Election 2020

Passive-Aggressive Media 'Emerged' Bernie Sanders' Civil Rights Arrest Photo

SCOTT OTT JOURNALISM CLINIC: LESSON #373

In journalism school (Penn State ’83) I learned to write in the active voice and to avoid passivity. Active sentences attract readers, and carry them through the story. The headline — a truncated version of the story — seduces the eye, beckons the mind and therefore needs the active voice even more.

So, this Chicago Tribune headline struck me like a door left ajar.

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 20, 2016

That’s right — a photo “emerged.”

It bubbled up from the boiling, roiling Tribune archives. One imagines this happens with some regularity as the magma-like acetate churns, spewing out random images day by day.

Coincidentally, this “emerged” photo captured the moment that a young civil rights activist, who happens to be running for president of the United States now, got dragged off to the pokey in the midst of a protest.

The black-and-white image appeared like Brigadoon from the mist just a week before the Democratic South Carolina primary.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign touts that contest as her “firewall,” after she felt “the Bern” in Iowa and New Hampshire. She’s slated to win big in the South because black voters reportedly love the Clintons and have never heard of Sanders, the blanched senator from the ivory state of Vermont.

Hillary Clinton’s reputation as “a fighter” for black people arrives at her doorstep unearned. Bernie Sanders actually owns a substantive record of civil rights activism.

But this story isn’t about Bernie or Hillary. It’s about the Chicago Tribune’s passive-aggressive reporting.

Take this sentence, for example, that appears in the second paragraph.

An acetate negative of the photo was found in the Tribune’s archives, said Marianne Mather, a Chicago Tribune photo editor.

Note how Ms. Mather didn’t hunt for the picture, nor did she produce it at the request of another, but she merely “said” it “was found.”

Who found it? Why? How? Who knows? What difference at this point does it make? Let’s move on…

Sanders’ activism at the University of Chicago has been in the news recently, after questions arose about a different photo that appeared to show Sanders addressing students at a 1962 campus sit-in.

The latter photo actually did show Sanders addressing students at the sit-in, so the Tribune’s use of the word “appeared” seems odd, as does the inclusion of this old, debunked non-factoid at all in the midst of this unrelated story.

Observe how questions arise, asked by no one in particular. Although all of the modern events in the story happened on Tribune property and involved Tribune staff, no one actively did anything.

The photo could play a significant role in the Democratic primary process, so why would the Chicago Tribune fail to take credit for unearthing this dramatic piece of evidence from its own storehouse?

If that story came across my Tribune editorial desk, I’d have flagged it with something like this:

Hands Up, Don't Vote Clinton, Tribune Arrest Photo Shows Bernie Sanders Active in Civil Rights Fight

Perhaps that’s a bit too much, but you get the point. The lede could have gone something like this.

Police carried off the young civil rights activist, his body tense, his teeth bared in a grimace as one cop twists his right arm behind his back. Fifty-three years later, that defiant man — captured in black and white on ancient acetate — beat Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. He threatens her now in the South.

Tribune photo editor Marianne Mather dug through the archives, unearthing the dramatic image that proves Sanders’ claim to a long legacy of fighting for African-American rights.

I’ve spent just enough time in newsrooms and dealing with editors to know that most stories come not at the tip of a shovel from digging, but of a silver spoon, a gift from some interested party.

It’s more likely this photo “emerged” when a Sanders campaign insider tipped off the Tribune. The paper’s reluctance to take credit for the find may indicate a fear of tipping off Hillary Clinton to their complicity in her decline.