Spring 1998

Falling Into the Fault Line Chasm

By Dori J. Maynard
He was young, but he knew it was the kind of story that could change lives and win prizes so he didn't hesitate when his editors asked him to spend two months living in a crack-infested community. Years later, Fernando Quintero would pull out the special section with the dramatic pictures of people smoking crack and show it to a journalism class. Not because it won any prizes. It did, but more importantly it raised questions, questions he wished he had asked earlier. His almost all-white newspaper had virtually ignored the African-American community until it learned that crack was being sold near the local school. When the story hit the stands community residents wanted to know why the newspaper had noticed them now. For Quintero, who had relocated from San Francisco to Albuquerque, it was a good question. And there were others. What about the middle class members of the society? Should they have been included as well as crack dealers?

Quintero, who is now Director of the News Watch Project at the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University Journalism Department, was then a young reporter at The Albuquerque Tribune. That was only one of the differences between him and those he profiled in his piece. He was also of a different race, a different class, and of a different geography.

Without knowing what to call it, Quintero had fallen into a fault line chasm. Fault Lines is the phrase my late father, journalist Robert Maynard, coined to explain the complicated tangle of interaction and reaction we in this country have with and toward our fellow citizens.

It was his belief, and we at the Maynard Institute have come to share that belief, that our nation is split along the five Fault Lines of race, class, gender, geography and generation. It is now time to not only admit that we are divided along those lines but to also begin to think about those differences in a more sophisticated manner.

For we have spent far too long trying to pretend these Fault Lines do not exist, that we live in a colorblind nation, that ours is a classless society.

Then something happens to make us doubt. Perhaps it is the verdict in a trial. And then it is as if the very ground beneath us begins to shake, and we have no safe haven in which to find shelter. We have seen it twice now within the last five years. And our sense of shock or dislocation often depends on where we sit on the Fault Line grid.

About a year ago, I was speaking to an African-American woman about this notion that the shock of some trial verdicts can trigger social earthquakes. "All of us weren't shocked by the verdict," she said. "You expected the Simi Valley jury [in the Rodney King case] to find the police officers not guilty?" I asked. "Oh, that verdict," she said. I think she was thinking of a somewhat more recent verdict. So we believe, as my father wrote,that if we first acknowledge those differences of perception and come to see them as natural as the geologic fault lines just beneath the earth's surface, we can then begin to build structures of integrity that will bend and not break when the shaking begins.

Honest discourse across Fault Lines with the goal of reaching an understanding, irrespective of agreement, is a first step toward creating that safe haven. For once we give up the notion that we are all alike, we can give up the idea that if we all talk long enough and loudly enough, we will win others to our side. And once we let go of the need to be right, the need to win, then perhaps we can begin to truly listen to each other. It is also our belief that we in journalism have a special responsibility. For together we can create foundations for those structures of integrity by making sure the picture our fellow citizens receive from the media is a picture that accurately reflects and defines the world.

We have heard a lot about fair journalism, a laudable goal we believe is included in the Fault Lines philosophy. For we believe we in the news media can be balanced, can be fair. But first, we as journalists must honestly acknowledge where it is we sit on the Fault Line chart.

A couple of years ago I was party to several conversations with some white male colleagues who were grappling with this notion of multicultural coverage. Finally one guy just blurted out, "I am a white man. I will always be a white man, and I will always view the world as a white man." There was a moment of silence and then all the white men in the room gave this fellow a standing ovation.

I agree. My colleague is indeed a white man, and he will indeed see the world through those eyes. It's not only OK for him to say that, it's something we all need to hear. All of us, regardless of our race, class, gender, generation or geography, will indeed see the world as shaped by our Fault Lines perspective. We also must understand that others are doing the same. As journalists we have a special charge to acknowledge our Fault Line perspective and then ask ourselves to try and see the world though someone else's eyes.

I think of Anna Deavere Smith, a black woman whose work has shown us how many of the residents of Brooklyn's Crown Heights, be they black or Jewish, felt about the 1991 riot in their community. She didn't try to defend any of those points of views. She left the judgment up to the audience. What she did do was suspend her own point of view and allow other voices to be heard through her. I think that is the true answer tot his question of balance and fairness.

In a book written by the white male journalist Peter Early, "Circumstantial Evidence," he goes to the same town on which "To Kill a Mockingbird" is based and follows the trial of a black man accused of killing a white woman. The man is convicted of the murder and sentenced to die, a move that attracts a Harvard-trained defense attorney to review the case. It quickly becomes clear that the condemned man is innocent. A new district attorney reviewing the case begins to doubt the convicted man's guilt, but he does not believe he can free a black man convicted of killing a white woman without having another strong suspect. Again, Peter Early does not pass judgment. And as a reader, I certainly did not agree with the D.A. I could, however, understand why he acted as he did. He felt trapped by his geography, his race and his generation.

Are there those who rise above the Fault Line grid through compassion, empathy, or a sense of fairness? Yes, of course there are. Anna Deavere Smith and Peter Early are only two and there are many others. But there are also many others who do not rise above their Fault Line perspective. Even so, we journalists have a duty to give them voice as well.

My geographic Fault Line is deep and wide and I'm not planning on getting over it any time soon. I am an urban dweller. I love the premise on which cities were built, the notion of many people mixing together in a relatively small space. I love the fact that the older Eastern cities were built for walking. I love the stores, the restaurants, the neighborhoods each with its own flavor and feeling. In Washington, you would never mistake Adams Morgan for Fox Hall Drive for Georgetown for Anacostia for Capitol Hill.

Then you have the suburbs, where one housing development blends into another, where houses are separated by sterile plods of grass, and the only places you can find people walking around are in enclosed shopping malls where it could be winter or summer, day or night, Milpitas, California, or Oakland County, Michigan. I go to the suburbs and I practically break out in hives. Born in Brooklyn, I have lived in Washington, Boston and Detroit, and now Oakland.

Detroit, however, is a city like none I had seen before. It has some beautiful architecture, much of it boarded up. It has a fantastic farmer's market and some attractive neighborhoods. But there are few stores like the ones that I usually associate with cities. It could appear as if the central core of the city had virtually collapsed. Where once there had been a Sak's and a Hudson's, there were parking lots and vacant buildings. "The only thing you can get downtown is a wig and a hot dog," one unsuccessful mayoral candidate used to say. On closer inspection, there was much to do and see in Detroit, but it was a kind of hunt and peck city, not the type where everything you wanted could be found at your fingertips.

What Detroit did have was a mayor, Coleman Young, who had been in office since 1973 and was ahead in the polls when I moved to Detroit in 1989. This made no sense to me. Here he had been in charge of the city during a period when people and businesses had left in droves. Now the remaining citizens, many with the means to live anywhere in the United States, were going to re-elect him. I had never seen anything like this. "Well," people told me, "you have to understand, Coleman is Detroit's first black mayor."Yet other cities with large black populations had elected more than one black mayor in that period. Then I began to listen more carefully to the people of Detroit. One day I was interviewing a prominent local lawyer. He looked out at his sweeping panoramic view of Detroit and began to describe his childhood. Back then, the city had scores of stores and restaurants. But when his father wanted to take the family shopping or out to dinner they had to cross the river to Canada because they were not welcome in Detroit. "We had the stores," he said, "but what good were they to us?"

Coleman Young was more than just the first black mayor of Detroit. He made the people of Detroit feel as if they truly owned their city. The loyalty toward him was race based, but also generation based. Many voters remembered living in a city in which they were not truly welcome. Young's support was also, of course, geographically based. Many of the people pouring out of Detroit were moving to the surrounding suburbs, leaving Detroiters feeling as if you were either a Detroiter or a detractor. To oust Young, for some voters, was to embrace the suburbs and the very people who had rejected and to some extent reviled the city.

That made sense. What did not make sense was looking at it solely through the prism of race. Then you ended up with an explanation that essentially said once the black voters of Detroit have elected a black candidate they will never vote that candidate out of office. Race has a role, but there are times when the other lines on the Fault Line grid play an equal if not greater role in how we view the world.

I was still living in Detroit when the first Rodney King verdict was announced. I knew that there was going to be an explosion. I also knew there would be no trouble in Detroit. And I suspected we would hear the same question we always hear the mainstream media ask after every disturbance: "Why do they burn their own neighborhood down?"

My time in Detroit was teaching me that while that looked like a question that crosses the race Fault Line, it is really a question that crosses the class Fault Line. It is asked by those who own about those who not only don't own, but often have little stake in their neighborhood. "They" aren't living in or looting "their" neighborhood. That's why I knew there would be no trouble in Detroit. The citizens of Detroit felt as if they not only owned their home, but they were true stakeholders in the city. The same thing happened in Oakland.

The trial of Rodney King's assailants was full of lessons about Fault Lines. On the surface the most obvious lesson was about the racial divide, but there were also lessons about geography, gender and class. Yet it wasn't until after the acquittal of the four police officers that we began to focus on the fact that Simi Valley, from which the jury was chosen, was a mostly white neighborhood where many police officers and former police officers live. Is it a surprise that the jury would believe their own?

We hear today in this country from a growing number of people that it is class and not race that makes the difference. Rodney King taught us that it is both, and more. After his beating we heard of several prominent African American men who had been pulled over by the Los Angeles Police Department only to be let go. Race and gender played a role in their being stopped. Class played a role in their release.

Yet then, and again during the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial,we saw the same inability to look at individuals as a compilation of their Fault Lines and not just as black or white and male or female.

Marcia Clark, a white woman who felt she had a certain rapport with black women, bet the case would turn on gender, not on race. She knew the black women of the jury would identify with Nicole and Marcia more than they •would identity with O.J. and Johnny Cochran. She was wrong. I can't help hut believe if she had looked at all the Fault Lines of the jury she would have had a better chance of winning.

The O.J. case also demonstrated another Fault Line tenet—that we need to begin to talk to each other with the goal of understanding and not agreeing. Between the criminal trial and the civil trial, when the country was in the grip of O.J. mania, you could turn on the television or radio any time and find the same discussion. One side said he was obviously guilty, calling any one who thought otherwise deluded or racist. The other side said he was clearly set up, calling anyone who thought otherwise naive or racist. Both sides sneered at each other in louder and louder decibels. Meanwhile, journalists continued to tell our audiences that the Simpson trial had uncovered the racial divide.

If we as journalists had looked across all the Fault Lines, we might have been better able to explain how the Simpson and the Simi Valley juries divided along more than racial lines.

Our audience needs to understand the nuances and the subtleties. That is how the media can play a crucial role in helping to build those bridges of integrity.

Some time ago, I heard Ted Koppel say with what sounded like a touch of amazement that his show included a black man opposed to a formal government apology for slavery and a white man in favor of such an apology. Had he understood that each man sees the world through all of their Fault Lines, and not simply in black and white, it might have made more sense to him. Perhaps the white man was of the '60's generation and still believed in the idealism we equate with the times, like justice and equality. Perhaps the black man came of age during the '50's, and from a class where slavery was not discussed. Instead of looking at those subtleties, we got instead a superficial discussion on a very complex issue.

Race. There have been several calls, President Clinton's not the least of them, for conversations across the racial Fault Line. It is not enough. We must begin to talk across and acknowledge all the Fault Lines, otherwise our conversation, and our coverage, will not make sense. To understand where I stand, it is not enough to know that I am a black woman. You need to know where I sit on the Fault Line grid.

My friend, journalist and author and fellow Nieman Fellow, Francis Pisani, says we should think of the Fault Line grid as a sort of hopscotch board. On one issue your reaction may land on the gender square. On another it may land on the race square. On another it may land on race, gender and class.

When the ebonies story first broke it was, and really continued to be, covered as a story of race. It is not only a story about race. It is also a story of class and generation and geography. It is about mostly middle and upper middle class African-Americans, from a generation that dearly loves the trappings of middle class life, appalled that "street talk" might be legitimized. I was back East when the story first broke. I was not amused. "My brother graduated from the Oakland school system, and I can assure you he does not speak ebonies" was my first reaction. I guess it touched a nerve on my class Fault Line. Geography played an important role as well. It is an issue because of the geography in which we tend to think of ebonies being spoken and because of where the proposal stemmed from—Oakland—identified with the Black Panther Party and other things radically black.

None of that was really explored. Instead we had an almost circus-like atmosphere as the media trotted out one prominent African-American after another to condemn ebonies, never giving the audience the background to understand why they were against it.

To get back to my frustrated white colleague, yes, he always will be a white man. And no,we should not expect him to see the world any differently than his Fault Line grid would allow. But we, particularly we journalists, have an obligation to begin to understand, not necessarily agree with, but understand other's Fault Line perspectives. For Fault Lines finally give us permission to own who and what we are without having to apologize for a middle class point of view, or a white point of view or an urban point of view. (Please don't ask me about that suburban point of view.) It then also frees us to listen to other points of view, realizing they may not be ours, but they may still be legitimate, that in fact, there may be many legitimate ways to view one issue.

The journalist and writer Roy Aarons was looking over some of my Fault Line writings. Roy, a MIJE co-founder and friend of my father's, became somewhat apoplectic when he reached this point. "You're saying it's OK to be racist and I simply don't buy that." Then, after he spent a great deal of time editing my initial Fault Lines presentation, Sandy Tolan, my friend and fellow Nieman classmate and independent radio producer, sent me E-mail in which he argued that I am ignoring the role of empathy and understanding in building bridges across the fault lines.

I hope I am doing neither. I certainly don't think it's OK to be racist. I do, however, acknowledge that just because I don't think it's acceptable that I can abolish it. I can't. Here's what I can do. I can tell you that if you want to talk with me or work with me,we have to agree to give each other mutual respect. I won't call you names or tell you your ideas are stupid. Ido want to know how you came to those ideas, and I also want you to know that even then I probably will not agree with you but I may understand a little better. I also think that through empathy and understanding I may be able to paint an accurate picture of who you are and what you believe, even when I completely disagree.

That is some of what I would have liked to have seen in the coverage of Timothy McVeigh. There is no excuse for what he did. But to some extent I think we as a nation bear some responsibility. We watched the bunker at Waco burning. We knew people were dying, and no one really spoke out. Those who died in Waco fell between the Fault Line cracks. They were poor whites from a strange part of the country. Not only were they not us, we didn't even know to whom to go to speak for them in a way that humanized them. We did get plenty of stories about badly dressed, armed white men living in the outback swearing allegiance to any nation other than the United States.

In contrast, we knew the bombing of the Move headquarters in Philadelphia was wrong, and we also knew to go to black leaders to get the outrage quote and give some sense that we as a nation don't condone the government's incineration of our fellow citizens. We didn't see that with Waco or Ruby Ridge. We didn't allow some of our fellow citizens to be heard, let alone understood.

Again, Fault Lines is not about agreeing with or condoning. It is simply about learning to understand. We all have Fault Line blindspots. The point of the project is to admit that and then try and be aware of them and then try to understand others' blindspots.

So if we are to make this national conversation or our coverage on race mean something, we as journalists have an obligation to make sure it includes the other four Fault Lines. Otherwise we run the risk of continuing to insist that the content of our character is defined by the color of our skin, or like Quintero,we will write a story that wins a prize and misses the mark.

Dori J. Maynard is Special Projects Director at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, California, where she helps organize institute events, oversees the Fault Lines project and the organization of her late father's papers, and preservation of his journalistic legacy. She is the co-author of "Letters to My Children," a compilation of nationally syndicated columns by Robert Maynard, with introductory essays by Dori. When she became a Nieman Fellow in 1993, she and her father, who was a Nieman in 1966, became the first and only father-daughter duo. As a reporter, she has worked at The Bakersfield Californian, The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts, and The Detroit Free Press.

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