"Totally coup, yo."





Matt Taibbi

Remember that story about the mayhem at the Zoo a few weeks back? Imagine if it had been different…

Imagine that, instead of bending branches and launching lorikeets into the air, those notorious “underprivileged youths” had thrown a net over the whole branch, taken every lorikeet in the exhibit, and eaten them alive on the spot, gleefully spitting feathers into the air as they ate.

Then imagine that those same kids then go around the zoo and eat every single animal in the place. The slurping and smacking then lasts for three long years; huge piles of bones accumulate as meek zoo administration officials look on day after day after day. By the time police finally arrive to break it up, there are four or five kids there who each weigh fifteen thousand pounds, if not more.

The kids are so obese and engorged with rare species flesh that they are visible from observation towers at Niagara Falls. They’re so big that weather systems actually move around their huge, rippling bodies… When investigators get there, they politely tell the kids to leave, and the matter ends there: no arrests, no fines, nothing. When all’s said and done, there’s nothing left of the zoo but tumbleweeds, and all of Delaware Park is left submerged in massive piles of steaming human excrement. Try playing basketball in that.

Believe it or not, that story actually happened. It was called the Adelphia scandal. It should have made the actual zoo story look trivial. But you would never have known that from reading The Buffalo News.

Lesson #1 in how big corporate-owned media works in this country: When a bunch of poor black kids go nuts in a zoo, or trash a bunch of slum properties, you can expect a full nuclear response from your local daily. But when a gang of greedy white oligarchs pillages a multibillion-dollar company, wrecking not selected parts of one zoo, but the whole of your local economy… well, the response is a little different. In The News, the difference could have been expressed in a single pair of headlines–”Nigger Savages Attack Zoo” in the former case, and in the latter, “Adelphia Collapses and What a Shame: Rigas Family Heroically Braves Terrible Tragedy.”

The News jumped on the “Niggers Attack Zoo” story with both feet. In addition to Tom Buckham’s blistering May 29 news piece, “Mass Misbehavior Leaves Zoo a Mess,” the paper ran a good half-dozen angry editorials about the incident and a like number of outraged letters to the editor. The News never came right out and said that the vandals were mostly all black, but the articles were filled with transparent code words that made it pretty clear what it was talking about. My favorite was in Buckham’s piece–a little detail about the kind of alcoholic beverages that were being illegally consumed on the premises. He said that the violations included:

“…extensive littering of the grounds with beer and malt liquor containers sneaked through the gate in violation of the zoo’s ban on alcoholic beverages…”

When white readers in Amherst or Lackawanna see the words “Malt Liquor” in conjunction with vandalism, they know exactly what you’re talking about. Likewise, it was obvious enough what letter-writer Beth Kontrabecki was getting at when she wrote:

“This is what society has come to, folks. Respect and decorum are things of the past. Today, people can do what they want, when they want and almost always get away with it. I suppose we can thank our politically correct society for this uncivilized way of life.

“The Buffalo Zoo wanted to provide the opportunity to share its resources and activities with those in the lower-income bracket of Western New York. And now, due to the barbaric acts of some, those who couldn’t normally afford a day at the zoo may never have the chance to visit it again.

“These delinquents can’t pass a Regents exam, because they’re too busy going to the zoo and attempting to steal exotic birds, or urinating in the bushes. Who is to blame? For once, we really can’t blame the powers-that-be in City Hall or the federal government. “The blame lies solely with the parents. Of course, the parents will never own up to their poor child-raising tactics. They’ll blame it on the teachers, or in moments of desperation, racism, sexism, agism or any other “ism” they can manipulate as a scapegoat.”

I love it when upper-middle-class white people get angry. Worked up to the absolute summit of their passions, they still can never say what they mean. When they want desperately to say “Niggers from East Buffalo,” they instead have to say, “Those in the lower-income bracket of Western New York.” No wonder they’re so pissed off all the time. They have to use a Thesaurus to get nasty… their bedroom dialogues must sound like Dick Cavett reruns.

The News was a little more subtle than Mme. Kontrabecki. You had to read its editorials somewhat more closely to get the gist of its vilification of the zoo marauders. The June 3 house editorial, “Animal Behavior,” was a classic example.

That piece used a number of colorful terms to describe the zoo vandals, including “miscreants,” “cretins,” “animals,” and “herd of free-range idiots.” But although the newspaper theoretically speaks for the entire city, The News made it very clear that it was not describing a collective community failure here–instead of talking about how badly our children had behaved, it made it a point to talk about how their children had trashed our zoo:

“[The vandals] did more than abuse animals and zoo facilities–they abused a privilege, to the detriment of all of us.”

The News returned to the race theme just a day after this editorial, when it ran a front-page story on June 4 entitled, “Landlords Blame Tenants, Demand Accountability.” This story was a perfect follow-up to the “Niggers Wreck Zoo” piece; they moved a little East of Delaware Park for this one to make it “Niggers Wreck Rental Properties.”

Again, as in the zoo pieces, the paper never came out and said that it was talking mainly about black tenants and white landlords. But it threw in enough euphemisms to make it obvious, talking about “Buffalo’s blighted neighborhoods” and repeatedly referring to “bad tenants” who receive federal or county welfare assistance.

Of course, the tenants responsible for the “unchecked destruction” the paper describes (note how similar the language here is to that of the zoo pieces) are conspicuously absent from the actual article. The photos it ran, including one of an apartment overflowing with garbage and empty bottles, were both of apartments that no longer had anyone living in them.

Even in the article’s prose descriptions, the vilified residents are missing. In one deliciously heavyhanded passage, reporter Sandra Tan describes a bedroom of a ravaged apartment in which “a pristine Holy Bible sat beside a table of burnt marijuana stems.” Presumably the Bible’s pages should have been dog-eared and the marijuana unsmoked; in any case, there was no tenant there to explain the reasons for this blasphemy. As one housing lawyer I spoke to joked: “That couldn’t have been any of my tenants. They wouldn’t have left the stems.”

All in all, the paper extensively quoted four landlords in the piece, but not a single tenant. An article about tenants, without interviews with tenants. Even The New York Times would have too much shame to try something like that.

All of which would just be routinely offensive mainstream media stuff, were it not for the opposite response in The News to the Adelphia story. Informed that the corporate officers had looted Buffalo’s most prominent company for years on end, imperiling thousands of jobs, a downtown renewal plan, and even the beloved Sabres, The News never came close to calling the Rigas family “animals,” “miscreants,” “cretins,” or a “herd” of anything, much less “free-range idiots.”

Instead, the paper pulled on its hose and delivered to Buffalo the Rigas story in the form of a cruel Shakespearean tragedy, in which the kindly King Lear (John Rigas) was toppled from his lofty throne by heartless fate and a few regrettable but thoroughly understandable human frailties.

The most infuriating of the News Adelphia stories was the June 9 story by Lou Michel and Michael Beebe, “Rigas Sons Say Family Battered and Strong.” The lead to the story said it all:

“COUDERSPORT, Pa.–In their first public statements since the onset of their company’s financial crisis, the three sons of Adelphia founder John J. Rigas said in separate interviews with The Buffalo News that their family is working closely together to survive its troubles.

“It’s obviously a very hard time for us, but the family is holding up well,” said James P. Rigas, 44, the youngest of the three Rigas sons and Adelphia’s former executive vice president of strategic planning.

“Regardless of what comes out of this, the family unit will be stronger than ever,” he said. “We’ve always had a close family, and hard times draw you closer together.”

It takes some serious balls to try to convince readers that they should care how the Rigas family is “holding up” after being caught using Adelphia money to secure themselves a private golf course, among other things.

You notice that the paper didn’t track down any tenants to ask how they were “managing” after being thrown on the streets for dropping lit crack pipes on their couches. “Regardless of what comes out of this, the family unit will be stronger,” the story might have quoted the tenant as saying. “Right now, we’re living out of a shopping cart, robbing parked cars to pay for crack, but the experience is drawing our family closer together.”

The paper’s other Adelphia stories weren’t much better:

  • The May 28 sports piece, “Rigas Story Mixes Anger With Sadness,” describes the fallen John Rigas as a cross between the Pope and Tinkerbell, leading with a tale of the old man charming Miroslav Satan’s stick by rubbing it before a game in which Satan scored a key goal.
  • The June 2 piece, “Adelphia Probe May Lead to Charges Against Rigas,” played up the King Lear angle in the lead. “The idea of anyone accusing kindly, white-haired John J. Rigas of white-collar crime,” reporter Fred Williams wrote, “is unthinkable to many.”
  • The May 16 piece, “New Chief is No Stranger to Challenge” was a start-to-finish blowjob of new Adelphia CEO Erland Kailbourne, whom the paper described as a savior–despite the fact that he was on the board and presumably paying attention for all those years that the Rigases were pillaging the company.
  • The June 7 piece, “Leaks Add Volume to Adelphia Story,” basically blasted The Wall Street Journal for using unnamed sources to (a) whip the hair plugs off the News staff on the breaking-news coverage of Adelphia, and (b) smear the reputation of the Rigas family.
  • Two other stories, the May 25 “Reporting Depth Would Take a Big Hit if Empire Folded,” and the May 18 “A Blow to Western New York,” held faithfully to the doleful “Isn’t-this-a-shame” theme of the News Adelphia coverage. Again, a striking contrast to the “Let’s-lynch ‘em” tone of the zoo coverage.

There’s nothing new in any of this. When a poor person pisses on his own floor for whatever reason, he’s an animal who should be locked in a cage. But when a rich creep with kindly white hair steals billions of dollars and dooms thousands to unemployment, it’s just a darned shame.

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