Friday, February 20, 2009

Kass plays, withdraws, the race card

Posted By on 02.20.09 at 12:18 PM

John Kass asks if Roland Burris getting pounded has to do with his race, then answers in the negative. It's a curious column.

I agree with him and Steve Rhodes that it's more about power than race, but I don't think it's an especially difficult question. Burris got a much easier treatment before he went back on his testimony, given during a moment of national import. That made him vulnerable, and now he's doomed.

But I don't think it's exclusively power. As I said previously, people are sexier than process, and simple narratives are easier than complex ones. Roland Burris got famous and then allegedly lied. It's quite simple to communicate that, and to get pissed off about it.

It's much more difficult to communicate a years-old story about his failure in the Rolando Cruz affair, or to tell a much longer story about his mendacity. Or more accurately, it's not that hard to communicate it, but it's harder to make it stick. You don't have to be good if you're a good politician.

Hence the magic of the Machine: there's no need to break the rules when you can make them.

Update: Ben Joravsky: "We're like the townspeople in Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." Every now and then we pillory a politician--George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Roland Burris. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. Then we look the other way while the rest of them rob us blind."

Eric Zorn: "The bias that I see in the media -- the tendency, the weakness -- is for simplicity over complexity; for so-called high-concept scandals (easy to understand and summarize in a sentence or two) and against low-concept scandals (murky, mysterious, multi-layered tales of political intrigue)."

Obviously, I agree with Zorn, but with a couple caveats. I think high and low should be reversed (high concept = complicated, obscure), but that's just a minor thing. More importantly, I think Zorn's falling into a bit of a trap with the word "scandal." If you wait around for a scandal, even a complicated, important, earth-shattering one, you're still stuck waiting for someone to do something egregiously stupid and something which is already acknowledged to be beyond the pale.

So it's not just simplicity, although I agree that's part of it. The reliance on scandal, complex or not, sets too low a bar, one set where everyone can concede it--legality, honesty, and so forth. Much more difficult is to get people to act on things which aren't scandalous: things which are just bad and should be better.

It's very, very hard. My favorite postmortem on civic reporting comes from Robert Caro's The Power Broker, in which he describes the investigation that ultimately led to the dethroning of Robert Moses. As a politician and subtle tyrant Moses was without peer, and it took several New York papers working in concert (the reporters shared information and scoops amongst themselves), the work of nonprofit advocacy groups who fed the reporters, and Jane Jacobs's somewhat miraculous rise to fame. It took years.

It also took Moses fucking with the wrong people (emphasis mine): "Of course, Moses is far better known for more ignominious acts, like his plan, magnificently recounted in Mr. Caro’s book, to destroy a playground to expand the parking lot for the Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park. When local mothers rebelled, Moses ordered the bulldozers in at night, creating a public scandal."

In short, a bunch of well-connected people got pissed, protested, and one of the newspapers got a poignant shot of an upset kid. It was not the only thing that brought Moses down, but it was a turning point.

On that note, you should go back and read Ben Joravsky's piece on the Lane Tech hurdlers who practice in the hallways over the winter. We're trying.

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