Lately Ive been feeling like since I left my after-school teaching position in the Bronx and dropped out of the anti-globalization movement, theres been little in my life worth writing about. Im not exposed at great lengths to anyone whos 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. Its 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 shes 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. Wed 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 Rances name. Plans were made to include a memorial in the weekly news digest section of our website.
Thursday morning, shortly after Id settled in to my inbox and morning tea, the boss called out, Rance isnt dead.
Theres 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 hes 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 Rances mother, who had him out of wedlock, gave him the last name Huff. His fathers last name had been Jackson. Rance went on to lend his wife and children his fathers last name. He explains that he didnt want his kids to feel the self-doubt he did from being tagged with a name that wasnt 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, hed 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 isnt a big deal growing up as a child in the projects of New York City… because nearly everyone else is in the same boat. Id hazard the claim that theres plenty of places, your average college being one of them, where its not an issue anymore.
So if its not that big a deal, why make it one? People who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps dont usually go phoenix on your a$s and make headlines in their reckoning of the process. Our office wouldnt 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 hes compelled to dramatically revise almost every publications own account of its circulation down. Some of the smaller tabloid weeklies claim readership in the tens of thousands, and thats 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 directors job harder. Seeing Rances 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. Im not going to be able to reach Black Reigns 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 didnt 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 theyd actually called to express condolences and had determined the reports 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 dont think my boss or the ad director will recover.
The irony here is in the moral of Rances 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 editorials ill-conceived title. Rance explained that Black Reign had recently been subjected to requests to write articles on Tommy Hilfigers 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. Rances 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 hes absolutely right about the need for a vigilant press, Black or otherwise. And its 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 dont have time to do that inquiry ourselves. The boss really wouldnt appreciate all the calls to Afghanistan and Washington every time theres 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 Ive written here? Youve probably never heard of Black Reign News before; maybe it doesnt exist. (Their website is a veritable fsckin leprechaun; I challenge you to catch it in working order. Ooh, that metaphor also works because its mostly green. And butt-ugly.) I havent given any names; Ive been vague about my sources. The DSWJ isnt 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. Im struggling to maintain mine.
Its 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 youre moving to a new apartment and whos just saying they will; when its 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 systems influence on our smaller systems is more than any of us is currently equipped to handle.
Ive 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 whats being said: whos 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; its an ugly shorthand for immigrants and people of color which smacks of No Irish Need Apply to me.