January 17, 2011

Toledo Free Press Schools the Toledo Blade Over Talker’s Non-Racist ‘Monkeys’ Remark

UPDATE, 11:30 p.m.: “Blade-Brian Wilson-WSPD Follow-up; Who’s the ‘Monkey Man’ Now?”

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Especially on Martin Luther King Day, it seems worth asking whether or not the assassinated civil rights leaders would have cared more about:

  • Whether a talk radio host told his audience, in reference to the No Child Left Behind Act causing many school districts, including the Toledo Public Schools (TPS), to believe they must “teach to the test” to avoid serious sanctions: “teaching little monkeys to peel bananas and so on and then doing it correctly on cue, does not mean that they’ve learned everything except a funny parlor trick.”
  • The fact that TPS is rated dead-last in its metro area, and failed to meet state test-result requirements in 21 of 24 testing categories in the 2009-2010 academic year. The worst examples: In the eighth grade, only 39.0% and 34.3% of TPS students tested as proficient in math and science, respectively. According to Toledo-area blogger and sometime WSPD host Maggie Thurber, the District is also “facing a $38 million deficit and … 58% of voters said no to their last levy request.”

I think it’s safe to say that King would have preferred that attention stay focused on dealing with Toledo’s schools, and for that matter Ohio’s schools in general, as according to the just referenced Ohio Department of Education (ODE) report card, TPS actually outperformed (actually, “less underperformed”) “similar districts” in the Buckeye State in 15 of those 24 categories.

But that must not be how the Toledo Blade sees it. The far left Blade, which in distant-past editorials regaled readers with its indispensable importance as a Glass City civic institution and has been in a figurative war with local talk station WSPD for years, clearly thought it saw an opening when host Brian Wilson said the following on January 7:

Then you’ve got as far as solving the problems of education in Toledo, you also have to look at the curriculum, which pretty much sucks, dictated by the federal government especially under the No Child Left Behind business, which now has teachers teaching answers to the tests, not concept, not individuality, not entrepreneurialism, not anything like that, of course some of that hasn’t been taught for years. But certainly, teaching little monkeys to peel bananas and so on and then doing it correctly on cue, does not mean that they’ve learned everything except a funny parlor trick.”

“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.”

“So the curriculum then becomes an issue and while there are great teachers throughout every school system, there are some losers in TPS and they need to be extracted one way or the other, of course that brings us back around to the teachers unions.”

The link above is to the Toledo Free Press, an alternative area newspaper that has been a thorn in the Blade’s journalistically weak backside for years. As you will see in this instance, the Free Press successfully outflanked the Blade and ultimately forced it into an embarrassing mea culpa.

Blade “reporter” Terry Troy only included the following segment of what Wilson said in the paper’s first stir-up of the controversy (it’s a stir-up because there appears to have been no controversy or complaint about Wilson’s statement until the Blade decided to create one):

WSPD host compares TPS students, monkeys; Wilson denies racism

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.

The host of WSPD-AM, 1370′s Brian Wilson and the Afternoon Drive, said the city’s school system fails to teach students to think or be entrepreneurs.

“But 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,” Mr. Wilson told his audience.

Mr. Wilson, who was broadcasting the show from Virginia where he now lives, said he had no racial intent.

Seriously, Tom, how could Wilson have had racial intent? TPS’s ethnic make-up, from the same ODE report, isn’t even majority African-American (45% African-American, 41% white, 8% Hispanic, and 6% other).

That didn’t stop Troy or various outraged parties he quoted (“Two members of the Toledo Board of Education and the new president of the Toledo chapter of the NAACP”) from assuming that it was all about African-American students. It also didn’t stop the Blade from pushing three more stories by other staff reporters on the topic (here, here, and here) during the next few days.

The following graphic makes it pretty darned clear that those who are railing at Brian Wilson and WSPD should instead take a hard look in the mirror at themselves. That’s because the people failing TPS’s African-American students are the people who run TPS, and, to an indeterminate but likely significant extent, their parents and others occupying influential positions in the African-American community:

TPS2009to2010ProfByEthnic

As bad as the school district is, children from every other identified ethnic group managed to get acceptable results on the latest ODE report card last year (not that ODE is setting the bar particularly high). Why not African-Americans? What would MLK say?

After pushback by Wilson and others, most notably the Free Press, the Blade, in a January 12 editorial, backed away from Troy’s core contention of racism, but couldn’t resist playing the “civility” card:

Free, responsible speech

No, Brian Wilson did not call Toledo Public Schools students “little monkeys.” 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.

… Comparing humans with lesser primates is, of course, a standard racial insult. Although there is no evidence that that was Mr. Wilson’s intent, an experienced broadcaster should have anticipated that his words would give offense.

He conceded this week that his comparison had been “unfortunate.” The radio station’s general manager called it “inappropriate.” At the very least, it was irresponsible.

The episode again reflects the potential and real risks of speaking carelessly or impulsively. Our constitutional right to free speech does not absolve us — media provocateur, politician, private citizen, or anyone else — of the consequences of our words.

The next day, the Free Press’s Michael Miller posted a column that would be in the running for the NewsBusters Hall of Fame if it had gone up there. Miller recounted his efforts to obtain the relevant five minutes of audio and, once obtained, the results of his running a full transcript by those to whom the Blade had only provided 14 seconds. Many, despite having the full audio with full context rubbed in their faces, still chose to bitterly cling to the their racist intent narrative.

The key, though, was when Miller found someone who acknowledged that the entire controversy was driven by the Blade:

The first crack in The Blade’s mission to sink Wilson came from (Toledo Mayor Mike) 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.

Miller notes that things things then began to unravel for the Blade:

On Jan. 10, the Urban League’s (John C.) 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.

But Miller reminds readers that another person, apparently with all kinds of spare time despite the failures occurring on his watch, was holding out:

(TPS Superintendent Jerome) 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.”

Thus it was that the Blade had to backtrack kicking and screaming, while of course trying to change the subject.

Miller gives credit to his paper, and deservedly so:

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.

… 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?

Kudos to Miller and all those involved at the Free Press for their persistence. As to the Blade, it must really be a drag to know that those old, reliable tricks that used to work like a charm have lost their power to deceive.

Heaven help Toledo if people like those who run the Blade ever regain control over what “responsible” speech is in that city. If the Blade’s bludgeoners get their their way, parents might not even be able to deliver a “monkey see, monkey do” scolding to their children when their little ones do something dumb in imitation of their friends who have done something dumb.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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  1. [...] Post: – January 17 — Toledo Free Press Schools the Toledo Blade Over Talker’s Non-Racist ‘Monkeys’ Remark [...]

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