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Civil Wrongs

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23
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The Scrapbook suspects that somewhere in the Washington Post stylebook there must be a paragraph advising reporters how to make a dubious subject palatable. Answer: Label it a civil rights issue, and describe it in terms of social progress. 

Gallaudet University

We were reminded of this trick of the trade last week when the Post published a fawning piece by staff writer Nick Anderson about a conference at Gallaudet University in Washington, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the “Deaf President Now” movement. Here’s the lede:

Today it seems routine that a deaf man leads the pioneering university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the nation’s capital. But a quarter century ago at Gallaudet University, that notion was revolutionary.

Sort of like gay marriage, or women in combat, or a black president. You get the idea.

What happened in March 1988? An experienced university administrator named Elisabeth Zinser was named the seventh president of Gallaudet, the federally chartered (and taxpayer-subsidized) institution of higher learning for the deaf. Because Zinser was not deaf, and because Gallaudet had never had a deaf president, some students and alumni condemned her appointment, holding rallies at the school and on Capitol Hill, occupying classrooms, blocking access to the campus, harassing individual trustees.

In due course, the marches, the rallies, and the cause attracted the allegiance of sympathetic journalists, members of Congress, and march/rally professionals such as Jesse Jackson. At the end of a tumultuous week Zinser stepped down, and a deaf Gallaudet dean who had originally supported her candidacy, I. King Jordan, was chosen in her stead.

In the Post’s view, the stirring events at Gallaudet a quarter-century ago were yet another chapter in civil rights history, drawing “global attention to the campus in Northeast Washington and in general to the cause of advancing equal opportunity for the deaf.” And I. King Jordan is portrayed as a gallant hero, blessed with humility: 

Jordan said the biggest challenge of his tenure was simply to succeed in the job—overseeing university operations, raising money, securing congressional support. If he hadn’t been able to do that, Jordan said, “People would look and say, ‘See, deaf people are not really ready.’ ”

Of course, there is another way of looking at the events of 25 years ago. You could say that a well-qualified woman was deemed politically unacceptable to campus radicals and malcontents, who formed a mob to intimidate the duly constituted board; and that an ambitious I. King Jordan, seeing the way things were going, swiftly abandoned Elisabeth Zinser and got himself a promotion. You could also point out that Gallaudet University, led by presidents who were not deaf, had successfully educated generations of deaf students and advanced “the cause of .  .  . equal opportunity for the deaf” since the 1850s. 

The irony, of course, is that Jordan’s chosen successor, Dr. Jane Fernandes, was subjected to similar treatment in 2006 because she had not learned American Sign Language until she was in her early 20s—and so was not “deaf enough.” The mob was revived, and I. King Jordan and his board of trustees threw Fernandes, like Zinser two decades before, under the bus.

Which confirms The Scrapbook’s suspicion that the definition of a “civil rights” issue, especially in the press, depends on who’s doing the talking. The reporter might just as easily have written this same story from a different angle: Namely, what is it about women presidents, deaf or not deaf, that the Gallaudet mob doesn’t like?

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