On Mississippi and good news

The other day, a friend shared a Facebook post by her mother, who had asked to see more complimentary stories about Mississippi and fewer stories about the controversial race- and Confederate history-related news making headlines lately.

Would Mississippians please post information and stories that reflect the beauty, hospitality, and progressive people who call this lovely state home. There’s so much more in MS than racism, flags and monuments. Let’s hear about it.

It isn’t clear whether the lady was complaining about what she sees on her Facebook feed or what’s in the news or both, but as a Mississippi newspaper reporter who also has what I blithely consider to be a vibrant social media presence, I feel qualified to respond.

I’ll start by recalling an episode last year in which a local businessman appeared before the McComb city board — we have a board and selectmen instead of a council — to complain about their perpetual squabbling and dysfunction, of which there is plenty. Two selectmen almost came to blows at one point, prompting my editor to tell me, without irony, “Start taking your camera. If there’s a fight you’ll want to get pictures.”

In the businessman’s remarks, he also called out my newspaper, the Enterprise-Journal, for giving too much ink to bad news, which he suggested burying in the back of the paper.

My editor/publisher, Jack Ryan, called the man out on his criticism and wrote a thoughtful editorial.

I disagree. I think that when elected officials act like mules, and there is plenty of that stubbornness going on in McComb City Hall right now, the people who elected them, and who pay property taxes and sales taxes, ought to know about it.
The proper restrictions on a newspaper’s reporting are of sensibility and context.
As long as we’re not sensationalizing a story with extra-large headlines, or harping on a political argument when there are more important events going on, then I’m OK with a story about city board disagreements being at the top of the front page.
What I really want to push back on, though, is the idea that we don’t put good news on the front page.
Every newspaper gets that criticism from time to time, and I understand it. There are a lot of sad or negative stories on the front page of any decent newspaper.

Mr. Ryan scoured every edition of the Enterprise-Journal for the preceding month, in the process proving what he already knew but the businessman didn’t. There had been 72 front page stories in the month (our paper comes out six days a week), and

There were stories about crime, like the recent string of armed robberies and the arrests that followed. Some were about local budgets and others focused on the flooding in Louisiana.

But he also counted 21 good-news stories, among the subjects a prayer vigil outside City Hall, a church’s efforts to help the family of a cancer-ridden child, and a recycling program receiving a large grant. There was a glowing tribute to a deceased community leader and the story of county supervisors praising a child who called 911 when a house fire started. And there were several stories about local groups sending aid to Crosby, Miss., which, along with large swaths of southern Louisiana, had been devastated by flooding.

The editor pointed out with pride that of those 72 front-page stories, only eight came from The Associated Press wire. The rest were the product of our own lean reporting staff.

A selectman last year griped to me a similar gripe to the businessman’s.

“You all love this stuff, don’t you? You sure do love playing it up.”

I asked him testily, “How many times have you called or emailed me to say, ‘There’s this great story in my ward. There’s a lady knitting blankets for soldiers’ or whatever … something good going on?”

I knew the answer but I gave him a chance.

“We’re a small operation and we try to find interesting material for the paper, but how hard would it be for you to pitch in?”

The selectman nodded with shame.

“I know, I know.”

It’s easy to skim a newspaper or Facebook feed, see the feel-good things, and as you do, think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on. But then, when you see a comment or link to a news story about, say, a city bringing down the state flag from municipal property or removing monuments honoring the Confederacy, you think, “Why do they harp on this negativity?”

If my friend’s mother saw my Facebook feed, she would see many pictures of kitties. She would see pictures and vivid descriptions of the things I cook and eat. She would see much criticism of Donald Trump.

But she would also have read about the black couple who saw my husband and me on the side of Interstate 55, exited, turned around, and came back to us, asking if we needed help. And she would see much discussion of the Happy Hour regulars at Applebee’s — a demographically diverse group — who engage almost daily, ribbing each other and the bartendresses and talking about the news of the day.

If my friend’s mother read the Enterprise-Journal she would have seen my story about Dylan Nauman, a former Applebee’s host who joined the Army. (I went to Fort Jackson, S.C., where Dylan was in boot camp, to report that one.)

She would have read story after story about the city board taking dramatic steps toward paving the city’s terrible streets. She would have read more stories than I can count about teachers winning awards, raising their students’ test scores and — cliché or not — making a difference.

And she would have seen my very interesting recent column about unusual things you can do with mashed potatoes.

I have written many stories highlighting the area’s creative economy and arts scene, both of which enjoy great, and increasing, community involvement and public participation.

In the last month or so, after a local arts school’s roof collapsed — injuring no one, thankfully — my paper has covered its director’s scramble to find a new place to educate. (He did.) It covered the community’s outpouring of support, including churches offering space and the students’ own work building walls, hanging drywall and painting their new quarters.

It also covered legal troubles emanating from the expense the city incurred in cleaning up the post-collapse mess. The city sued the school, unsure of its insurance coverage. This was part of the sensibility and context my editor mentioned.

My friend’s mother might find my politics distasteful. Everyone on social media has his or her own mix of politics, food and kitties, and everyone has his or her own threshold of how much of each they can tolerate from others.

Maybe my friend’s mother needs new Facebook friends. Maybe she needs to subscribe to my newspaper or her local one and read all of it.

But I have to wonder whether the real plea isn’t just to see less of the “racism, flags and monuments” but rather to see none of them at all.

I hear complaints, in both the news and social media worlds, about “dredging up the past.”

“They should just let it be,” people say.

They don’t understand why black people would be bothered by reminders of a time when people like them were enslaved, segregated and lynched.

The sense is that, because slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and lynchings happened so long ago, their memory should be relegated to the history books.

“When are we going to move on?” people ask.

“It’s our heritage,” they say about the flag and monuments.

Well, heritage isn’t always good. Maybe most of the people who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War meant well and didn’t give a hoot about slavery.

Well, too bad.

The people who led them into war most definitely did care about slavery. I’ve read the various articles of secession and declarations of cause by the rebel states, and what do you know? There’s a recurring theme.

South Carolina referred to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Georgia:

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.

Texas went for broke:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. … the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.

Slavery, it seems, was God’s will.

In March 1861, a few weeks before Fort Sumter, the nascent Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, gave an enlightening speech.

“African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” he said.

The New York Times, reporting on Stephens’ speech, said on March 27, 1861, “We can only direct attention to the explicit admission which this speech contains, that Negro Slavery is the fundamental basis of this new Confederacy.”

How hard can it be to recognize that the rebel battle emblem symbolizes more than the good intentions of the majority of the South’s fighting men?

The swastika is an ancient religious icon, important in Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. It is thousands of years old. But its adoption by the Nazis doomed it as anything but a symbol of hate.

Symbols matter.

For the many Mississippians whose heritage involves oppression and maltreatment, it is impossible to “just let it be.” For them, the past isn’t dead as long as symbols exist representing an association with what our state’s leaders once called “the greatest material interest of the world.” For the people who view those symbols as vestiges not of a noble heritage but of hate, it is sensible — imperative, even — to work toward their removal.

To my friend’s mother, I’d point out that many people see the flag and monuments coming down as good news and reason for celebration. For them, the stories you bemoan in the news and social media aren’t bad news at all.

The days of receiving news only from three television networks and a newspaper or two are gone. To a universal extent we can curate our own information.

If it’s Facebook friends who share what you don’t like seeing, then shut them off or turn them down. If you don’t know how, then that’s on you. Learn.

If it’s the TV news, change the channel.

If it’s the newspaper, engage. Read all the stories, count them, and if you think there’s a distorted view of the world, let the publisher know. If you don’t like it, cancel your subscription. It’s on you.

If you know about good things going on, tell your newspaper. Put them on Facebook yourself. It isn’t fair simply to absorb information and complain when you don’t like it. Share some of your own!

Sure, there’s good news in Mississippi. But try to remember why people talk about the other stuff.

One thought on “On Mississippi and good news

  1. Thank you Clay. This is exactly the type of information I would like to see posted on Facebook. I would just like for people to see that there is more to Mississippi than rebel flags and confederate memorials. This is beautiful. I have posted it on Facebook.

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