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Enough with the voice-over: Latinos, the media and mayoral politics

The mayoral campaign (so far) has prompted some interesting interplay between the media and the candidates. From Billy Penn’s playful candidate emojis to…


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The mayoral campaign (so far) has prompted some interesting interplay between the media and the candidates. From Billy Penn’s playful candidate emojis to Philly Mag’s 5,000+ word pieces, the mayoral race has sparked conversation even among those of us who should already be suffering from over-exposure and exhaustion from all the stories we’ve written, or edited, or read....

Mostly, it’s been fun. Mostly, it’s been great to see that journalism — particularly the political analysis of the legacy print media and the irreverent take of the digital media joints — is alive and well and kicking in Philly.

But then there is this:

“As the first Latino to run for mayor, (Nelson) Diaz is likely to get a large percentage of Latino votes.  But, it will still add up to a paltry number.”

Oooh, burn.

Nelson Diaz gets a little singed by it, but mostly it is us — the Philly Latino voters — whose skins are blistered. Are we uniquely terrible at voter turnout? Nope, says Latino community leader Israel Colón. All of Philadelphia pretty much sucks at it

But don't tell that to Tom Ferrick Jr., who wrote the oracular piece for The Next Mayor vertical of the website with the certainty of an authority. Except if you actually read through the article you will notice something: Not only is Ferrick not Latino, he doesn’t interview, or speak to, quote or ask any Latinos anything in his musing about the paltry number of us he says will show up to vote for the primaries. 

I wish I could say the arrogance of this p.o.v. surprises me, but it doesn’t. There is a long tradition of predominantly white media speaking for, and instead of, the communities of color it purports to cover. The rationale is usually that whomever is being touted as an authority of the moment has years and years of observation of the particular community under his or her belt, and can therefore explain the behavior to those who might be less familiar with it.

A guide, as it were, on the zoo tour. Or the voice-over narrator of an anthropological documentary. I hope Ferrick’s voice is at least as good as the late Richard Attenborough’s since he’s chosen to speak over us.

Let’s be honest, I can find stuff to complain about in terms of media coverage dealing with Latinos, or the Latino mayoral candidate, even from those organizations whose reporting I have otherwise admired far more than Ferrick’s.

Billy Penn Desi Arnaz-ed Nelson Diaz when it mentioned how loud and voluble he was at an early media forum, for example. It may well be that the Latino candidate was and is louder than the rest of the field, but drawing special attention to this enduring stereotype (the subject of ridicule, exaggeration and painful comedy in TV and film portrayals of Latinos since time immemorial) is irritating.

Likewise the strange erasure of the Latino candidate.

For a while Philly Mag’s tweets about upcoming mayoral forums or across-the-board coverage included a composite photo of candidates Lynne Abraham, Jim Kenney, Anthony Williams and Doug Oliver. When I pointed it out to them in a tweet, someone from the magazine responded that the composite was an earlier version of the photo they used in the actual article and that by a bizarre Twitter quirk, the earlier version kept showing up in the tweet. I believe this — Twitter cards often seem to have a mind of their own.

But it still begs the question why the earlier composite would have photos of those four candidates and not Diaz, since he officially announced his candidacy well in advance of two of those included (Oliver and Kenney).

I'm fairly certain in saying that it wasn’t the intention of Billy Penn to reinforce stereotype, or of Philly Mag to erase the Latino candidate. But even if you don’t intend to step on someone’s foot, it hurts the same when you do so.

And then there are moments where the intention behind the media comments are murkier.

Like the Philly Clout piece on The Next Mayor about whether Diaz is/was/might bring in actor Jimmy Smits to goose excitement about voting by leveraging Smit’s star power. It is impossible to read this little piece without hearing the supercilious smirk with which it was written. The folks from Philly Clout clearly let us know they don’t think much of the Latino candidate, nor us, the intended “target” of this ploy. “Smits probably got more votes on ‘West Wing” when he ran for president than Diaz will,” the piece quotes an unidentified local political consultant as saying.

I have no doubt at all that the political consultant Philly Clout is according authority to in this piece isn’t Latino either. Next stop on this zoo tour, they conspire to say, is the skulking Latino voter who is too shy, too disinterested or too scared of the humans watching it to come out of deep recesses of its cage.

And then there is, again, a piece from Tom Ferrick/The Next Mayor, heaping scorn on Nelson Diaz for his education policy proposals:

“I blame those in the media for this. Early in the campaign we complained about the lack of ideas being advanced by candidates. Diaz now brags that he is the only candidate who has a comprehensive set of ideas about funding public education. We in the media should have been more specific. When we said we wanted ideas, we should have added we wanted good ideas, not half-baked, unrealistic, ideas.”

Wow. Let’s unpack this, shall we?

First, what does Ferrick put at the center of Diaz’s proposed policies? Not Diaz’s own political thinking, his own understanding of what needs to be addressed in our city, and how to address it, (despite the fact Diaz has released another six other policy papers, more than any other candidate) but The Media (can’t you just hear the caps implicit in his version of these two words?). The self-centeredness of this just boggles the mind. But wait — it gets better.

Ferrick not only believes The Media pushed and prompted the candidates, but goes on to characterize Diaz’s response as not good, and pie-in-the-sky. Which, of course, he’s entitled to believe and write on whatever platform gives him the bandwidth.

But what is interesting is that Ferrick doesn’t heap scorn on — or mention — the candidates who haven’t released any policy papers at all, the ones (by his own framing devise) who haven’t been prompted by The Media, or any other interested voters, to put their ideas on the line and up for scrutiny. No, Ferrick’s disdain is reserved solely for Diaz; for what he considers inadequate proposals and for the fact Diaz has had the temerity to be proud of the policy plans he’s made public.

Ferrick’s word choices aren’t innocent.

Diaz “brags” — because that’s what you say to imply the person thinks too highly of himself. In another section of his article, Ferrick writes: “fellow candidate Lynne Abraham was contemptuous of Diaz’s ideas,” mostly, I guess, because he had to attribute his own contempt to somebody, anybody, in order to keep the façade of impartiality. That Diaz is a judge with local and national political cred and gravitas makes no difference to Ferrick — later in the piece he asserts that Diaz “hijacks” an idea first advanced by Paul Levy and Jerry Sweeney in his proposal to tax residential real estate to fund schools. Not elaborates on, not modifies, not references, not uses as a springboard — but “hijacks,” because any other word choice would accord some measure of intellectual parity (and agency) to the Latino candidate he’s having fun mocking. 

So here’s the thing about pedantic voice-overs and so-called documentary looks media gives us while they stand outside our community: We know better.

We need not give Ferrick, the Next Mayor, any platform (or anybody) that revels in prophesy of our political inadequacy any credence or authority. Not one whit. We need not think those assessments are any more valid than the shoddy attempts to "other" us, attempts to put us behind the bars of predestined non-voter cages as the electoral zoo train chugs by.

Mi gente, we don't need people speaking at us instead of with us; over us instead of amplifying our voices when our intentions and our future is the subject of discussion.

I prefer to hear our voices. I prefer to hear them raised — no matter how fractious or contentious or aggrieved — in aspiration, in struggle, in demand.

We are not a community to be slighted. We are not a community to be ridiculed and mocked and treated as if we are stupid.

We reject the outside observer’s paucity of imagination and understanding when it comes to us. We may forgive ignorance of who we are, and what we have attained (by sheer guts and vision and courage) but we will not cede authority over crafting our own narrative.

We are a community poised to make history. 

Come May 19, let's make it so. No voice-overs. Just our own diverse — gruff, strident, beautiful, unpolished, brilliant, bilingual — voices saying “You can’t count me out — because I voted.”


Corrected March 27, 2015 from David to Richard Attenborough.


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