The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission has launched an investigation at the request of the mayor after a well-known magazine published an essay that explored perspectives of white citizens on the issue of race relations.
Mayor Michael Nutter called on the commission to consider rebuking both Philadelphia Magazine and writer Bob Huber noting that “the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right.”
Nutter’s fury was directed at a cover story titled, “Being White in Philly.” The story included conversations with mostly anonymous white residents who detailed race relations in the City of Brotherly Love.
“In a city that is largely poor and segregated, white people have become afraid to say anything at all about race,” Huber wrote on the cover of the magazine. “Here’s what’s not being said.”
But Mayor Nutter believes it should have remained unsaid.
“This month Philadelphia Magazine has sunk to a new low even for a publication that has long pretended that its suburban readers were the only citizens civically engaged and socially active in the Philadelphia area,” Nutter wrote in a lengthy tirade to the city’s human relations commission.
He called the story “disgusting” and an “uninformed, ill-advised, ill-considered, uninspired, and thoroughly unimaginative.”
And the mayor also had some choice words for the anonymous individuals who were interviewed – some of whom had been victims of crimes perpetrated by blacks. He said they were “too cowardly” to provide their names.
Rue Landau, the Human Relations Committee’s executive director, agreed with the mayor’s concerns regarding what she called, “the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece.”
The commission will also conduct an inquiry into racial issues across the city at the request of the mayor.
“We will take up the mayor’s charge,” Landau said in a statement.
Tom McGrath, the magazine’s editor, told me he is very concerned that the government is investigating his publication.
“I find it chilling that he now wants to use the government to censor a news outlet,” he said. “As a journalist – as someone who thinks free speech is really important – I find that really, really troubling.”
McGrath said he stands by the story and the author – and acknowledged it set off a firestorm.
“Any time you write about race you have to be prepared that it’s going to be controversial,” he said. “The point of the story was to get a conversation going about race. Certainly there are some ugly quotes in the story but those quotes in no way reflect the intentions of the author or the magazine.”
McGrath said the mayor “seriously overreacted to the story” and “mischaracterized the piece and what it’s trying to do.”
“White people do not always feel comfortable talking about race,” he said. “There are some white folks who don’t feel their views on certain issues are welcome in the conversation.”
And critics believe – ironically – that the mayor’s reaction to the story validates that point.
“In some places to simply talk about race is to be accused of being a racist and some of the reaction has sort of borne that out,” he said.
Nutter wants the commission to consider whether the magazine’s essay was the “reckless equivalent of shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.”
“Only by debunking myth with fact, and by holding accountable those who seek to confuse the two, can we insure that the prejudices reflected in the essay are accorded the weight they deserve: none at all,” the mayor wrote.
Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, called that comparison unfair.
“It is totally unsubstantiated,” Paulson told me. “This story may provoke ideas, but it doesn’t create panic.”
Paulson said he was especially disturbed by the government investigating a publication.
“That is a dangerous path,” he said. “The idea that government can somehow punish journalists with which it disagrees is contrary to everything the First Amendment stands for.”
McGrath did say he welcomed the mayor’s call for a city-wide discussion about race – but noted the announcement was rich with irony.
“I find it pretty bizarre,” he said. “At the same time he wants us rebuked, he’s saying we need to have a conversation about race in Philadelphia – which was our point in the first place.”
“His point seems to be that he’s allowed to talk about some of this stuff but that other people aren’t,” McGrath added.