Telling bad news can bring forth good

March 29, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

SO THERE I was, sitting in the studio of WERQ radio, talking to morning-show hosts Frank Ski and Miss Toni, when that ever-annoying topic of writing "negative" stories about black folks came up.

A couple of callers to the show claimed I write nothing but negative columns about black folks. They mentioned specifically the one about the death of rapper the Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, in which I once again brought up the subject of the high homicide rate among young black men.

Exactly why we should ignore that homicide rate and insist that we be told only things that make us feel good wasn't exactly made clear. But I told Ski that nearly every black person in America is descended from ancestors who survived the grueling physical, mental and spiritual ordeal of the Middle Passage. These people were made of stern stuff. It's a pity - indeed, a defamation of their memory - that some of their descendants consider getting their little feelings hurt a major problem.

These are the black folks - not all of us, by a long shot, thank God - who have a very bad case of "tell-me-what-I-wanna-hearitis." But it doesn't affect only black people. It's a nationwide illness. Whites, blacks, and every other racial group in the country want to know why the media focus on negative news and downplay the positive.

One of journalism's tasks is to expose the ills of society, so that we can all chip in and correct them. If journalists gave us only good news, we wouldn't know the ills or what it is we're supposed to correct. [See Kane, 3b]

As an example, a good newspaper called the Mercury of Pottstown, Pa., ran a series of articles detailing how the police of Limerick Township covered up a drunken driving incident involving one of its officers and how other officers engaged in orgies with prostitutes. Other stories covered corruption and deceit by Limerick government officials. A negative series of stories, to be sure, but a necessary one. The town wouldn't have been cleaned up without the Mercury's excellent expose.

Allow me to indulge in a couple of analogies to explain how a constant flood of positivity can be downright damaging. The film "When We Were Kings," which recently won the Academy Award for best documentary, was a riveting account of the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire. At one point in the film, writer Norman Mailer described how Ali used his sparring sessions to work on only his weaknesses, which prepared him for the fight he eventually won in a stunning upset. Foreman did not work on his weaknesses. In fact, word had it his sparring partners were afraid to hit him. Foreman was fed a constant diet of positivity from his trainers and the media about what a destructive fighting machine he was. It ultimately led to his undoing.

The second analogy is not a perfect one, because it involves my days as a wrestler, a sport at which I was simply gawdawful. I had only one good move, called the switch. I had no upper body strength, was no good on takedowns, rides or pinning combinations. Suppose I had gone to practice each day and my coach, in an effort to make me feel good, told me only positive things.

"Boy, Kane, you sure got a great switch." He doesn't tell me to hit the weight room to work on my upper body strength, or to drill on takedowns, rides or pinning combinations. He just tells me daily how great my switch move is, because he doesn't want to damage my self-esteem.

But what would be more damaging to my self-esteem? The coach pointing out my weaknesses to make me a better wrestler or my getting creamed match after match because he didn't have me work on those takedowns, rides and pinning combinations?

So how do we end the ills afflicting America's black communities if we don't address them? Would a constant diet of positive stories about America's black communities end the horrific homicide rate among young black men? I think not.

For years America prided itself on being the cradle of democracy, freedom, justice and a host of other neat things. Its horrendous treatment of African-Americans, Indians and Mexican-Americans did nothing to dissuade Americans from this delusion. (In fact, some Americans claimed there was no racial problem in America.)

In the mid-1950s, a man named Martin Luther King Jr. rose to leadership in the civil rights movement and told America some things many Americans didn't want to hear about the country's sordid treatment of people of color. His negative news brought about positive change. But then, as now, some folks would still like to silence the messenger.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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