Barbara Miner has worked both sides of the journalistic fence.
She’s been a traditional news reporter – for the Milwaukee Journal – and a freelancer for other publications, from
the New York Times to (ahem) Milwaukee Magazine. And she’s worked in
the advocacy press, as a managing editor and later as a freelance contributor
for the Milwaukee-based Rethinking
Schools and many other outlets. She’s also one of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Purple Wisconsin” bloggers.
She’s brought strands of both forms
of journalism to her book Lessons from
the Heartland (The New Press, 305 pp.), which takes a bow (along with her) at
7 p.m. tonight at Boswell Books.
is a history of the last half-century of public education in Milwaukee. It’s
informed by her journalistic experience as well as by her biography. Miner grew
up in Milwaukee (where she attended Catholic schools, graduating in 1969).
Returning to the city in the 1980s, she sent her children to the innovative La Escuela
Fratney/Fratney Street School, a dual-language public school. (She later
married Bob Peterson, the
teacher-activist who had cofounded both Fratney and Rethinking Schools; he now
heads the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association union at Milwaukee Public
In Lessons, Miner makes brief forays into her own history, such as
when she briefly recounts the racism-inflected campaign Common Council
President Milton J. McGuire, her
Uncle Mac – “my favorite uncle” – ran in 1956 against incumbent Mayor Frank Zeidler. (McGuire lost.) But for
the most part the book is history, not memoir, a mix of scholarship,
journalism, and commentary and analysis.
“I tried to look at education in a
much broader context of what was going on in the city,” Miner says – and that
meant, in large part, focusing on Milwaukee’s racial history.
She probes the city’s deep-seated
segregation – in neighborhoods and schools alike – and the hostility toward
blacks that made the segregationist Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama a popular politician in some of the
city’s white enclaves. She maps the struggles of the African American community
from the Great Migration that brought an influx of Southern blacks to work in
the city’s once-thriving factories and the subsequent economic collapse of much
of the black community in the face of industrial flight. And she explores the
rise of voucher schools and the disparate personalities, black and white, from
left to right on the political spectrum, who facilitated Milwaukee’s pioneering
experiment in private schooling paid for with public dollars.
Miner’s brother is a history
teacher, and upon hearing her topic was the history of public schools for the
last 50 years, he teased, “so how are you gonna keep people awake?” Mindful of that
challenge, she says, “a lot of what I tried to do is tell stories.” But both
her journalistic training and her commitment to intellectual rigor, she says,
compelled her to go beyond that. “I hate policy by vignette,” says Miner.
“Stories are absolutely essential, but stories cannot be a substitute for
policy analysis. I really wanted to merge those two in a way that had
journalistic and intellectual credibility.”
Throughout the book she also dips
into how the media covered the interrelated conflicts over jobs, housing, and
schools that roiled Milwaukee.
Having been both a traditional
journalist as well as an activist-writer, Miner finds the evolving culture of
journalism especially challenging. Some trends she likes – such as a greater
willingness to abandon the reflexive demand for “equal time to both sides” of a
controversy “when one side is off the wall and wrong.”
But whether because its
practitioners are lazy or overworked, she finds troubling the ease with which
news outlets will so easily run with the latest press release “without checking
internally to see if it’s consistent or even has its facts straight,” she adds.
“That's one of the downsides of this hurry-up-and-do-everything culture. Reporters
don't always have the chance to do some background research and checking up
that they'd like to.”
And media coverage of education can
be maddeningly uneven, she says – citing as an example the failure of news
outlets, including the JS, to
consistently point out that despite receiving taxpayer funds, “the state’s
voucher schools don’t have to follow public meeting and open records laws.”
Still, Miner still finds herself
quick to take the side of traditional news outlets. Advocacy media, she says,
need to attend to greater factual rigor and also to adopt a certain distance
from its subjects so as to write more honestly. Mainstream publications,
meanwhile, need to be understood for what they are.
“I feel myself trapped in the middle a lot,”
she says. “In discussions with people in advocacy media, I defend the
mainstream media a lot. They serve a different function – their function is to
reflect the broader opinion.”
Words, words, words: It’s not in Miner’s book, but in recent correspondence
with her, former Journal editorial
page editor Dave Behrendt offered
one particularly fascinating nugget about the newspaper’s coverage of
desegregation efforts decades before. I confirmed the story with Behrendt
directly, and this is what he tells me from back when he was a full-time education
reporter in the early 1960s and covering MPS.
“One day I mentioned proposals or
efforts to ‘desegregate’ Milwaukee schools,” Behrendt tells me by email. “An
assistant city editor brought my story back to me and said I was not to use the
words ‘desegregate’ or ‘desegregation’ in regard to MPS.” The editor conveyed a
strong impression that the provision “was not just for me but throughout The Journal.”
Faced with the dilemma of how to
describe what could not be named, he says, “I contrived the cumbersome phrase ‘efforts
to increase the number of white and Negro children attending class together.’”
Behrendt says he never did know why
the S-word was forbidden. “My suspicion was that Harold Story, a prominent attorney who was a School Board member,
had likely persuaded someone in power at The
Journal to drop ‘desegregation’ regarding MPS because it might imply that
the schools had earlier been segregated, thus perhaps creating a legal
vulnerability. But this latter was just my speculation.”
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