by Frank Lewis
Did you know that Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz can read minds? It's true. She's good too — doesn't even have to know you. She can report on your deepest fears and secret prejudices after just talking to someone who talked to you on the phone. From her November 18 column:
About two weeks into The Plain Dealer's coverage of the Imperial Avenue murders in Cleveland, some women from more privileged neighborhoods began to complain about the coverage.
As Managing Editor Debra Adams Simmons told me, the theme has been essentially this: Stop putting these stories on Page One. They are not relevant to the majority of your readers.
Translation: They are not us.
"They" are poor black women who ended up dead and buried at the home of Anthony Sowell because of addictions, troubled pasts and lousy judgment. We are white suburban women who'd never dream of becoming addicted or succumb to mental illness. And we certainly would never let ourselves be lured into a false sense of security by a man with ill intentions.
Ah, Connie. Are you trying to sound like a liberal puke?
Despite the headline — "When other women join in blaming the victims of a killer, we're in real trouble" — Schultz never states or even implies that the callers in fact blamed the victims. Nor does she give any indication that they mentioned race. But this does not slow her rush to judgment. Her take on these people she's never met, whose backgrounds and true feelings she's guessing at based on the area codes and exchanges that showed up on caller ID — as she revealed later in a comment on the web site — is that they're cold-hearted bigots.
So, to review: Opinion on matter in which race is a factor + perceived affluence = racism. QED. How's that for Sharpton-level reasoning?
But that might be unfair to Rev. Al. He at least has the sense to leave out details that undermine his own case. Schultz, however, in her eagerness to dole out scarlet R's, forgot that she'd revealed that the calls started coming "two weeks into" the PD's coverage, and that the complaints were rather specific: "Stop putting these stories on Page One." And it's not a criticism of PD reporters to note here that the story hasn't really deviated from the pattern well established by every serial-killer-themed movie and episode of 48 Hours you've ever seen. Grisly discovery, shock, grief, finger-pointing — it's all as predictable as the inevitable comments from neighbors about how he kept to himself. As you read this, it's a safe bet that someone, somewhere, is fictionalizing the Anthony Sowell case for Law & Order; serial killers are pop-culture archetypes, modern-day monsters and guaranteed ratings-generators. So maybe the women who called the PD — who apparently are part of the ever-dwindling minority of Northeast Ohioans who still read the paper of record — just don't like watching it turn into 19 Action News in wild-eyed sweeps-month mode. That's a guess, of course, but it's no less informed that Schultz's.
In recent years the mainstream media — TV news in particular — have been rightly criticized for their obsession with missing white women. But to suggest that the solution is equally breathless and pervasive coverage of black women in peril misses the point entirely. The callers, Schultz writes, complained that the coverage is "not relevant to the majority of your readers." And her loathing aside, that's correct. This isn't an election or a government corruption scandal; there is very little to be learned from endless reporting on Sowell and his deeds. We all know that at the fringes of society are the poor and addicted and mentally ill, and the soulless creatures who prey on them. Sometimes we lament this, sometimes we're perversely fascinated, most of the time it's far from our minds, and all of those, equally, are part of being human. Put another way:
Let's at least be honest about this: We are not shocked. We are horrified, we are heartbroken, but only the disingenuous will claim total surprise that a nondescript house in a poor section of Cleveland could hide the bodies of women whom no one describes as mainstream.
I dare say that's the callers' point exactly. Schultz wants to make their frustration out to be the most loathsome form of callousness, but look at it this way: If the 11 victims had been killed by 11 different men, would any of them have gotten anything close to the same level of attention?
She goes on to make the unsubstantiated claim that "Blame for these women runs rampant," and wraps the muddled mess up with some imagined scenarios that could end in the rapes of suburban women and the questions — "Did you even try to fight back? Why didn't you scream? — that the victims should never have to face, because "not one of them establishes a right for a woman to be attacked. There is no such right. Not ever."
But accusing women of racism and misogyny for failing to meet the wallowing standards of a newspaper columnist, whose standing to judge comes from having driven through the killer's neighbor "countless times," back when she happened to live in the same ZIP code? Totally fair. — Frank Lewis