Do You Really Want to Be the Talk of the Town?
The first day of the Republican National Convention, just twenty blocks north of a Madison Square Garden swarming with delegates, protesters, and reporters, the cable-access Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) Youth Channel prepared for its own production. Its studio teemed with the kind of adolescents who only rarely make the news: young people doing good.
A cross-section of the city’s most politically engaged teens, the young filmmakers, journalists, and activists prepared to take their places on a panel discussion called Youth Voice 2004. Momentarily, the hour-long show of teens’ perspectives on the election, months in the making, would broadcast live on national TV. Adding to the excitement was news that Dana Goodyear from the New Yorker had spent the morning shadowing the young MNN cameraman Andrew Leon, notebook in her hand.
While it seemed odd to some of the Youth Channel staff that Goodyear had picked their youngest participant to follow—Andrew was only 12, about four years younger than most of the teen staff—they were still thrilled she was there. After all, Youth Voice 2004 was exactly the kind of event the mainstream media almost never cover.
Indeed, the media too often cast teens in a negative light. One recent study done by Young People Now, a London-based magazine for youth workers, found that nearly seventy-one percent of stories about teens in English papers are negative, and one in three focuses on crime. Young people were quoted in only eight percent of the stories about youth. “Youth have opinions that are often drastically misrepresented in the media,” said MNN education facilitator Andrew Lynne.
Not long after Goodyear took her seat in the front row of the studio, the credits opened to a pre-recorded rap written and performed by MNN’s 20-year-old peer trainer “Promise” Vargas about the Republicans coming to town and “walking around.” Then flashed an image of George W. Bush gravely clutching a yellow-covered “Presidency for Dummies.”
Two MNN staff introduced the show: “What’s good, everyone?” said one, grinning widely while a DJ named Impact scratched just behind him. Eventually the camera settled on the panel of teen experts shifting in their folded chairs in front of a bright, makeshift banner.
Panelists, who came from radical organizations like the League of Pissed Off Voters, the Prison Moratorium Project, and the Young Communist Club, included young activists like the primly-dressed Jennie Polone, who, in her spare time, teaches other teens about HIV infection, and Lucas Shapiro of the Young Democratic Socialists. At 24, Shapiro was the oldest panelist and had recently organized “Books Not Bombs,” a youth demonstration demanding, Shapiro’s colleague explained, “a complete reordering of priorities in this country.”
Seventeen-year-old Vanessa Salazar, from Columbia, wearing a navy shirt speckled with politically-minded pins, had the unenviable task of being the lone Republican on camera. When Salazar later suggested that immigrants denied scholarships should return to their countries to get student visas, the audience booed and Promise Vargas, a former Latin King, leaned forward in his seat to sternly reprimand, “You sound very ignorant young lady, seriously.”
Two teen moderators—Habibah Ahmad, in a bright blue shirt and matching headscarf,
and Naomi, who goes by one name and has cropped hair—struggled to maintain
order. They introduced each issue debated with a list of relevant facts, and
sometimes even showed a teen-produced video about the issue. (“So we can have
visual accompaniments to this discussion,” Naomi explained.) Even so, the audience
was not spared the periodic confusion of listening to panelists argue over
what was or wasn’t true. One particularly tempestuous debate over who in New
York was eligible for health care lasted four agonizing minutes.
But for the most part, the moderators as well as the panelists came across
as impressively knowledgeable and opinionated teens who were above all passionate.
In one particularly moving moment, Shoshi Doza, with sleek black hair, leaned
forward in her seat to make clear why she was an activist: “I do what I do because
after 9-11 I saw how Bush’s agenda targeted our immigrant communities, the Arabs
and Muslims, how they’re put into jail…just because their name is Mohammed,” said
Doza, hands outstretched in outrage. “Thirteen-thousand people already have been
deported, millions of people are in detention centers….I see young children crying
every day for their father, ’cause they can’t see their father.”
Clearly, these are kids who not only care but who are fighting for change, making Youth Voice 2004 the type of video that a hip social studies teacher might show, using the panelists’ heated debates to launch a class discussion. After all, these panelists make being a politically involved and civic-minded teen seem not just important, but incredibly cool.
“We thought it was a complete success,” said Vargas, summing up how all the MNN Youth Channel teens and staff felt after the closing credits rolled. Which made it confusing when, two weeks later, the New Yorker piece came out.
Though Lynne did not recall Goodyear ever identifying herself as a reporter for the “Talk of the Town” section, famous for its loftily amused, detached “above the fray” tone, that’s where the piece on Youth Voice 2004 appeared. It was no exception to the section’s usual tone. Centered around the 12-year-old cameraman, the article has Leon muttering a stream of cute but pointless kid-blather: “I like math a little, but I really like recess. It’s like lunch—you just chill.”
Shoshi Doza, the young woman who works with undocumented immigrants, is reduced to a mere teen stereotype the one time Goodyear quotes her: “I mean, like we, like have a constitutional right, like, to protest.”
One young African-American teen’s calm explanation of military recruitment—“A lot of recruiters are based in the minority communities. And you have underfunded afterschool programs, and you have schools with bad books, and then you have young people who want to escape to the army to get away from the community”—is reduced in the piece to four words: “It’s a war on minority youth.”
Lucas Shapiro had delivered some of the panel’s most well-articulated views. He contended that helping prevent the spread of AIDS abroad was not only a question of education, but “of foreign policy that’s driven by the interests of pharmaceutical companies. Countries need cheap, generic drugs.” And he described the detention of undocumented immigrants following 9-11 as “a whole series of policies that are really an affront to the very freedoms that we claim to be protecting in the wars we’re launching abroad.”
But in the “Talk of the Town” piece, Shapiro makes only a cameo, as former “weird kid” (Shapiro’s words) who picked up trash at his school and became an activist at age “ten or eleven.”
The “prevailing sentiment” of Youth Voice 2004, Goodyear asserts, was 12-year-old Leon’s feeling about the Republican Convention: “I’m not Republican. I don’t like Republicans, because basically Republicans are not what I like.” “That’s the type of thing Andrew would say to be funny and then say something serious, but he wouldn’t answer a question like that. I think she took that joke and made it into a statement,” said Promise, who during the show credited his Bronx public high school where he graduated as the valedictorian, for showing him that he was actually smart. “She made all of us sound unintelligent.”
Vargas and the rest of the Youth Channel staff knew that moments of the hour-long show had lacked coherence, but it upset them that those were the instances Goodyear had quoted almost exclusively. Her account of the show, they felt, was a trivializing portrait of kids with a lot of bravado but nothing substantial to say. “They could have talked about public access, about empowerment through media, about youth representation in media, instead they took the human interest hook of, ‘Look at those kids, they are so cute with their big cameras,’” said education facilitator Lynne. “Was this person even in the audience?”
So the Youth Channel staff did what came most naturally to them: they used the story as a teaching tool. They called a meeting with the teens and passed around Goodyear’s story. The teens were outraged. “It hurt to see we worked so hard and put so much effort into it to be degraded in the mainstream media,” remembers Vargas.
But gradually, anger and hurt gave way to a discussion of how the media worked and what constituted responsible journalism. The teens considered how just about any event—be it a presidential campaign or a birthday party—could be written in as many different ways and from as many different angles as people who viewed it. Depending on what quotes a reporter chose to include or omit in a story, the same subject could appear hopelessly befuddled or fantastically decisive.
When it came to Youth Voice 2004, Lynne said he believed, “The idea was that this woman knew what she wanted to write when she walked in the door, and just needed our quotes to write it.”
That, said Vargas with visible disgust, went something along the lines of, “‘Oh, look at those cute kids trying to do what grown ups do.’”
Youth Media Reporter called Goodyear to discuss these claims, but she would not go on the record about the article. New Yorker spokesperson Perri Dorsat, however, said, “We’re sorry that they’re unhappy with the coverage and we’re very happy with the piece.”
Meanwhile Lynne, Vargas, and the rest of the Youth Channel staff and teens vowed to be very careful about talking to the press in the future. They would have a publicity kit, they decided, and insist on having a sharper idea ahead of time about what, exactly, was a reporter’s interest and intent in covering their work. They would decide what message they themselves wanted conveyed and “not necessarily answer the reporters’ questions,” but keep repeating that message, Lynne said.
One of the teens suggested that they should write a letter to The New Yorker or, better yet, in their next show, have the magazine featured subtly in the background, either ripped up on the floor or sticking out of a trashcan.
In the end, the teens decided there were more important things to do. Especially with Bush’s inauguration quickly approaching, there were more pressing events vying for their attention. But even after they’d moved on to new plans and projects, the feeling of being misrepresented and misunderstood—something so many city teens feel already, something that, ironically, Youth Voice 2004 had aimed to alleviate—still lingered.
“The kids felt their show was misinterpreted,” shrugged Cynthia Carrion, MNN Youth Channel outreach coordinator. “It made them question the mainstream media.” Which in the end, she added, isn’t such a bad thing.
A cable-access youth channel had the lens turned on it.