Alison Gerber: Shining light on problems is this newspaper's job

Alison Gerber: Shining light on problems is this newspaper's job

March 3rd, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck last week questioned the Times Free Press' decision to publish Sheriff Jim Hammond's comments that he's seen more fear of crime in the past three years, in part, because we have a black president.

Hammond made the comment in a meeting with reporters and editors about the foundation he formed to raise money for local law enforcement agencies. He said in the last few years he has seen more fear about crime "by far" than at any other time in his long career and that's what makes the foundation timely. People are so scared that they want him to "arm them tooth and nail" and they want to take "bazookas" to schools to protect children, he said.

Asked why people are scared, he said: "Part of it is [the] first black president. We all see that. We may dance around it, but a lot of people are fearful ..."

On Thursday, Beck dismissed the idea that President Barack Obama can cause fear and insecurity in the Chattanooga area. "It's the dumbest thing I ever heard," the commissioner said.

He also took to task the newspaper for publishing the comments.

"How in the world does a black president have anything to do with crime and safety out here on the street of Chattanooga? It's insane," he said. "And for this to go out in the paper and take people further down the road of ignorance and insecurity ... I just find it unbelievable that this paper would do this."

So what's the alternative? Pretend Hammond didn't say it? Pretend people don't feel that way? Stick our fingers in our ears, sing loudly and think about rainbows?

Hammond said the mentality of fear he's seeing is "an Old South thing," left over from the days after the Civil War when "carpetbaggers" from the North came down and took advantage of the reeling, damaged South.

Beck's comments, ironically, were also very Old South, a variation on the old line of thinking: "Let's just keep crazy grandma in the attic, and always keep the parlor clean so when people drop in everything looks nice, shall we? Let's just pretend everything is OK and we all get along. If we don't talk about it, it doesn't exist."

But we don't all get along and racism still exists, even 50 years after the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Just last week, a news outlet in Canada turned off comments on crime stories because stories about black suspects "brought out the most vile, repulsive and offensive comments we have ever had on our website," according to DurhamRegion.com Managing Editor Mike Johnston.

And a racist website called Chimpout - which states that "a black plague is descending upon civilization" and freely tosses around the N-word - linked to the Times Free Press story on Hammond's comments.

That's exactly why we ought to talk about race and racial tensions and why we should not be afraid to do so. That's exactly why the Times Free Press could not look the other way when the sheriff stated not once, but twice, that people fear Obama because he's black.

Hammond wasn't saying this was his personal opinion - in fact he said it absolutely was not. "Part of my responsibility is to listen to the heartbeat of the community," he told commissioners. "And I do sense a lot of fear in our citizens."

Fear's never good. But not covering the news would be worse.

In the 1960s, the Birmingham News buried coverage of violent Civil Rights-era protests. Stories about beatings with fire hoses and attack dogs were shoved inside the newspaper and given short attention, mostly blaming the confrontations on lawless "Negroes" and outside agitators.

When 200,000 people marched on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have A Dream" speech, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., ran this headline: "Washington is Clean Again with Negro Trash Removed."

Now those encounters are seen as some of the most pivotal moments in the struggle for black rights.

Newspapers champion the idea of transparency, but that doesn't just mean keeping an eye on the government. It also means writing about what's being discussed behind closed doors in local homes, examining the cultural mentality of the community. Our job is also to open those doors and say, "Here's what people are talking about. Let's bring it out, discuss it thoughtfully and openly."

Yes, sometimes what people say or think is distasteful, even reprehensible. But very little will ever change if we cannot discuss the things that divide us.

People are not mushrooms. We don't do well being fed manure and kept in the dark.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Listen to Sheriff Hammond's comments at timesfreepress.com.