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The Reporter as `Lightning Rod'

Blacks and whites disagree over the role of the white news media in covering inner-city issues

By Cathy CormanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 1991


LAST fall, newsstand managers in New Haven scrambled to keep racks stocked with a magazine they rarely have to reorder. Usually considered too highbrow for general tastes, The New Yorker was selling like hotcakes. Local readers were chasing down a series of articles that focused on five months in the life of a black teenager selling cocaine in New Haven. The two-part series was called ``Out There'' and was written by staff writer William Finnegan.

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Vivid descriptions of the seventh-poorest city in the nation and its wealthy inhabitant, Yale University, sparked community-wide discussions about the burgeoning drug trade's impact on blacks and the role of the white media in the black community. The series also placed Mr. Finnegan in a public light.

Finnegan combined observations culled from intimate interviews with his 16-year-old subject, whom he called ``Terry,'' with historical analysis of urban decay. He argued that industrial decline had left young black men few options other than dealing drugs.

Finnegan was invited to return to New Haven. Within six weeks of the series' publication, he spoke to packed houses at Congregation Mishkan Israel, Yale Law School, Yale Divinity School, and the New Haven County Bar Association. ``Everyone was talking about these articles - at board meetings, the Downtown Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the hospital, the Shubert [Performing Arts Center] board, social gatherings, the Volvo Tennis Foundation board - everywhere you went,'' recalls Sheila Wellington, Secretary of Yale University. BUT it was white reaction, not the articles, that shocked many in the black community. ``The issue,'' says Lisa Sullivan, a community activist and black Yale graduate student, ``is who speaks for the black community and why.''

Despite initial reservations about talking to a white New Yorker reporter, Ms. Sullivan agreed to let Finnegan interview her for the articles. While she applauds the result, describing the series as ``the best thing I'd read about what's going on in urban communities,'' Sullivan was angered by white responses.

Yale's Ms. Wellington says that reactions in the white community fell into three categories: Some people were unaware that things in New Haven were so bleak and were shocked by the series, others worried that the articles were bad public relations for New Haven, and still others wanted to know what they could do.

Sullivan asks how anyone could be blind to the inequities that exist in New Haven: The city is unable to pay its debts, while the university has an estimated $2 billion endowment; derelict public housing projects abut Yale's lavish gymnasium.

``All of a sudden these people in New Haven, particularly the business community and liberal community, were saying, `Oh! We've got this problem!' Where have these people been?'' she asks.

It's a good question, says Herbert Brockman, rabbi at Mishkan Israel. He wonders aloud why the articles had such a tremendous impact and why so many people attended the lectures. ``They were scared and confused,'' he says, ``and they were hoping he had answers.''

At most of the forums Finnegan was besieged by readers in search of solutions to the problems he described. At Yale Law School, one listener asked (tongue in cheek) what guidance Finnegan would offer if he had the ear of two former mayors, some prominent educators, and a smattering of lawyers - all of whom happened to be in the audience at the time. ``I wish I could be more constructive,'' Finnegan responded then. ``These are really national problems, not local.''

Finnegan says this is really the first time readers have made him somewhat accountable for what he has written. ``It's startling,'' he says. ``In theory you're writing for a lot of people ... but having some rather large fraction of those readers come to life as it were, make themselves known to you, is rattling.''