THE TINY MERCER ISLAND REPORTER (circulation 5,000) last week took on the mighty New York Times (Sunday circulation 1,650,000). Result? The Rock's David nailed Gotham's Goliath between the eyes.
The contest began with a May 10 New York Times story by Timothy Egan, the paper's Seattle bureau chief (and a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter). Datelined Mercer Island, it was headlined: "Where Being Black Means Being a Police Suspect." Egan's lead described Wayne Perryman, 53, a black businessman and 20-year island resident, as "one of only 300 blacks among the 21,000 residents of one of the wealthiest communities in America." Egan quoted Perryman as saying he'd been "stopped twice by police for walking," and adding: "Now, I'm a black who's not quick to call racism, but this is getting really old." Egan claimed Perryman's complaint was "echoed by more than a dozen middle-class blacks and people of Hispanic descent who live in this community of software billionaires and mega-yachts." Egan quoted three other blacks and one Hispanic who said they'd been stopped or questioned by police for no apparent reason, and he cited a 10-year-old New York Times Magazine article noting past problems. Overall, the story painted Mercer Island as an affluent racist enclave, where minorities are routinely harassed.
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The P-I (5/11) fronted its local section with an edited version of Egan's story headlined, "Mercer Island Blacks Say They're Targeted." Proving once again that pack journalism rules, hordes of local television news crews descended on the island, following police cars and staking out park-and-rides.
What should a local weekly newspaper do when a media feeding frenzy erupts on its home turf? The Reporter responded with objectivity, professionalism, and grace, putting its national and local counterparts to shame. "National Spotlight on MIPD" was the banner headline (5/13) over a group of first-rate stories by Jeff Gove and Linda Morgan, with a just-right photograph by Matt Brashears of a Seattle TV reporter interviewing three young men (two white, one black) in an island shopping district.
Gove's first story began: "Mercer Island hit the national news over the weekend, and the portrait painted of the city wasn't flattering." Gove summarized Egan's story, saying it mentioned a series of "no holds barred" community meetings held recently by the Mercer Island Police Department to address perceived problems. "It did not mention who was involved in the meetings and what solutions, if any, were reached," Gove drily noted. His and Morgan's stories detailed discussions between a small group of concerned citizens and police officials, which both sides said were helpful and positive and increased both awareness and communication. Gove cited Egan's source Wayne Perryman as saying something very different from what Egan reported: that "he has been treated with respect by the police in his 20 years here, and the two incidents chronicled in the [Times] article don't merit an indictment of the entire department." Perryman went on to say, "I told [Egan], if this is a witch hunt I don't want to be part of it. When I read the story I thought, isn't there any real news to write about?"
EQUALLY DEVASTATING to Egan's piece was Gove's sidebar on one Philip Fleisch-man, who is neither black nor Hispanic but who boasted, "I am solely, completely and thoroughly the instigator of the [Times] story." When he moved to Mercer Island three years ago, Fleischman didn't yet have his Washington license plates when he was stopped by police for a minor traffic infraction and questioned. That rankled Fleischman, who told Gove he began to "notice a pattern of blacks and Hispanics being pulled over for no apparent reason" and decided "the only way to make sure it didn't get swept under the rug was to go to the media." He contacted The New York Times, among others. But Gove revealed that Fleischman has had other run-ins with island police, including an alleged DUI charge (reduced to negligent driving) and a conviction for making harassing phone calls (dismissed on appeal but awaiting a new trial). Linda Morgan's accompanying Reporter piece quoted Mercer Island Police Chief Jan Deveny as saying, "No one named in the New York Times article has ever come to me with a problem" and there's "not even one complaint a year" alleging racial harassment.
Finally, the Reporter published a 200-word statement from "The Concerned Black Citizens of Mercer Island," a group organized more than 20 years ago "to address the issues concerning the rights of our families, friends, and acquaintances in and around Mercer Island." The group was not quoted at all in Egan's story. While acknowledging past problems, the statement cited "open lines of communication" with city officials and said "dialogue has been ongoing with solution-oriented goals." It concluded: "We realize we have to be on the vanguard against all infringements of our rights, and cautious of those who speak and wish to represent us. Therefore, the Concerned Black Citizens reserve the right to plead our own concerns. No one—repeat no one—speaks for us or to our concerns, but us."
So what happened here? In our view, an elite urban newspaper parachuted a reporter into a small suburban city to write a preconceived story based on stereotypical notions and anecdotal information. The result was one-sided reporting and journalism that undermined an ongoing, 20-year community effort to deal with a difficult issue in a civil manner. Shame on the giant, arrogant Times, and kudos to the gutsy little Reporter for its thoughtful and nuanced response.
John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Mercer Island Reporter