My journalism professors wouldn’t be proud of me. Not only because I’ve spent my career satirizing the misadventures of America’s weirdos rather than uncovering corruption, but also because last week I cried at a city council meeting.
Reporters are taught to be dispassionate, objective observers. Getting emotionally involved had never been a problem for me before, except at the monthly disgraces they call meetings of the Sauk County Board, a body most politely described as a fly in the soup of American democracy. So tortured are the principles of good government and common decency that even a stoic feels moved to tears.
There isn’t supposed to be crying in journalism, but Baraboo is an emotional place these days, from city hall to church pews to high school hallways. A photo depicting local prom-goers in an apparent Nazi salute was posted online last week, making international news and tying this community to hate speech. Locals feel outraged, attacked, disheartened and traumatized. We all lost the same loved one: Baraboo’s good name.
As one of the bereaved, I struggled to compose myself during last week’s council meeting. I listened to Jewish friends, good people thrust into a mess they didn’t make, call for healing and education. As the Chamber of Commerce president spoke, I thought of friends on the staff who spent the week fielding angry calls over a controversy they didn’t create, and may spend years working to overcome. As a friend and alderman whose son appeared in the photo discussed the impact on his family, I thought of my own four children at the school who, despite not being pictured, may see the way they’re perceived – “You’re from Baraboo? Ick.” – change forever. I didn’t once think of the journalism professors who might say I’m friends with too many local newsmakers.
There’s much we don’t know about the circumstances surrounding the shooting and circulation of the photo. Each day new accounts surface that move me to reject the face-value narrative that immediately spread around the world. “In that picture the boys seem to be saluting like Nazis. It was taken in a mostly white community that must be a breeding ground for white supremacists.”
I don’t believe it’s that simple. Yes, we live in a rural area, but we don’t wear ropes for belts. The shame in seeing Baraboo known only for that photo is that America might be surprised to learn this is a cosmopolitan little town. It supports the arts and public schools, and you can’t live here long without getting to know Jewish people and gay people and other minorities, such as those who think it’s OK to play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. We don’t hide in terror behind the nearest tree when they approach or burn crosses on their lawns or break their Perry Como albums. They are our friends. Every community has its bigots, but I’d like to think that if we knew our high school was becoming a boot camp for Hitler Youth, the locals would be the first to step in.
We’ve learned this much: The view from the eye of a media – and social media – hurricane is terrifying. The instant a community is associated with hate, it becomes the target of that very thing. Whereas my Aunt Lucille, the Shakespeare of strongly worded letters, labored over her typewriter in upbraiding wayward CEOs and bureaucrats, today trolls with keyboard courage can tell you immediately and anonymously that you and your community are a pimple on America’s behind.
I can understand why the photo upset people, and I find calls for sensitivity training and Holocaust education entirely appropriate. I’d just like our knee-jerk, hit-send world to consider there may be more to the story than we know right now. Our modern world of social media and around-the-clock talking heads doesn’t much care for patience or complexity. But it’s best to evaluate events in context and resist the temptation to take them at face value. Maybe I learned something in all those journalism classes after all.
Whether we find out the photo depicts bigotry in action, an ill-conceived joke, a disastrous misunderstanding or something in between, the damage is done. An above-average small Wisconsin town bears a wound that won’t heal without leaving a scar. And that’s a crying shame.