Labels Matter

I was The Cincinnati Enquirer’s new federal beat reporter and the late federal judge Carl Rubin asked what I knew about courts.“The only ones I’ve covered were Native Courts in Northern Rhodesia, but they’re just like the ones here: white j

Dec 9, 2015 at 2:21 pm

I was The Cincinnati Enquirer’s new federal beat reporter and the late federal judge Carl Rubin asked what I knew about courts.“The only ones I’ve covered were Native Courts in Northern Rhodesia, but they’re just like the ones here: white judges and black defendants.”  Cheeky. I was lucky. He roared. That moment came to mind the other day when I read this headline on“Facing Rising Waters, A Native Tribe Takes Its Plea to Paris Climate Talks.”“Native” left me thinking. “Native tribe,” as in Tarzan, the aristocratic white King of the Jungle? Europe’s colonial “civilizing mission?” Kipling’s imperial “white man’s burden?” Our own “winning the West?” In each case, darker-skinned “natives” found their cultures denigrated and their lives permanently disrupted. All of this was recorded approvingly in the popular press of those days. But I’ll come back to this later. More immediate is the disturbingly stenographic coverage of Republican presidential aspirants renewing historic American suspicion of non-Protestant immigrants. Even Cincinnati’s nominally Democratic mayor has joined the shameless cry against Muslim/Arab immigration. Too much of this goes unchallenged by reporters; they flinch rather than risk being accused of bias.  Politicians’ hostility to Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan immigrants and refugees also challenges journalists to distinguish between emigrate and immigrate, immigrants and refugees. Labels matter. Our stories can affect public policy.Posturing politicians leave journalists with a nomenclature problem. What do reporters call Muslims/Arabs emigrating from their homelands and seeking to immigrate to the United States? How do editors deal with the popular misconception that Arab = Muslim and vice versa? A persistent problem involves the once-commonplace label “illegal alien.” Liberal activists insist no person is illegal, so now “undocumented immigrant” describes millions of aliens here illegally.  Today, many journalists shun “illegal alien” except in quotes by partisans who want to deport possibly 11 million undocumented Indians, Canadians, Hispanics and others. Meanwhile, even as partisans argue over who should be allowed in, “immigrant” remains a useful and neutral label, as in “immigration” quotas.A more complex label for news media is “economic immigrant.” They’re emigrating from their homes in search of better jobs. Millions are here, whether on valid visas or without documents. Economic immigrants have been here since the first indentured British servants arrived in the early colonies. “Economic immigrant” also suggests how a local reporter could pursue Steve Chabot’s plan to revive the “bracero” program. Begun during World War II, it imported legal Mexican agricultural workers (braceros) for two decades for short-term jobs Americans were unwilling or unavailable to do.In today’s politicized environment, some partisans accuse economic immigrants of gaming the system by pretending to be refugees fleeing deadly persecution. So?That leads us to “refugee.” The UN says a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Millions qualify, although relatively few from outside Central America and Mexico are trying to reach the United States.Sloppy reporting too often conflates “refugee” with “displaced person.” They’re people who have been forced from — or fled — their homes but haven’t emigrated from their home countries. Millions are in the Middle East and Africa. Labels and stereotypes are so common that reporters should question politicians who use them for effect rather than informed arguments. Now back to NPR’s use of “native.” It’s ignorant. Even NPR’s correspondent described Kenyans in “native” dress welcoming the pope. Why not say which tribe: Masai, Luo, Kikuyu, etc.?Traditionally, Brits liked “native” for indigenous peoples they ruled in Africa and Asia. “Indigène” served similarly for Francophones. Similarly, it’s impossible to talk about South Africa without the fraught role of “native” in centuries of racist practices.“Native” used in those ways is no compliment. Anyone embraced by that term could rightly infer that speakers consider them uncivilized and best relegated to the status of subjects to be governed or studied. (Disclosure: I know. I was there. I left an unfinished graduate degree in African cultural anthropology at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1963 when I took a job in colonial Southern Africa as a photojournalist. Four decades later, when I asked about completing my degree, a SOAS professor said I’d have to start over. What they taught me was now the embarrassing history of classical African cultural anthropology. At least there is lasting value of what I studied. Some formerly colonial subjects are making news as they mature from traditional cattle raiding to brutal, lethal civil wars that starve, kill and/or displace millions.)NPR had better choices. Maybe “tribe” would have sufficed unless someone preferred “people,” “band” or “nation.” “Aboriginal” is a handy anthropological choice but it, too, can raise hackles. Except in Canada. There, aboriginal is an accepted generalization for peoples we call Indians and Canadians commonly call First Nations. Canadians include Inuit and Yupik peoples of the Arctic as well as Metis and First Nations as aboriginals. First Nations also can include Metis, Inuit and Yupik peoples as well as “Indians.”I’ll leave it to Canadian journalists to figure what labels best suit a situation, but today they avoid calling Inuit or Yupik peoples “Eskimos.” That label appears to be joining “Negroes” as imposed by Europeans on peoples.  As a handy label for reporters and editors, First Nations fits, given how early these peoples crossed from Siberia and populated the Western Hemisphere. “Indians” reflects the first European adventurers’ mistaken assumption that they’d reached India by sailing west. However, peoples whom journalists call Indians or Native Americans include some Canadian First Nations; national borders ignored peoples who lived here before whites divvied up the continent.That leaves peoples formerly known as Indians with such labels as “nations,” “tribes” and “bands.” I’ve used tribes and bands in stories about federal court litigation involving fishing and harbor rights in Michigan. My choices reflected the ways litigants identified themselves in court documents, i.e., Grand Traverse Band.And I won’t even get into why geographers named the newly discovered continents after a Florentine navigator, Amerigo Vespucci. It could have been Columbia, named for another Italian. Curmudgeon notes:• Developing stories often initially contain incorrect information. Whether that was the problem at NPR last week is unclear. NPR’s breaking news headline said “At Least 14 Dead in San Bernardino Shooting; Suspects at Large.” However, the one-paragraph story said shooters left “at least 14 people injured.” Injured, not dead. Whoever wrote the headline didn’t read the story, misread the story or had new information and the headline was correct but the story hadn’t been updated. • NPR’s Morning Edition demonstrated again why public broadcasting is willing to go where commercial radio and TV won’t. The morning after the San Bernardino massacre, NPR interviewed the head of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in the Los Angeles area. It was an extended, informative conversation about the killers — a young Muslim couple — and the anxieties of the larger Islamic community. Questions were tough and answers candid, given how little was known about the shooters’ motives. • LATimes’ Doyle McManus writes that “Horse race polls have become the junk food of political journalism. We consume too many of them, too often.” So early in the presidential campaigns, he wrote, “None of those polls tell us, at this point, who’s likely to win the GOP nomination. It's easy to prove that early polls are lousy at predicting the ultimate outcome in a crowded race; just look at the record. At this point four years ago, Newt Gingrich had a huge lead over Mitt Romney; in the end, he finished third. Eight years ago, Mike Huckabee had a Trump-sized lead over John McCain; a year later, Huckabee was looking for work as a television host.”• Find and listen to Hilary Benn’s speech to the House of Commons on the need for Britain to join the air war against ISIL in Syria. He’s the Labour Party foreign affairs spokesman  (sort of a foreign minister-in-waiting) but he’s supporting Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to war.As GOP televised debates have demonstrated, our national political figures compare badly to Benn’s model of clear thinking, clear speaking and reasoned argument.British national dailies were full of admiration for the quality of his speech. Liberal papers wondered if Benn advanced his willingness to replace the divisive Jeremy Corbyn, the current hard-left anti-war leader of the Labour Party. Conservative papers praised Benn’s willingness to join the Conservative push for bombing, although the populist Daily Mail columnist damned Benn’s flight from “principal.” It was Corbyn who didn’t flinch and benefited most by comparison, the Daily Mail said. Labour is as riven by ideological differences as our Republicans. Visible behind Benn on the front bench is Corbyn, the bearded leader of the Labour Party, listening to his political emasculation by the son of his longtime Socialist mentor, Tony Benn. • The NYTimes carries a smart, generous obit of M. Roland Nachman, the Alabama lawyer who lost the historic 1964 Supreme Court libel case called Times v. Sullivan. That decision changed the nation. It created what the Times called “greater leeway for newspapers and individuals to criticize government officials and other public figures.” Before Times v. Sullivan, the obit continued, “libel was not considered within the purview of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and a free press, and in Alabama the standard for proof of libel was simple: It had to be shown that a statement had been published, that it had been about the plaintiff, and that it was defamatory, meaning that it stained the plaintiff’s reputation.”The defamation could be true and the paper could still lose. Today, truth is a powerful defense. Further, the court set a high bar over which victims of defamation must leap even when offending stories, images and opinions are demonstrably wrong. Quoting the 9-0 opinion, the Times said a public official cannot win a claim for “defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.’ ”• Writing an accurate, catchy headline is an art; those who do it well are worth their bonuses. Goofing in a headline is similarly catchy, as the Enquirer learned in a Page 1 story the other day: “Arabic-speaking kids overwhelm Mason.”Hyperbole, yes. It wasn’t long before the paper carried an editor’s note decrying and apologizing for “overwhelm.” • Ouch! The Enquirer spelled Procter & Gamble “Proctor” in a chart on campaign donations. With all of the computing power available, isn’t there a way to automatically challenge any use of Proctor with two Os any time it’s used? • My Loyal Reader in Northern Michigan sends this entire story from his local paper: “Nov. 22 - Elk Rapids Township: A caller stated that they had gotten into an argument over their pending marriage. Both parties were separated for the night.”• My other Loyal Reader, here in College Hill, sent this headline from London’s tabloid Evening Standard: “Stolen circumcision ambulance found after tip-off.”• Is it political correctness gone stupid? A jogger was killed when a car went up onto a sidewalk. The driver fled. Local TV asked viewers to help identify the guy. Again, as too often happens here, the race of the driver was not mentioned. That’s critical to distinguishing a suspect from all young men in that area at that time. • Sunday’s Enquirer carried a story on the confusion over the phrase “mass shooting” or “mass killing.” The San Bernardino massacre was a mass killing but by most criteria, the killing of two at a Colorado abortion clinic was not. But is it a “mass” shooting if victims survive? How many does it take to be a mass shooting/killing? Does that include the shooting, whether by suicide or police bullets? A USA Today feature and graphic drew on this standard for mass killing: four or more dead in one incident. Given the variety of known and suspected motives and the partisanship of involved groups, don’t expect the news media to discipline themselves and adopt a single, reasonable standard. • NYDaily News Page 1 after the San Bernardino killings brought prayer-shaming into the public arena. It quoted Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham invoking prayers for the victims. The huge headline said, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.” The headline immediately below added, “As the latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” • Not to be outdone by its tabloid rival, the NYTimes abandoned self-restraint and ran an editorial calling for greater gun-control on Page 1 last week. It was the first Page 1 editorial since 1920, the Times said. More than one observer noted that the rise of Nazi Germany, our entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor and appreciation of the enormity of the Holocaust or other world-changing events failed to inspire such a commentary. The Times said its June, 1920, editorial “lamented the nomination of Warren G. Harding as the Republican presidential candidate. It was a move, The Times wrote (then) that would ‘be received with astonishment and dismay by the party whose suffrages he invites.’ ”• A video of Tristate lawyer Thomas W. Condit made it to the’s “war on women” column last week. Condit, an anti-abortion activist, spoke outside Planned Parenthood’s clinic in Mount Auburn in July, saying, “We need to have an American version of the Nuremberg trials for crimes against humanity.”Condit added, “The people who work here, the people who work in abortion clinics around the country, we should get them when they wake up in the morning (so that) they are seeing visions of abortionists, the doctors, the clinic workers, the clinic directors, their lawyers, hanging by their necks after a fair trial.”Daily Beast said it spoke with Condit on Friday and he stood by remarks quoted from the video. “Yup, that sounds accurate.” The liberal website said it asked directly if he thinks abortion providers should be hanged. Condit said, “Yeah, sure! The method of capital punishment is, I guess, up to the individual state, but do they deserve the death penalty? Yes, they do.”Daily Beast said he explained, "Beyond any doubt, the unborn child is a living human being from the moment of conception. As a matter of science, there's just no doubt about it. The abortion industry exists and thrives only because they've been able to cast doubt on that or just out flat out deny it. … And the true pro-life position is that that unborn child has every bit as much of a right to life as anyone who's been already born. It's a child made in the image and likeness of God and it's a living human being that deserves the full protection of the U.S. Constitution, among other things."So, abortion kills a whole class of living human beings. It's murder that's been made legal by a Supreme Court decision that effectively delegitimized the Supreme Court because these are living human beings. … We don't let the government kill innocent human beings in America. Therefore, by direct analogy to what happened under Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, these are crimes against humanity and there's no reason not to have an American Nuremberg trial just like happened after World War II in Germany."

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]