Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Street Fight," Sharpe James, and some Newark echoes in Brooklyn

Even before the fraud conviction yesterday of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, Marshall Curry's riveting 2005 documentary Street Fight, about Council Member Cory Booker's 2002 challenge to longtime mayoral incumbent James, was essential viewing--and with some implications for Atlantic Yards watchers, especially regarding the performance of the press.

Now that Booker was elected in 2006 and James convicted, Curry's non-neutral but essentially honest investigation reminds us of the inability of the mainstream press, too often wedded to "he said, she said" modes of reporting, to convey the sleaziness of the James administration.

He captures James in a baldfaced lie (see screenshot below), claiming he has "a volunteer army versus a paid army" (actually, the James "volunteers" admit on camera that they're paid and from out of state), films city employees tearing down Booker's campaign signs, and several times experiences intimidation by James's security detail.

The press as referee

Asked in an interview posted on Alternet about how candidates get away with such bad behavior, Curry responded:
One thing that frustrated me so much in both the Newark election and the last presidential election is the mainstream media tries to cover elections in a way that they consider to be fair but that in fact is a distortion of reality. They try to say, "Well, George Bush said this, John Kerry said this" or "Cory Booker said this, Sharpe James said this." And they don't analyze whether one side is telling the truth. They just allow themselves to be mouthpieces for the two campaigns. And I think that they do that because that is what the audience assumes is fair. In fact, I think the media needs to be like a referee. A good referee doesn't call the same number of fouls on both sides; a good referee calls fouls when there are fouls.
(Emphases added)

The real estate industry

In one scene in the film, a radio interviewer cites James's accusations of Booker's alliances with "far-right" Republicans like Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts. "I've never met J.C Watts," Booker responds. "I've been lifelong Democrat. And suddenly, here we are, wasting time, talking about Sharpe James's accusations."

The interviewer tells Booker that people are scared of his "broad-based support," which includes out-of-state contributions.

Booker responds, "This is what is almost comical... The majority of Sharpe James's supporters are developers and people that have city contracts. And the majority of those don't live in the city of Newark."

Politics as sport

In one important sequence, Curry tries to film a mayoral debate, but police won't let him film it; instead, he tapes the audio. A fracas breaks out. James accuses a Booker supporter of being a "terrorist." Police pull the man into a room, but lawyers for Booker campaign argue until he's released. James lunges at lawyers; his supporters hold him back.

A Booker supporter taunts James, and gets trash-talked in turn by James's supporters. A policeman from the mayor's security team breaks the microphone from Curry's camera. Reporters gather around to hear the "terrorist" explain what happened.

Next we see Booker on the phone, speaking to a reporter: "You saw how I comported myself, and I really hope that you write the truth--this is how Cory behaved, this is how Sharpe James behaved."

Curry's voiceover, however, is somber: "The Booker team is struggling to get the press to show more outrage. But so much of the reporting just treats the election like a sport. They call it rough-and-tumble politics, as if Newark were a crazy regime on the other side of the globe, rather than an American city, just 12 miles from Manhattan."

The Sharpton connection

The generational division in African-American politics is one theme in the film. We see academic Cornel West and filmmaker Spike Lee backing Booker, while Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton campaign for James, who repeatedly insisted that Booker, who grew up in the middle-class suburbs, was insufficiently black.

(Booker lived in a city housing project in his council district while James collected a second paycheck as a state senator, surely muddying the issue.)

The James connection is one of several that reminds us that Sharpton's political opinions should be taken with some skepticism.

The film premiered 7/5/05 (though it didn't appear on DVD until the end of 2006). A New York Times City Hall reporter, who presumably should have been familiar with a tough film on a nearby mayoralty, thought the news that Sharpton criticized Ferrer more important than Ferrer's public announcement that he opposed Atlantic Yards.

So a 10/29/05 headline in the Times read, Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards, allowing Sharpton to wrest the narrative from Ferrer.

The media and Newark, the media and Brooklyn

While Brooklyn is famously undercovered, Curry suggested that Newark suffers as well, in an interview for P.O.V.:
Because it's so close to New York City, Newark falls in a media shadow, really. New York City sucks up most of the television press in the area, and most of the newspapers' scrutiny. Because of the longstanding lack of scrutiny, a lot of problems have developed. I'm hoping this film will help to shine a light on some of those problems and will get people involved to take some action.

While the Star-Ledger has dropped "Newark" from its name, Newark does have its own newspaper, sort of. And it has a city government. So there are probably more mainstream news reporters covering Newark than Brooklyn.

Then again, there are a lot more citizen journalists, independent journalists, activists, and bloggers in Brooklyn keeping the press on their toes.

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