Sunday, April 02, 2006

Compare & Contrast: Newspaper Editorial Division

Up in Missouri, a high school is embroiled in controversy over flags in schools. Not Mexican or American national flags, but student group banners, from the "Diversity Club" and the "Traditional Values Club." The local paper
weighs in Solomonically with interesting results.

First, let me ask you. If you see a banner on a car, or a flag, or a t-shirt, or in a window, that has a rainbow on it (not accompanied by unicorns or Care Bears or hearts or Irish leprechans) what do you first associate it with? Gay rights, of course.

Here's how the Livingston Press & Argus editors describe the controversy:
The flap can be traced to a diversity flag placed in the high school by the student Diversity Club. Because it has a rainbow design — and because it appeared in response to a state ballot issue that was seen by some as anti-homosexual — the flag is seen by some adults in the community as an endorsement of homosexuality.
"Seen by some" is newspaper-weasel speak "small group of complainer and nuts." The editors want you to think that what is a chain of causality is merely a sequence of events. No reaction on the part of some students to perceived mistreatment by others.

Notice the flag was "placed," a value-neutral term. Notice that no one acted, it was all "because." Just happened, no actors. Must be magic!

Now let's compare descriptions of clubs. First, the Diversity Club:
...[C]lub and school officials insist the rainbow represents diversity in all its glory and is not some sort of subversive attempt to promote a gay agenda.
Notice the conflation of the club and the school. Note that the writers don't scare quote the "subversive attempt" but reduce it to reasonableness within a sentence constructed to make the Diversity Club the defenders against attacks. The status quo ante to the reactionary TVC.

Now, the Traditional Values Club:
...[A] small student group — which says it promotes traditional values — earned club status, which means it will be able to hang its flag in the hall.

The new flag carries a lowercase red "T," which both stands for "traditional" and is a not-so-subtle reference to the Christian cross. Some people, especially about 40 teachers, are upset because they see this as a violation of the separation of church and state.
Notice that it was the "student Diversity Club," implying outgrowth from the student body, natural and organic, and further implying size and approval from the "student body." No mention of the size of the DC. The TVC, however, is pointedly described as "small," to the point the editors feel compelled to note it has four members. It is made a discrete (as in separated from the student body) unit, unrelated and of itself.

The DC has "club and school officials insist" on their belief, which is never quite stated directly but happily described for them by the paper as "diversity in all its glory," while the TVC has its mission reduced to "which it says promotes traditional values...." The DC position is natural and obvious, the TVC position must be "said," "promoted."

The editorial twice describes the DC banner as "seen by some," a marginalising tool for critics. The TVC banner is called by the editors "a not-so-subtle reference to the Christian cross." Criticism of the DC banner must be made by "some" while the criticism of the TVC banner is handled by the editors and their omniscient, all-encompassing POV.
If the Traditional Values Club meets the same criteria as the Diversity Club — securing a faculty adviser, for instance, and not barring students from membership — then it has the same rights.
Note that the editors are happy to handicap the TVC by employing an "if [the club] meets the same criteria, then..." construction as though there is doubt here. The DC is solid and is the point of comparison from which the TVC is made questionable, even though the editorial earlier made clear that it is an accredited school club! Clever writing meant to cast differing weights to the participants. You might not even be aware of it, unless you paid careful attention.

Nope, no bias or sympathies hidden here! The Pharisees of the Press & Argus don't even know those Roman governors, much less want to appease and kowtow to them. Nope, not at all!

Now let's put some separated paragraphs together in reverse order and see how they read in light of the above:
Protesting the traditional values flag merely re-inforces the belief by some that the educational community picks and chooses the rights it defends....

The issues facing the Howell Public Schools district are great. State funding is too low, the budget isn't balanced, and there will likely be increased graduation demands.

So, of course, much of the media attention is focused on what flags can hang on the halls of the high school.

It's got to be frustrating for school officials who would likely rather spend their time on topics such as, say, curriculum improvement.
An interesting point is now made, isn't it? Maybe the public sees an underlying mode of thought it finds abhorrent in teachers and administrators and school board members that it feels should be addressed first, by which other problems may find their solutions follow? Maybe those teachers and administrators aren't operating as their public wishes?

And lastly, there's this:
Teachers making a stink about the flag are giving the club — which only has about four members — a weight greater than it perhaps deserves.
Ahhhh, yes. The truth is outed, to borrow a term. If the teachers had just kept quiet, the TVC would have faded away under the pressure of the teacher / administrator-backed DC. The "diversity agenda" would have continued, unbothered and unnoticed by the larger community. All would be well again.

And for all their high-minded talk of "teachable moments" and First Amendment rights of expression that, I suspect, was the editors' real concern here.

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