Karen Heller: Philly mag story on blacks and race stirs angst and anger

Posted: March 07, 2013

Why didn't Philadelphia Magazine title its March cover story simply "Fear of Black People"?

The catastrophically misguided article, "Being White in Philly," is basically devoid of facts while making the dubious claim that "in so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist."

Staff writer Robert Huber offered anonymity to everyone he interviewed. He based the article on highly selective anecdotes while assuming his views were universally shared by readers. To wit, "I've begun to think that most people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago."

Give Huber and his editors credit: The story accurately reflects the title "Being White."

White residents of Fairmount were asked what they thought about race, and by race Huber meant African Americans. And by African Americans, he meant only the poor and criminals, a stereotype offensive to everyone.

In this Philadelphia, there are no Latinos (who have a higher city poverty rate), no Asians, no middle-class or affluent blacks. The mayor, district attorney, City Council president, police commissioner, and school superintendent, all successful African American men, were not interviewed.

Then again, neither were any other black people.

The article was immediately met with a hailstorm of criticism, including from the magazine's own staff. "We encounter a litany of anecdotes about blacks and imagined blacks behaving badly," wrote senior writer Steve Volk, adding: "Nearly a week after I first read this story, I still can't believe I'm not just making it up."

The story argues "that white people are afraid to talk about race because black people have made them feel uncomfortable talking about race," wrote staff writer Jason Fagone. "Therefore, we can't solve problems in the city because a conversation is impossible. The implication is that this is black people's fault."

Editor Tom McGrath, who shepherded "Being White" and is defending the story, invited staffers to post their displeasure on the website while he responded to anger leveled on Twitter. To wit: "On a scale of 1-10, how desperate for attention is your publication?"

Philly Mag is a city publication that routinely behaves like a suburban one. By my count, only eight African Americans have appeared on the cover since the 1980s, most of them athletes. As McGrath concedes in his editor's note, the monthly has "exactly zero people of color on its full-time editorial staff."

In fairness, The Inquirer recently lost, to my chagrin, columnist Annette John-Hall, who took a buyout. While I have several African American colleagues, the newspaper could benefit from far more racial and ethnic diversity.

McGrath defended the story when I called him. "It's an honest piece. Both sides are afraid to have this conversation about race," he said. Then why didn't Huber interview "the other side"? Are black people's opinions less valuable?

Did McGrath regret the flagrant use of anonymous quotes? He said, "This was a case where, unless we will not print your full name, we would not have people speak candidly."

Nonsense. People may speak differently when you use their full names, but they will speak, and often honestly. It's called reporting. You can't have a "conversation" if only one side speaks. And leaving Latinos and Asians out of the dialogue is further insult.

But buzz has been created, which the magazine craves. As Volk writes, "It is not lost on me that 'Being White in Philly' is (most likely) a transparent attempt to get an emotional reaction," and he asks people not to read the article.

Taking a page out of the publication's lifeblood, let me confer one of Philly Mag's touts: Though it's only March, this is easily the year's "best" worst piece on Philadelphia.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller.

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