Joho the Blog[shorenstein][liveblog] Phillip Martin on reporting poverty, and Boston's racist image - Joho the Blog

[shorenstein][liveblog] Phillip Martin on reporting poverty, and Boston’s racist image

Phillip Martin of WGBH is giving a Shorenstein Center lunch. He is a Boston-based investigative reporter who (says Alex Jones) “tries to explain the city to itself.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Phillip starts “at the intersection of memory, history and symbolism.” The first image that comes to his mind is the instersection where he came of age in Detroit. It’s now considered to be one of the most dangerous in the area, which masks the complexity of the place. Coverage of poor people oversimplifies matters all too often. His neighborhood was composed of “full-bodied individuals.” His mom and step-dad had third grad educations but were very smart and pushed the children into watching thew news every night. And to the library, where they found The Detroit Free Press.

Later in 1967 the Detroit Riots occurred, which is political neighbors called “The Detroit Uprising.” An image that always sticks in his mind is of a kid nicknamed Bobo. He was a bully, but Phillip remembers his parents’ anguish as Bobo was pushed up against a tree and was beaten by the National Guard and police for violating the curfew. “There’s no excuse for this,” said Phillip’s father, even though he didn’t much like Bobo either.

Phillip saw that the images in the news didn’t match the reality in the streets. One radio newsman referred to the people in the streets as “wild animals.” But Phillip didn’t see any “wild animals” at the church fish fry the week before. “They were people and they were sinners, and they were enjoying themselves.”

He was working on the docks of a newspaper. A labor reporter (Steve Orr [?]) liked to talk with him. He was reporting on the UAW and plants closing across Detroit. The coverage by this reporter did jibe with what Phillip saw happening and what his cousin Cyrus said about his experience working in an auto plant. Phillip started talking with this reporter about journalism.

At Wayne State he joined the student newspaper briefly. He “was not enamored with the structure” of journalistic reporting and push back against the edicts of the paper.

From Detroit, Boston seemed exotic. In 1974 he was hearing about: A Haitian man being pulled out of his van and beaten in South Boston. School buses being stoned when they drove through white neighborhoods. A woman being set on fire. That was a different vision of Boston than his next door neighbor Willy had painted. So Phillip decided he’d like to write about Boston.

In 1975 he came out here with other students. “It was much worse” than he imagined when it came to race relations. Boston was almost equated with Birmingham, Mississippi. There was a demonstration in Carson Beach to keep blacks and Latinos off the beach. This was in response to court ordered desegregation and busing. The more he learned, the deeper it got. The people protesting blacks and Latinos were in the same economic class as they people they were objecting to. Phillip wrote a few pieces that “did not land me a job in journalism.” But it did increase his curiosity bout Boston. “And it scared me. I didn’t know if I could live in a place like this.”

When he went back to Detroit he realized that the city had become much worse in the course of a single summer. So he went to San Francisco, but found it too cold [laughter]. Detroit’s economy was deteriorating further. So he tried Boston again.

In Boston he heard Danny Schechter (“The News Dissector”) on WBCN doing a report on the poor that didn’t rely on stick figures, that let people speak for themselves. Phillip approached him out of the blue and asked to be an intern.

Years later, after trying to broaden his worldview through self-education and the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy, he started working for Oxfam America. Oxfam’s notion of self-development was very important to him. He was in charge of Oxfam’s “hunger banquets,” but he didn’t think he was doing enough to change journalism’s “framework of assumption” about poverty. He was interested in how race frames so many aspects of our society.

In 1992 he went to South Africa. Apartheid was still in place. He picked up an Afrikaner hitchhiker who said that Americans know nothing about South Africa. Phillip was thinking, “This is amazing! I’d never get this perspective if I were a black South African.” The perspective was complex. Ridding South Africa of apartheid will be difficult because you have individuals who fully believe that a black government would be terrorist and communist. He wrote about this for the Boston Globe, which led to more work for them.

In 1994 he was back in South Africa for the election and was in Johannesburg when a bomb went off on April 24. NPR asked him to come on broad as a commentator. In 1995 he wrote a commentary after the Oklahoma City bombing that compared the two bombings and about what the proliferation of guns means to him as a black man.

He was conflicted about journalism because he wasn’t sure that news media would let him explore beyond the standard framework. But then PRI’s The World came up and he was asked to help put it together. He started to cover the intersection of international relations and race.

He went from there to a Japan fellowship looking at disaffected minorities in Japan. The themes he’d cared about all his life were resonating internationally.

After a Niemann Fellowship, he was hired as NPR’s first race relations correspondent, looking at race in terms of ethnicity and hue and tone. “We all know that race is a false construct,” but hue and tone are nevertheless used worldwide to discriminate.

His interest drifted to Europe at the end of the Cold War. He was talking with a right-wing friend from Romania who, when the wall came down, said that the neo-Nazis are going to come out of the woodwork. He went to Germany on a Marshall fellowship in 2003, and saw some of that happening, as well counter movements…

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] You’ve come across the fundamental truth about American journalism that journalists don’t know poor people and thus don’t do much reporting on poverty. How do we break through that? The reporting on gays has been better because reporters do know gay people.

A: Let people speak for themselves. There have been some great series that do that. When experts interpret information, they often allow their expertise to be the proxy for how people are really feeling. That’s problematic. Journalism has to go deeper.

Q: Whenever I have friends visit me from other cities, they’re always struck by the degree of segregation in Boston — particularly on the T where there will be a car of white people, another of minorities… [Really? I’ve never seen this. I’m mainly on the Green and Red lines,] How does Boston look to you these days?

A: I’m a middle class guy. The city has changed in extraordinary, fundamental ways. I once went to the North End and when I came back, my windows were smashed. I went into South Boston in the 1980s and got into a scuffle on a train platform. I remember being afraid to be in Charlestown. Gentrification has made some of these neighborhoods palatable for people of color. They opened up but also closed: you can go to certain neighborhoods but are unable to live in those neighborhoods. True both for whites and for people of color.

He recently asked Julian Bondwhat he thinks of Boston. Bond said that he’s still afraid of the city. He’s afraid to go to a baseball game. Phillip told him that the city has changed. Bond admitted that this is simply how he perceives Boston. Boston just got a milllion dollar grant to change the perception of race in Boston. Many people across the country still think of Boston in terms of the 1970s pro-racism actions. Now Boston is demarcated by economic classes.

Q: Are media orgs doing enough to diversify their staffs?

A: NPR has made a major effort and some of those have seen fruit. NPR works on the use of words that carry racial meaning. Michele Norris [in the audience, which Phillip just discovers; Phillip has a totally delightful reaction] has done extraordinary work on race.

A: Michele Norris: The member stations are the feeder system for reporters. The staffs of the member stations are overwhelmingly white. The pipeline is not sufficiently diverse.

Q: My sister is a documentary film maker who made a film called “Daddy Don’t Go.” You come away understanding that the dads in it have made a lot of mistakes, but they love their children. The reception she’s getting is disturbing: everyone is telling her that it’s too dark, too sad. It really lets these guys speak for themselves.

A: Maybe she should join forces. E.g., Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Both want to have their voices amplified.

A: Michele Norris: Also try to get it in front of African-American audiences.

A: Jackie Calmes: For the past 35 yrs I’ve seen a regression of the efforts in journalism to hire women and minorities, and it’s worse for minorities in my experience. But, in covering poverty the mistake that’s made too often is equating poverty with black people.

A: Phillip: I agree 100%. A filmmaker at the CBC asked me to work on a series about a black man traveling through poor white America. The idea is to show how structurally problematic poverty is in this country. It engenders a view that this is America. It’s a false picture. White people need to understand the problems in terms not only of race but also of income inequality. We need to bring the contradictions in our understanding to the fore.

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