Have you no sense of decency, sir? At last, have you left no sense of decency?” This question, from attorney Joseph Nye Welch, delivered a stinging rebuke to Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy had waged a five-year reign of terror, aka his witch-hunt for communist sympathizers and infiltrators throughout American society. Welch’s question, posed during the legendary 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings effectively illuminated the cruel, baseless and biased behavior and actions of the Wisconsin Senator. Thanks to the televised hearings during which Welch confronted McCarthy, the public witnessed the true nature of the man, the intent of the hearings and the devastation McCarthy inflicted on the lives of countless individuals. Unmasked and denounced, McCarthy lost the respect and support of the American people and was ultimately censured by the Senate.
As I read last week’s articles and editorials in the Buffalo News regarding the appointment of Dr. Catherine Collins as our new Board of Regents member, Welch’s words rang in my mind. The Buffalo News’ reporting of the events of this past week leading to and including Dr. Collins’ appointment are not an exact parallel to the McCarthy era inquests. Yet, there are certain similarities associated with journalistic truthfulness, transparency and accountability that we should apply to evaluating the Buffalo News’ reports. Given the impact and influence of the media, reporting that in, itself, raises issues of bias should be examined and questioned.
For example, Mr. Bennett was lauded as “far and away the best choice for the seat”, “a champion of education”, while Dr. Collins’ credentials were never mentioned. Instead, the News observed that she had the “unenviable task” of trying to fill Mr. Bennett’s shoes. Her appointment was characterized as a political one “engineered” by Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, even though Mr. Bennett’s appointment would have followed the same path, different Assembly member. In fact, the Editorial railed more about the credentials and political clout of Assembly member Peoples-Stokes and new Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie and touted the credentials of Mr. Bennett while ignoring those of Dr. Collins. By the way, Dr. Collins, a life-long educator and healthcare professional, has a PhD, is a published author, former Buffalo Board of Education member, Distinguished Professor at Empire State College and other area colleges and universities, community leader etc., etc., etc. But the News would rather lament that Mr. Bennett had been “torpedoed” by the Assembly member and the Speaker. Quite frankly, they sounded vaguely like they were whining…..and that Mr. Bennett was a victim of the process which has installed him as the Regent for the last 20 years.
And then, they dared to go there………………. Just for good measure the News asked whether or not “racial politics played a role” in the appointment of Dr. Collins given that she is an African American as are Assembly member Peoples-Stokes and Assembly Speaker Heastie. To be fair, they did note that Mr. Bennett and “many of his supporters are white and no one has claimed a racial component there.” But they concluded that race does seem to play a “more dominant role in education” in Buffalo. After all, Mr. Paladino was convinced that is the case too. This is one of the few times in the News’ reporting on education issues in Buffalo when they have been transparent. They put a lot of credence into the comments of Carl Paladino.
Speaking of Carl Paladino, the need to examine the role of racial politics in Dr. Collins’ appointment was confirmed by a quote in a previous article from that educational sage. True to form he weighed in with his own assessment: Assembly member Peoples-Stokes was “ignorant”, “self-absorbed”, “doesn’t care about minority children”, and is motivated by “self-empowerment”. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard or read these same descriptors used by Mr. Paladino in comments about all the minority members of the Board, former Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown and numerous minority female staff members. Yet, the News chose to print these denigrating remarks with no filter or admonishment. I know, Freedom of Speech. But that works both ways!
This is not the first time that the News’ decision to write stories that are unfairly slanted have been cited. Reporting on the City Grill murders and the community’s resultant outrage led to a rare self-examination by the News. Under the leadership of former Editor Margaret Sullivan, the News invited me and several other minority group members to participate in an advisory panel aimed at providing feedback to the News about how their reporting was perceived by members of minority communities. The group confirmed that there was a long-standing and serious issue of lack of trust in the newspaper related to honest and objective reporting. At that time, there seemed to be a sincere desire to engage community members; to hear honest criticism; to make a commitment to change and to develop and implement a plan to change the belief that the News is a biased publication. So much for change! Under the current leadership, we are back to square one.
The Buffalo News’ treatment of Dr. Collins was shameful. The News’ March 12th editorial, “Whose Voice”, stated “The Buffalo woman had barely been confirmed by the State Legislature when she said her goals include slowing down some of the reforms in the state’s education system.” Dr. Collins has not even had an opportunity to express her voice. At the very least, before questioning her independence, integrity and just plain common sense, the News should have a fair, open conversation with Dr. Collins. The McCarthy era is over, but the question still has to be asked - Buffalo News, “At last have you left no sense of decency?!”