A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place and the Press in Iowa City, by Robert E. Gutsche, Jr., (McFarland)
The pen – or the keyboard – may be mightier than the sword, but as Robert E. Gutsche Jr. makes clear, these tools can inculcate racism, sexism, classism and homophobia as readily as they can promote justice, fairness and decency.
In A Transplanted Chicago, a Ph.D. dissertation-turned-fascinating-book, Gutsche zooms in on Iowa City, Iowa, and analyzes the way press coverage of the city’s largely African American southeast side has impacted the attitudes of residents, politicians, law enforcers and reporters who live or work in the 70,000-person city. Gutsche’s starting point is the demographic changes to Iowa City, changes that have been caused by an influx of newcomers, the majority of them from Chicago. Whether they come looking for affordable housing, decent schools or jobs, many find what they’re looking for. “It’s quite common for new arrivals to find a job on the same day they moved,” Gutsche writes. “They are fairly good jobs, where working on a register at McDonald’s, loading freight at a warehouse, or cleaning at the university provides consistent employment and pay that starts at minimum wage. Combined with a fairly low cost of living, these jobs can pay the bills and might leave some set aside for savings.”
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Unfortunately, despite this, the transition is rarely seamless, and Gutsche contends that racism typically meets-and-greets the city’s new denizens. Iowa is still more than 90 percent Caucasian, and headlines shrieking about “perpetrators of urban decay” and “inner city refugees,” and articles and TV commentary that describe the southeast as “fight central” and a “no-go zone,” have stoked negative perceptions. Small wonder that most outsiders assume that the neighborhood is violent, drug-infested and crime ridden. Predictably, this slanted coverage has also triggered overt anti-black sentiment.
Of course, despite social exclusion and prejudice, thousands of people live, work, worship, shop and go to school in the southeast. But they get nary a mention in the daily newspapers or on the nightly news.
In fact, by and large, the press ignores the mundane in favor of the sensational.
Take the way crime is reported in the southeast. In one particularly egregious example, Gutsche writes that reporters “failed to include crime statistics to support assertions that the southeast side was in any way dangerous. There were no assessments of what types of crime may occur in the neighborhood, no mention of whether there had been an increase or decrease in recent crime, (it had decreased) and no comparison of crime rates between the southeast side and the rest of Iowa City. Had journalists made such a comparison, they would have shown that downtown was more dangerous.”
In another example, Gutsche analyzes the murder of a 64-year-old white landlord who was found on the floor of his building after being shot in the head. When a 17-year-old black teenager, who had moved to Iowa City from Holland, Michigan, was eventually charged, “local news stories focused on the perceptions of [the southeast side’s] decline and destruction.” When the facts emerged, it became clear that the shooting – awful as it was – was a tragic robbery-gone-wrong. Nonetheless, the press used the incident to tarnish an entire section of town. Worse, the killing ultimately caused many whites to panic and retreat into what Gutsche calls a “frenzy of fear.”
White journalists are obviously not immune to this fear, and in one of the book’s most startling revelations, Gutsche notes that many of the Iowa City reporters he interviewed had never set foot on the southeast side, despite writing about the community. Their sources? Police and government officials. Rather than talking to people who actually live in the area, shoddy – or perhaps just scared – reporters have typically relied on authorities to dictate what is, or isn’t, newsworthy. This explains why a May 2011 music festival that was organized by the Broadway Street Neighborhood Center, one of the southeast side’s most prominent community organizations, was ignored by the media despite drawing 2,000 people. “People at the concert that day told me that no press or photographers had shown up even though there had been food, games, music, sunshine and families, things that make for great community news,” Gutsche writes.
Conversely, a much smaller event in a whiter part of town – a walk-a-thon to raise money for the American Heart Association – was given prime placement in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Gutsche questions why the walk was considered news, but the concert was not.
His answer: Unabashed racism. In fact, Gutsche concludes that virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts and prone to criminal or immoral behavior. To make his case, he cites a newspaper article about the opening of a new shelter for homeless families. The story was illustrated by a photo of a black woman leaning against a window. The caption identified her as a Chicago native who had been living in the shelter with her five children for nearly a year. “Just that single sentence says it all,” Gutsche writes, “Poor blacks (especially mothers) continue to come to Iowa City with their children, (far too many for the woman to care for) and take advantage of the city’s good will and resources (by staying in the shelter for nearly a year) . . . The caption was wrong. The woman and her children had only been living in the city – and at the shelter – for a couple of months . . . What is interesting about this caption and photograph is how it matches with dominant discourse surrounding Iowa City’s southeast side and the migration of folks from Chicago to Iowa City.”
Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.”
Gutsche urges reporters to get off their duffs and actually talk to people in the communities they write about. He also urges them to “maintain a focus on social justice to uncover injustices to communities.” Needless to say, journalism schools have a clear role to play in this, by encouraging encouraging muckraking, in-depth investigation and reporting that focuses on social justice and the lives of the disenfranchised.
Journalism has always been the type of work that attracts those interested in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. A Transplanted Chicago is a clarion call to embrace these values.