The Tyranny of Lazy Narratives

Today, I take to my keyboard to make a brief but important gripe. I’m here to lament the way in which local media so often frames narratives, and how that framing can, intentionally or unintentionally, become a force that sets the battle lines within debates without giving the consumers of the media a thorough understanding of a situation. It is a pervasive issue, and hardly limited to local media, though at least at this level I have some hope that something can be done about it.

My prompt for this gripe is the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of some of the changes in store for Canal Park in Duluth, which emerged from the Imagine Canal Park process. Imagine Canal Park is a Knight Foundation grant-funded effort to engage the public and install some creative new features in the Duluth neighborhood that so many residents abandon to the tourists, particularly in summer months. (In the interest of full disclosure, my boss played a key role in launching Imagine Canal Park, though I will add that my own reaction upon learning of the process was a bit of a sigh and a few questions as to why we can’t put this type of effort into neighborhoods that are more oriented toward Duluth residents. That’s a debate for another time, though.)

The DNT, however,  took the innovations planned for Canal Park and turned them into a story about…traffic congestion. The required sacrifices were made before the altar of the Parking God, which must be appeased anytime anyone anywhere ever suggests any changes that might make someone park 20 feet further away or drive around the block again in search of a spot. The lede could have been the heaps of people the city engaged with in the Imagine Canal Park process. Instead, the story fixates on the concerns of a single “resident.” (A resident of what? Canal Park? Park Point? Duluth? The story never says.) People are upset, and apparently the media must reward upset people with coverage, because grumbling in a Facebook comment apparently now passes for news.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some valid questions about traffic flow when closures like this occur. Those questions have a place in this story. But to frame it as if an annoyance caused by the change is more significant than the change itself resorts to a tired trope, and frames the debate in ways that bias the casual reader against the cause before it even has a chance to get off the ground. It becomes an implicit force for a status quo that is taken for granted, one that reinforces a lack of creativity and makes acceptance of the current conditions the default against which all efforts for change must overcome. And we wonder why local politics is so often dominated by inertia and a handful of powerful voices.

This particular article set me off because so many of the premises of the complaints are shaky. We know from decades of experience that people adapt to changes in traffic patterns pretty quickly, and learn to go on with their lives. (For similar reasons, added roadway capacity almost never reduces congestion.) Aside from some necessary accommodations for the disabled and elderly, Americans are fat and could stand to walk that extra 20 feet, and likely will not suffer for it. The “people will drive through it anyway” complaint does not exactly jive with the picture atop the article showing large orange barrels and ROAD CLOSED signs that would take some pretty serious cluelessness or alcohol consumption for anyone to drive through. And yet the entire story is framed around the complaints of one commenter with no obvious credentials to comment on the subject. While this is an especially grating example, it’s not hard to imagine any number of topics where the rants of the uninformed or lazy both-sides-must-be-covered-without-assessing-the-merits reporting predominates, and leaves an impoverished discourse in its wake.

Normally, I think the News Tribune does a reasonably good job on things like this. Most of its writers do their homework and give a much more thorough picture than one gets on, say, TV news, where simplified black-and-white narratives are far more pervasive. But that doesn’t excuse the tyranny of lazy narratives when it rears its ugly head, and anyone who writes should resist it at every opportunity.


Good Journalism, 4/26/18

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.

Good Journalism, 4/19/18

Here is week two in my attempt to collect a smattering of semi-related pieces of good journalism on topics that I think deserve more attention than anything in the regular news cycle.

From Franklin Foer, one of the Atlantic’s most fascinating writers, comes a discussion on the end of reality. It should leave you quite concerned about our virtual future, and the past couple of years show just how much it can threaten a traditional understanding of truth and, yes, reality itself. As a defender of reality, it’s a timely call to arms.

From something called The Educators’ Room, which is dedicated to teachers’ empowerment, here is a list of ten things that teachers today have to deal with that they didn’t ten years ago. The timing here is apt, as I close in on my own 10-year reunion. Sure enough, few to none of these things existed when I walked out of Duluth East ten years ago, and just about all of them leave me saddened or frustrated with the state of education. Some of them key off the concern over virtual lives that comes out of the Foer piece, but others deal with safety, a decline in authority conferred to teachers, and broader social forces that affect home lives. My own profession is often complicit in #10, and while I do think there is very good work being done in better aligning curriculum with realities of a changing economy, whenever I get caught up in these discussions I just want to yell at people to stop and make sure we’re not thinking about education or childhood in a strictly utilitarian way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, both here and in the testing culture the author rightfully decries.

Spinning out of our theme of losing touch with the world around us, here is David Brooks on loneliness. From my own travels and observations, I would wholeheartedly concur that this epidemic is as dangerous as any afflicting contemporary American life. One line sums it up well: “the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.” We will either find some way to heal these wounds or we will continue to crumble away from reality.

Next, some notes on the political journey of a man who, while facing long odds, had as good a chance as anyone to heal the wounds of a fractured nation: RFK goes to Pine Ridge. There have been some timely RFK reflections of late, including a number on the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I expect they will continue as we close in on the anniversary of his death. I’m not sure there’s a more haunting figure in American history.

Following up on last week’s theme, but closer to home: Jana Hollingsworth and Brooks Johnson at the Duluth News Tribune delve into a sexual abuse case in Itasca County. One can certainly throw some stones at local papers like the News Tribune, but something I’ve noticed in recent travels to smaller communities is the hole left by the decline of newspapers as a communal source of knowledge. Once upon a time, these places had a common source of information; nowadays, ask a resident where to catch up on local happenings and many of them will shrug, or admit they’re relying on Facebook gossip (which many hate but can’t escape) or just the good old rumor mill at the coffee shop or bar. Institutions like newspapers play a vital role. And I’m pleased to say that the DNT reporters who I’ve interacted with in recent years, which include Jana and Brooks, along with Peter Passi on local government and Louie St. George on hockey, are all in it for the right reasons, and do great work. May they continue to have the resources to do more of this.

And, staying local for my final piece, here’s an obituary that caught my eye this week. Mary C. Van Evera is a name I’ve heard around Duluth from time to time, usually as a donor somewhere in the background. I often wonder who these people are, and how they amassed their wealth, and what spurred them to grace certain causes with their patronage. With Mrs. Van Evera, it’s obvious enough: her maiden name was Congdon, and she was a granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon, the builders of Glensheen and the exemplars of Duluth’s golden age a century ago. Obviously few to zero people reading this blog will have Congdon-level wealth, and I can’t claim to have known her or how she operated. But when it came to civic involvement, and to commitment to a place while maintaining a global perspective, Mrs. Van Evera was exemplary.

I’m building some steam here. Let’s do this again next week.

Dissonance in a District Divided

On Saturday, the Duluth News Tribune’s Jana Hollingsworth wrote the paper’s best piece about ISD 709 in my memory. It was thorough, powerful, and on the depressing side. As usual, this is one of the few things that drives me up on to a soapbox. Here I go.

The article is primarily about the struggles of ISD 709’s music programs, which have taken a big hit in recent years. The number of music educators in the district has been halved since my graduation just six years ago, to say nothing of the private and small-group lessons that were already in decline. I wrote about this a little bit after the school board meeting two months ago (see the notes after the stars toward the end): a six-period middle school day makes for some ugly choices by students, and music is the natural victim. The suggestion in a letter by Superintendent Gronseth to parents that students don’t really need to study a foreign language in eighth grade, while true to the extent that it corrects a false rumor, would irk me if I were a parent. Shut up and eat your broccoli, kids!

What makes this article impressive, though, is that it digs a bit deeper, and acknowledges that elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about: Duluth’s east-west divide. Duluth is a split city; the new two high school set-up may make that distinction more obvious, but wasn’t any less real before the Red Plan. We have an east side that is home to the financial and intellectual elite of northeastern Minnesota, and while not everyone in the East attendance area is a cakeater, the ancillary benefits of wealth and stable neighborhoods can make all the difference in the world. The east side has the cultural capital to withstand budget crises and large class sizes, and its involved parents will fight hard to make sure the money keeps flowing into the coffers. Meanwhile, we have a west side that has a shrinking student population, more than double the number of kids on free and reduced lunch, and—perhaps most damagingly—a “far more transient” population. How can a District ever make real progress when kids are here one year and gone the next?

Sure, there are bureaucratic ways of getting around this, but it’s tough, given Duluth’s geography. Something like one half of the student-aged population now lives east of 21st Avenue. Elaborate line-drawing and busing schemes are an option, but as we reflect on the 60 years since Brown v. Board, we’ve learned that, however noble the intent, busing alone cannot correct the inequities in a city, and in general has simply proven another catalyst for white flight to the suburbs. Duluth’s dynamics in this regard are far less racial, but there’s no reason not to think that a number of those with the means to do so wouldn’t follow the incentives and create their own solutions if their children are forced into the “weaker” school in a search for equity. Like it or not, reality demands that Duluth confront the incentives that exist in the current system. No PR operation is going to change them. The solutions here are primarily in the realm of economics and urban planning, not school buses.

I’ve said this numerous times when talking about this divide, and I’ll stress it again here: the west side of Duluth is no ghetto. It has some quality neighborhoods and a strong sense of identity. It’s not beyond repair, and some people on the west side would take issue with the suggestion that it even needs repair. To the extent that it does, much of it is beyond the purview of a school district. It can’t give parents jobs or repair broken families or generate homeownership, and educational struggles will probably forever follow issues such as those. It makes no sense to force students district-wide into the same box and expect the same outcomes. Solutions must work with the reality on the ground.

ISD 709 has, quietly, acknowledged this. From the singular focus on math and reading at Laura Macarthur to the intensive programs at Lincoln Park detailed in this latest article, the District has put extra emphasis on basic skills. This is in many regards a practical decision, both in the need to raise test scores for funding purposes and in the need to have kids who can function at reasonable levels. Obviously, this isn’t without its trade-offs, sometimes potentially very negative ones. The most familiar is mentioned by Member Seliga-Punyko: things like music, athletics, and elective classes give kids reasons to be excited about school, and want to be there. If they don’t get this stuff early in their lives, is there any reason to expect they ever will?

There is another danger, here, though, something underscored even further by the recent elimination of Spanish 5 at Denfeld: there needs to be a track for the high-achieving kids on the west side to keep up with their peers on the east. The benefits are manifold: it sets a high bar that can give students a reason to strive in school. Those high-achieving students, many of them from stable families with deep roots in the area, are the glue that holds these schools together, and the foundation necessary for any broader scheme to rebuild that side of the city after thirty years of industrial decline. If options for those students get squeezed out, odds are they’re going to leave, and that only worsens the trickle-down effect. The west side’s test scores drop further, more resources get shipped out there to prop them up, and in time the east side starts to feel the strain, too, and suddenly we’re all going down the drain together. If that means devoting some extra resources to the west side to prop up certain options, as Clare Chopp suggests, then this kid who bleeds red and grey says “make it happen.”

This isn’t a big city. ISD 709 can’t just close low-performing schools left and right as in large urban districts, especially not in the wake of the Red Plan. (Though even that isn’t guaranteed to work; see this striking piece on school reform in Newark in last week’s New Yorker.) For all their differences, the east and west sides are intricately interconnected. It is not the job of school districts to make war on geography, and while they can be a source of social change—and probably should be, to the extent that they can—it’s delusional to think schools can do it alone, or even that they are the primary factor. Instead, the District has to work with what it has. There is only so much the schools can control, and I certainly have plenty of sympathy for the School Board members and principals as they make painful decisions on what must be cut. In the end, it all comes back to incentives: a few gentle pushes can make sure students have all of the opportunities they deserve.

To that end, here’s one idea: actively pressure kids to take tougher classes so that they can generate the numbers necessary to sustain them. Much too big of a deal is made out of the AP label in ISD 709. Just about anywhere else in the country, AP is a relative commonplace. If inner-city schools can cram a host of poorly-prepared students through the AP curriculum every year—as many do—Duluth most definitely can come up with a single class of AP World History students at Denfeld. Even a half-assed AP class that doesn’t quite teach to the test is better than a “regular” course (though it should, of course, aim for the top—push the kids, and who knows what might happen).

I understand that AP is not the be-all, end-all, and six years removed, I can see what a rat race the fight for a good high school résumé was. However, this is not something you lessen by lecturing from on high on what one needs to take to go to college, nor by lopping off options and saying “eh, you’ll turn out alright in the end.” AP is not for everyone, just as college is not for everyone, and there is no shame in finding stable employment in, say, a trade profession. (To ISD 709’s credit, its programs in this department are strong, and it should be commended for standing by them, despite this not doing much for those all-important test scores.) CITS covers most of what kids need for local colleges and can even ready kids for AP tests adequately with just some minor tweaks, and I’m naturally bit skeptical of blanket standards imposed by the College Board. Still, AP is the common language spoken at strong colleges across the country, and I would have been dead in the water at Georgetown without the skills I learned in the AP classes I had. I can’t speak for Denfeld, but when I was at East, I was impressed with the school’s ability to prepare students for a variety of paths, from elite colleges to the local ones to the trade professions. There was a healthy diversity there, and in my mind, that is more important than relentless pursuit of higher test scores.

The path to tougher classes could be further incentivized by weighting grades. That would give students added reason to challenge themselves, and also might break up some of the grade inflation that can happen in ISD 709. Fifteen people in my East graduating class had 4.0s, which is kind of ridiculous. Everyone gets a medal! Not that there weren’t plenty of very smart people in that group, but there were surely some different paths to those high GPAs, to say nothing of the hyper-competitiveness fostered by the fear that a single B could drop a person 15 spots in their class rank. It would be cute if we could get kids to take high-level courses simply for the love of learning, but a little push never hurts, and getting into the deeper stuff isn’t a bad way to hook people, so long as it’s well-taught.

All of this brings us back to music, and there really is only one solution to that conundrum: get that seventh period restored to the middle school day. I don’t want to hear anyone blaming the Red Plan, and I don’t want to hear anyone blaming state or federal mandates. There are plenty of things I dislike about both of them, but framing all of this District’s issues through them amounts to a whiny denial of responsibility in the here and now. We have to confront reality, not a world of wishful thinking in which things are not as they are. Whatever Supt. Gronseth might plead in a letter, there is no sustainable future for the music programs with a six-period day. I was impressed by his admission in the article that some of the things the District tries to save money “don’t work out so well.” That’s an essential review process, and there is no shame in that admission. We could use more of it in many fields, and no one is above it.

Of course, this is all easy for me to say; we’ll see what can feasibly be done. Tuesday’s Board meeting should be an interesting one: do the Members rehash the same old talking points and past wars, or do they confront the existing problems with both the seriousness and the humility necessary? Their actions over the first few months of this new term have given me some hope. As usual, I’ll be on hand to see if they hit the right notes.