What does the Wisconsin State Journal's "urban affairs" reporter think about race?
Emails to a source raise questions about Chris Rickert's perspective.
In covering the ongoing dispute over whether to keep officers from the Madison Police Department stationed at four Madison Metropolitan School District high schools, Madison's press outlets have focused hard on the tactics of Freedom Inc. The local social justice organization and its supporters have rejected "respectability politics" and taken a repeated, aggressive stand at MMSD board meetings, trying to force the board to take heed of its arguments about how a police presence in schools disproportionately impacts youth of color in a city with profound racial disparities. The results of this spring's local elections made the Board a bit more open to re-thinking the program, but a majority of the board still supported keeping it intact, while opening a door to removing one of the officers, in a June 10 vote.
Over the past year or so, multiple op-eds and even some reported stories on MMSD's school resource officer program have either explicitly condemned Freedom Inc. and dismissed its members merely as "the loudest voices," or, in the case of non-opinion-oriented pieces, have at least implicitly played into a narrative that views Freedom Inc.'s behavior with shock. A recent political cartoon in the Wisconsin State Journal even portrayed Freedom Inc. as "bullies" trying to shout down those with other points of view. At the same time, the coverage has spent far less time substantively engaging with the actual arguments Freedom Inc. is making.
The Wisconsin State Journal's Chris Rickert published one of the most extensive pieces so far about Freedom Inc.'s stand against cops in schools on June 27, under the headline "Freedom Inc. challenges liberal Madison with in-your-face approach to racial justice." In the process of reporting the piece, Rickert’s relationship with Freedom Inc. became one of suspicion and friction. The organization's co-executive director, M Adams, even sent a June 6 message to Freedom Inc.'s email list acknowledging concerns from donors Rickert had contacted. "Chris is working on a piece that focuses on Freedom Inc.’s tactics, our impact, and our finances," Adams wrote. "From what information we’ve received, it seems that the reporter feels our approach to recent School Board and City Council meetings has disrespected those we are lobbying. We have assured him that as an organization engaging communities of color and working to create our own definitions of identity and resiliency, that we do not adhere to respectability politics."
One of the donors Rickert contacted, Laurel Bastian, has provided Tone Madison with email correspondence in which Rickert asks her opinions about Freedom Inc.'s tactics and goes back and forth with her about the state of race relations in Madison. Rickert and State Journal editors did not respond to several emails and a follow-up text message seeking comment. We will update this story if they decide to get back to us. (Full disclosure: Laurel Bastian's sister, Jennifer Bastian, is a co-founder of Tone Madison's partner organization, Communication.)
One passage reads:
Having been a local government reporter for some 20 years, I know that lots of groups and individuals pay close attention to and get involved in local government, including in Madison. I guess what makes Freedom Inc. different is that they don’t disrupt meetings the way Freedom Inc. does. That’s probably what you’re seeing in the reporting. (I think this addresses your No. 1 below, too; most involved citizens just generally don’t drop F-bombs on school board members.)
Certainly Madison has a lot of disparities. But racial disparities aren’t unique to Madison, and disparities themselves are not evidence of any particular discrimination, because correlation isn’t the same as causation. Meanwhile, Madison has plenty of social services and an extremely liberal political establishment. There are a lot of places in America where neither of those things are true, so I guess it’s worth wondering whether the stakes here are so high as to require the kinds of tactics Freedom Inc. employs.
Which goes to the question of impact again and the stakes. Obviously, no social justice movement succeeds without ruffling some feathers. But the people Freedom Inc. ruffles actually want the same things Freedom Inc. does (although they might think there’s a better way to get it), so it seems like the cursing, etc., could be counterproductive to their aims. Blacks in Madison aren’t being barred from lunch counters, to put it bluntly.
There are a couple reasons I decided to publish excerpts from the emails. One, they are part of an on-the-record exchange—which Rickert quoted in his story—and after some discussion, the source consented to us sharing them. Two, they raise questions about Rickert's understanding of the racial issues he covers in his role as the State Journal's "urban affairs" reporter, a job he took on in 2017 after working for seven years as a metro opinion columnist.
Rickert is an odd candidate for doing actual reporting on a sensitive topic. During his time as a columnist, Rickert earned a reputation as a boorish contrarian, and in 2015 he drew criticism for making dismissive comments about diversity in media. "I found your reaction petulant & generally find your columns poorly argued w/ thin evidence," UW-Madison journalism professor Katy Culver Tweeted at Rickert in 2012. Rickert seems to have deleted the Twitter account he was using at the time, so the context of that remark isn’t clear, but it could have been a lot of people talking about a lot of Chris Rickert takes. It's not even that he was incapable of being right, but that he seemed to reach for the most weirdly muddled takes in an effort to create maximum frustration for as many sides of an issue as possible. Take the conclusion to a 2017 column about police violence: "Madison policy-makers might find they can help reduce police shootings if they spend more time urging their constituents to follow existing rules than by trying to force police to change theirs." Or a 2016 column praising Act 10—en garde, Madison liberal orthodoxy!—for unintentionally "helping to diversify the ranks of Madison’s teachers." At a newspaper that still maintains a traditional distinction between reporting over here and opinion over there, it's tough to move back from the latter to the former.
It isn't wrong for a reporter to look at how Freedom Inc. goes about pursuing its objectives, or even for a reporter to dig into a local non-profit's financial records, some of which Freedom Inc. officials say they willingly provided to him, though they question whether a non-profit run by white people would have faced the same level of scrutiny. (In the emails shared with us, Rickert defended his inquiries into Freedom Inc.'s finances and donors as routine.) Journalists aren't obligated to write favorable stories about activist groups or anyone else. But Rickert is writing for the state's second-largest newspaper about an incredibly complex issue that forms the deep substrate of American society, an issue of life, death, and dignity for millions of people. How well does Rickert appreciate the nuances of race in America, and if he does understand those nuances well, why focus so hard on a few "F-bombs" (in my experience, journalists are the last people who should be shocked about swearing) and make cavalier cracks minimizing racial issues in Madison?
I'm not going to presume to extrapolate Rickert's entire worldview from a few emails, and again, he hasn't taken me up on requests to clarify what he thinks or why he worded these messages the way he did. We're used to hearing people weaponize claims about a reporter's biases and motivations, but when those claims are coming from vulnerable communities, rather than from people within established power structures, it's worth pausing to reflect. People of color and members of other marginalized groups have legitimate complaints about how journalists portray them and about America's overwhelmingly white-dominated media. In that context, it's important for journalists to reflect on the privilege and power they bring to the situation, absorb some criticism, and work to build trust. Sorry, but if a person of color is wary of a white journalist, that's um, justified. None of that is at odds with the aims of good journalism. If journalists can flagellate ourselves about the need to build trust with white Trump voters, we can also flagellate in this direction.
Rickert isn't denying here that racism and disparities exist, but he does refer to lunch counters, a battle front of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Racism is more complex and insidious than overt segregation, and it's still far more deadly than being refused service, so why should a journalist even go there in 2019? It's jaw-dropping for a journalist to use that as a benchmark in this day and age.
Rickert's assertion that "the people Freedom Inc. ruffles actually want the same things Freedom Inc. does" is bizarrely off the mark. Freedom Inc. wants not simply to end the school resource officer program, but to uproot an entire power structure rooted in white supremacy. Liberals for the most part do not want those things; some of them may want criminal-justice reform (and even some right-wingers have come around to that), but mainstream American liberalism still sees our existing system of policing and punishment as more or less compatible with the aims of a just and equal society. That's not how Freedom Inc. sees it. Adams has argued that more police are not the solution, is a prison abolitionist, and even co-authored a Wisconsin Law Review article advocating for black community control over the police.
Additionally, whether or not Madison's establishment is "extremely liberal" (doesn't it seem less so every day?), the whole point of the discussion Madisonians have been having about racism is that it can thrive despite our city's progressive veneer, and how white liberals' privilege hinders real progress on these issues. Some of Rickert's own reporting has touched upon this idea.
Freedom Inc. co-executive directors Adams and Kabzuag Vaj have spoken with media fairly often in the past, but clearly something broke down with Rickert. "I’m happy to speak with people from Freedom Inc., if they respond to my messages," Rickert wrote at one point in the emails shared with Tone Madison. "That’s been hit or miss with M over the years and when I tried to ask Kazbuag some questions about who should control Hmong elder programs, she got angry and started talking about my white privilege….As for their programming, I’m not really sure what it is. There are multiple programs listed on their website, but relatively little information in their tax forms or annual report about what exactly happens in the programming. I’ve asked to be allowed to observe."
Vaj says that there are confidentiality barriers to having a reporter observe Freedom Inc.'s programming, especially the work it does with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Dr. Lori Lopez, a Freedom Inc. board member and a UW-Madison professor who studies the intersection of media and race in America, notes that it would also be hard to bring an outside observer into the programming Freedom Inc. provides, for instance, for queer youth, given the importance of providing safe and confidential spaces.
"A lot of our clients are confidential. [Rickert] was requesting things that he knew nothing about," Vaj says. "By that time, trust had been broken and we had already sensed that it was not going to be a favorable or unbiased article, and there was no reason to speak to him."
Vaj says she doesn't mind people knowing what she and Adams get paid and that Rickert has "every right" to publish that information, but she feels Rickert highlighted their salaries in his article in an effort to endanger Freedom Inc.'s funding. She says she's found Rickert "belligerent and condescending" in previous interactions, and takes issue with local media's repeated focus on disruptive tactics.
"If we were a white organization with engaged youth and an engaged community and were showing up with 40 or 50 people at each hearing and city and county [meeting] and all of these things, and had white elders...I think race plays a big role in how we are demonized, because we are able to bring out a voice that traditionally doesn't get any space or time or get listened to in public spaces," Vaj says. "Instead of being demonized for how people speak and which way they communicate, I think that any other group would have been getting acknowledgement for how they've been able to create community engagement and really build leaders who can speak for themselves. But because we're not playing along with the respectability politics of what people think, and because we don't look like the people who they think are smart enough to think for themselves, they're looking at race and class and gender, and they see a group of queer, Southeast Asian, black, young people, elders, and children, and they think that we're not legitimately able to speak on our own or legitimately speak truth to power, but rather that we're just angry and uninformed and we don't really know the strategy, we don't know what we're doing, or that we're just kind of rabble-rousers. I think that needs to change. If you took race and class and gender out, anybody who's been able to do what we've been able to do in the last 15 years, I think, would be getting awards, and yet we get publicly shamed and our leadership is questioned and we're getting attacked right and left...moving forward on that, I think the narrative needs to change."
Lopez points out that Freedom Inc.'s aggressive approach at MMSD board meetings didn't come from nowhere. "People see these disruptions and they see news stories about how Freedom Inc. shut down another meeting, but there's no story about why they ended up using that tactic and how youth had been showing up for years and not using swear words and using their allotted time, and that no change came from that," Lopez says. "Following the rules did nothing, and that's why they had to resort to these more eye-catching tactics, and now it's like, 'Oh, well they've being bad activists.' Now they just get criticism instead of anyone asking, 'Why did they need to resort to this measure, how did it come to this?'"
Lopez also says she found Rickert's lunch counters comment "disturbing," and thinks the general tenor of the email reinforces a narrative that casts Madison as too liberal and well-intentioned to have serious problems with racism. "I don't know if that's his actual understanding of racism, or if he was trying to be inflammatory, but that definitely showed that he doesn't understand how racism actually works," she says.
That said, Lopez does see some hope for thoughtful local journalism about race. She cites the wealth of local media coverage about a recent controversy at the Overture Center for the Arts, which booked a run of the musical Miss Saigon, then later scuttled a panel discussion about the show's use of racist stereotypes and narratives. I agree with Lopez that this was a bright spot: Outlets including The Capital Times, Madison365, Isthmus, and WORT dug into both the racial context of the show and Overture's disastrous mishandling of it.
"I feel like reporters in Madison are really excited to talk about issues of race and that that's something they think that people are interested in and offer a sympathetic ear," Lopez says. "I didn't have any problems with any of the coverage of the whole Miss Saigon thing, so it's kind of weird to see this issue becoming so poorly reported and seeing the bias in the reporting."
Laurel Bastian also offered some follow-up thoughts about the comments Rickert made:
"There are several ideas and assumptions that appear in Rickert's email to me that seem to undergird both the recent article on Freedom, Inc., but also other articles that focus on race and/or equity issues over the past years that I've noticed (articles from March 16, March 24, and April 25 are examples). Those assumptions seem to be that Madison is not an outlier nationally in terms of racial disparities (and that conversations about disparities' existence and causes are overblown); that we can be less concerned in a city with progressive politics about racial inequalities; and that organizations who engage in actions that 'ruffle feathers' are using tactics that are neither necessary (given the first two assumptions) or effective. The first two assumptions are demonstrably false using quantitative data. The last assumptions, which frame several of Rickert's articles about recent school board meetings, are opinions. The assertions in his email and in portions of his reporting seem to me as a reader to bump up against [the Society of Professional Journalists’] code of ethics ('label advocacy and commentary' and 'avoid stereotyping'). I also see a pattern of narratives around Black people as disruptors, particularly in the quotes he selects.
"All of these moves serve to decenter, discredit, and dismiss the varied experiences of and the analyses of people of color. As a reader and community member, I find these moves harmful and unacceptable. They also result in poor journalism."