Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 28, 2015

At Year's End, Bits of Good News

By David K. Shipler

            Don’t blame the mainstream press, whose job is to focus on conflicts and problems, for the grim picture of a grim world. You can’t cure an issue until you turn it out into the sunlight. But in this season of holidays and reflections and resolutions, a little light on the brighter spots in our better nature might be part of that remedy, not so much to comfort us as to provide models of what could be. So I offer a few here.
             *The Dallas Dinner Table, which organizes dinner conversations at homes and churches about race, has had so many requests by local residents to participate on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, that it quickly reached its maximum of 500 and had to close registration early.
            *The fear and bigotry toward Muslims inflamed by Donald Trump, and effectively endorsed by the silence of most other Republican candidates, has provoked rebuttals and statements of support for Muslims from some (though not all) Christian pulpits across the country.
*The bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, wrote of “our love for you, our Muslim neighbors,” and pledged “our commitment to find even more effective ways to protect and defend you from words and actions that assault your safety and well-being. We believe God calls us to resist what is divisive, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist, or violent, and we want you to look to us as allies and friends.”

December 14, 2015

Sequel: A Theatrical Idea Reborn

By David K. Shipler

            One year ago, the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.—an otherwise estimable institution—summarily fired Ari Roth, its internationally respected artistic director, who over 18 years had built the center’s Theater J into an inventive forum of dramatic ideas. Roth was compelled by his family history and his creative sensibilities to reach across difficult lines of difference. He did not shrink from putting hard issues before Washington audiences, but always with a strain of hopefulness. He did not like leaving people in despair.
            He did not like leaving himself in despair, either, and in less than a year began a new theater company, appropriately named Mosaic, which is now assembling the polished pieces of diverse experiences into a thematic first season of ambitious plays. In a country and a world that is dangerously polarized, he is searching for paths to healing by looking clear-eyed at momentous conflicts and personal sorrows. Fine art does that. Art filtered by politics does not, and that’s where Roth’s expansiveness collided with the JCC’s timidity.
Essentially, Roth infuriated shallow-minded conservatives by staging plays that portrayed Israel as an actual country with real blemishes and impurities, not the cardboard artifice that right-wing, pro-Israel Americans have constructed in their imaginations. He produced playwrights who put history on display and allowed Arab voices to be heard. He did not censor one narrative in favor of another. He did not simplify reality but invited theatergoers to consider its contradictions and ambiguities, in the Middle East and elsewhere. And now, exiled from the Jewish theater, he is making a promising start doing the same thing on a broader landscape.

December 9, 2015

The Next Affirmative Action

By David K. Shipler

            College admissions officers who want racial diversity on campus have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with a conservative Supreme Court that dislikes racial preferences. The next probable step, once the Court decides the case it heard today (Dec. 9), is to shift from race to socioeconomic class as a means to assemble a creative variety of students. This would have pluses and minuses as a substitute for race-based affirmative action, which the Court seems poised to restrict severely or to strike down entirely in the current case, Fisher v. University of Texas.
            Class could be used as a proxy for race and ethnicity, given the overrepresentation of African-American and Latino households at lower income levels in the population as a whole. But the blacks and Latinos admitted to the most selective universities would be very different from those who get in under current racial preferences, large majorities of whom are middle- or upper-class, with only tiny fractions from poor backgrounds.
            “At the top twenty law schools, 89 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos (and even higher proportions of whites and Asians) come from the top socioeconomic half of the population,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg, citing a 2011 study, while only 2 percent of all law students in those schools come from the bottom quarter. “Another study finds that the proportion of black students at elite colleges coming from the top quartile of the socioeconomic distribution increased from 29 percent in 1972 to 67 percent in 1992.”

December 5, 2015

Mixing Opinion into News

By David K. Shipler

            The New York Times violated a worthy tradition today by publishing an editorial on its front page, above the fold, in a space previously reserved for facts and analysis, not opinion. It was a mistake, and I’ll bet I’m not the only former or current reporter for the paper who hopes it doesn’t happen again.
            The Times has been one of the last American news organizations to maintain a high wall between news and editorial. This is a peculiarly American practice, unusual even among other democracies. But it has been badly eroded by Fox News especially, which taints much of its reporting with politics. MSNBC, some radio broadcasters, and smaller newspapers have also allowed news coverage to be corrupted by partisan perspectives, while The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and some others still cling to what we denizens of the newsroom used to call, in decades past, “the separation of church and state.”
            Reporters were so zealous about this firewall that the newsroom would rumble with murmurs of discontent when a certain editorial writer, who opined on urban affairs, descended periodically from his exalted perch on the tenth floor of the old Times building to the third-floor newsroom to find out from me and other writers what was actually going on in the street. We talked to him but were careful not to listen to him and to pay no attention to whatever he wrote on the topics we covered.