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Credibility

Lately I’ve been feeling like since I left my after-school teaching position in the Bronx and dropped out of the anti-globalization movement, there’s been little in my life worth writing about. I’m not exposed at great lengths to anyone who’s really different from me in basic outlook. Nothing has challenged me to look much beyond my own navel.

Then one of our editors committed public suicide.

Early last week, the press association I work for got email from a trustworthy source within our network of friends in the organizing community saying that Rance Huff, the editor of Black Reign News, had died of a brain aneurysm. The Black Reign is based out of a long-standing African-American community at the northernmost end of Staten Island. It’s noteworthy among community papers for its vocal commitment to social justice. Additionally, Rance was very young, only thirty-three.

The spirit in our office was dampened for the rest of the day. My boss built our chapter of the association paper by paper, and she’s very close with many of our editors and publishers. Rance was one of them. Like many of our editors, he was the organizing drive behind Black Reign. There were concerns the paper would fold without him. We’d lose a member, and another African-American community would lose its voice.

Looking grim, the boss set about making calls to allies and to our national office, in hopes we could set up some sort of memorial fund or scholarship in Rance’s name. Plans were made to include a memorial in the weekly news digest section of our website.

Thursday morning, shortly after I’d settled in to my inbox and morning tea, the boss called out, “Rance isn’t dead.”

There’s always that moment after someone says that where you hesitate, not sure whether you should be saying “Yes, dear, he lives on in our hearts,” patting her shoulder with one hand and dialing Mental Health Services with the other. The office fell silent; the interns stopped shuffling papers.

The Black Reign had printed a – retraction? — is there a name for the kind of article a newspaper prints when its editor comes out and admits he’s publically faked his own death? — written by Rance himself. It was titled “A Lesson Before Dying: Internet Hoaxes & Embracing My Heritage.”

It began by explaining that Rance’s mother, who had him out of wedlock, gave him the last name Huff. His father’s last name had been Jackson. Rance went on to lend his wife and children his father’s last name. He explains that he didn’t want his kids to feel the “self-doubt” he did from being tagged with a name that wasn’t really his. “I would grow up in a society that would religiously and socially define me as a “bastard,’” he wrote, identifying this as one of many stigmas of poverty:

if you are lucky enough to escape and rise above your circumstances, you must still carry scarlet letters that stay with you seemingly forever. When you get to college and socially interact with people from different financial strata than you, despite the thickest of skins and most confident ego, there can still be little slivers of questions and inferiority. The food stamps. The free cheese. The welfare checks. The hand-me-down clothes. Sometimes those things stay with you longer mentally after you have left them behind physically.

With his children growing up to identify with his “nom de plume,” Rance wrote, he realized he had put his kids in exactly the fix he had been hoping to avoid. So, after giving it some thought, he’d decided to go back to being Rance Jackson – by killing off Rance Huff with a giant stunt in his newspaper.

This was a baffling explanation. Rance himself admitted that being born out of wedlock isn’t a big deal “growing up as a child in the projects of New York City… because nearly everyone else is in the same boat.” I’d hazard the claim that there’s plenty of places, your average college being one of them, where it’s not an issue anymore.

So if it’s not that big a deal, why make it one? People who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps don’t usually go phoenix on your a$s and make headlines in their reckoning of the process. Our office wouldn’t have been caught off guard if ceremonial suicide and resurrection were a regular part of the process.

Adopting the ersatz-Victorian tone found in Onion editorials, Rance continued:

…over a year ago, a small group of editors and I discussed ending Mr.Huff’s life in dramatic fashion. We are in the business of selling newspapers and we thought it would make excellent fodder to kill off a pen name in memorable fashion.

By this point, our ad co-op director was nearly leaping off the walls in frustation. His stock in trade is circulation, and he’s compelled to dramatically revise almost every publication’s own account of its circulation down. Some of the smaller tabloid weeklies claim readership in the tens of thousands, and that’s just in the city. Companies have to trust our judgement when it comes to placing ads in the generally unknown community and “ethnic” publications we work with; the papers’ exaggerations sabotage their own income stream and make the ad director’s job harder. Seeing Rance’s stunt as more of the same, the ad director threatened to quit and go work in the for-profit sector.

I tried for a while to understand the stunt from other points of view. Maybe the logic of killing off your personified stigma to teach others to question what they read makes more sense when viewed from the projects. I’m not going to be able to reach Black Reign’s readers to ask them how they felt about all this. Did my co-workers and I not read this right because, as outsiders to the African-American community, we missed some tone or other cue that would have tipped us off that this was a hoax? I would have known to be on guard if this was early April, but it was late July. Maybe I didn’t read the obituary closely enough.

Perhaps, I thought later, he presumed his readers would see him around the neighborhood and know it was all a lie, thus receiving the wisdom of the homily before Rance smacked us with it in his editorial. This would only work if Black Reign had a ridiculously small circulation. He notes that “a small handful of our readers called to determine the validity of our report,” but I suppose he could be cutting corners; maybe they’d actually called to express condolences and had determined the report’s validity by accident. What exactly did he think he was doing to the readers who cared enough to bring hot dishes or wreaths or a shoulder to cry on over to the widow Jackson, or who, like my boss, set up scholarship funds in his name? Were they supposed to take the time to reflect on their foolishness for believing him? And how were they supposed to act on news he printed in future issues?

Why melt down your own credibility so spectacularly in full view of your community? The worry around the office is that this event will damage the credibility of the ethnic press, already held in low regard in many circles and not helped any by the inflated circulation counts. It’s our job to help improve their image. I don’t think my boss or the ad director will recover.

The irony here is in the moral of Rance’s editorial:

If we, as a community, are going to make the internet a tool which we use to improve our community, then we have to become a lot smarter about how we decipher and disseminate information on the internet.

Additionally, we have to learn how to question the news we
receive on television, radio and newspapers. Regardless of what you may think, every media outlet has a slant on the truth. And because major media outlets have been co-opted by corporate America, we have even more reason to question what is being reported and how it is reported.

This corresponds to the “Internet Hoaxes” part of the editorial’s ill-conceived title. Rance explained that Black Reign had recently “been subjected to requests” to write articles on Tommy Hilfiger’s racist remarks on Oprah, a conspiracy to criminalize Black people through their credit card reports, and legislation which was soon to expire, costing Black people the vote. All of these were rumors, Rance says (a number of sites back him up on the Hilfiger story; I didn’t check the others) circulating by email. He additionally mentions the recent headline-making re-release of a video clip in which the Reverend Al Sharpton appears to be discussing a drug deal, pointing out that not only does Sharpton claim the clip is taken out of context, but other local news sources that have run the whole video corroborate.

The latter incident has certainly presented a good moment for everyone, regardless of background, to reflect on the standards and methods of journalism. Rance’s editorial continues from that point to exhort readers to independently check what they read by seeking other sources. “The lesson here,” he writes,

is that we must always question what we read or hear in the news. It is why Rev. Sharpton is correct when he states that the media too often tries [sic] to tell the Black community who their leaders are, in the way they present information. Which is why there is always a need for a vigilant Black press.

Even so, question what you read in the Black press also. Hold us to the same standard. Which is why we opted to kill Rance E. Huff in such a public way. Who would question it if we reported it? Would people blindly accept it as fact or would they seek other sources to verify what we were printing?

I think he’s absolutely right about the need for a vigilant press, Black or otherwise. And it’s fantastic that any editorial should display such humility. Still, Rance went too far. Simply on the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot tip, he went too far. Beyond that: Every news source should be so honest, but no news source should lay down its responsibility to check its facts and then report them. A newspaper is one of the social mechanisms on which we place the responsibility for doing deeper-than-usual inquiry. (I hear you sharpening your media-crit fangs out there; settle down, I mean “in the best of all possible worlds.” A paper which makes striving to make a better world part of its mission, which Black Reign does, maybe needs to try harder than other papers, no?) We need this – we pay for this – because we don’t have time to do that inquiry ourselves. The boss really wouldn’t appreciate all the calls to Afghanistan and Washington every time there’s new bogus military reports. The more freelance work I do, the more respect I have for how much time and effort even daily journalism takes, much less investigative work.

* * *

Why should you believe anything I’ve written here? You’ve probably never heard of Black Reign News before; maybe it doesn’t exist. (Their website is a veritable fsckin’ leprechaun; I challenge you to catch it in working order. Ooh, that metaphor also works because it’s mostly green. And butt-ugly.) I haven’t given any names; I’ve been vague about my sources. The DSWJ isn’t a news site, though the fact that I work sometimes as a freelance writer may cause some confusion on that front.

Credibility can be invested in any number of human systems — religion, government, the free market, journalistic objectivity — but all of those have had their fallibility blown to smithereens so recently even little kids know not to place their trust in them. We are back to the basic unit of credibility — our own word and the trust others come to place in it. Rance gambled his. I’m struggling to maintain mine.

It’s not too hard to build those units of credibility into small-scale systems. All of us know which of our friends are prone to exaggeration; who can be trusted to show up when you’re moving to a new apartment and who’s just saying they will; when it’s socially OK and not OK to tell white lies. The problem now is that our small-scale systems are, before our eyes, spiraling into their place as tiny fractals along the arms of a vast, chaotic social and informational system. That system’s influence on our smaller systems is more than any of us is currently equipped to handle.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I consider graduate school (and how poorly set up it seems to handle these new problems). I think kids are going to need a basic toolkit. It should include, among other things:

  • (From the Chomskyan media crit tradition) Know where the money is behind what’s being said: who’s being paid to say or not say something. Similarly, know who owes who favors, or who is being threatened with death, injury, loss of a loved one or livelihood, etc.
  • (From the journalistic tradition) Verify everything with at least two other sources.
  • (From some bastardized version of science) Remember: A hypothesis is not a law.
  • (From art, psychoanalysism and social science) Follow your gut instincts when they urge you to ask a question. Question your need to question. Repeat.

If you have other things to add to this toolkit (or recommendations for a graduate education or communications school which would be able to handle this line of inquiry) please post a comment below.

“ethnic:” I hate the word; it’s an ugly shorthand for “immigrants and people of color” which smacks of “No Irish Need Apply” to me.

11 Comments

  1. Evan wrote:

    Hey, funny. Very different perspective on crediblity than i’ve been thinking about. I’d write more but i’m susposed to finish up a draft of this proposal to ship hundreds of computers down to south america for the revolution.

    Why have you chosen not to expose your self to other ideas? It seems like a painful selflimiting process. I have a hard time imagining staying in the same country for 6 months. Much less at the same job with out meeting people and doing different shit.

    But to each their own.

    Sunday, August 4, 2002 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  2. gus wrote:

    I replied to this comment earlier and withdrew it, realizing I have no proof whatsoever that it was Evan who actually responded to this post. One of the spelling errors *looks* like one of his, but the comment is so totally incendiary that I have a hard time believing he’d go so far as to post it. I haven’t seen him in a while, but I’m hoping he wouldn’t be such an incredible flaming hypocritical asshole as to say something like that

    Sunday, August 4, 2002 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  3. gus wrote:

    OK, that *was* Evan.

    Though the phrase “I have a hard time imagining staying in the same country for 6 months” does plenty to let you know who he is, I want it known in the interest of full disclosure that he’s able to travel the way he has because he made shitloads of money in the dotcom boom; also, when his laptop was stolen recently in South America someone bought him a new one.

    Further full disclosure: We met at a private college we were attending. I had previously been enrolled in a private elementary/junior/high school (on scholarship). And, uh, I used to take horseback riding lessons. [stares balefully into the muzzles of the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution]

    Annnyway, all self-criticism aside: I went back and read the credibility essay Evan linked to, and I think it’s interesting to note that though we agree that credibility resides in the source of the news, the solutions we came up with treat different elements of the problem. Even though I had come to the conclusion that most people don’t have the time to do the kind of fact-checking Rance was asking for, I still closed with a call for better introduction of the general populace to basic analytical skills. Evan’s solution, and the Indymedia solution generally, try to repair the problems on the media provider’s side.

    The thing about a provider- rather than a reader-side solution is it still requires a change in general attitudes toward the media. People *do* trust CNN and the New York Times and Fox News and other sources which purport to have authority. I’ve always thought many people might shy away from Indymedia because of the Nazi posts, the appearance of announcements from local organizations, and the *lack* of an authoritative editorial voice. Those who already have a media critique, or are generally suspicious, or are tone-deaf when it comes to information may be totally ready to accept the Indy newswire, but a lot of people may not. I have been out of the loop for over a year, so I don’t know whether Indymedia is trying to educate people into its system and clarify why so much dross is left on the newswire along with really important reports, but it probably should be. (Mind you, I’m not going to try to make the recommendation, because just about everything I recommended when I worked with them got shot down. I’m not diving into that barrel of worms now.)

    Evan also recommends an ebay-style review system. I have warm feelings about the idea, but wonder what it would be based on. After all, thousands of people obviously thought highly enough of the forward about Tommy Hilfiger’s racism to provoke Oprah to publically deny the allegations on her show. Who gets to say what’s a fact in that system? What are they supposed to base it on?

    Sunday, August 4, 2002 at 9:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Roger wrote:

    An addendum: given this set of interests, media studies and criticism is probably the best place to look within the academy. In the good old Happy Valley, of course, there’s Sut Jhally and the Media Education Foundation at UMass. Also, there *has* been some interest in a media-crit curriculum in American elementary schools; in particular, tobacco, drugs, and violence in the media appear to be wedge issues that get parents pushing in this direction.

    For instance, a Google search just turned this up:
    http://www.medialit.org/Catalog/elemindex.htm

    I seem to remember hearing something about Deb Meier and the Central Park East school in connection with this issue, but I can’t remember exactly what. I think even without any further training, a current professional journalist might be able to segue into the NYC school system doing this kind of work.

    Sunday, August 4, 2002 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  5. James wrote:

    The sense in which you can’t “trust” CNN or the NYT is different from the sense in which you can’t “trust” Black Reign News. If the New York Times tells you someone is dead, you can be pretty damn sure they’re dead. It’s only under extremely rare circumstances that news outlets botch or fabricate obituaries.

    CNN won’t show you what’s really going on in Gaza; Gannett papers don’t write about the problems of people who can’t afford to subscribe. But you won’t catch them lying outright on something so easy to disprove. The bias is systemic, but it’s also subtle, by which I mean sneaky. Things are left out. Facts are put in the wrong context. “Both sides” means the right and the far right. But these are all tricks that they can wiggle out of if caught. Oh, we didn’t think that was an important story. All opinions expressed are those of the commentator. We seek to present a broad range of views. Saying someone famous is dead when they’re not is just too easy to nail (e.g. http://www.salon.com/media/media960506.html).

    There is a serious issue here, but if media literacy has “friends” like Rance Jackson . . .

    Monday, August 5, 2002 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  6. James wrote:

    Another thought: does anyone really have trouble with the distinction between Eric Corley and Emmanuel Goldstein?

    Monday, August 5, 2002 at 12:26 am | Permalink
  7. kellan wrote:

    Most peoples’ experience with news and collaborative filtering comes from slashdot, or a slashdot inspired model. Thats unfortunate. Because contrary to Roger’s claims, it doesn’t work pretty well, it works very poorly. Or people are exposed to it ala smart agents model of Amazon via Patti Maes, which are simple linear models.

    And as Roger and Gus both pointed out, the flaws in that simple model are easy to spot.

    What we need is a new credibility model.

    No one who is doing truly independent media wants to replace the New York Times. The NYT is *the* authoritative voice, each morning you can check the Times to find out what has been decreed newsworthy, and how the issues of the day are to be grappled with. Its well written, its well researched, and its job is to maintain a monopoly on discourse. Roger said people shouldn’t be able to vote on the facts. And the Raines and Carley will agree with you. Which is why they make sure that the facts arrive, fiat accompli, modern to the end, without any hint that their view of world may be contested.(This total disavowal of alternative view points is why the NYT doesn’t even take the marginal provision to have an ombudsman)

    I think the solution is to replace it with an authoritative dialogue. I don’t think one world view, one set of facts, is enough to explain the world we live in. I think each person will need to struggle and create their own, in response and conversation with the people around them. Which is really all people are doing when they grew up in a culture, it needs to be reflected in the institutions of that society.

    Which is all a long way of saying, when Evan is talking about a technological solution, what he is talking about is a tool for helping people manage that dialogue. Currently we have very few such tools, either mental ones or technological ones. Which is why we need to build some, the same issue Gus ended her entry struggling with.

    And Roger, while I respect your Copernican instincts, I think there is something new going on, though I’m not sure what “1913 plus fiber optics” means. (though its an awesome turn of phrase)

    If we limit ourselves to looking at the media, and people’s subsequent relations to credibility and truth, I think there are some new interactions. The media monopoly transformed what journalism is, the whole concept of “just the facts ma’am” is a modern creation to justify monopoly, and sell more ads, and that people have adopted it, normalized, has killed discourse. Also I think McLuhan was on to something when he said that different mediums effect us in different ways. TV has largely made the debate secondary to the emotional reaction, one is a communal experience, the other deeply personal. I’m sure the internet is doing other new and interesting things.

    Which is a weak ending, but goodnight.

    Monday, August 5, 2002 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  8. gus wrote:

    Roger, I didn’t quite mean the fractal reference in the sense you took it, though. It’s not that people’s opinions are suddenly being folded *into* the media, it’s more that the mass media and personal websites and conversations are now more obviously part of the same system, and the latter seem to be larger iterations of the smaller-scale processes. it’s all laid out.

    but, uh, yeah, it was a cheap comparison 🙂 thanks for calling me on my shit. I was getting carried away with my own ability to make metaphors again. this is what I get for reading Douglas Rushkoff 🙂

    Kellan: When you say “authoritative dialog,” what do you mean? I’d like to unpack that idea; it sounds interesting. Does this mean that we all look to the people we respect as best-informed to do public debate? How do people choose those representatives? Or would each of us have our own area of expertise? This all comes back to education again, for me 🙂

    Re: 1913, fiberoptics and “the internet is doing other new and interesting things”: Every now and again I talk to my younger cousins and realize how very differently they interact with chat software and the Web, and it occurs to me that our generation, the first one to grow up with computers in the home, is developing patterns of ineraction with technology that are the equivalent to a linguistic patois. In other words, the next generation’s going to come along and normalize our habits and make them static, turn them into a functional creole that everyone uses. I feel so out of date sometimes with my Chomsky and Bagdikian-era media critique, you know? I walked into a Virgin Megastore yesterday and was startled that all the shelves were full of DVDs, no VHS tapes to be seen. Felt like a dinosaur. I think critique isn’t keeping up with technology.

    ok, now I’m rambling, I’m headachy and can’t think straight today. Sorry I didn’t respond to all this sooner, I was enjoying the dialog a lot. It’s the first extended debate that’s happened over anything I’ve written 🙂 thanks, guys. Hope this isn’t the end of it.

    James: I don’t have trouble with the Eric Corley/Emmanuel Goldstein distinction, but then I’ve always known him as Emmanuel. I don’t know. Sure, it began as an alias for the purpose of hiding illicit behavior, but, I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me any worse than calling Jello Biafra Jello Biafra, or calling Matthew Lerner Fuzrock. Or George W. Bush President. (The latter is only because I’ve been reading Hunter S. Thompson’s book about the 1972 presidential campaign. It induces a certain fatalism. But I digress.)

    “psychoanalysism” was a typo, for the record.

    Saturday, August 10, 2002 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  9. James wrote:

    My point exactly. Pseudonyms aren’t hard to understand. If Rance Jackson isn’t able to explain his pen name to his kids, the problem isn’t the pen name.

    Sunday, August 11, 2002 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  10. gus wrote:

    Well, it was really much more than just a pen name. I mean, read the retraction: it was the name his mom gave him, and it was tied up in “illegitimacy” and his feelings about being poor. It’s not like something he took on himself for artistic purposes. He had the name for most of his life.

    But yes, regardless: Public suicide is not a normal or sensible way of dealing with your feelings about your history.

    Sunday, August 11, 2002 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
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