Success Stories That Don't Get Reported


New York -- When President Bush spoke to a mostly black and understandably skeptical audience in riot-torn Los Angeles last week, he issued a call for us in the news media to focus less on "negative news" and more on "what works." The remark brought something President Bush seldom receives from a black inner-city audience. He received a standing ovation.

It goes to show something we in the media already know. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, hardly one ever goes broke overestimating the public's contempt for the media.

But the sentiment on this occasion was particularly heartfelt among people who feel quite justifiably that the media and other institutions fail to give them the credit they deserve for the hard work many of them are doing against tremendous odds to save their communities.

The president was speaking at the Challenger Boys and Girls Club, just the sort of "what works" story that gets too little attention from the rest of us.

The Challengers was founded by Lou Dantzler, a school janitor and son of North Carolina sharecroppers who thought the kids in South-Central Los Angeles needed a wholesome place in which to hang out. If I build it, they will come, he said, like the fellow in "Field of Dreams." The club began in 1968 with 12 members. It has 2,200 now.

"It's not a job," he told me. "It's an adventure." It is a special place, so special that the riot, which destroyed millions of dollars worth of property across the street, left the Challengers building untouched.

It's a remarkable story, especially for a part of town outsiders tend to write off as a hopeless and forbidden zone. Yet, it seems we are less likely to see the Challengers, a real success story, in our major media than we are likely to see and hear the usual stories of failure. Why is that?

I think part of the reason is the public perceptions. We cover more good news than our audiences realize, but they don't remember. It simply doesn't have the impact that bad news does.

But the blame cannot be laid on our audience alone. We in the media sometimes fall into a conspiracy. When we are not ignoring the poor side of town we are characterizing its people as stereotypes and archetypes, not as full-blown people. It is not a sinister conspiracy by design, but a benign conspiracy of habit.

I plan to deal with this more fully in my book, if I ever get around to writing it. I have a title, at least: "Pathologies of the Press." You know how people talk about the "underclass" and its pathologies? Well, the press has pathologies too.

One of them is the negative news syndrome. It starts with a widely accepted standard of news judgment: News is what happens when things aren't working the way they are supposed to.

We do not cover the thousands of planes that take off and land safely each day. We cover the few that crash. That's understandable. But, on the local level, it means communities that are busy being reborn are not nearly as newsworthy as those that are busy dying.

So the Challengers, where lives undoubtedly are being saved every day from gangs and crack and other depravities, winds up in the back pages of the newspaper. We kiss it off as a heartwarming human-interest feature or an uneventful "process" story, while the death-of-the-day makes Page One.

I think good news from the ghetto also suffers from the skepticism all good reporters learn to have early in their careers. I am reminded of the Chicago City News Bureau slogan: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!" Good advice.

But skepticism often leads to cynicism for big-city reporters, especially when the culture of the newsroom convinces them that nothing, absolutely nothing, can help those poor souls over there in the ghetto.

There are wonderful exceptions, of course. A Chicago newspaper reporter discovered independent school teacher Marva Collins, performing what appeared to be miracles at her West Side Prep. Her fame quickly spread, thanks to "60 Minutes" and a made-for-TV movie starring Cicely Tyson.

Similar movies celebrated Father George Clements, the black adoptions and education advocate; and Jaime Escalante, the teacher who proved poor Los Angeles high school kids could be taught to learn calculus as well as suburban kids do.

These local heroes also were discovered by enterprising newspaper reporters. So was Mr. Dantzler, who, yes, also has signed a movie contract. (No one is allowed to do anything extraordinary in Los Angeles without having a movie contract thrust into his hands.)

Unfortunately, when we are not ignoring local ghetto heroes, we canonize them as superhuman or so close to it that we send a message that nobody else even dare try to do what this person has done. On the contrary, Ms. Collins, Father Clements and Mr. Escalante will tell you, as they have told me, they are not doing a thing that others couldn't do and, in many unsung, unreported cases, aren't doing already.

"Anybody can do it who really has the heart and soul," says Mr. Dantzler.

Now that the tragic events in Los Angeles have given our globe-trotting president a second chance to pay new attention to America's cities, we in the media also have a second chance to pay attention to grass-roots leaders who form the antibodies that fight the infections that bring everyone down.

And, if we pay attention, maybe our audience will pay attention too. Everybody likes to hear a little good news, once in a while.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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