Thursday, September 13, 2012

9-11 and Amherst: Why Do They Hate Us? (part 1)

Amherst, September 10

Let's just get a couple of misconceptions out of the way.  Contrary to what has been reported in the press and widely believed (mainly, though not exclusively outside the borders of our quaint hamlet):

1) Amherst does not refuse to fly the American flag. It flies every day from the pole on the Common in front of our Town Hall, as well as from police and fire stations. Here's a picture from this afternoon.

Of late, we have also restored the small holder for the flags of the United States and the Commonwealth on the face of the Town Hall's west stair tower.

2) Amherst also marks the anniversary of the 9-11 jihadi terrorist attacks every year:

a) by lowering all flags on major public buildings to half-staff. Here's a photo of the Police Station from last year.

b) with a ceremony at the central Fire Station.

Last year, on the tenth anniversary, there was a larger official commemoration, involving police and firefighters as well as Town officials, on the Common.

Tomorrow, we solemnly mark the occasion at the Fire Station, as usual.

Those are the facts, and no one here denies them.

So why all the lies and misconceptions?

Although the local press for some reason basically ignored the 9-11 ceremony last year, every debate and deliberation about just how to mark the anniversary does seem to get covered. These are then sometimes picked up and distorted by the outside media. . . and thereby hangs a tale. For 11 years now, the question of 9-11 and flags has been the ugly scab that everyone likes to pick at.

The ugly scab that is never allowed to heal

Those who follow Amherst politics are all too familiar with the sequence of events, but to recap in brief:

Over a decade ago, the veterans' agent purchased a set of commemorative flags and proposed to fly them from downtown utility poles at the end of the summer, after the last of the holidays normally marked in this manner. Because, under our Town Government Act, the Select Board has control over the public ways (streets, in common parlance), the issue came before that august body one fine September evening.

Public comment turned not just on the question at hand, but also on attitudes toward "the flag" in general. Some residents spoke favorably of the flag. Some made some rather unfortunate remarks about their view of America and what the flag stood for. The Select Board, as was its right, voted against the additional display of flags. What was most unfortunate was that all this just happened to occur on the evening of September 10, 2001. In the coming days, the media were filled with stories not just about the terrorist attacks, but also about Amherst's alleged refusal to fly the flag, as such—this, at a time when flags became ubiquitous symbols of community and social solidarity.

In response to the catastrophe, residents put up the flags themselves. In fact, in October, the Select Board unanimously voted to leave the flags up till Veterans' Day and then return to the existing policy. Thereafter, the display became the subject of debate. (summary of flag policy, 2001-3) Fifth-generation Amherst native (as he describes himself) and blogger Larry Kelley has made commemoration of 9-11—in particular, through the flying of these flags—his cause célèbre. In 2007, Town Meeting voted down, by a margin of more than 2:1, his article proposing that the Town eternally mark the anniversary in this manner. In 2008, the Select Board approved a compromise policy of flying the flags only every third year, reflecting the split Town Meeting vote. Undaunted, Mr. Kelley has kept his promise to bring the issue up year after year.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the present Select Board, none of whose members, it should be stressed, was in office at the time of the 2001 controversy. Some of us were satisfied with the existing policy as a compromise reflecting the town's divided political opinion, some members found it illogical, and some found the raising of additional flags an inappropriate symbol of mourning. In the end, the only motion seconded and passed was one mandating the flying of the additional flags only on "milestone" anniversaries, that is, every five years. When Mr. Kelley again asked us to take up the issue last month, we held a sustained discussion, in the course of which it became clear that there was not enough support for a revision. No motion was made, so the existing policy remained in place.

Ironically, this year's calm and brief conversation, which simply allowed the previous policy to stand and did not even result in a debate or a vote, got much more attention than the policy under discussion when it was voted in.

It's hard to say exactly why this non-event became such big news, but it doesn't take much to start an avalanche of this sort once the snowball is rolling.

Full press court

Some people legitimately disagreed with the policy (as is their right), while others clearly misread the articles or read too much into what they saw, simply projecting all of their poison and prejudices onto Amherst, and its residents, and above all, its government (thanks; you have a nice day, too). Frankly, poor judgment and wording on the part of the press played a role in the debacle.

For example, local reporter Scott Merzbach's typically careful and balanced story in the Hampshire Gazette began with the accurate statement, "The anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, will be marked in Amherst with a solemn ceremony at the central fire station and the lowering of town flags," before turning to the latest deliberation on the additional flags. The equally careful Diane Lederman of the Springfield Republican offered a similarly nuanced piece.
But a casual reader who looked only at the titles of those pieces (usually the creation of the paper or editor, not the reporter)—"Amherst select board rejects September 11 flag display" and "Amherst officials offer perspectives on decision not to fly American flags on 9/11"—might easily leap to the wrong conclusion. And leap mightily many did.

Conor Berry's report in the Springfield Republican gave them a veritable springboard for just such a leap of logic. Taking the "inverted pyramid" model of journalism to its extreme conclusion, it led with the current deliberations (only fair), but left the explanation that Amherst did indeed commemorate 9-11 until the very last sentence. The in principle accurate but in practice entirely misleading headline was like a red flag to a bull (or a right-winger): "Amherst says 'No' to annual downtown flag display to commemorate 9/11 terrorist attacks on America."

It was downhill from there. A turning point was probably Mr. Kelley's interview on Fox News. Although he calmly presented his passionately held views, the interview revived the subject of the rather rancid comments about the American flag from 2001, which have nothing to with the current controversy or the current Select Board, none of whom held office at that time and none of whom holds those views. And the network, which boasts of its "fair and balanced" coverage, fanned the flames of popular anger with the (as Mr. Kelley, to his credit, acknowledged) misleading title, "Town won't fly American flags on 9/11," and equally manipulative subtitle, "Amherst: flags fly only 6 days of the year."

That Fox segment itself in turn became the subject of news coverage, just further feeding the feeding frenzy.

Further distortions followed, including a hopelessly addled piece of what passes for reporting by Anaridis Rodriguez of WWLP-TV. Although she proudly describes herself as a practitioner of "multi-platform journalism," she only managed, in the space of a very few lines, to make multiple errors, for example, claiming that Town Meeting rather than Select Board had crafted the current flag policy, and above all, quoting Mr. Kelley as impugning the patriotism of the Town Manager and Select Board (which he never did). The story has since been taken down and replaced with a cleaned-up version (though it still contains bizarrely irrelevant emphases in its coverage of the 2010 debate). In both cases, again, an inflammatory headline did neither the Town nor the truth a service: "Amherst won't fly flags this 9/11."

So, let's recap.  Look at a sample of those headings:
• "Amherst select board rejects September 11 flag display"
• "Amherst says 'No' to annual downtown flag display to commemorate 9/11 terrorist attacks on America"
• "Amherst officials offer perspectives on decision not to fly American flags on 9/11"
• "Town won't fly American flags on 9/11"
• "Amherst: flags fly only 6 days of the year"
• "Amherst won't fly flags this 9/11"
Is it any wonder that people hate us? that so much of the commentary was hostile, even vicious?

To be sure, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe issued a thorough explanation of the Town policy and moreover responded personally to every complaint or query that we received.

"Never mind!"

Surprisingly, perhaps, some of the outraged epistolarians, upon learning the truth, suddenly became more contrite versions of Gilda Radner's famed "Saturday Night Live" character Emily Litella, who would go off on a total rant based upon a complete misunderstanding, and upon being corrected, simply said: "Never mind." Others continued to disagree with the current policy (as is their right), but admitted that they now understood it better and had been hoodwinked by bad reporting or succumbed to sloppy reading.

For example:
Thank you for your kind attention to my “epistle” of the other day. I want to apologize to you and the Select Board, I very obviously “jumped the gun” on reading a report from a “rabble rouser” . Sadly, there are lots of so-called “journalists” who are taking advantage of our present tumultuous time, in order to sway the public’s opinion (and sell newspapers)
OMG!!! Stephanie I am so sorry I wrote that letter to you. Word was that you were not flying the American flag. After some research of which I should have done in the first place I now find that not to be the case. 
Yep, same instructions I give to my students: do the careful research and reading in the first place—then tell me your opinion.

Clearly, the town remains divided over the issue of the—how many: 25? 26? 28? 29?—commemorative flags (the press can't even agree on the number). Yet I think almost all of us would agree with Larry Kelley's recent statement:
Now this flying-the-25-commemorative-flags-on-9/11-once-every-five-years story has taken on a life of its own.  And the real loser is the town.
Hard to argue with that.

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