Media, Life Isn’t A Fairy Tale (or How Meanness Has Become Mainstream)

There is a long history of news as a tool for gossip and agenda promotion. These tendencies, however, seem to be the driving force behind a growing body of media. We don’t complain. We either cheer it along, consuming our favorite partisan news. Or we’re neutral, unaffected as we don’t know the people targeted.

But then such media covered something close to me, opening my eyes to this media’s prevalence, the damage it causes, and how this is our chance to move beyond it.

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Throughout the last year, the Minneapolis-based weekly publication City Pages wrote a series of stories about a charter school in nearby St. Paul.

Community School of Excellence (CSE) was founded in 2007 to support area Hmong families. What began as an elementary school of less than 200 has since grown into a K-8 institution serving about 1000 students of mainly Hmong and Karenni descent. (The Karenni are a people from Burma.)

In October 2014, after returning to the Twin Cities from living in East Africa, CSE hired me as their communications manager, my role being to keep parents and the community updated with the latest news, announcements, and events at the school.

As an outsider to the Hmong community, I was impressed by the culture and the spirit of the school — an old Catholic school building refinished with hallway murals depicting landscapes of Southeast Asia, the dance team’s Asian-inspired performances in their flamboyant costumes, and the effort from engaged teachers and diligent students. Having substitute taught at several St. Paul and Minneapolis district schools years earlier, the unity, dedication, and focus at CSE has been a welcome sight and environment in an otherwise largely-challenged urban academic landscape.

The CSE Dancers performing at the neighborhood Rice Street Parade last summer
The CSE Dancers performing at the neighborhood Rice Street Parade last summer

The City Pages articles followed an ongoing clash between some staff members and school leadership over issues of policy and administrative missteps.

The most recent story (“The Wrath of Mo” January 6, 2016) opened with a school board meeting filled with a “crowd of cold stares.” • “Their faces steely, hardened with resentment.” • And after a teacher shares her concerns at the meeting, “the audience fiercely nods along.”

I was at this board meeting and observed none of these descriptions. I also recall a previous story in this series claiming that CSE suffered under “several dark years.” Veteran staff at the school expressed the same confusion over this claim as I did toward the descriptions of the school board meeting.

We all know that news — of all slants and styles — sensationalizes. It does so for the sake of entertainment or drama (describing a sporting event or a courtroom scene) or to make someone look more heroic than he may have been (an obituary). But when a prominent news outlet reports that which clashes with what you know to be true (because you experienced what they reported on firsthand), it becomes unsettling — particularly when the inaccuracies are motivated not to flatter or to entertain, but to harm. This is the now-common darker side of journalism’s task of turning situations into stories: contorting real life into ideologically-driven fairy tales and real people into their characters.

With snide remarks and unflattering description, this series has taken CSE’s former superintendent and casted her as the villain in no uncertain terms — despite her efforts founding and growing the school and to whom support and praise were shared at the very board meetings the author attended.

Nonetheless, as the villain of this “little guy vs bad boss” narrative, this woman’s school photo was taken by this publication, modified into the likeness of former Communist Chinese Dictator Mao Zedong, and printed on the cover of thousands of City Pages newspapers all over the Twin Cities as well as the internet — even used by this publication’s Facebook page profile picture.

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Fiction is our canvas for painting clear points in the hypothetical, lessons untainted by the reality that life is never so black and white. Much of modern media, though, has been built telling the news like bedtime stories. This movement to see the world as black and white has been fed by:

  1. the proliferation of modern media reaching into and magnifying the nooks of every neighborhood
  2. the creation of media entities for the express purpose of promoting a worldview; these media aren’t in the business of sharing news so much as they are interested in building a case for their ideology (conservative, liberal, etc.) by way of sharing only the happenings in the world that bolster their perspective
  3. and because ideology is the priority, the mentality that it’s okay to mock and ridicule a wrongdoer; that being on the “right” side of an issue grants carte blanche to be as mean-spirited as one likes toward those on the “wrong” side; and that if the target is in a position of power, then treating him or her with little regard for their humanity isn’t inhumane — it’s “punching up”

Thus, today’s targets aren’t just national celebrities or business and political leaders — though there’s more negativity thrown at them than ever. These permissions for hate are so normalized that popular media outlets can disparage a riled-up protester, a big-game hunter, or a charter school superintendent as a murderous dictator without batting an eye.

Community School of Excellence’s service as a cultural resource and an island of safe, secure education is evidenced by quintupled growth in enrollment in less than ten years — and this all developed under the leadership of this former superintendent. But rather than share this story, this publication sought the opportunity to express fear and anger via mockery, satisfying the public appetite. It’s systemic.

So to the City Pages and publications like them, I ask: Is bending reality and using people for the sake of your agenda-driven stories worth the ideological promotion and the ad sales it produces? Is it worth the embarrassment to your targets? Is it worth the harm to the standing of a much needed school for 1000 children?

And to the whole of American society, I’ll say: The spread of modern media has allowed for a whole new set of targets to mock and ridicule. But this desire to attack everyday people should make us pause and question this desire to mock and ridicule anyone at any level — yes, even presidential candidates.

This is an opportunity, then, not to further justify the reach of our hatefulness toward everyday people as “they have it coming”— which is merely kicking the can of hate down the street another block, to hate those who “deserve” it. Instead, this magnification is our chance to see these motivations and resultant media for what they are — and so to pick up this can and throw it in the trash.

What say you?