Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On Journalism and the Ruderman Report

Dear friends,

Last week I got rattled by death threats and decided to take some time away from social media to try and think more deeply and do some good writing. You can see more about the threats from the end of this article, as the author screenshotted some (but deleted my name) towards the end of this important piece. I just started thinking on Thursday and Friday about how much time I was spending on social media, how it was occupying way too much of my brain thinking about twitter threads and instant commentary, rather than more thoughtful analysis, wondering why I was spending so much of my time in a land of people who could send me pictures of murdered journalists and who thought that was fun. I decided to take some time off.

At the same time, a group of amazing activists published a long critique of a white paper I co-wrote in 2016 on the media coverage of police violence and disability. I was alerted to it late Friday night after I had already decided to step away from social media for a bit. I understand that some of those activists feel I am trying to dodge accountability for my failings and I understand why they don't trust me. Trust is earned and I haven't earned it. I am not trying to avoid this critique or hard conversations about it. I am, rather, grateful for the labor that my critics put into this commentary and deeply apologetic that my failings made it necessary. But I was also not in a good position to respond quickly then.

I believe in accountability - meaning one must read critiques, think hard about them, enter into dialogue where requested, NOT demand more emotional labor from critics though when not invited into dialogue, and take affirmative steps to improve.

Here's the critique. You can read the original white paper here.

I am still reading and processing, but want to say a few things now.

1. The Ruderman white paper was flawed specifically around my writing (not my partner's writing) around race and decisions he and I together made about authorship. We should have either built a more inclusive team or declined the project. We imagined - or at least I imagined - that this paper would be a narrow commentary on media which would be released into a multi-voiced world of commentary around police violence and disability. It would serve as a tool for journalists and be launched surrounded by other resources, other voices, to which the paper would direct them.  The event launch never took place for various reasons. Worse, the white paper was received as trying to be authoritative (and failing) and standing alone, a result for which I take full responsibility. When you write something that fails for so many readers, it's the fault of the writer.

2. Since it was published, I listened hard to the criticisms that emerged, and so changed a lot of things about how I work, taking these affirmative steps. I built a subsequent white paper around an inclusive team of writers in which I did the media analysis, but commissioned a number of diverse disabled writers to make affirmative statements about how to do better, while including a substantial resource page. I offer to mentor - including brainstorming, reading drafts, structuring pitches, and connecting to editors - any disabled writer who wants to move into mainstream media. I have done so many, many times. I routinely respond to requests for comment, writing and speaking queries by suggesting better fits from within the relevant community. I offer to donate portions of my writing fees to the people I interview (this is not standard good journalism ethical practice, but I think appropriate where I am aware of ongoing financially marginalized status). When I do participate in events, my first question to people inviting me to speak is to ensure the event is appropriately diverse.

I am eager to hear other affirmative steps I might take.

I recognize these steps are insufficient for many of my critics and that nothing except to stop writing entirely is sufficient. I take responsibility for having been so disrespectful that they have come to such a position. I will keep listening, learning, and trying to improve and hope they will change their minds.

3. Disability journalism is changing and changing rapidly as editors realize that disabled people and disability issues need to be included in politics, social justice and identity sections, not just health/science/medicine. We have seen an explosion of great writing by and about members of the broad disability community and editors increasingly aware of the issues.  The more writing gets published the more space there is for more writing. There are many zero sum games, but I do not believe formal journalism is one.  It may become one in time, but right now I see opportunities opening almost daily. I share them, I send specific connections and suggestions out when relevant, and am really pleased by the changes in just the last five years. I take no credit for these changes, to be clear, but I celebrate them.

What I'd like to see more of is an inclusion of fairly basic disability awareness in journalism training. My goal over the next few years is to push journalism schools to bring in (and pay fairly!) local experts to help up and coming journalists do better. Every beat, from weather to sports to fashion to politics, has a disability component. Every journalists needs to know how to do better here.

4. When Ethan Saylor died, I watched too much of the white parent community, in particular, read the event as a singular tragedy requiring response. I read the event as a typical tragedy resulting from the criminalization of noncompliance in American society. That criminalization creates intense risks when intersecting with racism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression, as Crenshaw teaches. It's less usual for that violence to fall on people like Ethan - or my son, an increasingly large non-verbal white middle class suburban boy. It's possible though. My son likes people but often breaks boundaries, reaching out to touch. He especially is interested in police officers and uniforms. These are my personal stakes. So in my writing, I hope to help white Americans in particular understand that you can't train police out of these behaviors, but rather we have to de-police as much of America as possible. I want to be an interlocutor between the brilliant activists - many of whom are my most fierce critics - and the white parent communities to which I belong. I still think that's a good mission.


Over the next week I am going to re-read the critique carefully and slowly. I will read future critiques too. I will enter into conversation about journalism, a fraught yet vital practice, in any context with anyone who wishes to converse. I regret my failings and once again want to express my gratitude for the labor of those calling me out. I will try my best to not make that necessary in the future.