All posts by Sheila

Why We Need Journalism

Given the tensions in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was a relief to receive news of the  guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Those verdicts owed much to a vastly more competent prosecution–and there has been widespread recognition of that fact and praise for that prosecutor.

What is far less widely recognized and celebrated, however, is that the trial wouldn’t even have occurred had it not been for a local reporter.

Larry Hobbs is the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, and he covered the initial story, which was pretty bare-bones. He got his information from the local police:: a burglary suspect had been shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga.

The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes….

Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.

If Hobbs hadn’t been part of a local newspaper covering local news–if he hadn’t been “doing journalism”– the original prosecutor’s conflict of interest and actions covering for the McMichaels might never have come to light. When we talk about the “watchdog function” of journalism, this is what we are talking about.

As the Washington Post Magazine wrote last week in a special issue,

The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.

Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold.

The Post devoted the entirety of its Sunday magazine to stories that had been under-reported–or in several cases, not reported at all. (Some had been previously covered by outlets that are trying desperately to preserve a market for local journalism against long odds;  others were reports that were seeing the light of day for the first time.) All of them deserved “more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.”

I have previously posted about the continuing loss of journalism. Those of us bemoaning that loss are not talking about the loss of newsprint–the loss of physical paper. That is immaterial. We are talking about the loss of journalism, which can certainly be delivered digitally. As the Post reminded readers, in the last 15 years, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers have ceased publishing. Not just ceased producing newsprint–ceased publication. “By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.”

And that doesn’t even count the places like Indianapolis that do, theoretically, still have a newspaper–places where corporate ownership (in our case, Gannett) has decimated staff and eviscerated coverage, leaving communities with what are called “ghost” papers.

The Post used its special issue to remind readers that we don’t know what we don’t know–and a lot of what we don’t know is important.

When we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.

 

 

The Court

The newly engineered Supreme Court will soon decide two abortion-rights cases: Texas’ empowerment of “pro-life” vigilantes, and a more threatening case from Mississippi that was argued this week.

When I describe today’s Court as “engineered,” I am referring to the brazenly unethical behavior of Mitch McConnell, who ensured the appointment of far-right Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett, of course, joined five other conservative Justices, and probably guaranteed that Roe will be overturned or eviscerated.

What then?

According to the Guttmacher Institute,  extrapolating from 2014 statistics, one in four (24%) American women has had an abortion by age 45, despite the considerable barriers to the procedure that have been erected in some half of U.S. states. Fifty-nine percent of them were obtained by patients who had previously had at least one child, and 51% had been using a contraceptive method in the month they became pregnant.

As the country fractures and the Supreme Court drifts farther from any observable understanding of the environment within which it issues its decisions, I’m reminded of a column by Linda Greenhouse, in which she considered the legacy and evolution of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the country’s highest court. Among other things, Greenhouse noted the deep friendship between O’Connor and Justice Stephen Breyer.

From the outside, it seemed an unlikely pairing, two people from opposing political parties with such different backgrounds, public personas and career paths. But they shared a deep concern about the practical effect of the court’s decisions.

When it comes to reproductive rights, those “practical effects” are likely to be dire. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that–in addition to financial and emotional problems–women who had been denied abortions experienced long-term health problems.

There’s a good deal of research that shows, in the short term, having an abortion is much safer than childbirth, but there isn’t much research over the long-term,” says study co-author Lauren Ralph, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our study demonstrates that having an abortion is not detrimental to women’s health, but being denied access to a wanted one likely is.”

According to the study, women who were denied abortions “consistently” faced worse health outcomes than those who weren’t. “The findings were consistent with a raft of other studies highlighting some of the most serious consequences women face when government restricts women’s access to abortion.

It isn’t only women who face adverse consequences from that denial.

The discourse around abortion tends to focus on women and generally fails to consider how being denied an abortion affects the children a pregnant woman already has and those she may have in the future. The research is clear: Restricting access to abortion doesn’t just harm women — it harms their children as well…Our study shows that denying a woman a wanted abortion has a negative impact on her life and the lives of her children.

A University of Colorado study found that banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women.

None of these consequences bother the zealots who are “pro fetal life.” (They certainly aren’t “pro” the life and health of women–or concerned about the wellbeing of children once they’re born.) They are willing to ignore two undeniable facts: (1) as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists insists, access to abortion is an important part of women’s health care; and (2) outlawing the procedure will not end abortions. It will simply end medically safe abortions for women who cannot afford to travel to states where the procedure is legal.

Beyond those “practical effects” is the undeniable message that is sent when government intrudes on intimate moral decisions properly left to individual citizens. As Michelle Goldberg recently wrote,

As the feminist Ellen Willis once put it, the central question in the abortion debate is not whether a fetus is a person, but whether a woman is. People, in our society, generally do not have their bodies appropriated by the state.

I realize that none of the documented practical effects of gutting Roe v. Wade will persuade the minority of Americans who think they have the right to impose their religious (or misogynist) beliefs on the clear majority that doesn’t share them, or the politicians who continue to use the issue to motivate their voters (while not-infrequently pressuring their mistresses to abort accidental pregnancies).

I do wonder, however: what will a “victory” for pro-fetal-life activists mean politically? How many of the substantial number of women who have had abortions–and the partners and family members who helped them make that decision– will respond by becoming the new “single-issue” voters?

Heaven And The GOP

The Pew Research Center is often referred to as the “gold standard” in research methodology, and their results frequently shed light into corners of society that are otherwise dim. One recent study illuminated a rarely-noted distinction between Republicans and Democrats that may (or may not) explain some behavioral differences.

According to Pew, Republicans are considerably more likely to believe in heaven–and to believe that only their religious beliefs will get folks there. As the report on the study noted, not only are there big differences between Republicans and Democrats on matters here on earth, there are similarly large differences in the specific beliefs they hold about life after death and who is entitled to it.

A majority of Americans believe in both heaven and hell, including 74% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats. But about a third (35%) of Democrats say that they do not believe in either heaven or hell, compared with just 14% of Republicans who say this.

In fact, when given the option to express belief in some sort of afterlife aside from either heaven or hell, a quarter of all Democrats say that they do not believe in any afterlife at all, which is much higher than the share of Republicans who express the same view (9%).

Of course, as the report acknowledges, much of the difference can be attributed to the religious composition of today’s parties. A large majority of Republicans are Christians, a much higher share than Democrats. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to be religiously unaffiliated –to  describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

 Large majorities of Christians in both parties believe in heaven, hell or both, including 95% of Republican and GOP-leaning Christians and 90% of Democratic Christians. And in addition to being more numerous in the Democratic Party, religious “nones” who are Democrats are far more inclined than religiously unaffiliated Republicans to say they believe in neither heaven nor hell (68% vs. 47%).

But even among those who believe in heaven, Democrats and Republicans also differ on who deserves to get in. In general, Republicans who believe in heaven are more likely to offer an exclusive vision of it – as a place limited to those who are Christian or at least believe in God – while Democrats tend to say they believe that heaven is open to many people regardless of their sectarian identities or beliefs about God.

Among the people in Pew’s study who claim a belief in heaven, an “overwhelming” share says that people in heaven will be free from suffering and will be reunited with loved ones who died previously. They expect to meet God and have perfectly healthy bodies. People who believe in hell say it’s a place where people experience physical and psychological suffering and become aware of the suffering they created in the world. (Given the emphasis on bodily health, you might expect these folks to be more active proponents of universal health care here on Earth, but consistency doesn’t seem to factor in…)

Ordinarily, I’d take these results with a pretty large teaspoon of salt. I think it was George Gallop who observed that Americans routinely lie to pollsters about three things: sex, drug use and religious belief and observance. As good as Pew is, I have trouble believing that they’ve found a way to ascertain the degree to which these responses are truthful.

Or the degree to which they are accurate representations of respondents’ religious identities.

I have Christian friends who feel strongly, for example, that many of the purportedly pious folks who self-identify as “Christian” are really Christian Nationalists, a rather different thing. And with respect to belief in heaven and hell,  I often think back to my mother’s “belief” in heaven and hell–according to her (somewhat idiosyncratic) theological lights, heaven and hell are what humans create and experience here on earth, during our lifetimes, which is why Jews have a duty to heed biblical and talmudic exhortations about doing mercy and pursuing justice.

Accurate or not, the Pew study is admittedly consistent with what we see around us: a Republican Party obsessed with protecting  (White) “Christian” privilege, and a Democratic Party trying to improve lives in the here-and-now.

Evidently, Republicans believe their eventual ticket to heaven depends entirely upon their success in creating a society that imposes their religious views on the rest of us–it sure doesn’t seem to require correcting hellish situations here on planet Earth.

 

Vigilante “Justice”

America seems to be experiencing a troubling upswing in what we might call vigilante “justice.” It isn’t limited to cases like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery or the cowboy fantasies of Kyle Rittenhouse–in Texas, the state legislature, unhappy with constraints imposed by the rule of law, turned over state authority to vigilantes willing to ignore legal process in pursuit of their notions of righteousness (and money).

As one scholar of America’s history of “vigilante justice” has written,

Through U.S. history, the distinctions between vigilantism and lawful arrest and punishment have always been murky. Frequently, vigilantism has been used not in opposition to police efforts, but rather with their active encouragement. Indeed, in some recent protests that still seems to be the case.

Before police departments existed, arrests were made under traditional common law, which depended on private participation in legally organized posses and serving as deputies. Institutions like slave patrols required that non-slave owners were willing to use, or at least permit, violence to maintain white supremacy…

Even the spate of “stand your ground” laws passed in the last 15 years borders on vigilantism, giving private citizens lots of freedom about how to use force to protect themselves.

The linked article makes the point that vigilantism has often “abetted the worst instincts in the politics of crime in the U.S.,” reducing notions of justice to whatever the people want it to be at any given time, rather than the rule of law. That, of course, allows the majority to disadvantage marginalized minorities with impunity, and gives police permission to act violently.

If there’s any doubt that today’s vigilantes act to protect White Supremacy, legislation offered by Congressional looney Marjorie Taylor Greene to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Rittenhouse should resolve the issue.

In a recent essay, Charles Blow considered the effects of the Rittenhouse verdict on the growing vigilantism of today’s Right wing. As he notes,

One can argue about the particulars of the case, about the strength of the defense and the ham-handedness of the prosecution, about the outrageously unorthodox manner of the judge and the infantilizing of the defendant. But perhaps the most problematic aspect of this case was that it represented yet another data point in the long history of some parts of the right valorizing white vigilantes who use violence against people of color and their white allies…

The idea of taking the law into one’s own hands not only to protect order, but also to protect the order, is central to the maintenance of white power and its structures.

As we now know, the jury saw the Arbery racists for what they were, thanks to an effective prosecution, but the system only worked because a video existed and was seen.

As Blow notes, the vigilante impulse can render justice or terror, depending on its use and one’s perspective, but it has been a longtime, central feature of the American experience–as has the practice of making heroes of vigilantes, as today’s Right is doing.

One could argue that the entire Jan. 6 insurrection was one enormous act of vigilantism.

You could also argue that our rapidly expanding gun laws — from stand your ground laws to laws that allow open or concealed carry — encourage and protect vigilantes.

It goes without saying how ominous this all is for the country. Or, to turn the argument around, how intransigent the country is on this issue of empowering white men to become vigilantes themselves.

Black vigilantes are not celebrated, but feared, condemned and constrained by the law.

Blow reminds readers that when Black Panthers showed up at the California Statehouse with guns, their vigilantism led to huge backlash, including legislation tightening gun laws and prohibiting open carry in the state. As he says–and as we all know–“Whether vigilantes are viewed as radical or righteous is often a condition of the skin they’re in.”

I worry along with Blow that the verdict in the Rittenhouse case will encourage other vigilantes, especially among those on the Right who don’t want to see streets filled with people demanding redress from official misconduct. There are undoubtedly other Rittenhouses out there — angry and immature young men who will take exactly the wrong message from the way in which the Right is celebrating the acquittal of a murderer.

Vigilantism differs dramatically from civil disobedience, where individuals violate a law in order to make a point, and willingly accept the consequences. They are expressly upholding the rule of law, and underlining its importance.

The pursuit of justice cannot include the arming, empowering and/or rewarding of White Supremicist vigilantes– or any other kind, for that matter.

 

Rokita Again

I really try to ignore Indiana’s Attorney General, Todd Rokita, and his pathetically obvious ploys for attention–part of his persistent effort to position himself for a gubernatorial run. But it’s hard.

I have previously posted about his (mis)behavior as a Congressperson, about his improper private employment while holding elective office, and about episodes in his constant pandering to the GOP’s right wing. I’ve ignored his anti-vaccine rants, since I really thought  my previous posts would be enough to give readers an accurate picture of this sorry little man.

But he continues to bait me….

Rokita has evidently watched the recent governor’s race in Virginia, and is trying to adopt a strategy that worked for Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won that contest. Youngkin, as you may recall, made Critical Race Theory and “inappropriate books” (i.e., written by Black people) a centerpiece of his successful campaign. Rokita–who never met a dog-whistle he didn’t like–immediately latched on.

As an article in the Northwest Indiana Times reported:

Attorney General Todd Rokita is taking his unprovoked battle with Indiana’s local school boards and the state education establishment to the next level.

The Republican, originally from Munster, recently issued a second, expanded edition of his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that in 54 pages goes well beyond his initial 16-page screed over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and other “Marxist ideologies” that he originally claimed are “consistently being backdoored into Indiana classrooms.”

Rokita’s new handbook practically is a call to arms for Hoosier parents to swarm school board meetings, school administrator offices, teacher classrooms and the Indiana Statehouse demanding answers about everything their child may potentially encounter in a school building on any given day.

You may wonder–as I do–why the Attorney General is sticking his nose in an arena that is very clearly under the jurisdiction of Indiana’s Department of Education, especially since Indiana citizens no longer choose the head of that department. (When a prior, elected Secretary of Education proved unwilling to follow the party line down various rabbit-holes, the post was made appointive; presumably, occupants of the position are now more obedient.) But then, as my previous posts have demonstrated, Rokita consistently shows little or no interest in the enumerated duties of the Attorney General’s office unless those duties offer him a PR opportunity.

In this latest screed, he writes

“Having your child’s school and its employees work against you as you raise your family according to your Hoosier values shouldn’t be allowed.”

And what are those “Hoosier values”? Whatever they are, they are evidently under attack. Rokita enumerates a series of GOP wedge issues that parents should be particularly be concerned about because–or so he tells them– they have a “polarizing effect on education instruction.”

Those “polarizing” topics include: Critical Race Theory, Critical Theory, Critical Gender Theory, “Teaching for Tolerance,” “Learning for Justice” and gender fluidity.

Rokita also observes that, unlike other states, Hoosier lawmakers have not taken steps to prohibit instruction on these topics in Indiana classrooms, and he reminds parents they have a right to petition the Republican-controlled General Assembly to take such action….

Rokita’s guide also delves into the rights of parents to make health care decisions on behalf of their minor children, advises parents how to complain about school face mask requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses the abstinence-only foundation of Indiana’s human sexuality instruction.

“It should be noted that schools are prohibited from asking students about their gender identity or sexual behaviors or attitudes in sex education classes, or any other classes,” Rokita said.

The entire “Parents Bill of Rights” is a “look at me–I’m with you” message to the angry and misinformed parents who have descended on school board meetings to demand a curriculum with which they can feel comfortable. I will refrain from characterizing their desired curriculum, except to note that historical accuracy and civics education–especially study of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Separation of Church and State and the Equal Protection clause)– are not what they are demanding.

If we’re looking for the causes of “polarization,” we need look no farther than Rokita, the lawmakers who agree with him, and the parents that they and the other Republican culture warriors are gleefully manipulating.

I would love to believe that the transparency of Rokita’s pandering, along with his other off-putting behaviors, will repel Indiana voters and dash his gubernatorial ambitions. He is, after all, held in considerable disdain among Hoosier politicos– very much including Republican ones.

But this is Indiana.