When and how was it that American journalists became so contumelious toward the U.S. working class?
On second thought, let me rephrase that to head off the comments from conservative critics of the media who imagine a long history of bias.
When and how was it that American journalists judged it publicly cool to badmouth blue-collar America?
Case in point: “Watching the videotape of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough school board meeting on April 22, you can actually see America’s IQ points circle the drain and slip away.”
These are the words of Washington Post book writer Ron Charles pontificating on something he imagined was done by the ignorant, country bumkins of “The Valley,” as other residents of the Anchorage metro area know the land the city’s upper class considers the home of the “trailer trash”.
From reading Twitter – where you can daily find the well-researched and always accurate reporting of one Donald Trump, President of the United States (POTUS) – Charles concluded “the Mat-Su Borough District School Board voted 5-2 to ban five books from MSBSD schools.”
Only it didn’t.
The books in question weren’t banned from schools, and there is no plan to do so.
Charles either failed to watch the videotape he linked or he didn’t watch it closely, because in that recording one of the members of the Board leading the push to remove books from a class curriculum very clearly states that “I don’t want the books to disappear. I think (students) should have a right to go read these books.”
What the Board did do was remove the books from the “High School English Election Curriculum.” That might have been a bad decision – public entities make bad decisions all the time – but nobody was planning a pyre in Palmer, a bonfire in Big Lake, or a war on literature in Wasilla.
The American Nazi party had not succeeded in filling Mat-Su School Board seats with card-carrying party members.
When this was pointed out to the local newspaper – the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman which first Tweeted the inherently inflammatory words “book ban” – it corrected its reporting to accurately describe what happened, and later wrote another story headlined “Not a full ban.”
Whatever a “not full ban” might be.
By then, of course, it didn’t matter. The book ban version of reality was off and running unchecked like a new coronavirus:
- “Mat-Su School Board book ban draws ire after vote with no public comments,” Alaska Public Media.
- “Alaska school board bans five books including the Great Gatsby because they ‘depict rape, incest and contain sexual references’ – but some board members admit to not having read the novels,” England’s Daily Mail.’
- “Alaska School Board Bans 5 Books Including ‘Great Gatsby’ and ‘Invisible Man,'” The Daily Beast.
The kicker came when Alaska reporter Dermot Cole, a former columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, lambasted the Frontiersman for correcting its original story.
“The newspaper was wrong to post a correction on its story saying, ‘The original version of this story included the word ban. The books were not banned, but rather removed from the curriculum,'” he wrote.
“The books were banned from the curriculum.”
And what curriculum would that be? Well, according to the teachers who explained things to the Board, it would be the curriculum for an English elective for juniors and seniors that would only be offered if there were enough juniors and seniors interested in the class.
An aged journalist, Cole was playing the favorite word game of old-school journalists called “it might be wrong but it’s not really wrong.” Historically, this was done to avoid the need to write “corrections,” which many thought made their newspapers (if you remember those) look bad because everyone knew how accurately processing huge volumes of information and condensing it into a story in a brief period of time was a task so simple any idiot could do it.
With the internet today revealing just how difficult the job, the myth of flawless reporting is dead. But it has been replaced by the need of partisans to paint black and white the big, American world of greys.
So Cole pulled up his partisan pants, zipped them shut, and took the defense of a journalistic mistake to a whole new level.
You can only feel sorry for someone who can’t tell the difference between books being banned from schools and books being removed from a reading list for a class that might or might not happen.
Not that what the Mat-Su School Board did should be celebrated. It can be easily argued the Board’s decision was foolish, misguided, wrong-headed, or itself driven by conservative partisanship or bias. The books in question are well written and in this writer’s view at least one of them – “Catch 22” – should be read by everyone.
The “catch” in that book nicely explains a lot of the inconsistencies in the workplace. But then, I’m not elected to set public policy. If I was, everyone who plans to venture outside of an Alaska urban area would also be required to read Hudson Stuck’s “10,000 Miles with a Dogsled which offers some sage advice on decision making and survival in the outdoors:
“Everything is fine as long as it is fine.”
That observation might also shed some light on what really happened in The Valley.
A school board that last year struggled through a raucous meeting about a teacher’s use of controversial books saw a list of controversial books potentially headed for a classroom and decided to make an effort to avoid another blowup – a dodge being always the better part of valor for most American politicians these days, even the menial ones.
And everything was fine with the Board’s decision until the words “book ban” were Tweeted. Then an inconsequential action at a meeting attended by no one became anything but fine.
Pretty soon Board members found themselves mocked for relying on Cliff Note summaries of the books by an East Coast writer who put his trust in Twitter for a really solid summary while Alaska reporters given the cover of an esteemed peer in the big city piled on.
Meanwhile, the Tweet that rocked the valley had the participants on the Mat-Su Valley News Facebook page – not a one of whom had bothered to offer testimony at the internet-connected Board meeting despite the number with nothing else to do in these COVID-19 days – going at each other over the meaning of the word “banned” until moderator Kersten Safford made the observation that “you can say it’s not a ban all you want but the rest of the world thinks it is.”
Having the thus defined the new definition of factual – what you perceive the majority believes whether accurate or not – she turned off comments. Cole and some others appeared to be relishing all of this.
“The Mat-Su school board draws national ridicule for banning five classic works of American literature,” he trumpeted after joining in the effort to help stir the pot with a distortion of what happened.
Why he stopped with a claim to a ban on “five classic works” is a bit baffling. If one considers what is lacking from the Mat-Su curriculum a ban, the Mat-Su school system has essentially banned dozens of classic works.
The curriculum for the district’s English 1 class contains no “classic works of American literature” whatsoever. As in most school districts across the country, it is heavy on short stories and speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” and President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
It also features Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and writings from the African-American columnist Leonard Pitts and an Oprah interview with the late Elie Weisel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Jewish author who survived the Nazi death camps during World War II.
English 2 lists three, tame for these times American classics: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. There is nothing by Mark Twain, generally agreed to be the greatest American writer of all time, or Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, William Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Tony Morrison or many others on a common list of great American writers who penned classic novels.
Also missing are “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by by Junot Diaz, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin, “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin, “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisernos, and “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk, which top the New York Public Library’s list of “Modern American Classics.”
The first five on that list could as easily comprise a curriculum list as the five allegedly “banned.” Suffice to say, the only crime the Mat-Su School Board committed in this case was to veto a list of books arbitrarily put together by people who work for the school district.
Those happen to be the people whose actions the school board is elected to oversee.
If the residents of the Mat-Su don’t like what their school board did, they can vote the sitting members out and vote new members in. Meanwhile, young people – if there are still young people reading – can go to the library and read what they want to read.
It is quite possible that given this little brouhaha, there might be more kids in the Valley choosing to read the books in question. There is among the naturally inquisitive a certain taste for the forbidden fruit.
I can personally recommend four of these five books – “Catch 22” having already been mentioned. As for the rest, most kids who think their lives crap now might find “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou a good primer on just how bad things can get.
Growing up is difficult for most, but it is made hell for a few. Life often gets better, but there are no guarantees.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” only underlines the last observation. Young people today – especially young men – have little understanding of what it was like to have hanging over your head the threat of a military draft plucking you from your comfortable, everyday, American life, putting a rifle in your hands, and sending you off to fight a war in a Southeast Asian jungle for reasons clear to no one.
As for the “The Great Gatsby,” I always found it overrated. There are a dozen books better, and for Alaska students, tending to be largely ignorant of both the history and prehistory of the state in which they live, a strong case could be made for putting on any reading list James Michener’s “Alaska,” which features, among other things, some Alaska Native characters.
“The most remarkable of Michener’s people are women, who dominate the book by their strength and desire to transcend mere survival,” Sam Cornish added in a 1988 review. “They are creations not of a poetic vision but of circumstances in which people must be self-reliant or perish.”
Few today understand the old Alaska where every day was a real-life episode of Survivor. Fewer still understand the importance, not too mention the toughness, of the women who helped build a society that came to be largely defined by its “manliness” for lack of a better word.
But then some of the elites don’t like Michener’s Alaska, and in a society where those who get dirt under their fingernails are to be looked down upon by much of the media as IQ deprived that could be a problem.
Why just as this was being written, the voice of the national correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) emerged from Alexa to inform that he was at a public rally against Idaho’s COVID-19 lockdown attended by “hundreds” to which he felt the need to add assurances that “hundreds of thousands” of Idahoans failed to attend.
There was little doubt as to what he was trying to suggest: the ignoramuses are loose in the streets again. This surely plays as well to his constituency of listeners as Cole’s proclamations of a “book ban” plays to the elitists among his readers.
Sadly, collectively, it all serves to do little but make even more shit of the credibility of journalism unless the profession is henceforth going to apply some sort of new rules across the board. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine coverage of the next Million Man March on the nation’s capital noting that hundreds of millions of men are not marching.