Monkey businessWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Toledo is not the hub of industry it once was, but if The Blade continues to manufacture stories like its recent Brian Wilson series, the Glass City’s production will rival Pittsburgh’s during the steel boom.
Wilson, the program director, news director and afternoon host for 1370 WSPD, is an unrelenting critic of The Blade. He mocks its publisher, its unsigned editorials and a number of its reporters by name, including Blade politics writer Tom Troy. Because of this adversarial relationship, Troy should never report news involving Wilson; how could Troy’s work be objective when he is writing about a man who publicly derides him?
And yet on Jan. 8, The Blade published a story attributed to Troy, “WSPD host compares TPS students, monkeys; Wilson denies racism.” What unfolded during the next few days was a striking example of journalistic malice and recklessness.
Troy’s article began, “A radio talk show host’s reference to ‘little monkeys’ while talking about students at Toledo Public Schools on Friday generated outrage that the language was insensitive to African-American students, and all students.”
Let’s break that down.
- “A radio talk show host’s reference to ‘little monkeys’ while talking about students at Toledo Public Schools.” That sure sounds definitive, doesn’t it? No qualifiers such as “alleged” or “interpreted” or anything that makes the reader doubt the equal sign between “little monkeys” and “students at Toledo Public Schools.”
- “generated outrage” That makes it sound as if a mob, pitchforks in hand, took it upon itself to break down the studio doors at WSPD. That was not the case. The station reported it did not log a single complaint after Wilson’s Jan. 7 monologue. Where did the outrage originate? Apparently, from Troy and his editors.
- “insensitive to African-American students, and all students” The first web version of the story I read did not include the qualifier, “and all students.” Troy’s original version equated Wilson’s supposed offense to just African-American students. The written quote attributed to Wilson, “certainly, teaching little monkeys to peel bananas and so on and them learning to do it correctly on cue does not mean that they’ve learned everything except a funny parlor trick,” does not reference TPS students, or African-American students. But Troy’s opening paragraph linked the two, and that is all the evidence The Blade offered. A 14-second audio clip of that phrase was embedded in the story online.
Troy, in the first of two references, writes that Wilson was “broadcasting the show from Virginia where he now lives.” That must be important to the narrative for Troy to include it twice in one story.
Troy then reports comments from three sources; two of them Black, one Hispanic. Did it not occur to him that any Caucasian people would be offended? Troy quotes Rev. Kevin Bedford, president of the NAACP; Larry Sykes, whom Troy describes as an “African-American member” of the TPS Board of Education; and Bob Vasquez, the president of the TPS Board of Education. Why did Troy feel compelled to describe Sykes as an “African-American?” Journalism 101 teaches the importance of not labeling sources by race or other traits unless is it important to the story. You would never read in The Blade, “Mike Bell, the African-American Mayor.” Was identifying Sykes’ skin color important to illustrating his “outrage?”
All three men excoriated Wilson; of course they did. They were given a 14-second quote and most likely told by the reporter that the quote was directly referring to TPS students. More prudent men might have asked for a larger context or asked to speak with Wilson before they condemned him.
Here is another quote from the story that reeks of bias: “Contacted later by phone at his home near Lynchburg, Va., Mr. Wilson sloughed off the criticism of those who read racism into his diatribe about public education.”
There’s that second Virginia reference. And check out these loaded words: “sloughed off,” which implies arrogance and insensitivity (“disputed” would carry more neutrality) and “diatribe,” which implies senseless ranting (“monologue” or “comments” would be more objective).
Troy goes on to drag in a Wilson use of the phrase “plantation mentality,” and then adds this detail: “During the interview he used another animal metaphor, saying that American education follows a model established in Germany to train ‘young minds to be good little government lemmings’.” That would seem to show Wilson has a habit of using animal analogies, which would take some steam out of the notion he used “monkeys” to specifically degrade TPS students; I wonder if Troy took the time to Google “lemmings,” hoping that animal could be negatively equated to some human racial group.
Stirring the outrage
On Jan. 9, “Wilson’s remarks stir more outrage” appeared, attributed to Mark Zaborney. Zaborney’s lead: “Remarks by a radio talk show host that were considered insensitive to African-American students in the Toledo Public Schools reverberated throughout the community Saturday.”
Notice that we are back to Wilson only offending African-American students; Zaborney must have missed Troy’s revisions. Note also the dramatic “reverberated throughout the community,” as if every segment of Toledo’s population was preoccupied with this nonsense. Zaborney does remember to remind readers that Wilson’s broadcast “originated from his home in Virginia,” so he got that part of The Blade’s mission.
Zaborney’s story centers on a protest meeting: “The Parent Congress has called a news conference … at the Thurgood Marshall Building on Manhattan Boulevard — the Toledo Public Schools headquarters.”
It was certainly friendly of TPS to open its headquarters for such a news conference on a Sunday, wasn’t it?
In addition to recycling comments from Troy’s sources, Zaborney adds that Toledo Mayor Mike Bell called for Wilson to apologize. Zaborney adds his opinion to the news story with this sentence:
“Mr. Wilson doesn’t limit incendiary remarks to the airwaves. Atop his Web site is a picture of a microphone aflame.”
What does that have to do with anything? Well, it gives Zaborney an opportunity to quote Wilson making some “incendiary” blog comments about NW Ohio residents.
Hitting the brakes
During the first two days of Blade coverage, no one quoted had heard anything except the 14-second audio file helpfully shopped around by The Blade. That segment of the Jan. 7 show was not available on the WSPD website. So unless you heard the comment live (which apparently none of the quoted leaders did), or caught it overnight during the Web streaming repeat of the broadcast, your only source for the content was The Blade’s race-baiting reporting.
On Jan. 8 and 9, I talked to Wilson (from his home in Virginia!) two or three times, hoping to get the file of the full segment so I could hear the context for myself before I decided if Toledo Free Press would report anything on the controversy. I tried to get Wilson to talk about The Blade’s story and provide the audio clip, but he told me he was not talking to the press and did not provide the file.
Toledo Free Press and WSPD have a hot-and-cold history. The radio station is an ally, and I have guest-hosted shows a dozen or so times, but a few philosophical breaks have kept us from being full-fledged, in-step partners. I still wanted to hear Wilson’s comments in full, so I pursued a few back channel contacts and eventually obtained the five-and-a-half minute audio clip. I played it on my BlackBerry. Then replayed it. Then played it again.
While the audio clip on The Blade’s website contained the supposedly offending reference to monkeys, it did not include the setup, in which Wilson criticized the concept of teaching through repetition without teaching independent thinking, nor did it include this crucial next sentence: “Similarly with children, just because you can teach them the answers to what are the capitals of the 50 States in America, that’s a fun exercise but it doesn’t teach them how to think, doesn’t teach them how to be objective, doesn’t teach them to be entrepreneurs and individuals and things along that order.”
There was no way an intelligent, discerning person could interpret Wilson’s “monkey” comment as anything resembling a direct reference to humans, much less TPS students.
I sent the clip to Toledo Free Press contributor Lisa Renee Ward and asked her to send it to sources included in The Blade’s coverage to seek comment. Toledo Free Press provided the transcript of the segment to those who had made statements calling for Wilson to apologize and/or asked Clear Channel Communications to discipline him, including TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko, who had appeared at the Jan. 9 news conference; Bell; TPS Board Vice President Lisa Sobecki; President and CEO of the Greater Urban League John C. Jones; the NAACP’s Bedford; and Chris Varwig, past president of TPS Parent Congress.
Despite clear evidence that Wilson had not called TPS students “little monkeys,” Sobecki and Varwig stuck by their statements.
The first crack in The Blade’s mission to sink Wilson came from Bell, when Jennifer Sorgenfrei, public information officer for the City of Toledo, said, “[The mayor’s] statement was in direct response to the portion of audio he was provided by The Blade,” the first public indicator that this mess originated with the daily paper of record.
For the next 24 hours, the only public place to hear the full context of Wilson’s comments was on the Toledo Free Press website.
I am not a monkey
The Jan. 10 Blade story, its third front-page story in a row, “TPS parents: WSPD’s Wilson must apologize,” was authored by Jennifer Feehan.
Notably, The Blade coverage begins to soften here, but not much. Wilson’s comments are merely “decried” and Feehan writes “some took” them as a “blatant racial slur.” No need to write like a political pamphleteer when you have everyone stirred up, right? Feehan does make sure she notes that Wilson “lives in Virginia,” but that might have been written by Troy, who contributed to Feehan’s story.
For the first time in three reports, The Blade quotes someone who actually thinks before he reacts: “Denny Schaffer, a former Toledo radio talk-show host who was contacted by The Blade Sunday night, said he would have to hear more of Mr. Wilson’s show Friday to comment on whether his words crossed a line.”
Good call, Denny.
In the printed version of The Blade, the Wilson story jumps from Page 1 to a page filled with coverage of just the Tucson shootings tragedy, linking the two stories in a way that shows The Blade was ahead of the curve in linking conservative talk radio to the massacre. In a separate Jan. 10 story on Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s reaction to the Tucson shootings, Troy quoted Kaptur condemning Wilson’s comments and, startlingly, calling for a listener boycott of WSPD.
It is interesting to note that one of the photos published with Feehan’s story shows a Rogers High School student holding a sign that reads, “I am NOT a monkey!” After publication of that photo, the boy’s mother posted a Facebook message to abc13 reporter Kristian Brown that read, “did you see the front page of the Blade today and that little monkey? LOL.”
On Jan. 10, the Urban League’s Jones called into Wilson’s show, and while he stopped short of agreeing with Wilson that The Blade had “duped” him, honorably made it clear that he no longer believed Wilson’s comments were directed at TPS students. During his broadcast, Wilson said he was sorry if anyone was offended by his remarks — which isn’t the same thing as being sorry for making the remarks.
On Jan. 11, a fourth reporter was stained by this epic libel (and it’s fair to ask — had any of these journalists bothered to listen to the full Wilson segment, or were they relying solely on Troy’s reporting?). “TPS’ Pecko says Wilson’s apology over comment is insufficient,” attributed to Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, gives the TPS chief something to talk about besides a $38 million deficit. Now that the full audio had been available on the Toledo Free Press website since Jan. 9 and on WSPD’s website since Jan. 10, there seemed to be far fewer people willing to go on the record condemning Wilson.
Here is Kirkpatrick’s lead sentence: “Public Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko said he doesn’t buy an apology Monday from WSPD-AM, 1370 radio personality Brian Wilson, who on Friday compared the district’s instructional methods to the same type of rote instruction that succeeds in teaching little monkeys to peel bananas.”
In four stories, The Blade evolved from Troy’s opinion-laden reporting to Kirkpatrick’s more fact-based description, which is notable for not placing quotation marks around its “little monkeys” reference.
Pecko told Kirkpatrick late Jan. 10, “he had not heard the entire Friday broadcast,” even though Toledo Free Press had provided it to his office mid-Sunday afternoon. Even after he listened to it and commented to Toledo Free Press on Jan. 11, Pecko insisted that Wilson’s comments were racial in nature and aimed at TPS students; he renewed his nonsensical and censorship-leaning call for the FCC to review WSPD. He was joined in his racial context belief by Blade Managing Editor Dave Murray, who told 13abc that “the paper stands behind the story and felt it was put in proper context.”
I wonder how Pecko, Murray and others who continued to stand by The Blade’s libelous series felt when they read the opening sentence in The Blade’s Jan. 12 editorial, “Free, responsible speech”: “No, Brian Wilson did not call Toledo Public Schools students ‘little monkeys’.” Mea culpa!
Here is the next line from the editorial: “But the talk-radio host and his defenders ought not complain that this newspaper yanked his recent observations about public education out of context, and at the same time try to ignore or deny the broader context of local leaders’ criticism of his remarks.”
But when the “broader context of local leaders’ criticism” comes from a slanted, 14-second clip, why shouldn’t that context be ignored and discounted? None of the myriad people hoodwinked by The Blade on this story are going to publicly admit to being played for fools, but they were. Twice. First when they knee-jerk commented in their rush to criticize Wilson, and again when The Blade left them standing all alone after it changed its mind.
The unsigned editorial also includes this puzzler: “Comparing humans with lesser primates is, of course, a standard racial insult.”
Really? Think about the stunning implications of that statement. There’s no outrage in it, just a ho-hum admission that “That’s just the way it is.”
Maybe that is the way they think in The Blade newsroom. Someone mentions monkeys, and the people there think of race. If I say Toledo Free Press threw a monkey wrench in The Blade’s scheme to harm Wilson, will Blade editors think we hired an African-American mechanic?
The editorial then admits, “there is no evidence that that was Mr. Wilson’s intent.”
Tom Troy and his editors sure thought there was, for four consecutive days of front page stories.
The hardest word
They have no real governing authority, but perhaps the Associated Press, Ohio Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists and the Toledo Press Club should closely examine their membership guidelines and compare them to The Blade’s conduct in this case.
And, hey, city leaders, the next time The Blade calls, shopping around an inflammatory quote, how about doing some research before you open your mouths and condemn someone? If you jump anyway and then discover you were wrong, how about being a man and apologizing as loudly as you criticized?
This is the second time The Blade has taken a major swing at its nemesis Wilson, following a number of stories on the host living in Virginia, and it is the second time Wilson has walked away. In this case, that 800-pound gorilla at 541 N. Superior St. looks a lot less like King Kong and a lot more like Captain Huggy Face.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Brian Wilson, Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, Clear Channel, Dave Murray, Jennifer Feehan, Jerome Pecko, John Jones, Kristian Brown, Lighting The Fuse, Lisa Renee Ward, Lisa Sobecki, Marcy Kaptur, Mark Zaborney, Michael S. Miller, Mike Bell, The Blade, Toledo Free Press, Toledo Public Schools, Tom Troy