No Comment — February 6, 2008, 2:32 am

The Newspaper and the Schoolteacher

Bob Riley has a dilemma. He has one major objective to achieve to conclude his term as governor of Alabama, and that is to put the state’s legislature in Republican hands. And he has two key allies in this struggle, determined to facilitate his struggle. The first are two key Newhouse newspapers, the Mobile Press-Register and the Birmingham News. The publishers of both are fully committed to the success of his campaign for a Republican legislature. The second is Alice Martin, the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham who figures high on the list of what Kyle Sampson called the “loyal Bushies” and who has a well-documented penchant for political prosecutions and a well-articulated desire for elected office or a judgeship.

Riley and his G.O.P. campaign team have settled on a campaign to accomplish their objective. They did some quick tallying and found that 33 legislators have some position in the state’s two-year college program. Thirty of them are Democrats. So, Riley and his team reason, if they can take out this group, they will accomplish their objective of crafting a new G.O.P. legislature. Hence the hew and cry of “double dipping” pursued in perfect concert between Riley, the Birmingham News and Alice Martin. Of course, legislators who teach in universities and 4-year colleges arguably face the same issues. And indeed, so do doctors, lawyers, accountants, insurance men–professionals who may regularly sell their services to the state–or even car dealers, like Bob Riley. Why aren’t we discussing them as well? There’s a simple answer to that undeniably logical question: run the numbers and look at the party affiliations of those involved. You’ll see that it wouldn’t serve the objective of creating a Republican legislature to push the question so far. So two-year colleges is just fine, thank you.

So the trick is how to go after the junior college teachers and administrators and make the campaign look anything other than ridiculous. That’s where the Birmingham News comes in. It has, for several years now, transformed itself from a newspaper into a gushing fountain of Koolaid. And nothing it has produced is quite as absurd as its rantings about corruption in the two-year college system, most of which have been churned out by the paper’s ace political writer, who seems ever at the beck and call of the Riley family. I’ll be offering a closer look at some of his award-winning scribblings in the next few weeks.

But let’s start with the editorial which appeared on Sunday. (Note, by the way, I predicted it would appear when I reported on the Sue Schmitz case, and I described the language it would contain. The Birmingham News is nothing if not utterly predictable.) Here’s what the News writes:

State Rep. Sue Schmitz faces criminal charges in connection with a paycheck she collected for more than three years in Alabama’s two-year college system. State Rep. Sue Schmitz’s arrest in the two-year college scandal may or may not end in a criminal conviction.
But even at this early stage in the process, Schmitz’s legal problems should serve as notice to current and future members of the Legislature: A legislative seat is not a license to steal.

My grandfather and grandmother were educators. They spent their lives on the fringe of poverty because they were dedicated to service as educators. Both of them spurned opportunities to do much better in the commercial world because they felt they had a calling. Educators play a critical role in our society. Whether the next generation will consist of well-adjusted, dedicated and productive citizens or criminals and drug addicts turns on a great many things, but teachers are constantly on the frontlines in this struggle. Where homes fail, a devoted, self-sacrificing teacher can still make the difference. I still think back to my years in high school and college. I don’t think of courses, but rather of teachers, many of whom took the time and made the effort to impart something special–and the most important of whom taught me that learning is the pursuit of a lifetime, not of a degree.

There is a fair issue concerning the compensation of schoolteachers. What they are paid is disgraceful and doesn’t begin to properly compensate them for what they give society. But as I read these lines in the Birmingham News, I marveled over the self-righteous smugness, the cruel rush to judgment and the ingratitude that runs through them. These writers are bent on an agenda, and they have no compunction about engaging in character assassination to reach it.

The English essayist George Orwell wrote in 1946 that “political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This News editorial could stand as a perfect example of Orwell’s point. It works carefully to get the reader to suspend reason, to build anger and emotion, to turn its target into a figure of ridicule. And who is this victim of the mighty Birmingham News?

Sue Schmitz is a 63-year-old retired social studies teacher. She was dragged from her home before the break of dawn. Her husband was forced to stand outside shirtless in the cold while a team of federal agents drags this woman, a respected member of the community, from her bathroom, tearing her flesh in the process so that she left her home dripping blood. All of this was done as part of a conscious attempt to humiliate and shame her, steps directed by Alice Martin. And steps in which the News now joins cause.

What are the charges against her? That she did not adequately perform on a contract she had with a non-governmental organization to support a civics education project.

I am still looking at the charges and the evidence relating to them. At this point I’ll just say I’m terrifically unimpressed. The charges are at a minimum filled with hyperventilation and distortion, and it may be much worse than that. But even if they were true, what would the solution be? Is it normal to bring a federal prosecution against a school teacher who fails to perform all of her teaching plan? Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? The normal course would be for her contractor (which is not the state of Alabama) to fire her. And in fact they did. That firing was contested, and the court ruled that her firing was wrongful. It’s on appeal now. Of course, these are “inconvenient facts,” so the Birmingham News doesn’t share any of them with you. The Birmingham News is not interested in fairly presenting the facts, it’s engaging in character assassination. . . of a 63-year-old retired social studies teacher. It’s mind-boggling.

This woman is viewed as a pillar of her community, is the recipient of a long list of awards and distinctions for her selfless and outstanding teaching work. You won’t read any of that in the News, either. And they don’t tell you that this woman, whom they would have you believe is a parasite and a leach, in fact worked her heart out on programs for disadvantaged kids for no compensation whatsoever over a period of many years.

The Birmingham News tells us that the criminal case will decide her fate. But the fact is that the Birmingham News already convicted her and is publishing and editorializing as part of a campaign to poison the well and deprive her of a fair trial. The News reported in advance of the rest of the world on every aspect of Alice Martin’s investigation, and this editorial offers up the most fawning quotations and references to Martin — more evidence of their hand-in-glove relationship. And in fact the News accuses Schmitz of “theft” (“a legislative seat is not a license to steal,” they moralize). The malice found in this editorial is characteristic of the reports on which it is based. And yet there is nothing reckless about this. It follows a carefully conceived plan.

In fact, this entire adventure has to do with an attempted theft. Sue Schmitz has something that Bob Riley, Alice Martin and the Birmingham News badly covet. It’s a Democratic seat in the Alabama legislature. And they want it to be turned over.

What’s an appropriate payback for a newspaper that abdicates its responsibilities to its profession and its community? That’s a question for its readers and the community in which it operates.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today