The Newspaper and the Schoolteacher | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

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.

More from