Let’s talk a little bit about the narrative regarding the upheaval in St. Paul Public Schools. And because that is such a sprawling and, at least on the internets, bloviation-prone arena, let’s start with local news media coverage.
The point we’re going to build up to: Much of the coverage to date, and in particular the reporting done by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has framed the tensions as the outcome of an antagonistic Black Lives Matter pushing school district leaders to punish a teacher “who Black Lives Matter St. Paul has labeled racist.”
The coverage has been biased, both from a journalistic standpoint and a racial one.
That quote is taken from a 600-word PiPress story that blames black activists—and not the racially incendiary defenses of the teacher in question that brought people to their feet—for shutting down a St. Paul School Board meeting Tuesday. Astonishingly, it fails to describe the blog and social media posts that lots of people—not just Black Lives Matter—found inflammatory.
The headline on the story about the meeting: “BLM activists shout down supporter of Como Park teacher; school board delayed.” The first sentence: “Black Lives Matter activists shouted down a substitute teacher speaking in support of Como Park Senior High teacher Theo Olson on Tuesday evening, causing a 15-minute delay of the St. Paul school board meeting.”
The other way to describe the black women in the accompanying photo—who are pictured with hands raised, shouting at a befuddled-looking white man—is as district parents who are fed up with the messages their children are receiving.
Why, after all of the ink spilled over the longstanding racial tensions the blog’s exposure has brought to light, would the city’s newspaper of record do this? Having put its thumb on the scale thusly, the mainstream media either has to double down or do what journalists are trained to see as the equivalent of a public stoning: Admit, even if by broadening their source base or their worldview, that they didn’t get it right before.
Exhibit B: PiPress reporter Josh Verges, who wrote the story cited above, had the blog in question—which teacher-author Theo Olson had taken down–the week before the meeting. He did not publish it until Tuesday March 22, two days after my Education Post colleague Chris Stewart was the first to publish it on his site Citizen Ed.
(Even this scoop accrues, in the Verges ouvre, to BLM: “On Monday night, [BLM] published 66 pages of Olson’s blog, with highlights and handwritten notations on the offending sections.”)
When it ran, Verges’ story about the blog was heavy on details of how district brass got details about it, inexplicably going so far as to quote an email between the human relations chief and a parent who had complained she found the writing offensive. I’d argue that the “gotcha” here is that the HR chief was busted… doing his job.
The story all but apologized for Olson, describing the writing as fiction and running a photo of Black Lives Matter St. Paul leader Rashad Anthony Turner—but not of Olson.
Nor has Verges mentioned anywhere that Olson posted to that same blog photographs of his students’ writing, including their names, along with a rant about their recalcitrance. I’m no HR professional, but that seems like something that might provoke school leaders to suspend a teacher while they investigate.
I don’t know Verges, but I do know something about the ecosystem he works in and its pressures. Over here in St. Paul’s tawdrier twin we’ve been treated to months of coverage of the Minneapolis Police Department’s reaction to an officer’s shooting of Jamar Clark and the subsequent protests outside the Fourth Precinct that were equally dubious.
The Star Tribune stories about the case and the attendant protests have been thick with commentary from police union head Bob Kroll, who among other racially inflammatory remarks once referred to Rep. Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, as a terrorist. This went on for months before the paper wrote a seemingly grudging story noting that Kroll has a controversial history. Astonishingly, the story quoted Lt. Mike Sauro describing Kroll as a stand-up guy—without mentioning that Sauro cost the city millions in brutality claims.
(Here’s where Strib editors would jump in and note that the reporter who penned many of those stories is an African American man. Who I submit is possibly doubly disadvantaged when it comes to challenging newsroom convention.)
Anybody out there surprised that with all the breathless headlines about fights and suspensions the journalistic vetting of St. Paul’s discipline data has been a single “answers are elusive” story?
In the days before the stories detailed here, a St. Paul mother posted to one of the Facebook sites where community members are dissecting events. She put up a video her son, who receives special ed services, took with his phone on the bus.
The footage shows the driver and a paraprofessional arguing with the boy, who is black, about “All Lives Matter.” The run-up isn’t captured, but when they realize he is recording them, the driver demands that he erase the video.
The student is also the boy who was maced during a Black Lives Matter protest over the winter. He may be small, but he’s got a far better handle on his racial identity than a bus driver who’s made uncomfortable by talk of race.
You’d barely know it from most of the news coverage, but it was this boy who, listening to a white substitute teacher who was demanding the school board stand up for Theo Olson and who refused to stop talking when his allotted comment time ended, jumped up and shouted.
Reported the PiPress: “Jim Endres was met with jeers from the crowd as he implored the school board to ‘support your teachers.’ When Endres remained at the speaker’s podium through the interruptions, exceeding the two-minute time limit, an elementary school student approached and demanded equal time.
“About 20 others joined the boy, Linwood Monroe Arts Plus student Taye Clinton. Some accused Endres of standing against students of color by defending a teacher who Black Lives Matter St. Paul has labeled racist.”
No mention of the boy’s experience.
Contrast that with the article MinnPost reporter Erin Hinrichs wrote about the same meeting:
“And there you have it: a frustrated young black male student juxtaposed against a frustrated older white male teacher with two vastly different interpretations of the race dynamics at play in the SPPS system. It’s a visual that speaks to the current standoff between those in the freedom-of-speech camp and those who have no more patience for intolerance, whether it’s overt or unconscious in nature.”
So, what headline would you write? Because the narrative matters. And the institutions that continue to resist the notion that it needs recasting are rightly in danger of losing control of it.
Photo of Rashad Anthony Turner at a protest in St. Paul by Fibonacci Blue.