Fanning the Flames 

High drama, dubious journalism

High drama, dubious journalism

Will Smith, the actor, recently asked a Newsweek interviewer, “Did you ever notice that they always find the most inarticulate black person to talk on the news?”

Then, slipping into character, Smith pretty well captured a stereotype all too familiar to anybody who watches the evening news: “Yeah, um, I was over at Thelma and them’s when the dude had shooted. And, uh, Johnny B. and Ree Ree, they had came out, and they seen him shoot, bam, bam, bam! ’Cause I thought he had shooted at me, but really he had shooted at them other dudes.”

“It’s like, where did they get that guy?” Smith asked. “There’s always a black doctor and a black lawyer standing behind him, but the news never talks to them.”

Mayor Phil Bredesen shares a similar sentiment. Even if Sam Levy public-housing project is not home to a great many highly trained professionals, Bredesen is frustrated by the way the local media have covered a Metro police officer’s shooting of a black drug dealer there. Since the victim, Leon “Spook” Fisher, had a history of terrorizing the neighborhood around Sam Levy homes and had accumulated a record of more than 30 criminal charges, Bredesen is not convinced that a majority of Nashvillians feel the police officer’s action was unjust.

Assuming that’s true, the mayor thinks the fourth estate has shirked its responsibility. Bredesen contends that, by offering a microphone to any resident willing to label the Metro Police Department as the bad guy, the media have propagated a theory held by only a minority of residents.

Calling the incident “a potentially explosive issue,” Bredesen says that “the wrong thing said at the wrong time can really divide a community,” and adds, “I really think the press has got a responsibility to walk a little extra carefully through those things.” In some instances already, Bredesen says, “I certainly think that the press treatment of this incident was not walked carefully through.”

Bredesen cites an Associated Press wire story that initially said 400 people rioted after the fatal shooting of Fisher. AP later corrected the number after Bredesen and Police Chief Emmett Turner reported estimates that fewer than 100 people gathered around the Dollar General store, hours after the shooting, and that only a handful of people were actually responsible for the destruction. However, police-department investigators still don’t know who was responsible for the arson, and that raises a question as to whether they know for sure how many people were involved.

Still, Bredesen bemoans the fact that the AP story “went out to the United States of America,” and says, “Lord only knows where that information came from. They apparently got that by talking to some residents and decided, ‘Yeah, let’s put that on the national news wire.’ ”

Earlier this week, Bredesen and his wife, Andrea Conte, made a visit to the neighborhood Dollar General store that was torched in retaliation for the shooting. When they arrived, a small throng of young black women gathered around the television cameras covering the event. The women claimed—in the head-shaking, trash-talking fashion of Smith’s character—that Fisher and the community had been wronged by a white cop.

Sharonda Jones, 26, for example, had this to say: “I think [the police] think it’s just one less nigger they got to worry about.” Another woman noted, somewhat sadly, that her sister had had a child by Fisher, and then proceeded to grow more and more theatrical. Mutilating the English language, she proclaimed, “I want to prosecute that [the police] did not have to shoot him in the head.” (Fisher was actually shot in the chest, above the bulletproof vest he was wearing.) All the while the cameras were rolling.

After about 30 minutes of what was, at times, an embarrassing and obnoxious display of the media’s willingness to capture wailing women on camera, the mayor became visibly angry. “I see the media is doing its normally responsible job,” he told his press secretary.

Later, Bredesen said that particular encounter, “more than anything I’ve done before as mayor, underlined for me the magnetism of getting somebody really angry on camera, even if it’s—I don’t want to say fake—even if it’s just for the camera. I guess I would have expected the reporters to use a little more discretion than that.”

Bredesen’s not always right. Sometimes, he’s too thin-skinned and unwilling to engage enough varying constituencies into the conversation. On this subject, however, he did predict exactly what was going to be on the evening news.

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