Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I'm going to put this blog on ice for a while. If you want to know what's up with me, drop me an e-mail at joemiller [at] kc [dot] rr [dot] com.

See you 'round.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

my needs

A meme, via Professor Kim,

Google "[your first name] needs" and write down the first lines from the first page of hits:

Joe needs his Tampa tame.
Joe needs two cracking matches.
joe needs help.
Joe needs an editor.
Joe Needs You.
Joe needs our help.
Joe Needs your Help.
Joe needs help!
Joe needs to try a number of different things.


Allie and I went to a double feature matinee with our friend Mark. It was at the new Screenland theater. Great place. They've got some plush recliner chairs.

We saw The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, both of which were fantastic.

It was a good pairing. Both were set in the 1950s (the latter stretching into the 60s) and they both gave a some perspective on how much American society has changed over the last 50 years. We still have a lot of growing to do in this country. But sometimes it's good to take stock of the progress we've made.

The Emmitt Till documentary told the more extreme story of the two films. It's kind of startling to look back only one or two generations and see a culture with values that are so utterly foreign to those of today. Can you imagine a group of white men committing such an evil, hateful crime? And then being declared not guilty to the applause of an entire community?

Watching this documentary I got to thinking of the OJ trial. Imagine if that had happened in 1955. A black guy is charged with the murder of a white woman, and it looks like a slam dunk, with blood and DNA everywhere. Then when he's declared innocent blacks are out dancing in the streets. And there are no riots and lynch mobs in response. The connection might be tenuous. Indeed, the celebration wasn't for OJ's innocence so much as for a win against a so-called justice system that's still terribly unfair, for an instance in which a black man beat whites at their own game. But certainly these events are milestones in an era of incredible societal change.

The oppression depicted in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio wasn't anywhere near as intense, but it showed a time when the order of things were quite a bit different. Great film, with many insights into the ways gender roles have transformed over the last half century, and ways they've stayed the same. I found it unsettling how I could relate on some level to Woody Harrelson's character, the drunken loser dad, whose anguish thrived on almost mythical social constructions of who he ought to be. Just a little thought, really. A small opportunity for introspection. The overwhelming feeling I had was one of gratitude for living in a time and relationship where equality is more the norm.

I guess this film hasn't quite caught on yet. I think it will, though. It's just terrific. Brought tears to me eyes.


When it comes to hard-hitting stories I've written about black leaders, there are two that haunt me. One I completely regret having written. I might talk about that one in a later post. The other I don't necessarily regret. But as time goes on I feel more and more uneasy about it.

It was an election story about Wesley Fields's bid for city council.

This is a story I was encouraged to do by a number of political insiders I used to keep close contact with. I was given a good number of promising leads early on. I also had a small number of black sources who were pretty much provided to me by folks affiliated with Fields's opposing candidate, incumbant Becky Nace, who is white.

In retrospect, a lot of the "dirt" I digged up on Fields was insignificant. He was clearly a carpetbagger, having moved to Nace's district after local leaders talked Fields out of challenging Troy Nash.

But I need to stop right here and acknowledge that if Fields had been taking on Nash, another black candidate, I have no doubt that we would have not gone with the story. Even if you think carpetbagging is bad, the racial dynamics of this should tell you a lot.

Then I found that Fields had registered his car in Grandview, at his parents' house. As such, he didn't pay taxes to the Kansas City school district in which he lived.


I don't know. In the big scheme of things, this doesn't seem a very big deal. Indeed, I did the same thing when I was in college, so as to avoid the higher taxes of the town where I was living.

But in a large story package, it seemed to add to the heft of the case against Fields.

That said, the bulk of the investigative work I did on the story was aimed at Fields's position at Bryan Cave, a law firm with deep political connections. Fields was one of the primary lawyers on Bryan Cave's contract with the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation, which administers the city's corrupt tax-incentive program. And this was my main justification for doing the story. I felt very strongly at the time that Fields was a pawn of The Man.

Also I should add that I worked very hard to investigate and publicize Fields's strengths and accomplishments. And I even went so far as to point out that he's a textbook example of how Kansas City ought to develop new generations of leaders. He was valedictorian of his high school, he went to an Ivy League school and then to the top-ranked University of Virginia law school. All along the way he distinguished himself as a natural leader. Unfortunately, young men and women like Fields tend to not return to Kansas City, opting instead for cities like Chicago and Atlanta, where the power structures in the black community are much stronger.

One thing that I still ache over with regards to the story was that one of Fields's roommates from college didn't get back to me until after the story had gone to print. This former classmate gave some terrific examples of what kind of a leader Fields is. The stories he shared with me offered particularly strong evidence of Fields's ability to bridge divides between whites and blacks, and that's something Kansas City obviously needs.

I began regretting the story almost as soon as it ran. While I got a lot of props behind the scenes from white leaders, and a few blacks, some of my more reliable contacts in the black community were pretty lukewarm about it. When I explained my concerns about Fields's tax-incentive-program connections they seemed to understand, but there was lingering discomfort of the all-out-effort nature of the investigation, digging up every little piece of dirt I could possibly find.

Worse, I heard from a lot of sources that the main black sources I relied on to call Fields's credibility as a black leader into question were themselves not the most credible within the black community.

And this was confirmed quite emphatically when the election reslts came out. Though Fields lost handily, he beat Nace decisively in the black districts.

When that happened I had two unsettling thoughts. One, I and the Pitch had little clout in the political landscape. And, two, I was wrong.

And now, with the passage of more time, I'm thinking that Fields might well have been a better choice, though it's still tough to get around the whole tax-incentive-program angle. But even there, I think I have to come clean about the institutionally racist nature of my coverage of this story. As I said, we probably wouldn't have done the story if Fields were challenging Nash. And if it were really all about the tax-incentive stuff, why work so hard to call Fields out on the petty stuff, which people probably wouldn't think twice about if he were white?

media blackout

Lately, I've written a number of posts that were very critical of the local media's coverage of race issues. And it got me thinking about my own work, from when I used to be employed. One thing that's always troubled me is that a lot of my hardest hitting stories were about black leaders. Sure, I wrote stories that came down hard on white leaders, too. But it was much easier to get dirt on blacks. There just seemed to be a lot more people, white and black, who were willing to dish it out.

Plus it was hard to frame stories about whites in the same you'd frame ones about blacks. For instance, if I were looking into a development project on the East Side that had gone over budget and was loaded with politically connected contracts, that would be fairly easy to pull together and present as a patronage/corruption story. But if I were to tackle a story about a Northland development project loaded with tax breaks that was being put together by politically connected folks, I'd get a different response. Not necessarily from readers but from the folks I'd be interviewing. Like, if I were to suggest in an interview with a white bureaucrat at city hall that the Northland development looks like a patronage situation, they'd likely look at me as if I were a little odd, as if I were just another alt-weekly radical.

It's all very troubling, really. I can look back on all of my stories and see the subtle and not so subtlle ways I was encouraged to expose the datardly deeds of blacks. In some cases entire, readymade stories were dropped in my lap, documents and all. And I was never lacking a tip or a lead into some story about a black leader who was doing something wroong.

And it's not that I regret doing those stories. I think it's important to be an equal-opportunity watch dog. But really, it's not equal.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

blog against racism

I was born to two teenagers out of wedlock.

My dad got caught up in drugs and left my mom and I when I was about two years old. He came back, and straightened his life out, but my mom had moved on. She remarried three times. I went through three divorces.

My dad died in an accident when I was eight.

I didn't like school. I didn't do much homework, goofed off a lot, got into trouble often.

I started smoking pot in sixth grade. In high school I got real into partying, expanding my drug diet beyond weed. I frequently skipped classes.

Yet I graduated. I never doubted I would go to college. I was supremely confident. And after college, I never really had a problem landing good jobs. I'm now working on a book that sold for six figures.

The book is about black kids. If I were to lay out the details of their childhoods as starkly as I've laid out my own, the stories would seem similar. Same thing for their relatives and for many of their friends.

But in most cases the endings would be different.