Explaining city candidates’ ‘criminal’ histories not job of corporate media

by James Thompson

So many in our community cringed at the reporting of criminal histories and arrests of Gainesville City Commission candidates by the Gainesville Sun. But we cannot expect corporate media to do the job of progressive advocacy journalism. That is what publications like this one, and voices like ours, are for.

Andrew Caplan is a capable and hardworking political beat reporter, and the Sun Editor-in-Chief Doug Ray is socially engaged and accessible. But I’m not surprised at the racial and gender tone deaf reporting, imaging, and editing that went into the piece (“City Candidates’ Records Spotty,” Gainesville Sun, Feb. 10, 2018).

The Sun has historically reported on candidate records, so the article was not an explicit attack on a field of three black women and one black man. The piece does, however constitute a good example of where even competent corporate media fails, and left-progressive advocacy journalism thrives–telling histories, giving context, and lifting the veil of class, gender, and race relations to speak truth to power. Let us discuss the limits of what Mr. Caplan can do, and see how we can move beyond them.

The subject was a powderkeg to being with, especially considering it was the first major piece of reporting on the District One race.

A white male journalist was given or chose an assignment to detail the criminal histories of four black candidates, three of them black women, all but one. The fifth and arrest-free candidate is (by no fault of his own) a white man. Care should have been taken to remind newly engaged citizens that the Sun regularly runs pieces on candidate criminal records.

A triptych (like the one currently on the Sun’s website) of those with criminal records might have been used to convey that multiple people were reported on, instead of the original lead photo on the website, of Gigi Simmons alone, who is running against Goston and Ty Loudd in the D1. This came off as a hit piece against Ms. Simmons, or against black candidates in general. The title of the piece was negative. Coupled with Ms. Simmon’s originally solo title photo, it created an emotional context assuredly unintended by the authors or the newspaper.

Or did it? Even had Caplan and the editors done all this right, we are still left with a corporate newspaper whose job is to make money for shareholders selling advertising.

The “candidate criminal history” is a staple combination of shock piece and public service announcement, a kind of political beat boilerplate for every election cycle. Mr. Caplan and the Sun missed some cues, but they didn’t do anything unexpected or out of character. It’s a for-profit enterprise. These people write every day, for a living. Boilerplate is production. And truth be told criminal histories are newsworthy.

But they are also about history, politics, and power. This is where advocacy journalism–research and writing which clearly states an agenda and ideological purpose – takes up the slack from corporate media. It’s the kind of stuff we sometimes see in another part of the Sun, the Opinions section. It’s also, obviously, the life’s blood of the Gainesville Iguana and the Fine Print.

A piece in this mode could point out that crimes of poverty, which black Americans disproportionately experience, dominate the list. Without referring to individual candidates, we could discuss how everything from check kiting (writing checks before you have the money, to buy food or get your breadwinner out of jail, or pay a loan shark), to driving with suspended licenses (because you can’t pay for insurance and got busted for that), and even violence (when it is perpetrated by a victim of abuse who sees no way out) – do not speak alone to individual character. In fact they form the warp and weft of America’s history of racial, gender, and class inequality.

A progressive would point out that District One in particular (with two black women and one black male candidate) includes a greater portion of our poverty, a larger share of the long bus rides, and a majority of the incarcerated breadwinners that make a life without a record unlikely for anyone honestly “representing” that district.

A more radical journalism could also go further with the kind of personal histories of both the author and the subjects that newspaper journalism forbids. For example, this white male writer could open a piece on candidate records with the story of my own criminal past, of the day I watched a dozen black men go to prison for felony probation violations in front of me.

I didn’t go because I was white and we had a racist judge, thankfully now departed. The irony is, but for my being white, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article about black candidate records. I could reflect on this irony, and celebrate the stories of these candidates, including the single mothers running for office who faced different obstacles than my white single mother – but who share the struggles and solidarity of class and gender and motherhood.

Finally, I could ask the candidates to reflect on what it feels like, in the gut, to know every time you run for office you will be judged more severely than your white peers. Because every one of those candidates, and each of us, knows that the bar of character is higher and the stain of the past more deep for the oppressed than for the privileged.

I can write and ask all these things, but Mr. Caplan cannot. Not for the Sun, and not if he wants to continue as a beat reporter, as I hope he will.

Advocacy journalism does sometimes involve money and profit, but at its core it comes from we the people, volunteers and movement activists. If people with criminal pasts deserve to be in office, it is our job to help explain why.

In 2010, James Thompson pled Guilty/No Contest to a charge of felony drug possession. He is a political activist. D

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