My “Driveway Moment” (Letter to the Editor)

“Oh boy, another story about Mississippi,” I sighed, as I gunned my car to avoid being smashed by the rush of weary commuters on I-55. It had been a long day, and I was finally headed home. I have a habit of listening to MPB in the car. It’s the best way to catch up on the day’s national and international news, as well as some in-depth coverage of current issues. I have always been something of a news junkie, so my car radio is tuned to All Things Considered when I get in the car for the ride home.

The story that day in 2001 was about how Mississippi is struggling to get over its past sins. Noah Adams was to take an extended look at the people and places of today’s Mississippi. As a lifelong Mississippian, I was prepared for the worst. I feel the pain, and take it personally, when our great state is cast in a bad light without also showing the good things that are happening to erase the past and paint a more hopeful future. So when Noah Adams began his interviews from Oxford, Starkville, Greenwood and Jackson, I cringed.

As a former journalist myself, I know that covering Mississippi with journalistic integrity intact is a tough job, because our story is a complicated one. It takes a reporter with special talents and insight to look behind the stereotypes, to reveal the real people that live under this multi-hued tapestry of humanity. The enormity of the task would send a lesser reporter than Noah back to his editor with his tail between his legs. But it’s worth the work, because the story is really one of the world’s great examples of how the phoenix of hope can rises from the ashes of oppression. We have much baggage from the past, but real change is taking place as those ghosts are exorcised one by one.

It is common for reporters to come here with preconceptions, then harvest the low-hanging fruit of people and situations that reinforce the stereotypes. Satisfied, they go back to their cozy offices, then pat themselves on the back for the great job they’ve done. In this crazy world, I think it actually reassures some people that all is right with the universe – yep, the Sun still comes up, the earth turns and Mississippi burns. That would be a comforting reality for some, if only it were true.

Granted, there remain here the cancers of injustice, mistrust, poverty, inequality, and racism. These scourges will take generations of hard work to erase. But I believe that our experience in dealing with these “monsters in the attic” has put us much further along the road to redemption than those in some places, where these apparitions remain hidden as they clink their chains unseen beneath the plaster of false sincerity. In my opinion, that makes them that much more dangerous.

All of these things were competing for attention in my mind as Noah began his report. But as the story began, my anxiety eased. The interviews were pointed and probing, but were also balanced and fair. They painted a Mississippi much different from the one pictured in Mississippi Burning – a story about a Mississippi where many thinking people are working hard to make their world a better place, one in which injustice will one day become like an adult’s dim and fleeting memories of a childhood nightmare.

The story was still in full bloom as I pulled into my driveway, and I just couldn’t help myself. I sat there with the engine running, not wanting to miss a single word. For 10 minutes I sat there as my kids peered into my car to find out why I hadn’t come inside the house.

For the first time I could remember, I felt as though someone had actually taken the time to really get beyond the stereotypes of Mississippi to find the real and complicated people and the stories behind them. The result was a masterpiece of balance, without sacrificing an ounce of journalistic integrity in the process. I was so impressed, I wrote an email to Noah for helping to redeem my faith in the ideal of fairness and balance in journalism, and hopefully helped slay some monstrous stereotypes along the way. Thanks Noah. I’m glad you were here.

Copyright, 10/12/2005, by William D. Moak