I was very fortunate to have the opportunity of talking with Peter Jennings, ABC's World News Tonight's anchor and senior editor. My web master, Mark Schramm, has hosted my web site for over a half dozen years. When he isn't working on my material or his other clients, he is employed at US Steel, Gary works. Mark knows that I want to further my writing career through highlighting my work on my web site. In addition to many of the articles that I have written over ten years as a freelance columnist for the Dixon Telegraph, my site features interviews that I have done with many people and a handful of animals-I would resort to talking with animals when I couldn't get a human to talk with me.
I spoke with Peter Jennings, because ABC had asked some US Steel employees to meet with him for a town hall meeting to discuss the demise of Gary, IN where US Steel has been located for nearly a century. Mark was one of those invited to attend. Since he is a good friend and wants to see me succeed in a writing career, he suggested that I should come to the meeting and interview Peter Jennings. I jumped at the opportunity but doubted that I would be able to walk up to him and say, "My name is Al Campbell, and I write for the Dixon Telegraph and want to interview you for my paper and web site. Can I ask you a couple of questions?" why would he be bothered? However, my head instantly began to spin with possible questions if I were to get the opportunity of an interview of a lifetime.
Peter Jennings' wife had read an article about Gary, a city with many problems, hosting the Miss USA Pageant. She suggested to Peter that Gary might be an interesting story to do. Therefore, he came to Northwest Indiana to research the story that will air in September. The special will explore why Gary has fallen on such bad times over the past generation or two. Gary had been known as a happening city but has a reputation as an urban has been. During the Pageant's several days of festivities, Peter and ABC were busy interviewing hosts of people about what had happened to Gary and why. This meeting with US Steel employees was one of many such interviews.
Braving a snowstorm to get to Bronko's Restaurant in Crown Point where the town hall meeting was to take place, I arrived safely after enduring icy roads and a blowing snowstorm off Lake Michigan. After breakfast, the sound and video people arrived, and it wasn't long before Peter Jennings walked in without fanfare. He is tall, thin, and doesn't look sixty-four. He introduced himself, which was a little redundant. He told the group about the project on which he was working, and just sat down at one of the tables and started to ask questions. The entire two-hour interview was conducted without a note.
As one who does interviews, I was impressed by Peter's disarming style and how readily people opened up to him; it was a real lesson for me. Part of his ability to get people to respond readily to him can be attributed to the fact that all of us knew him well from TV, but there was something more about his personality that allowed for near instant intimacy. In addition, his mastery of knowledge about Gary was phenomenal. He had more facts and figures about Gary than any one in the group. He knew material about Gary that no one else did. He was prepared for the interview.
The other thing that impressed me was his nonjudgmental attitude. The group was all white, and when the group was asked to account for the problems of Gary, blacks were clearly the ones to blame. Some blamed black leadership and others blamed black gangs. However, the primary problem with Gary was a racial issue. For some, other issues played a secondary factor, but the primary reason for the bad times of Gary had to do with the blacks.
I was getting antsy with a rather one-sided worldview of the problems with Gary that this group had. No one single issue put Gary in the metropolitan ICU ward. Certainly, a minority group wasn't responsible for all the troubles of the city. Since I wasn't an employee of US Steel, I decided that I should keep my thoughts to myself. However, the discussion was so skewed that I finally decided to add to the discussion indirectly. I had interviewed the present mayor, Scott King, and knew that he would have shed more light to this issue than the assembled whites. So, I attempt to open the discussion by asking Peter about whether he had interviewed King. I had interviewed King last year and knew that he had a different spin on the problems of Gary. He also has a vision and hope of turning things around.
The group discussed various cures for the woes of Gary. They ranged from casinos, pageants, and expanding the airport to help O'Hare's overcrowding.
In addition, King is white and his wife is black. He therefore has an entrée into both the black and white communities. I continued:
Al: I'm an outsider in this group and don't share most of their opinions. I think that many people are victims of a lot of things that have happened in Gary that haven't been good. Many of these people have had to move out of Gary. Many have lost money, etc. However, they are also victims of and the byproduct of white racism. We are paying for past generations of racism in Gary. Until we resolve the issue of racism in America, cities like Gary will continue to have problems. Gary's not unique. Name any other rustbelt metropolitan area in the United States and you will find the same thing. Therefore, we need somehow to resolve the issues separating whites and blacks. A little bit ago, we were talking about Greeks and how they faced discrimination, but nobody is threatening Greeks to day. Why is that? Each ethnic group that came to America has been assimilated. All those tides of white ethnic groups that came from Europe had trouble once they got here. They all assimilated fairly quickly, one or two generations. The only difference between that and the black immigrants, who came as slaves, is the color of skin. It is very, very difficult to change racism in America because it is primarily a black/white issue.
Peter: I have one more question for you. I'm
clear not what you are trying to say, but what are you
saying in terms of how Gary has changed. Do you feel that racism is hugely
Peter: And ironically, here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and some people think we are still living with the attitudes of the founding fathers of the country.
Peter: Jefferson and Washington. Do you believe that?
Al: I teach sociology and philosophy classes. That is the central issue. We developed as a racially segregated country, and it has just been in the last thirty some years that that tide has changed. We are just paying the price for the past.
Peter: Do you believe that Gary was in trouble and change was inevitable?
Al: Absolutely. It is a paradigm of what is happening with the steel mills. I wrote an article years ago about how labor and management are all on the same boat but they don't act on that fact. When a leak occurs one says, "I don't care; it's at your end of the boat. I don't have to worry about it." It is the same thing racially. What happens in this society as far as the steel mills are concerned is the same thing that is happening racially in Gary. The resurrection of the steel mills and the resurrection of Gary are going to be when both groups, be it labor or management, blacks or whites get together and resolve their issues.
Lady: Isn't it true? What the media writes, we believe. When I read a newspaper, what's the first thing I read. A black man killed a white man. Now if the newspapers would knock it off, maybe we wouldn't have this problem.
Al: I don't
think we are going to resolve it. As Peter said, "Racism was one of the
founding tenants of America." Until we resolve that, we are going to have
Woman: I think it is really outspoken.
Man: They have a black Miss America Pageant. Why don't we have a white, red, or tan Miss America contest? Why a Miss Black America?
Al: It goes back to the whole question of racism. If you have a race that has been disenfranchised and feels powerless, the way you give people power is to give them an identity. The bellwether for whether America has become a truly integrated country will be when we get away from prefaces like African-American, or Italian-American.
Man: Why a Miss Black America?
Peter: That is a wonderful question, I don't
mean to diminish it at all, but I think you also know
the answer why Mayor Hatcher decided that a
Miss Black America pageant was important for his community.
This town hall meeting lasted two hours. After editing, it will be included in a
special scheduled for early September of this year. As the camera and sound
systems were turned off, I had my opportunity, and I jumped at interviewing
Peter: Well, thank you. That is kind of you to say.
We just never saw his face....
Al: Even if they may not have heard the telecast, but had heard it
from Rush. Therefore, it was true.