The online world has been abuzz lately over the Catherine Ferguson Academy protests and the Emergency Managers that the Snyder government is imposing on cities throughout Michigan.
MSNBC analyst Rachel Maddow picked up the story of the protests after local media and activists got the story out into the world—and that has increased interest and attention on the state in general and on Detroit specifically. With the increased attention has come some great opportunities to really examine how media is operating to drive the narrative around education, Detroit, pregnant teens, deserving populations, and so many other things.
First things first—a little background:
Here is the Rachel Maddow segment.
Here is video of an interview with a student at Catherine Ferguson as recorded by a local activist.
Now—let’s dive into that Rachel Maddow segment.
Maddow offers some of the only commentary from national media on the situation. And in general, she offers some of the only coverage about Detroit that attempts to position Detroit and the problems it’s dealing with in context of the greater economic crisis in the nation. She bypasses the traditional narrative of Detroit that most corporate media takes—Ruin Porn or Hope Porn. That is, rather than positioning the problems of Detroit as some sort of amorphous problem that can’t really be solved—but is really *beautiful* to look at (Ruin Porn) or as a non-existant or easily conquerable “blank slate” that the lucky adventurer can do whatever she wants with (Hope Porn), Maddow talks about a Detroit that has a vibrant history.
Maddow also positions Detroit as a place that exists in the here and now—Ruin Porn and Hope Porn so often position Detroit as either dead or waiting to be born. As if it doesn’t exist in current time—as if it isn’t alive right now as we speak, and it isn’t dealing with very real problems as created by very current economic problems that *all* of us are dealing with. By positioning the threat to CFA along side the story of Emergency Financial Manager’s (EMF) take over of Benton Harbor, Maddow has managed to show how alive Detroit really is in a way that is very rare in corporate media coverage of Detroit.
Maddow also assumes a sense of power about Detroiters. She talks about how the EMF tried to shut down the school previously and protests stopped the closure. She highlights how the students are the ones initiating the protest. She points to the solidarity the students and teachers showed—both getting arrested together. She even finished off the segment by highlighting the work of a local reporter and addressing the reporter’s critiques specifically. And the footage of the protests was shot by a local activist. She is assuming the agency of Detroiters and Michiganders through respectful engagement.
These are all good things and make such important interventions in the traditional corporate media’s narratives about Detroit—that it’s really hard to challenge Maddow’s report. But it’s important to do so, because even as Maddow’s coverage challenge’s traditional media narratives in important ways, she also recreates many harmful narratives—and in doing so, creates problems for Detroiters—just in different areas.
For example, nowhere in Maddow’s coverage was there any mention of any of the other school closures in Detroit, the most vulnerable one being the School for the Deaf. Deaf students would face a nearly impossible situation being mainstreamed into classrooms of over 60 people who for the most part don’t even speak the same language as them (deaf students speak American Sign Language, and although reading lips is a possibility, it is not clear how easy this will be in classrooms with 60 kids and one teacher who may or may not be trained in dealing with disabled students) if their school is closed.
So the question must be asked—why isn’t the School for the Deaf mentioned in Maddow’s report? Why weren’t any of the other schools mentioned in the report? Although it would be easy to point to the fact that students at other schools didn’t hold a protest—the perhaps more truthful reason could rest on the fact that the CFA students present an “inspiring” story. That they can easily be positioned as the “inspiring” students that fulfill a different, but no less problematic, narrative: the poor person defying the odds and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
It’s also difficult to not notice how the one feature of the students Maddow forgot to mention in her story (she mentions the students are all girls and that some of them are pregnant) is that almost all of the students were black (I did see one light skinned girl in one protest video). And of course, there has been a narrative in the US since George Bush Sr. of the black welfare queen-or, the black woman who gets pregnant on purpose so she can get more and more free money from the state. So it has to be wondered how much of the focus on the CFA by Maddow is happening because of the cultural anxiety in the US around black women and their fertility rates.
Or, in other words—the students at the CFA (who are poor, black and female) are doing what they can to “defy the odds.” The “odds” being: becoming poor black welfare queens.
But…should a student have to be inspirational in order to get a quality education? Is it any less traumatic or catastrophic to less “inspirational” students when a poorly performing school is shut down?
This is not to say that the students are CFA are NOT inspirational or amazing or tremendous. They are. This is instead to question—in what ways does even generous progressive corporate media continuously reinforce harmful narratives? And how do those harmful narratives hurt movements for change? And more importantly, how do they hurt maginalized communities that either have to live up to or defy specific narratives to get help—or those communities that are ignored all together because they *don’t* fit neatly into existing corporate narratives?
Maddow declares in the end of the segment that what is at stake with the EFM’s in Michigan and the CFA in Detroit is that local communities no longer “have the choice” in what happens to their cities. That according to the state, democracy is the problem not the solution. That the state has taken away our power to make local change and they are left with two choices: dictator or dysfunction (and it should be noted, “dysfunctional” has a long history of being a term used by white populations in the suburbs to describe Detroit and Flint and other largely black cities). Maddow wonders why dictator or dysfunction are our only choices.
Except, as right on as Maddow is in questioning that dichotomy of choices, as right as she is in pointing out how democracy has become the problem and as right as she is in pointing out that EFM’s and school closures are wrong and as right as she is in the way she challenges the traditional corporate media’s narratives about Detroit—she couldn’t be more wrong in suggesting that what is going on in Detroit (and in Michigan) is as simple as dictator or dysfunction.
Public education is being attacked every where from California to Wisconsin to New York. Although no school system in Michigan has seen such consistent attacks as Detroit, school systems across the state have seen constant school closures and dwindling resources. Right now, there are bills up for vote in Michigan congress ranging from eliminating tenure for teachers to cutting half day kindergarden programs to defunding community colleges. And none of this has even touched on the attacks on workers, the role of the auto industry in this mess, or even the very touchy issue of race and “white flight.”
All of these are incredibly complicated historical issues that Michiganders have been struggling to understand for decades. So why does Rachel Maddow get to decide what is really at stake in Michigan in a ten minute news segment? And more to the point—why is the corporate media liberal, progressive or otherwise, so invested in finding one pat answer to a single problem?
Because isn’t that the biggest most destructive corporate media narrative of them all? That the problems of today’s world are individual problems that can be solved in single individual ways? Can the entirety of Detroit’s problems be reduced to dictator versus disfunction? Should they be? Can Michigan’s problems be reduced to a dictator governor? When the governor before this one (who was a Democrat) was the one who first implemented EFM’s? Who, in fact, was the one who installed the EFMs in Detroit and Benton Harbor?
Why is corporate media so invested in the idea that there can be one pat solution to one easily definable problem? Why do so many progressive media outlets model that style of reporting?
Is it the job of media to reduce serious complex problems down to easily definable talking points? Or is it to help readers to *understand* incredibly difficult situations?
What would happen if media makers interested in visionary justice-oriented media making were to make space for complexity? What would happen if instead of promoting individual pat answers to complex historical problems, media makers were to make space for hundreds, for hundreds of thousands of answers from hundreds of thousands of communities?
What would happen if media makers began assuming that readers could do more than feel bad about a situation or sign a petition?
From the Michigan Citizen:
Some of us are taking direct action. Robert Bobb was shouted off the stage at Kettering High School, so shaken he cancelled the next town hall meeting. On April 15, teen mom students at Catherine Ferguson Academy refused to leave the building, protesting efforts to close or charterize their school.
Citizens surrounded the home of Maryanne Godboldo to prevent a swat team from using violence against her and her child. Neighbors are refusing to allow evictions and organizing for community safety through peace zones.
This is the new, living democracy beginning to grow in Detroit.
Note: To be part of this new democratic action: come to Church of the Messiah, E. Grand Blvd & Lafayette, April 23 at 12 Noon for a community vigil against violence. Creating Peace.
From Critical Moment:
Only very strong, determined and disciplined acts of resistance can combat this campaign. In districts where the majority of the students are poor and black and brown, all bets are off. The mass media has carried out the mission of the corporate interests to convince even us that we cannot govern ourselves, and our children are safer with the charter operators than an elected school board and real teachers. Teach for America and the foundations have high-jacked public education and they have their own plans for our youth. Only we can change this. Stay tuned.
Stay tuned—for us.