Judge Joe Brown we’re talking about, who was elected to Criminal Court in 1990 on the slogan “Send Brown Downtown” but who couldn’t be confined in that space and, operating from a base in Los Angeles these days, has gone on to be a formidable media presence with his syndicated daily TV show called — what else? — “Judge Joe Brown.”
Judge Brown still maintains both a residence in Memphis and an interest in local affairs, however, and he was in town this past week, materializing at several public events, including a fundraiser on Friday at the Beignet Café downtown for state Representative G.A. Hardaway. Brown was a guest of honor, along with Memphis mayor-elect A C Wharton.
On his arrival, Brown was greeted with someone’s teasing reminder that his celebrity might be of some small aid to namesakes seeking political office locally.
His response, delivered with a wince, a sidewise cock of the head and a lingering wry expression, was “Yeah, I heard about it” — clearly indicating he’d read about or been briefed on the behavior of councilman Brown in first challenging the appointment of blogger Steve Ross to the Metro Commission and then unloading some bizarre smack on colleague Shea Flinn, who’d nominated Ross.
““I'm a real black man. I hope you're a real white man,” was the somewhat inscrutable logic councilman Brown used to characterize their differences.
'Black and white' no more
While Judge Brown did not reference the councilman directly, he did seem to take note of the controversy in his public remarks on Hardaway’s behalf at the fundraiser.
“Now, I’m not about black and white any more, because I’ve seen it’s no longer a black-white issue,” he said early on. And, though he would excoriate various members of the local power establishment in his speech, the TV jurist dutifully stayed miles away from anything resembling racial profiling.
Though Judge Joe Brown said nothing explicit about Ross (who had, seemingly, been dropped from the Commission list by a consensus-seeking mayor-elect), he did reference media matters briefly. Full (and self-serving) disclosure: What he did was single out a “fine local newspaper, the Memphis Flyer,” going on to say, “Unfortunately, it’s weekly and not daily. It is a fine newspaper, and they approach things in an objective way.”
He immediately segued from that grace note into this generalization about the state of things locally: “What we’ve got to understand is that it’s no longer a white-black problem here. It is a problem of perspective, and we’re not going anywhere in this town until we learn that we’ve got to get past the color line and work with everybody. The problems that everybody is having have got to do with what’s going on in people’s heads — what they think, what they don’t think, what’s real and what’s not real.”
Clearly, Brown’s encomium to the Flyer had much to do with the fact that, at the moment of saying it, he was some five feet away from, and eyeball to eyeball with, a representative of the Flyer, Yours Truly. And conceivably similar verbal courtesies might have been bestowed on other outlets, had journalists representing them been present.
So it may be gilding the lily somewhat to interpret Judge Brown’s remarks as endorsing the course of media developments over the last several years — including the emergence of alternative weeklies like the Flyer as major forces in their communities.
This is not to discount the continuing importance of long-established institutions like The Commercial Appeal, which, for all its well-publicized labor and circulation problems, is an undisputed touchstone in the coverage of local news. (One of the more outlandish phenomena of recent years has been the habit, in certain circles, of referring to the CA, a guardian of various enduring traditions, as “the Communist Appeal.”)
But the CA’s of the world, already having adjusted their practices to deal with competition from the broadcasting media, have long since had to respond to the presence of papers like the Flyer as well. And this circumstance has been accentuated in the Internet age, which sees all media mounting a 24/7 free-for-all competitive challenge via their websites.
Latter-day media bashing
Which brings me to the Ross controversy, which I haven’t weighed in on up until now. I have from time to time over the years tipped my hat to the independent blogging community. Though most blogs are oriented to point of view rather than to objective journalism per se, the best bloggers have made enormous contributions to news coverage and thoughtful consideration of the public weal. Everybody else — the CA, the Flyer, the TV and radio stations — have had to take note. Increasingly, blogs break important news, and no self-regarding “traditional” journalist can risk not having several blogger URLs on their computer bookmark lists.
No one has been more worthy of note in this regard than Steve Ross, whose voluminous “Vibinc” postings in the last year or two have covered public issues in impressive depth and illuminating detail. For Shea Flinn to have nominated Ross to the Metro Commission was essentially a matter of paying attention to real-world developments and giving credit where credit was due.
Would that Ross, who was graciousness itself about the withdrawal of his name, had been allowed to serve. And I would console Ross and the rest of the blogging community with this thought: Councilman Brown's reaction was less simple scorn than it was latter-day media-bashing. Consider it as a sign that you've fully arrived.