's divided into colors, and that they don't all carry the same weight.) So, the most recent NYT article, which is little more than a j'accuse! directed at former mayor Willie Herenton for "playing the race card," is about as unreflectively carpetbagger as it gets.

Unlike most (white) Memphians, I don't loathe Willie Herenton, who doesn't get enough credit for some of the good things he did do in my opinion, like revitalizing the downtown entertainment district. But I'm voting for (actually, I've already voted for) Steve Cohen, who I think is the better candidate in this race. Before I cast my vote, I thought long and hard about the racial politics in Memphis-- I hope all Memphians do the same-- but none of that long and hard thinking involved anything even remotely resembling what was presented in the NYT article.

Seriously, please make it stop.


Emma B. said...

I hope you write to the NYT too. They need to hear this.

Art Carden said...

They're probably getting it from a script, like "How to Write About Haiti" and "How to Write About Africa."

Marlinee said...

Let me just say that I agree with you about most of what the NYT has historically had to say about Memphis. This was a good article. The whole "JUST ONE" campaign is solely about race, and in that way, it is newsworthy. It's just as newsworthy as a Times article I posted during the presidential elections about my hometown in Alabama, where several white voters admitted that they would never vote for a black person.

I poll watched for 7 hours last Thursday and was disappointed to see two young black boys dropped off with nothing but the shirts on their backs saying, "HERENTON JUST ONE." They just stood there under a tree, way off from the campaign signs and voters. Didn't say anything, didn't have any water, just stood there. To me, they looked a bit scared and clueless. The more I see and hear about Herenton's campaign approach, the more disappointed I am with him.

The NYT article is right on.

DOCTOR J said...

But c'mon, Marlinee, you know my complaint is not *really* about the merits (or demerits) of Herenton's or Cohen's campaign or their strategies for executing their campaigns. My complaint is about the stupid way in which the NYT thinks that by telling the rest of the country that there's a black and a white candidate at odds with each other in Memphis-- and at odds with each other ONLY because one is black and the other is white-- is somehow telling them something significant about Memphis politics. Puh- lease.

Mar, you are one of the most informed and involed people I know in Memphis politics. Seriously, don't you read that story and think to yourself: "have they even BEEN here?!!"

Marlinee said...

I am actually quite shocked that Herenton has done this and thinks it could work. I think many people are. There were people at the polls asking what "JUST ONE" meant and when told, they were genuinely surprised. MEMPHIS folks! Surprised by race politics!

This isn't the usual NYT story about how we are a town that's infested with racial tension everywhere and anywhere. It was on point about these particular candidates and how one of them has injected race above all else as the test for who should win this primary.

Marlinee said...

just to be clear--I agree with you about being dismayed with NYT articles in general. Hell, I agree with you on just about everything.