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Irish Firefighters

Date: 2/16/02
Show: Weekend Edition-Saturday (NPR)

Of the 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, about one third, or even more, are of Irish descent (Italian-Americans come in second). Lest you think this is just a fluke, due to the happenstance that firefighters from a nearby working class neighborhood were the first to arrive at the scene, you should know that the relative number of Irish-Americans in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) is roughly the same.

Firefighters   Searching for survivors (unattributed)

The love of the Irish for fire-fighting is not at all limited to New York City. Everywhere where Irish immigrants have settled, you will find them in the fire stations. Nor is this a recent phenomenon as evident from the statistic that two-thirds of the 100 fire fighters killed in New York between 1865 and 1905 were Irish.

What is it in the nature of Irish men that compels them to run into a burning building while everybody else is trying to get out? Or, to turn the question around: why are so few German, French, or Polish-Americans fighting our fires? Are they cowards? Are they not interested in a career that may cost your life and pays so little?

One possible piece of the puzzle is a legacy of discrimination. In the 19th century, many businesses put NINA ("no Irish need apply") signs on their doors. Irish men were perceived as unruly, rough, and uneducated. One of the jobs that remained open to them was that of the firefighter. To qualify, you had to be in good physical condition and pass the required entrance exam. A lot of the Irish did just that.

When, five months after the event, Weekend Edition finally tells the story, it sounds like yet another chapter in the epic struggle of Blacks for racial equality: Leon Wynter reports that of the 343 firefighters killed on September 11 only 12 were African-American and that, in a city where people of color are now the majority, only 2.7 percent of the fire department is black. Worst of all, as a generation of black firemen hired during the heydays of affirmative action is nearing retirement age and few Blacks are joining the department, the percentage of Blacks may actually go down, before it will go up again.

Efforts of the FDNY to recruit more Blacks seem utterly unsuccessful. Although many African-Americans register for the qualifying exam which is given every 4 years, few show up for the test, and even fewer are passing it. Critics of the department blame the results — somewhat illogically — on institutional racism, and on the difficulty of black youth to identify with a department that is perceived to be "lily white." In an interview with Richard Green, head of the Crown Heights Youth Collective and volunteer recruiter for the FDNY, Wynter makes the point:

But when so many of them come from neighborhoods where, when they do see firefighters, you see a firefighter truck come up or a fire station and they see nothing but white firefighters, then you say to them: O yeah, you can get on to that, you can become part of that outfit. I mean, don't people look at you like: Hey wait a minute, that's not for us!

According to this silly argument, a Tibetan-American will never want to join the FDNY because his chances of seeing a fire engine with Tibetan firefighters coming down his street is close to zero. Nor will he ever want to go to Medical School, or join any other profession in which Tibetans are vastly outnumbered by everyone else. Naturally, the poor chap has to become a monk.

Wynter concludes, with passion:

No one doubts that the brotherhood of firefighters is a beautiful thing, but it won't become real or reflect the demographics of New York until it can accept [the] view that more brothers must be black before and after the fire. What all brothers do, above and beyond the scorched knees of the fire floor, is to make room for one another: in this case, a place on the truck and on the engine.

The argument that the brotherhood of firefighters can only be real if it is carefully balanced along racial lines is equally silly and seems to be just another ploy to justify racial preferences. In fact, preferences are likely to undermine the brotherhood, as shown by the lawsuits filed against fire departments claiming reverse discrimination.

Although I very much disagree with Wynter, I do not mind that he — like many other black activists — is calling for proportional representation in places of public employment, such as the police force or the fire department. Clearly, this is a proposition that reasonable people can argue about. What I object to is that NPR is disguising his opinion as a news report. Whatever happened to the mantra of journalistic objectivity?


School diversity

Emerging Water Contaminants

Date: 3/14/02
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)

Despite the fact that the air and water around us is getting cleaner with every day, NPR is constantly trying to scare us with new environmental threats that are lurking just around the corner. Today's report by Allison Aubrey about organic wastewater contaminants (OWC) is a case in point.

In a study of 139 streams across 30 different states, the U.S. Geological Survey found no evidence for any of the 95 investigated organic contaminants in 20% of the test sites; most water samples contained only 1 to 6 OWC's. The largest number of compounds detected at any one site was 38. Moreover, the contaminants were found in such small concentrations that most of the samples would have passed the stringent standards for drinking water.

Coca Cola   Dangerous when recycled?

The results are the more surprising considering that the samples were drawn downstream from residential, industrial, and agricultural wastewater outlets. The most frequently detected OWC's were cholesterol, coprostanol (a cholesterol metabolite found in animal feces), DEED (a widely-used insect repellent found in Skintastic for Kids or OFF!), and, of all the dangerous chemicals you could possibly imagine, caffeine.

Aubrey breaks the bad news to the listener:

Caffeine is one of the chemicals the agency measured. Traces of the nation's favorite morning pick-me-up were detected in streams from coast-to-coast. Not a surprise to Buxton [senior author of the study]. Caffeine products are ubiquitous and like many chemical compounds doesn't break down in the body.

Later she adds that "many of the sample sites were close to intakes for tap water." Curiously, the survey does not mention that the sites were near freshwater inlets. To the contrary, the authors state in more than one place that the samples were taken downstream of wastewater outlets; even the title makes it clear that the study deals with wastewater, not freshwater. Also, Aubrey's claim that caffeine "doesn't break down in the body" is simply false. Any textbook of pharmacology will tell you that caffeine is readily broken down by the liver and that only 1-3% of it is excreted in the urine in unchanged form.

Sadly, in environmental reporting exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies are par for the course. One reason may be that the journalists working in the field often are environmental activists themselves who often feel the urge to turn a molehill into a mountain in order to stir a complacent public into action. Of course, the same may be true for environmental scientists who have the added incentive that alarmists findings will help to fund their research.


Middle East reporting

Claudio Sanchez on School Diversity

Date: 5/14/02
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)

Thomas Jefferson   ©TJHS: white with a sprinkling of yellow

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia is the kind of school whose graduates are accepted by some of the most elite colleges in the country, such as Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. Admissions to TJ, as students and parents affectionately call their school, is based solely on academic merit, resulting in a student body that is almost exclusively white, with a sprinkling of Asian-Americans faces. Less than 0.5% of the 1,700 boys and girls attending TJ are black, although the Governor's magnet school draws students from districts whose population is roughly 25% African-American.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports that the superintendent of the Fairfax county school system wants to replace the existing race-blind admissions policy with a new one that would give preference to minority students. Parents and alumni are up in arms against the proposed changes, fearing that they would dilute the high academic standards at TJ. Faced with a thread of a lawsuit, the school system finally dropped the plan.

Normally, one would expect that NPR is on the side of the little guy who fights a big school system, on the side of parents who protect the rights of their kids. But not in this case, as for the media elite discrimination is OK as long as it serves the higher goal of racial diversity. Ultimately, they content, there can be no social justice until every classroom, fire station, and executive board room looks like America. The mother of the only black girl among the 2002 graduating class puts it this way:

I don't see that people can claim that these kids get such a superlative education when they're educated in a vacuum — in a school that does not reflect the community they live in, or the world.

Ironically, many of the white and Asian kids whose education she is worrying about wouldn't be able to attend Thomas Jefferson High School if she had her wish. In fact, "making room" for under-represented minorities means that a number of better qualified white and yellow students will be replaced by less qualified black and brown students. In my opinion, this country already looks like America, with most players in the NBA being black, the firefighters of New York mostly white and Irish, and many, many shades in-between.

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Revised 6/30/02