“If you find yourself in a jam, ladies, one thing you can do is try to flirt with your attackers.”
Approaching the end of the spring semester, the 16 students in my Intro to International Reporting class at the City University of New York’s Graduate Journalism School were just weeks away from scattering across the globe for summer internships, and my co-instructor and boss, Lonnie Isabel, insisted on this personal safety lecture from the two security experts whose thick Northeastern accents sounded curiously like the Car Guys on National Public Radio.
I was sitting on a window ledge in the rear of the classroom while they spoke, hypnotized by the Times Square midday streetscape below when. . .wait, did this fool just tell my students to. . .
“Yeah, I know it sounds awful,” the beefier of the two men said to the students, 12 of them women, “in fact if my wife was here right now she would probably throw a shoe at me but really, try to show some leg or something if you’re in a tough situation.”
Most of the students enrolled in this class have borrowed money to pay $9,600 per semester in tuition and fees– and God only knows how much in New York City rents– to prepare for careers in an industry in steep decline.
What they got, more often than not, was this:
“And if you’re really desperate and the situation seems like its deteriorating, I tell people all the time to wet your pants.”
The students stare blankly, incredulously.
“Yeah, pee your pants and while everyone is distracted, you can run away.”
Aside from sounding cartoonish–like a plan hatched by Bugs Bunny to escape the clutches of Yosemite Sam—the Security Guys’ advice is more likely to escalate a violent situation than defuse it. Violence, as I’ve come to understand it after 25 years as a journalist, is, on its most atomic level, an assertion of naked power; the last thing you want is to deepen a mob’s identification of you as an object, sexual or otherwise. You’re likely better off telling your would-be assailant about your parents or a pet, anything to be recognized in that moment as a flesh-and-blood human being.
When it became clear that Lonnie wasn’t going to issue a corrective, I waited politely for our guests to leave before offering my own, using the example of Amy Biehl, a white American aid worker who was set upon by a mob in the convulsions leading up to South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. Biehl had made such an impression on the township youths she worked with that they nearly saved her, first pleading with her killers to spare her life, then rushing her to the hospital after she’d been fatally stabbed. No strategy is fail-proof, I told the students, but it helps to have skin in the game.
“And whatever you do” I said emphatically, “you are never to pee your pants. If I hear that any of you wet your pants, no matter where you are in the world, I will find you.”
The class chuckled, knowingly.
When Lonnie offered me this position just weeks before the semester began, I was in the midst of a profound crisis of faith, not only in journalism but in all of America’s democratizing institutions —higher ed included— which, as far as I could see, served no purpose other than to reproduce the already yawning chasm between rich and poor, black and white and brown. The students I’d be helping to teach, I was sure, would be spoiled, robotic, annoyingly sunny, suburban white kids who saw college as an apprenticeship for a career as an establishment mouthpiece. Unable to get into the Ivy League, they pressed ahead because Katie Couric’s wardrobe wasto die for. On the other hand, I figured Lonnie as a comrade since we were both middle-aged African Americans who had been purged in the industry’s decade-long campaign of ethnic cleansing, he from Long Island Newsday and me from the Washington Post.
And what’s more, I was broke; trying to write a book, I couldn’t afford to turn down even the paltry $6000 adjunct salary.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover that I’d had it all wrong. Three-quarters of the class was indeed white, but the kids– as I took to thinking of them even though the oldest was 32– were all right. Each one impressed me as a critical thinker, rejecting out of hand, for example, the tired trope of journalistic objectivity, and seeing it instead as a lame excuse for cynicism. Nearly half the class attended a Union Square rally for Trayvon Martin. An Arab woman from Westchester County told me that she had registered as a Republican to vote for Ron Paul in the state primary, because she vastly preferred his Middle East foreign policy to Obama’s. Another woman confessed that nothing made her prouder than when a middle-aged Asian nanny she was interviewing referred to her as “daughter.”
Several women in the class acknowledged that they chose careers in media because they saw it as a tool for challenging patriarchy. One student confided in me that she decided to return to school when she could not bear another day at her last job in admissions for a fly-by-night for-profit online college swindling gullible applicants out of money they didn’t have. She was especially haunted, she said, by the memory of an American Indian woman who was giddy to learn a marketable skill, only to take out thousands of dollars in loans for a degree that never materialized.
Moreover, the students’ story ideas tended toward the spectacular, interrogating the credibility of an International Criminal Court which has prosecuted only Africans, or wafting through the haze of a New Jersey crash pad to cleverly shine a spotlight on Tibetan youths’ political disillusionment. And the semester’s only fashion story was a finely- wrought profile of a local Muslim designer and her effort to aesthetically bridge modern sex appeal with traditional Islamic values.
But just as the students refused to play to type, so too did Lonnie. With his didactic style and sophomoric current events quizzes, his classroom was a graveyard for creativity, leaving students disengaged, sometimes even dozing off or reading emails during class. Once, while lecturing the class on the global economy, he began reading from a list of decontextualized statistics—“Gross Domestic Product in the Unites States was 13 trillion dollars in 2010”—reminding me of the charmless teacher from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (“Anyone? Anyone?”) Like the Security Guys, his handpicked guests repeatedly encouraged the kind of lazy chauvinism that poisons good reportage, particularly at a time when the mainstream media is struggling to distinguish itself from a blogosphere that traffics mostly in rumor and opinion. One speaker dismissed Russian diplomats as “crazy” for vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing NATO’s intervention in Syria’s internecine conflict. Another attributed Greece’s economic crisis to a Hellenic character flaw, seemingly unaware that sovereign debt crises have bedeviled world finance for at least 30 years.
Lonnie never led a class discussion on how students could repackage their stories for multiple mediums, an absolute necessity for young free-lancers in this era of austere newsroom budgets. Indeed, what seemed to preoccupy Lonnie more than anything were the quotidian bourgeois obsessions of sex and money. In meetings in his office to game-plan the upcoming class he often fixated on adolescent, towel-snapping locker room banter, and on what the university paid other journalism faculty, especially Peter Beinart, whose nearly $170,000 annual salary, apparently, was quite a bit more than Lonnie’s.
As the semester went on, I began to avoid meetings with him, and tried to step into the breach by tripling my office hours and redoubling my efforts in the classroom, once playing Eric B and Rakim’s Reagan-era hip hop classic Paid in Full to illustrate that the best financial journalism combines macroeconomic concepts like unemployment, inflation and monetary policy, with their impact on ordinary people, or the Blues.
A stream of students began appearing at my cubicle, sometimes collegially shooing each other away when they wanted to cut in. Once, three of the students shared with me an incident from their broadcast course. A classmate, Ian, pitched three story ideas to the instructor, who casually dismissed them all without explanation. Finally, he barked at Ian: “Just go down to the RNC (Republican National Committee) headquarters here and film whatever’s going on there.” Exasperated, Ian snarled in response: “The RNC? This is New York City.”
In retelling this story, one of Ian’s classmates, Dina, said professors at the school often downplayed the students’ frustrations.
“They like to say: ‘this is just like a real newsroom and often in a real newsroom you don’t always get your way,’” Dina said. But to each other, the students often responded mockingly. “Yeah, but in a real newsroom, you’d be paying me. Here, I’m paying you. So teach.” She paused, surveilled the room quickly with her eyes, then spat out a single word like gnarled, rancid meat.
New York’s public university system was historically known as the poor people’s Harvard, its free tuition and reputation as a cell for Leftist politics earning it the moniker “the Little Red Schoolhouse” from the African American writer Richard Wright. When white youths joined black and Latinos in the spring of 1969 to demand open enrollment, CUNY’s board relented after a turbulent summer, and began admitting all applicants who graduated from city high schools the following year. As historian Joshua Freeman writes in his book, Working Class New York, bankers exploited the 1975 fiscal crisis to force cuts to city spending, partly to recoup their bad real estate loans, and partly to show organized labor who was boss. This dawning of the global age of austerity led CUNY to require tuition for the first time in 1976, and ended open admissions 23 years later, yielding a 2010 freshman class that was only 6 percent black. Between 1969 and 1972, however, the percentage of black and Latino freshmen tripled, while in absolute numbers, Italian-American enrollment eclipsed all other tribes, doubling from 4,989 to 9,803 in just two years.
The week following spring break, a student named Eric Ragusa stopped by my cubicle to discuss his idea for a 1,200 word story. In the 14-week course, Lonnie only assigned students two stories for a total of 1,800 words, a sum that was more appropriate for a high school journalism class. Those two writing assignments bracketed the students’ interviews with foreign diplomats based in New York City for a “Q and A,” an exercise in stenography, not journalism.
The son of a Long Island attorney, Ragusa was a 25-year old raconteur whose motor revved so fast that I joked he was the class hype man, an Italian Flava Flav. But he was also a serious thinker, who could talk at length about Argentina’s lasting legacy of sexual violence, police harassment of blacks and Latinos, and independent foreign films.
For this assignment he proposed writing about Africans’ reaction to an American video campaign exhorting the U.S. to track down the Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony. “I’m guessing that they have more pressing things to worry about like poverty, food (security) and malaria,” he said plainly. I loved the idea and told him so, and after going over the logistics for assembling such a story, I mentioned the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said’s theory ofOrientalism, which posits that the West qualifies its colonial annexation with manufactured cultural narratives of the “Other.” This sparked a 20- minute dialectic jam session on jingoism, the media, and U.S. military expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, with Rags bringing me up to speed on the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down—about a botched military operation by the Clinton Administration to capture a Somali warlord—which he believed sounded the dog whistle in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The students seemed to appreciate these exchanges, going so far as to suggest to classmates who were not in our International Reporting course to see me for help with vexing stories. I never let on, but the truth is I was getting more than I gave. In recent years, I had grown increasingly distant from my closest friends —many of them black journalists like me—who were unable or unwilling to discuss subjects such as, say, the Obama administration’s torture of Bradley Manning or its record number of deportations. To my astonishment, the kids filled this vacuum with aplomb, loaning me their favorite books, recommending movies to watch, asking my opinions. With my own reserves perilously low, I fed off the students’ energy, curiosity, and keenness to bear witness.
So dependent was I that halfway through the semester, I even sent an email threatening to spread ugly rumors about the three students who had yet to talk to me. I was only half-joking.
Lonnie was another matter. Minutes after Rags had left my cubicle, he emerged from his office, spotted me at my desk, and stopped to chat. I don’t remember how he started the conversation, but he leaned in close as he began to gossip about the Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker, who he’d interviewed years ago when he was a young newspaper reporter in Oakland. With the air still crackling from my electric conversation with Rags, I recall Lonnie’s jarring punch line vividly: “Boy,” he said, grinning broadly, “that pussy was so good she needed two men to handle it.”
I smiled wanly, hoping he would go away.
America is a colossal wreck. Nothing works. New York City’s network of community colleges stands today as a monument to a pivotal battle in the country’s class war, in which working class insurgents fought fiercely to raise their flag on a steep hill, only to lose the broader war. What was once a smokestack economy is now one run almost entirely on rent-seeking and pyramid schemes; no longer able to produce anything of real value, Americans’ generate wealth by turning on one another, cannibalizing the weak, the young and the poor. Ours is a pitiful Potemkin village: of jobs that don’t pay, hospitals that don’t heal, schools that don’t teach and journalists who ask no questions.
Lonnie’s mediocrity is strategic. Consciously or not, he was complicit in this criminal racket, having accepted what the civil rights activist Michelle Alexander characterizes as a “racial bribe” in her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow.” The smallness of his ideas, his cynicism and coarseness are part of an arsenal to carpet-bomb the students’ political imagination, cut their lines of communication to a truth that is at once terrifying and resplendent. In on the con, it is not in Lonnie’s material interest to encourage his students to search for truth.
Ironically, the students seemed quite clear that they were being conned. Once, I overheard a student discussing a profile with her instructor in the next cubicle.
“If she’s your subject, she can either be a hero or a villain,” the professor said dryly.
“Are those my only choices?” the young woman asked, with an almost professorial tone herself.
“I’m afraid so,” the instructor replied.
“Are you sure?” she prodded.
Despite my doubts about him, I never once directed a cross word at Lonnie, and we typically traded jokes and one- liners in class. When we divided the class to discuss students’ story ideas, he directed me to take my group to the rear of the quadrangle-shaped classroom. With mock outrage, I retorted: “Aw man, why we got to go the back of the room? You’re the Bull Connor of academia.”
With semester’s end approaching, the students began to ask if I would be returning in the fall. Lonnie and I had never discussed it; I assumed that he would have liked me to return but the decision wasn’t his to make. After class one afternoon, Lonnie and I were consulting two students separately while a third waited in the wings. Abruptly, the student I was working with blurted out: “Jon, why aren’t you going to be teaching here next semester?” I deferred to Lonnie, but then the students did something I hadn’t expected, asking in unison: “Yeah, Lonnie why isn’t Jon coming back next semester?” Lonnie was clearly flustered, and wanting to spare him any embarrassment, I said whimsically: “Lonnie is just jealous cuz I’m better looking than he is.”
The following morning, Lonnie, wearing a dashiki, approached me while I sat at my desk, and accused me of personally attacking him, first with the Bull Conner remark and again with my crack about his envy. Teetering between laughter and rage, I told Lonnie that he was imagining things. “Bro,” I said to him, “we are both two ugly, middle- aged men; you can’t possibly think I was serious.”
Glassy-eyed and indignant, Lonnie straightened his back, stared me in the eye, and declared: “I’m not ugly.”
Later that evening as I prepared to leave for the day, the assistant dean, Judy Watson ambled up to me. A few days later, she would politely ask me not to return for the final two weeks of class because Lonnie had complained that I threatened him. But now she was smiling. “Do you have any interest in teaching next semester?” she asked. “I’ve heard from several of the students that they really enjoyed having you in the classroom.”