See Something, Say Something #5

A Weekly Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a new weekly media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.


Hierarchy of tragedy

On Tuesday, January 22nd, buried on the second or third page of the ‘Cities and Towns’ section of the Gazette was a brief 278 word article titled “Man, woman found dead in tent in Greenfield.” The couple were found dead on a day with temperatures in the single digits. The article quoted the District Attorney’s office, who believed there was no “foul play suspected” in the deaths. (The article didn’t elaborate on the extent to which cold temperatures are killing people throughout the country. Just this week The New York Times reported that more than 20 people had died in the Midwest due to exposure.)

This week, on Monday, the Gazette ran a story on its front page above the fold titled “Fire destroys home, displaces family of 6.” The article describes a Goshen family whose home burned, killing a pet with the human inhabitants escaping the blaze. It describes the aid given to the family through a GoFundMe campaign and how the community mobilized to come to their aid.

Still, the placement of these stories and where they fit within the newspaper is unsettling to say the least. By putting a houseless couple who froze back in the paper’s ‘B’ section while placing a living housed family who lost their home above the fold, The Gazette created a hierarchy, distinguishing whose lives and deaths are most newsworthy. —WM

The Advocate Updates its Mission Statement?

The Gazette ran a piece announcing the The Valley Advocate, the self-proclaimed “alt-weekly” owned by The Gazette’s parent company Newspapers of New England and managed by the paper, would be returning to a weekly schedule. (As a columnist for The Advocate, I say “yah whoo!”)

In the short article, writer Luis Feldman quoted the Advocate’s original 1973 mission statement, which read: “The Valley Advocate was called into existence by the need for an alternative to standard journalistic fare in Western Massachusetts … The Advocate seeks to provide sympathetic coverage, not lip-service, for those whose lack of establishment status denies them full access to the public arena of ideas.”

But the article seems to imply that the paper is updating its mission. Feldman quoted Michael Moses, who is the vice president of sales and marketing for Newspapers of New England, and commented on the paper’s alt-vision for the future. He said, “We should be able to present thought-provoking points of view that, at some level, challenge institutions or the mainstream, and provide an opportunity to get folks talking about things that affect our communities.” Given this more current articulation of the paper’s purpose, it is unclear how The Advocate will “create an alternative to standard journalistic fare” in the area given that the paper is owned by Newspapers of New England and managed by Gazette. Further, prefaced by the non-committal “at some level,” and followed by the extremely vague “challenging institutions and the mainstream,” the new mission is a hop, skip, and a jump from the old one: “providing sympathetic coverage, not lip service” to those who lack access to establishment channels.

Par for the course, the article’s last sentence noted, “the popular ‘Best of the Valley Readers’ Poll’ will continue to highlight local businesses, from art museums to pizza places, during its annual contest.” —WM

Actually, still white

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In the January 10th issue of The Valley Advocate (back when it was still a modest alt bi-weekly), the poem “I’m Not White I’m Euro American” by Jamilah Maryam was published under the banner of “A Spotlight on Local Poetry.” To say that the poem, published without further comment or context from the editors, can be read as an ode to the prevalent, pervasive, almost banal white supremacy that often looms unnamed in the WASP-y Northampton cultural milieu, is perhaps the gentlest critique that can possibly be given.

At best, this poem reifies the naïve and misguided idea that issues of race and racism can be remedied if we just pretend hard enough that they come with no history. At worst, it can be read as an open embrace of white supremacy via magical white guilt self-absolution. What is most striking about this poem is not the artistry or lack thereof, but how its clumsiness with the subject at hand highlights the lack of daylight between the best and worst case scenarios. 

Ultimately, this poem, almost certainly unwittingly, exposes just how closely the liberal politics of “color-blindness” mimic the politics of explicit white supremacy. Despite the poem’s blunt assertion that “Euro American means/ Not a white nationalist,” actual white nationalists seem to disagree, often using eerily similar language to intentionally rebrand their white pride as simply a myopic focus on European origin. If there’s one thing race and structural racism are not, it is neutral. Neither are the editors at The Valley Advocate who somehow believed this was poetic news that’s fit to print. Which begs the question: is this what “sympathetic coverage, not lip-service, for those whose lack of establishment status denies them full access to the public arena of ideas” looks like? —HG

Geopolitical context and human rights abuses don’t matter, eating guinea pig does

On Thursday the Gazette truly outdid itself, publishing a story titled “Amherst, UMass police give Ecuadorians ‘more options for the toolbox’ in week-long training.” The training led by a missionary group (the website is entertaining to say the least, I recommend the click) was given to an elite unit of the Ecuadorian National Police, what the Gazette dubbed “essentially an Ecuadorian SWAT team.” Staff writer Scott Merzbach quoted an Amherst police officer who said their current training was “primitive and inadequate.”

The story quickly pivoted from a very surface level description of the training, describing details such as the fact that Amherst and Umass police would teach handcuffing techniques, to basically describing a vacation for cops: “Even with all the work, the trip was a chance to experience the culture and vacation spots, including a visit to a rainforest, the Andes mountains and a tour of Old Quito where the presidential palace is located.” It also elaborated on the type of food U.S. officers would eat there, including guinea pig and “cow’s feet soup.”

However, the article is best characterized by what it omitted. It doesn’t mention the extent to which U.S. police agencies train law enforcement throughout the world, especially in Latin America (and how this relates to U.S. imperialism). The article omits all mentions of human rights abuses committed by Ecuadorian National Police, which is notorious, according to Human Rights Watch, for using excessive force against protestors, denying due process, and suppressing free speech — even under a “leftist” administration. Further, Merzbach does not mention the political situation in Ecuador. In 2017, the left-leaning Correa government was succeeded by the more moderate Moreno government. The Moreno government, according to Jacobin, has repositioned the country’s foreign policy to be more friendly to U.S. interests. Given the history of U.S. meddling in the region, this training cannot be separated from this history and context.

The Gazette prides itself on providing balanced, even-handed journalism. Here they provided the U.S. police’s side and the Ecuadorian National Police’s side of the story, neglecting to consider who this SWAT team might be going after and the political conditions in which such policing exists. —WM


Will Meyer and Harrison Greene are co-editors of The Shoestring.

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