Ghetto Life 101: Was It Exploitive?
No voices rake the hearts of the white middle class like those of the children of the black underclass. The ones who aren't boosting yet or gang banging or doing junk or having babies--these are America's innocent and damned.
Alex Kotlowitz told the story of the Henry Horner Homes through the eyes of two young brothers who were good boys in horrendous circumstances. Kotlowitz got to know these boys intimately; he knew their family and their neighbors and society. There Are No Children Here was a wise and angry book that accomplished at least this--it reminded journalists of a good way to do the ghetto.
For all their merits, the Sun-Times's series, "Dantrell's Legacy," and the Tribune's, "Killing Our Children," have done the ghetto by focusing on its inhabitants who are young and pure enough to care about. And now WBEZ has eliminated the middleman--the reporter. In late May 'BEZ broadcast a half-hour documentary, Ghetto Life 101, that was fashioned from 70 hours of tapes recorded by LeAlan Jones, 13, who lives just outside the Ida B. Wells housing project on the south side, and his friend Lloyd Newman, 14, who lives within.
"It's kind of rowdy in the morning," says LeAlan into his microphone. "Sometimes we learn. Most of the time it's just too rowdy to learn." The boys interview their teacher at Donoghue Elementary. "Yes, yes it's difficult," she says. "It's difficult because of the publicity that surrounds the area. And you don't believe that we believe you're smart."
LeAlan talks about his mother. "She's OK now," he says, "but she's had a lot of problems in the past. It's upsetting to see her when she's sick."
His mom remembers: "One time I had went downstairs, and it's a long story but I started seeing shadows on the back porch . . . and I used to look out the window at night . . . and it looked like Ronald Reagan and he was talking to my grandmother. And I was hearing voices and the voices told me to run, get butt naked. I had did that before too, taking my clothes off."
LeAlan asks about the voice. Was it a man's voice, a female voice?
"Just a regular little voice up there."
He changes the subject. "Who was my father?"
"Your father is a fellow named Toby Slippum. He say he know you is his. He seen you when you was about two, and I ain't seen him since."
"What do you think happened to him?" says LeAlan.
"He's probably dead."
The scene shifts to Ida Wells, where LeAlan confirms the things we all suppose about project life. "Lloyd's house is kind of messed up. . . . The toilet's been stopped up off and on for years. The place is always noisy. Lloyd's mother died two years ago from drinking. His father's also an alcoholic, so Lloyd's two older sisters have been bringing him up since then."
LeAlan: "Almost every day Lloyd's father visits the house. . . . When he comes over he's almost always drunk, and the kids make fun of him."
Lloyd: "I asked my father what his best memories of my mother are . . . "
Father: "Putting our feet in the water together. I was sober then. Once I started getting high them memories gone. They're gone."
Lloyd: "What do you drink?"
Father: "I drink about two or three pints of wine a day. But the hell of it is it's killing me. People don't understand it's destroying you."
"If it's destroying you why do you still drink then?"
"That's why I got to go into rehab. . . . I'm going in next week. I don't want it to destroy my family, 'cause I want my family."
"Do you think you've been a good father?"
"Yes I have. To the best capability I could."
"I have no further questions."
Says LeAlan, "It's not a normal childhood by any means."
LeAlan introduces his sister Jeanell. "When she was my age, 13, she won the spelling bee. She was the salutatorian of her class. Then when she was 14 she started bugging out, hanging around with the wrong crowd, staying out all night. Stopped going to school."
Lloyd: "The week before we did our recording, Jeanell almost died. She drank too much and had to be rushed to the hospital."
LeAlan: "Can I interview you? Come on, Jeanell, tell me about yourself."
Jeanell: "Well, I'm very energetic. I like to have a lot of fun."
"You like to drink a lot."
"No I don't."
"Yes you do. Do you smoke marijuana?"
"No I don't."
"Yes you do. Tell the truth."
"No I don't."
"Have a child."
"How old were you when you have this child?"
No one is heard on Ghetto Life 101 who didn't want to be, Gary Covino told us. Covino is the senior editor who organized WBEZ's recent "It's About Race" series, suggested doing Ghetto Life, and brought in New York radio producer David Isay to oversee it. Ghetto Life has already been picked up by National Public Radio, and just before Covino talked to us the Maurie Povich show had called. "I've been doing radio almost 25 years. I have never seen a response to a radio program like the response to this show. It's amazing," said Covino. "Everyone's interested in these kids."
Last weekend we met a woman who for three years taught at Jenner Elementary, Dantrell Davis's school in Cabrini-Green. She knows project kids--what they become by the time they're 13 and what they become by the time they're 20. "They're not like your kids," she told us. Ghetto Life 101 exhilarated her. If LeAlan and Lloyd had violated their families' privacy, they'd also tasted genuine accomplishment and recognition. These were two kids who might be saved.
Before Ghetto Life 101 was aired, Sun-Times reporter Mary Johnson was asked by an editor at her paper if she'd like to write a free-lance feature article on the show. Johnson was the natural one to do it: she's black and she grew up at Ida Wells back in the 50s and 60s. Johnson listened to the tape and interviewed LeAlan. She then told her editor that if the idea was an article promoting the show (it was) she couldn't write it.
"This is my ethical position," she explains. "I just totally believe you can go into any situation where people are very unsophisticated, unused to dealing with the media, and they can do things and say things they'll regret for the rest of their lives.
"I walked away very angry, feeling these kids had been shamefully exploited. There should have been some kind of introduction--why we are doing this, these are the conditions these people live under, but they're related to this and this and this. The area was poor when I grew up there, and there were a lot of dysfunctional people. But there are people who actually function, who are building a life, who are not alcoholics, who are not drug addicts, who are not mentally ill, and I think the other side of the story should be thrown in too to balance it. By being lazy about it you wind up with a pathological story that does no one any good."
WBEZ located LeAlan Jones through the No Dope Express Foundation, a community organization based on the south side whose president, Earl King, now disavows Ghetto Life 101. LeAlan, a junior spokesman for No Dope Express, was on Oprah Winfrey a few months ago. "You have a kid who's very media savvy," Johnson told us, "who knows what will shock and delivers. What are you really teaching him? You exploit your own people for a buck."
Johnson wanted context and didn't find it. Yet "It's About Race" lasted two months, and its 60-some documentaries, special reports, personal essays, and talk shows provided context to a fare-thee-well. Not that we thought about any of that when we listened to Ghetto Life 101 on I-90. Hell of a piece of radio, we thought, neither offended by it nor any wiser for hearing it.
"When I was growing up--I had to be about 10 or 11," Johnson was saying, "Wheaton Bible college students used to come out and have little Bible-study clubs in the projects. At one point they wanted our family to do a documentary. They wanted to come into our home and record our daily events, actually record our poverty. That's what they wanted to do, and I was very excited by it. I thought, movie cameras! People are going to be in my house! This was exciting. I was going to be a star.
"And I asked my parents about it, and my dad looked at me and said no. He said, that's about the craziest thing that could ever happen to us. It was an issue of privacy foremost, but it was also an issue of--if you do allow people into your home you have to trust the person telling the story will do a fair and accurate portrayal. My father never trusted that. And now as an adult, I understand why."
Last autumn Chicago magazine earned some attention it didn't need when it published its annual "top 25" list without acknowledging that several of the chosen restaurants were places where Allen Kelson, the husband of the magazine's dining editor, had consulted.
As of last week, Carla Kelson no longer works for Chicago. Editor Richard Babcock told her a month ago that once the July issue was put to bed she was out of a job. She departs as the magazine begins its 1993 search for Chicago's best restaurants, which will be named in the November issue.
Babcock likes to play a lone hand, and he hasn't been forthcoming even intramurally about why he fired such an institution. (The Kelsons have been identified with fine dining and Chicago magazine for a quarter century; in its early days they pasted up the magazine at home.) "There's this terrible quiet about it," chief dining critic Dennis Ray Wheaton told us.
Managing editor Joanne Trestrail says Babcock told her Carla Kelson was leaving five minutes before he told Kelson. Trestrail was supposed to take over Kelson's duties temporarily, but this week she announced she's quitting. Her new job's assistant books editor at the Tribune. She says she'd been looking two years--the length of time that Babcock's run the magazine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.