Christian Science Monitor
January 31, 1991
The Reporter as ‘Lightning Rod’
LAST fall, newsstand managers in New Haven scrambled to keep racks stocked with a magazine they rarely have to reorder.
Usually considered too highbrow for general tastes, The New Yorker was selling like hotcakes. Local readers were chasing down a series of articles that focused on five months in the life of a black teenager selling cocaine in New Haven. The two-part series was called “Out There” and was written by staff writer William Finnegan.
Vivid descriptions of the seventh-poorest city in the nation and its wealthy inhabitant, Yale University, sparked communitywide discussions about the burgeoning drug trade’s impact on blacks and the role of the white media in the black community. The series also placed Mr. Finnegan in a public light.
Finnegan combined observations culled from intimate interviews with his 16-year-old subject, whom he called “Terry,” with historical analysis of urban decay. He argued that industrial decline had left young black men few options other than dealing drugs.
Finnegan was invited to return to New Haven. Within six weeks of the series’ publication, he spoke to packed houses at Congregation Mishkan Israel, Yale Law School, Yale Divinity School, and the New Haven County Bar Association. “Everyone was talking about these articles – at board meetings, the Downtown Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the hospital, the Shubert [Performing Arts Center] board, social gatherings, the Volvo Tennis Foundation board – everywhere you went,” recalls Sheila Wellington, Secretary of Yale University.
BUT it was white reaction, not the articles, that shocked many in the black community. “The issue,” says Lisa Sullivan, a community activist and black Yale graduate student, “is who speaks for the black community and why.”
Despite initial reservations about talking to a white New Yorker reporter, Ms. Sullivan agreed to let Finnegan interview her for the articles. While she applauds the result, describing the series as “the best thing I’d read about what’s going on in urban communities,” Sullivan was angered by white responses.
Yale’s Ms. Wellington says that reactions in the white community fell into three categories: Some people were unaware that things in New Haven were so bleak and were shocked by the series; others worried that the articles were bad public relations for New Haven; and others wanted to know what they could do.
Sullivan asks how anyone could be blind to the inequities that exist in New Haven: The city is unable to pay its debts, while the university has an estimated $2 billion endowment; derelict public housing projects abut Yale’s lavish gymnasium.
“All of a sudden these people in New Haven, particularly the business community and liberal community, were saying, ‘Oh! We’ve got this problem!’ Where have these people been?” she asks.
It’s a good question, says Herbert Brockman, rabbi at Mishkan Israel. He wonders aloud why the articles had such a tremendous impact and why so many people attended the lectures. “They were scared and confused,” he says, “and they were hoping he had answers.”
At most of the forums, Finnegan was besieged by readers in search of solutions to the problems he described. At Yale Law School, one listener asked (tongue in cheek) what guidance Finnegan would offer if he had the ear of two former mayors, some prominent educators, and a smattering of lawyers – all of whom happened to be in the audience at the time. “I wish I could be more constructive,” Finnegan responded then. “These are really national problems, not local.”
Finnegan says this is really the first time readers have made him somewhat accountable for what he has written. “It’s startling,” he says. “In theory you’re writing for a lot of people … but having some rather large fraction of those readers come to life as it were, make themselves known to you, is rattling.”
Finnegan says he has felt like a “lightning rod for the gripes, guilts, anxieties, projections, ambitions, and frustrated idealisms of all sorts of people.”
What bothers community activist Sullivan is that the lightning rod is inevitably a white man. “It’s as if whites can only listen to other whites talk about blacks,” she says. What would happen, she asks, if Terry had walked into the divinity school, or the bar association and tried to tell his own story? She doubts if anyone would have listened.
Jeffie Frazier, principal of Helene Grant Elementary School, located in the heart of New Haven’s oldest black neighborhood, agrees. Ms. Frazier, a black educational leader, says a friend sent her the articles, which she read and put away. “I didn’t urge anyone to read it. Why would I? We can walk out the front door and see it with our own eyes.”
If Frazier “wanted to turn heads” and say something new, she says, she would write something “positive about a black person or an inner-city urban area.” Reporters need to focus on the families that have managed to keep kids on track. That’s close to the reaction of Frazier’s colleague and mentor, James Comer, a black educator who teaches at Yale School of Medicine.
Dr. Comer has worked extensively in the public schools and believes that it’s more useful to scrutinize the strategies of the survivors than to focus on victims.
FINNEGAN says that if he were writing for inner-city teenagers, the success stories would probably be most important to tell, but he’s not. He worries that an exclusive focus on success could lead down the slippery ideological slope of providing fodder for what he calls “the myth that anybody can make it in America.” He says his goal is to “humanize some of the strangers out there.”
Finnegan became especially sensitized to the implications of such myths when he spent a year teaching in a black high school in Cape Town, South Africa, which he calls his “road to Damascus” experience. With a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Montana, he considered himself a fiction writer.
In South Africa, Finnegan put away fiction and turned to an in-depth, first person reportage. He underwent what he describes as “a slow realization that the people who interested me most to write about – the characters I felt most inspired to try to bring alive on the page – were social and political outsiders, the dispossessed.”
Although he is interested in politics and does explicitly political writing for The New Yorker’s “Notes and Comments” column, he says he is not primarily a political reporter and has never covered politics as a beat. He likes to think that he is “driven by character and narrative, language and theme, more than by political argument…. People – characters are – each mysterious and unique, and I’m happiest when I feel as if I’m conveying that.”
Finnegan hopes the final product at once makes “power somehow more accountable.”
That is exactly what the articles did for New Haven, says Matthew Nemerson, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. His board members read the series and were better able to understand that the issue isn’t that black teenagers lack self control or character.
“They got a whole, personalized, humanized view from an articulate outsider who came in and opened the door on a community that some people would like to remain closed,” Mr. Nemerson says.
Activist Sullivan disagrees. She says the articles didn’t produce any kind of lasting effect in New Haven. They “provided the liberal white community a cathartic moment to talk about this issue…. I think people have gone back to sleep…. It’s not just a question of waking people up, though. It’s a question of getting people committed to the problem.“