False Portrait

Reversing the news media obsession with evil

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Newspeople are very good at conveying their version of how we die. They do poorly at telling us how we live. As a result, we limp through our daily lives burdened with stereotypes foisted upon us through distorted images of criminals and race. Out of fear we recede from each other, instead of reaching toward each other, learning and cooperating to build our communities.

After the Detroit uprisings of 1967, public television sent me to do a documentary on its causes and effects. The film’s title—Do You Think a Job Is the Answer?—came from a question a young black man asked me as I was interviewing him. His name was Lloyd Love. He was 20, a high school dropout dividing his time between an Urban League street academy, where he was supposed to earn an equivalency certificate, and the streets, where, he told me, he and his friends committed crimes. I asked him if he’d ever had a job.

“I thought of takin’ a job,” he said, “but my old man, he had a job workin’ at the factory, and if that’s what I have to have for my kids, what he had for me, then I don’t need to be in the factory.

“And they think that’s the answer—a job? Do you think that’s the answer?”

Twenty years later the Detroit public TV station asked me to find the people in the original film and report on their lives and the life of Detroit. Their personal histories and their perspectives on the changes Detroit has gone through made riveting television. Nothing like it makes the evening news.

The week I interviewed Lloyd Love he was turning 40. I asked him to watch himself as he was at 20, on a screen in the studio, and to tell me what had become of him in all those years. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “You mean, like, in a nutshell?”

“Make it a big nut,” I said.

He said he’d served 18 months in state prison after being convicted of carrying a concealed weapon. Now he was working as a laborer, carrying cases of empty pop bottles at a soda plant.

“You?” I said. “A guy who wouldn’t take a job at the auto plant when you were 20?”

“I don't like it, but I have to do it. I have responsibilities. I’m married and I have an 8-year-old son. He’s very intelligent, he’s into gymnastics, and I don’t want him doin’ the easy thing [running drugs] to get the money for a $150 pair of sneakers.”

I asked him what had changed in Detroit.

“Not much. One thing that has changed is the police. It was just a buncha whiteys comin’ to hit you upside the head. Now [with the city and the police managed by blacks] it’s a buncha guys tryin’ to keep things straight in the community.”

The last time we spoke, Lloyd Love was doing more than making a living, raising a child with his schoolteacher wife, and surviving—he was also running a community theater, which he founded.

How many hundreds of black men in handcuffs do we have to see on television news before we get to see one transformed soul like Lloyd Love—not to mention people who have never committed a crime—to show us what survival, maturity, and responsibility really mean?

The news media have the capacity—mostly unused—to show us the truth about how we live, so that we can understand ourselves and others, become free of fear and suspicion, and embrace the goodness in people that journalists rarely notice. That goodness, appreciated and harnessed, can blow away cynicism and counteract the evil that does walk among us.

As people in news organizations these days struggle to restructure newsrooms, integrate new technology, market new services, and define what public, or civic, journalism means, they would do well to remember why they chose this business in the first place. They were more curious than most other people, they wanted to be the first to know and the first to report, and they wanted to make a difference in their town, their country, their world.

One of the most important differences they can make is to let their curiosity crack that lineup of institutional imperatives, to discover the differences and commonalities among us, to report them in the context of how we live today, instead of how we die today, and to infuse them with the humanity that destroys stereotypes.

Reprinted from Colors, July-August 1995.