Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Evelyn Rasco believed in the power of story when no one else did. After her daughters, Jamie and Gladys Scott, went to prison for life for a 1993 robbery with details so confusing that no one really knows how much money was taken, Ms. Rasco did not give up. She told their story over and over again, hoping, praying someone would listen and help get them go free some day.
For a long time, she didn't get a huge audience: mostly African American press outlets. She didn't even get the ear of the NAACP until 2010. The national media didn't pick up on it for years; it took us months to do a real story.
Last week, Rasco's story and determination yielded results. When I saw the e-mail statement from Gov. Haley Barbour. I yelled out that he was freeing the Scott sisters. Reporter Ward Schaefer grabbed his phone and called Rasco, who had helped him do a vivid cover story about her daughters last fall.
Rasco was driving to the grocery story. She hadn't heard, yet.
"Oh my God. You're kidding me," Rasco exclaimed to Ward, as she pulled over to the side of the road. "Oh, please--oh my God."
Both the fact that Rasco's prayer was answered and that Ward got to tell her has made me giddy for days. It's also made me think a whole lot about why we do what we do here: why we're willing to anger supporters, why we fact-check even the statements of apparent good guys, why most people in our office look pretty damn happy every day, even as they are paid too little and work harder than about anyone imaginable in a "white collar" job.
It's because of moments like these--when we know our work helped make a difference.
Allow me to embarrass Ward a bit. Like our managing editor and art director, Ward started here as an intern. He was a Williams College graduate from Chevy Chase, Md., who had come south as part of the Mississippi Teacher Corps to teach public school. Once here, though, he decided he'd like to be a journalist, even though he hadn't trained as one. So he started showing up here every day after school; he took my writing classes and intern workshops. He already had the passion for truth, but he started learning the craft.
To be a good journalist, you also have to develop a tough skin. You must learn quickly that criticism and probing editors are good. We push our reporters to ask the bigger questions, to place their stories into a larger context. Sometimes, people ask why we don't cover the crime of the day like other media love to--the simple answer is that we're not here to obsess about daily crime. We are here to explore, ask, investigate and then explain if possible, or, at the least, raise questions we all should ask.
And even though we consider ourselves a "progressive" media outlet, that is not a partisan or a deaf-and-dumb stance. We criticize "both" sides as needed, even to the point of angering people who like us a lot. If we weren't willing to do that, we would dishonor the profession, our readers and our mission to tell the truth and let the truth fall where it may.
After the Scott sisters story broke, Ward and other staff members kept talking about the inaccuracies that quickly wound up in the national media cycle and got passed along as truth. How many headlines in the last week had "$11" in them? As in, the Scott Sisters went to prison "for an $11 robbery." The truth is, as Ward points out in his follow-up story this week, no one knows for sure how much was stolen. It might have been more than $200. And the amount isn't relevant.
In addition, many anti-Barbour folks--admittedly, we tend to fall into that category--keep repeating that he suspended their sentences to save his presidential campaign after his disgusting praise of the Citizens Councils of the 1960s.
That's not true, either. He started working on this case last fall in response to the growing movement to free the sisters. Was it good timing for him? No doubt. Would he have done it anyway? We believe so. (Especially after we, The New York Times and others have pointedly compared the case to those brutal wife and girlfriend murderers he pardoned in 1998, a story former interns Ronni Mott and Sophie McNeil took the time to dig out here.)
The truth matters. Even when it makes a governor we don't want to see in the White House look good for a minute or two.
My partner Todd Stauffer likes to say that it is our job to do the hard work; in today's world, bloggers and pundits who try to capitalize off (or twist the truth out of) other people's work are a dime a dozen. Some cower behind fake names. Many, such as The Clarion-Ledger in comments and reader's forums, allow the most horrible bigotry and personal attacks to appear without serious moderation.
We take this idea of doing the hard work seriously. It is easy to throw someone's mugshot on a screen and then allow long strings of nasty veiled and not-so-veiled comments to appear next to anonymous names (like: blackholocaust), and call it "reporting."
It is easy to Google something or copy a page from a folder in the courthouse and post it without calling the sources or the accused to find out if there are vital details missing. It is simple to feed the public's dark need for crime sensationalism without bothering to read the research on practices like mandatory sentencing and trying kids as adults, or pay heed to the statistics about disparate sentencing of people of color for lesser crimes. It takes no time to just quote someone like Phil Bryant on dreaded immigrants without taking the time to sort out the truth behind his politicking.
It is also easy to pander to people you assume would be uncomfortable if your publication actually looks like the people it supposedly covers (looking at you, VIP Jackson; unlike you, we believe local wealthy white people are cool with more than a page or two of black people in a 100-page party-pics magazine).
And sometimes, it is tough to bear the brunt of personal attacks from people who don't want us pointing out any of these things or anything else that challenges their fearful world view or their small comfort zones.
But we are not here to comfort the comfortable. We are here to do the hard work of finding and sharing the truth, of giving voice to the voiceless. Our dirty little wonderful secret is how many more people and business owners thank us for that than whine about it.
And then there are the times when you get to tell a mama that her girls are coming home. It doesn't get much better than that.
I'll have to admit, I liked your editorial on this story. This is coming from someone who rarely agrees with your stance on just about every issue.
Thanks, js1976! ;-)