The good thing -- the only good thing, really -- about Philadelphia Magazine's race-baiting and lazily inflammatory "Being White in Philly" article was that the uproar it created was finally dying down. Or so it seemed.
Apparently Mayor Nutter didn't get the memo.
In case you were in a green-beer-induced stupor for the last couple of days, Philadelphia's mayor chose the dead of St. Patrick's Day weekend to drop off a four-page screed about the race-trolling piece by Robert Huber to the city's Human Rights Commission, calling for a public rebuke.
Adopting such a snarky, blogger-y tone that you have to wonder if Nutter was wearing his pajamas in the basement of City Hall at 3 a.m. when he wrote it, the mayor attacked the magazine piece as written by Huber "to feed his own misguided perception" that African Americans are "lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal."
Wrote Nutter in calling for the commission to act on the article:
Rather than raging against the abject ignorance reflected in this uninformed, ill-advised, ill-considered, uninspired, and thoroughly unimaginative lament, I believe we should take the opportunity this essay offers to conduct a more comprehensive, fact-intensive evaluation of the racial issues and attitudes that provide the prism through which not only Philadelphians, but Americans across the country, view the many challenges that confront us as a community and as a nation.
I've always said that the only viable response to bad free speech -- like the Philly Mag article -- is good free speech. The thing about this letter is, I agreed with the substance of almost everything that the mayor said. Had Nutter been asked about the article at a news conference and given a (hopefully greatly condensed) version of his main criticisms and then let it drop, I would have (silently) applauded.
But this letter -- despite sharing the dismay of so many Philadelphians over a lousy article -- struck me as a really, really bad thing for the mayor to do. Here are three reasons:
1) The Philly Mag cover was a desperate and pathetic plea for attention by a print magazine that is losing advertisers and readers hand over fist. Their only goal was to get reactions exactly like this. So why, Mayor Nutter, did you reward their bad behavior by giving the editors what they wanted -- showering them with attention, just when it seemed like the uproar might die down?
2) I realize this is a grey area, but like a lot of folks, I get very, very uncomfortable when a powerful public official -- like the mayor of America's 5th-largest city -- asks a government commission to investigate or rebuke a piece of journalism, even, or maybe especially, a bad one. The First Amendment is a right for anyone to publish their opinion, as long as it's not libelous, no matter how wrong-headed and awful either the general public or elected officials deem it to be. Even though surely nothing more will come from Nutter's request than another "discussion," such a letter still comes off as chilling to the right of a free press.
3) Here's what's most troublesome. The weird timing of the letter -- released just one day after Mayor Nutter was booed off the podium of his annual budget address by the city's frustrated without-a-contract union workers -- looks like the work of a man desperate to change the conversation. This is Nutter's greatest skill, after all. How many times has he called some bad guy a name like "a-hole," making that the headline and not the city's intractable murder rate? Isn't this just a different riff on the same tactic?
Seriously, was this four-page screed at all necessary?
Mr. Mayor, wouldn't your time have been better spent writing a heartfelt, four-page letter to the city's municipal union leaders, searching for any common ground to re-start negotiations? And the passion in that letter -- where was it when the late Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was running the public schools, attended by so many black and Latino children with so much promise, into the ground -- clearing the way for a corporatist scheme to close so many schools in the neighborhoods where the citizens who were disrespected by the Philadelphia Magazine article actually live?
At long last, this is what you feel so strongly about? A magazine article?
No disrespect, sir, but you have more important things to do.
P.S.: On the other hand, Adrianne Simpson's outstanding piece on what it's like to be the only African-American working at Philadelphia Magazine IS totally worth reading.