Sunday, August 4, 2013

Guest Commentary by Gavin Aronsen: Conclusion

The Cityview Conspiracy Files: History Lessons

Amber Williams’ cover story this week in Cityview is a rambling, typo-riddled “essay explaining why government-run traffic cameras must be banned now.” It takes a look at efforts by state and local lawmakers to curb the practice and raises legitimate concerns about increasingly overbearing surveillance policies. But it’s couched in the sort of over-the-top rhetoric reflective of the conspiracy theories the newspaper has flirted with over the past two years, applauding the patriotism of city councilmen Williams compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. and lauding the founding fathers and the “sacred doctrine” of the US Constitution.


“People who aren’t outraged about being monitored by the government that we elect and fund are dangerously naive,” writes Williams, who five months ago authored a cover story promoting the myth that vaccines cause autism.

Comparing the pushback against Iowa traffic cameras to the civil rights movement, Williams writes, “Here applies one of American history’s greatest quotes, said grandly and with clenched fist by the revered Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ We need more Dr. Kings in this world.”

That (mis)quote is from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after being arrested for protesting racial segregation in 1963 at the height of the movement. The gravest injustice Williams mentions in her story is how a car dealer was forced to pay $1,500 in fines accrued by customers running red lights during test drives. One of her “Dr. Kings” is state Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale), whom she approvingly quotes saying that the use of traffic cameras “goes against the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ idea this country was founded on.” Never mind that Cityview routinely mocks the mugshots of people arrested, but not convicted, for crimes as insignificant as public intoxication and pot possession in its “Rap Sheet” feature.

Williams begins her story with an even deeper dive into the past. “In primitive times, people of some cultures believed that the camera steals the soul,” she writes. “Some say that belief stemmed from the superstition that revealing identifying things, such as your name or likeness, gives the ill-intended all they need to work their voodoo on you.”

Photographic cameras didn’t exist until the 19th century, so Williams presumably meant to refer to the relatively modern belief in some societies that photographs can capture a person’s soul. (The belief does have roots in ancient cultures.) Whatever the case, referring to cultures as primitive is generally considered to be racist, if only accidental in Williams’ story.*

At least Williams’ story this week covers an important public policy issue. That’s a big step up from, for example, her June cover story promoting the paper’s Fine Spirits Festival, which was little more than a transcript of her conversation with Cityview publisher Shane Goodman about drinking liquor.

It’s still nowhere close to the quality journalism Cityview used to regularly publish several years ago, although the paper does still have its occasional moments — the most recent example, Michael Gartner’s reminiscence of his experiences at the Des Moines Register’s old building at 715 Locust, is a compelling read.

If nothing else, Williams could learn a lesson from a cover story she wrote in March 2011 if she’s tempted to revisit conspiracy theories, as her traffic camera story hints. The story was about astrology, a pseudoscience that academics haven’t taken seriously since Isaac Newton published his laws of motion in the 17th century. “Astrology is an empirical science,” a “spiritual healer” at a Des Moines new age shop told Williams. But at least then, Williams bothered to share the views of experts who explained why that couldn't be further from the truth. She later neglected to do so in her stories that extensively quoted a 9/11 truther and a vaccine denialist.

As Williams points out in her new cover story, “They say history repeats. It does.”

* Speaking of racism, here’s an excerpt from a letter to the editor published in Cityview last week complaining about the paper’s swimsuit edition: “Really!? You could not find any women of color or diversity to include in your Swimsuit Edition? Every single woman highlighted in the issue was Caucasian. Des Moines has plenty of attractive African-American, Hispanic and Asian women from which to choose, but you chose not to feature anyone who wasn't Caucasian women [sic].”

It’s fair to scrutinize Cityview for the racist nature of its sexism, but here’s a better question: why does the paper even have a swimsuit edition? It’s an alternative weekly, not a lads’ mag, and according to a recent survey, the majority of the paper’s readers are women.

-Authored by Gavin Aronsen. 

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Gavin Aronsen graduated from Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism after interning at the Village Voice, the nation's first alternative weekly. He has worked as a reporter for Mother Jones magazine and edits AmesProgressive.org, the website of the zine he used to publish in college. He tells the Bigfoot Diaries that he doesn't want to "go scorched-earth on (Cityview) unless it's really warranted," and that these articles are meant "to improve the quality of central Iowa alternative media." He adds, "Maybe my memory's just hazy but I remember Cityview being pretty solid back in the day."

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