Thursday, September 16, 2010

Open Letter to the Times Free Press Managing Editor

Lesson Learned - Brendan Benson (mp3)

J. Todd Foster
Managing Editor
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Chattanooga, TN

September 16, 2010

Dear Mr. Foster,

Welcome back to Chattanooga. Sorry I have to introduce myself under such negative circumstances.

The purpose of this email is to express my frustration with yesterday's story on National Merit Semifinalists. The story mentions 31 students who rank in the top 1 percent of the country -- the whole country! -- on a highly-respected test. These are the NBA lottery picks of the high school academic world. Yet they don't get their names in the paper. They hardly merit much space at all, really.

Almost every school in this city benefits greatly from an entire section dedicated to sports, and I do not mean to be ungrateful for the recognition you give students for accomplishments in that area. However, were a Martian to land in Chattanooga and read your newspaper (I figure if they have spaceships they can probably figure out English), they would have a very difficult time learning what exactly students do in school other than play sports. You occasionally run stories on community service or, once in a while, something like mock trial, but when it comes to the academic experience, and particularly when it comes to the academic "all-stars" of our city, those stories are the proverbial needles in a very large haystack.

If the city of Chattanooga wonders why so many of its best and brightest leave and don't return, it might be wise to start with the very clear indication that the paper offers: we simply don't, as a community, value them. If they can throw, hit, catch, dribble, or chip, they might earn our recognition and adulation. But if they're just smart? If they study hard and prepare for college exceptionally well? That's just not newsworthy to us.

Every varsity sport in this city ends its season with a series of features dominating the back page of your sports section. Full color. Lots of names and pictures. You even do two. One for the citywide kids and another for the kids in the perimeter counties. Every middle school sports team that wins anything gets a picture on the inside pages.

But if you score in the top 1 percent IN THE NATION on what might be one of the most important tests for anyone with ambitions for college? You don't even merit getting your name in the paper.

Sir, if you don't find something disturbing and misguided in this editorial decision, then I suggest you plug up your ears with some golf balls and put a helmet on backwards and just start running into a wall. Geeks don't have to deal with concussion disorders or repeated rehab stints on knees or dislocated joints. They might risk frying their brains, but I'm pretty sure that particular injury rate is minuscule at best. Apparently that makes them less newsworthy.

Perhaps you say, "We give people what they want to read, and our readers don't want to read about nerds. They want to read about sports." If that's your excuse, I recommend that you announce just that in some editorials. Take a stand. Be proud of your decision. In fact, you could start having reporters talk in schools to encourage kids to play more sports and get their stinkin' noses out of books, because what kind of pathetic nerd would study and learn when there's a hoop to aim for, a net to hit over? Stand up and be counted as Anti-Nerd. Most of the Tea Party would vote for you.

You know what would be nicer, though? If anyone with any real influence would get a grip on what's actually important about school and start finding ways to celebrate it. It might take a little bit of extra work. Actual reporting and such. But I bet you could find some smart kids out there and celebrate them in interesting ways.

What is undeniable about school is this: nothing guarantees a better chance of almost anything we define as "success" than a highly-motivated and hard-working STUDENT. Robert J. Samuelson says so and that dude's never wrong! Parents and teachers are powerful influences, but at the heart of academic success is a motivated kid. This isn't rocket science. Yet your paper does almost nothing to address this problem; it merely exacerbates it.

You are the media equivalent of Coke machines and candy bars in a school hallway. Worse, I think you know it but would hate to risk losing a revenue stream.

If I am unfairly crapping on the athlete, you can take the blame for that as well. Your newspaper assists in promoting that inequality, in promoting the superiority and greater value of an athlete over that of mere booksmarts. And when I say "you," I don't mean you, Mr. Foster. I don't even mean The Times Free Press. I mean 95% of newspapers in this entire pathetic country. You're all doing one disservice after another, and it makes it damn hard to mourn you as your ship sinks into the icy waters of financial ruin, because you could've damn well avoided all these icebergs if only you'd been paying attention.

Mr. Foster, you're new to your position as Managing Editor. You don't have to accept this status quo. You can change things. You can address this problem. You probably won't. But I'll hold out a sliver of hope.

Or, in sports terminology, the geeks will need a Hail Mary. Are you Doug Flutie? Or are you Ryan Leaf?

Hope you like our blog! Best to you and yours! Hugs and Kisses!


troutking said...

Rant on, Dennis Miller! In summary, as Bob would say, "You kinda suck."

Billy said...

Update: The paper ran the list of names not once but twice today, both times in the same "Local/Regional" section. The first time on page 3. The second time in an editorial.

But that hardly compares to taking up an entire page to celebrate the city's 25 best golfers or wrestlers.

John said...

Congratulations, gentlemen, on your genetics.

Hank said...

The newspaper industry is really going gangbusters in this country, so they must know what they are doing.

Bob said...

You should send this to the other two schools so they see your smackdown.

George Dyer said...

my heart wants to say "nice work," but my head says real nerds don't need recognition

Billy said...

@George - I don't think any of this is about what kids (or nerds) need. It's about what we as a culture deem "newsworthy" and therefore, to some degree, show that we value some things much more highly than others.

Daisy said...

Sort of ironic since most newspapermen are nerds themselves.

Billy said...

Second Update: On Friday, the Signal Mountain v. South Pittsburgh "rivalry" is the cover story for the entire paper. More pictures and text explore this single football game than is given to any academic achievement by any student the whole year.

(They also have follow-up information on the game in the Sports section.)

Anderson Evans said...

Bob and Billy: The two men that make me miss high school. That was pretty passionate Billy. I especially liked Homer's college roommates being front and center, that came close to bringing a tear.

So there are still nerds that read the newspaper down there? NYC nerds don't read anything that's not digitized, though does have a fair amount of followers, but not as many click-throughs as you non-millineals would like.

Is this an inappropriate place for me to ask whether or not you all have started teaching classes on blogging platforms and social media infrastructure?

Just an aside: You'd think in nerd world, the jock would be in a lower caste, but have you SEEN the numbers they pull over at Deadspin? Puts my Gawker.TV articles to shame. Why did I have to suck so much at football?