In the spring of 2014 I was invited to write freelance art criticism for the San Francisco Chronicle — the invitation came in an email out of the blue one day from the late David Weigand, who passed away earlier this month, who was then the Executive Features Editor. It was a thrilling opportunity, but everything soon unraveled when I was handed off to another editor.
I define my work as independent because I choose my subjects. I don’t work on assignment unless it makes sense for my larger body of work, which encompasses a number of themes relative to art, politics, and public life. My focus is not always warmly received by editors hoping for a certain kind of commercial-art-market boosterism, but I see my work as a collection of research and ideas, specifically my own. Writing simply doesn’t pay enough to write repurposed ad copy. Weigand was openly enthusiastic about the political nature of my writing and had studiously considered a lot of my work, going back several years. Talking with me in his windowless office the day he sent me a contract, his exact words were, “Come work for me and write whatever you want.” I couldn’t believe my luck.
But as I said, it didn’t last. After talking through some ideas, I was assigned to another editor. I soon pitched a story on the block-long Oakland-Palestine Solidarity Mural being produced that summer in Oakland, featuring work by a number of great artists, including Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. Everyone wanted mural stories, plus Emory Douglas is a legend — it seemed like a slam dunk. I was stunned when my editor wrote back a terse no, saying I was “talking to the wrong lady here on this issue,” and expanding only to say in a second email, that she had strong feelings on the subject and “not that side LOL.”
From there our communications became strained. I began to get largely apolitical assignments, then my rates were cut, and then I was pretty much out. It was quick. I managed to get in a few strong pieces, small triumphs that were overtly counter to the paper’s general conservatism. This included an interview with artist and activist Adriana Camarena on her community organizing after the San Francisco police brutally killed Alejandro Nieto (also known as Alex), a longtime Mission District resident who died in a hail of 59 bullets after a white man called the police on him. When this piece came out, I wondered if I’d get fired for pulling it off. I knew my days were numbered. I didn’t care.
Other writers told me I had been naive to think anyone at the paper would touch the mural story. A colleague at another publication said, “No one touches Palestine.” Today, if you search for information about the Oakland-Palestine Solidarity Mural, you can see that this proved true — it received no substantial media coverage, despite its massive scale and incredible roster of participants, supporters, and collaborators. (There is some small consolation, though, I must say, in seeing that it has five-star Yelp reviews.)
The recent violence in Gaza brought this old history lesson back to my mind, as I read various media accounts that went a long way to avoid mentioning that Israeli forces slaughtered dozens of nonviolent Palestinian demonstrators last Monday. Twitter practically thrummed with the sound of people crowd correcting the New York Times over an early headline claiming, “At least 28 Palestinians Die in Protests as US Prepares to Open Jerusalem Embassy.” As writer and curator Omar Berrada noted on Facebook, alluding to the faultlessness embedded in the headline, “The day’s death toll by now has gone beyond 50. Fifty innocents killed by an army. And thousands wounded. But for the New York Times, Palestinians are never killed. They just die.”
Perhaps in response to the public outcry, the headline was changed online to say, “Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as US Embassy Opens in Jerusalem,” but not before many media outlets had distributed the earlier headline and its abstractions of violence. By day’s end, 58 people had been killed and more than 2,700 people injured, including hundreds of children and babies.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) May 14, 2018
The New York Times was right to be more direct in their accounting. American media needs to be held accountable for reporting on what happened in Gaza and on what is happening to Palestinians every day. Americans also need to understand our complicity in this violence and to do our part, as consumers, to lift up journalism that tells the truth about rising fascism worldwide and to crowd-correct journalism that avoids ugly truths. We cannot allow biased media to spoon feed us bias. We need to demand representation and accountability. Read every syllable with a critical eye. These times demand it.
I sometimes get asked why I didn’t keep writing for the paper; more often I am asked why I wasn’t made critic after Kenneth Baker retired. Though I was never expecting to be made critic, I like to imagine Baker and his blinkered successor both experiencing a parallel sensation, like an itch they can’t scratch, every time this is asked of me. The current critic recently published a tone-deaf rant arguing against the removal of a city-owned, historically racist sculpture in San Francisco that has offended Indigenous people and their allies for decades. When I am asked about why it never worked out at the paper, I shrug and point to what stands for their present-day art criticism. Suffice it to say it was never going to work out for me there — I have no regrets about that.
My experience is just a small lesson about the tactics of widespread erasure. Certainly my brief flame-out at the Chronicle was a defining moment for me as a writer and as a scholar, in understanding the powerful ripple effects of bias in the media, particularly as it relates to state violence. Arts coverage is not life or death, but it can hold a mirror up to much larger systemic abuses. Or it can choose to take the other side. Whether or not you’ll be lead down that path, dear reader, is up to you.
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