The article "Uncivil Fights" [Style, Oct. 30], about the fracas dividing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, should have been a simple piece about ideological conflict on the panel of four Republicans and four Democrats. Instead it is a cynical, superficial account of "nasty feuds and personal attacks."
Reporter Peter Carlson begins by setting up Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative on the commission, as the villain, describing her as an "author and neocon think-tank commando." Meanwhile, he describes the commission's ultra-leftist chairman, Mary Francis Berry, as "famously feisty." Thernstrom is quoted as saying, "Mary Francis Berry is a totalitarian. She's a book burner and she constantly lies." To which Carlson responds with this two-sentence paragraph: "Hey, Abigail, don't be bashful! Tell us what you really think."
No mention of what caused Thernstrom to call Berry a totalitarian.
The rest of Carlson's piece is more of the same: an account of "the latest brouhaha" about where the commission should hold its meetings, a discussion of a disagreement involving a report on the 2000 election written by the commission staff, which Carlson dismisses by saying, "The story bogs down in charges, countercharges and accusations of lying."
But it's the reporter's job to sift through the conflicting stories. Who were the staff members who wrote the report? Who appoints them? What are their politics? To whom was the report first leaked?
Not until the end of the piece does Carlson finally offer any insight into the conflict. First Thernstrom is quoted:
"[Liberals] are terrified of any conversation on race and ethnicity that recognizes the complexity of the social landscape in 2002. They really think that America is unchanged, that everywhere you look, it's 1950 in Mississippi." Berry fires back: "In the Jim Crow era, I was in Nashville, a little black girl going to high school in a segregated school. I know the difference between that and what's going on now."
Isn't this the nub of the conflict, that Thernstrom thinks America has moved past racial obsessions and Berry does not? Why do the two think the way they do?
Carlson does note that liberal commissioner Christopher Edley says the fight is over "what the government should or should not do to alleviate the economic and educational disparities between the races."
In an earlier, less cute age, that sentence would have been the lead of the story, and Carlson would have devoted himself to investigating the answers to those questions.
-- Mark Gauvreau Judge