Wednesday April 23, 2014
The Issue of Censorship in PDXTheresa Griffin-Kennedy Salem-News.com
Institutional limitations and professional obligations demand unbiased and impartial reporting.
(PORTLAND, OR) - For me, censorship has never been an issue of any real importance. In my time as a writer, it has never effected me personally. I'd never experienced the sting of being told I couldn't write about a particular topic or that I wouldn't be published, based on a topic I had chosen to explore and develop. As a devout follower of creative non-fiction, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy a level of artistic freedom in my writing that other writers often cannot or choose not to experience.
A level of self imposed repression seems to exist, particularly among journalists, whose institutional limitations and professional obligations demand unbiased and impartial reporting. This effects their writing output, subject matter and can also stifle spontaneous creativity or genuine versatility.
A little over three years ago, the issue of censorship suddenly became very clear to me. I began to think critically, for the first time, about the manner in which editors and publishers attempt to silence writers free speech and why this can happen. Sometimes this kind of censorship is nothing more than political correctness gone wrong. In our attempts, as communicators and as a nation, to make everyone feel good--respected--appreciated--encouraged and not offend any minority group with any form of criticism, even if constructive, we silence ourselves and/or allow ourselves to be silenced by others who may attempt to impose their questionable will on us.
The opinion piece was a short essay I'd written in response to a wonderful article the Tribune had done on The Grove Hotel in downtown Portland at 421 West Burnside. The article mentioned the former owner of the hotel, a Mr. Morris I. Hasson, whose family had owned the hotel since 1950. The article, entitled "Heartbreak Hotel" was written by Chris Lydgate, and was available on stands January 22nd, 2008. The story was a well-researched and compelling depiction of what a local land owner was able to get away with, by not maintaining his property in a consistent manner. He made ludicrous excuses for not maintaining the property and essentially bilking residents of the Grove Hotel. The article described how Hasson was conning low income, marginalized residents out of money by charging outrageous rent for lodgings that were not only substandard but also extremely dangerous for the health of those living within the tiny, cramped and filth-ridden single room-units.
The photos showed the absolute worst in living conditions: filthy, unclean carpets, broken sinks, and apparent rodent and insect infestation. Parasitic insect infestation left many of the residents with painful, open lesions on their bodies due to bed bug, flea and lice bites, not to mention the annoying presence of the ever present cockroaches, which would get into the residents' modest food sources. The Tribune article went on to describe how Portland commissioner Randy Leonard, a former fire fighter and fire inspector, became involved in the continuing dilemma of The Grove Hotel and was shocked and appalled by what he saw.
As a child, I had grown up seeing the Grove Hotel. When my father would drive our family to company picnics or to Providence Hospital where he worked, we often passed the Grove and I was always consumed with curiosity about that melancholy building and the people who lived there. The Grove Hotel was a source of mystery to me, because of its Southern facing windows and the fact that it was in the very heart of downtown Portland. Probably what captured my interest most were the many sad faces that would look out the windows on hot Summer days, with such blank, desolate expressions. Generally older men in dirty white tank top shirts, smoking cigarettes or older women, who looked like prostitutes, with red painted lips, yellow hair and sorrowful faces. These are the images I can recall.
When I submitted the 600 word opinion piece to The Portland Tribune, I was surprised when less than a week later, I got an enthusiastic email from a journalist and photographer with the Tribune, a woman named Anni Tracy. She told me that she and her colleagues really loved my opinion piece and would use it in about two weeks time. We emailed back and forth for a few weeks. She told me how well written it was and that she thought it was contemplative and entirely sympathetic. She said how they had additional photos they would include, that had been taken from the original Tribune story and how she would arrange to have those extra photos used with the piece. Tracy seemed excited and engaged in her work for The Portland Tribune and appeared to look forward to my little opinion piece being published. I was excited as well, to have more than just a few letters to the editor published with the Tribune and looked forward to being published in a more serious manner.
I offered to take out the word and submit a slightly altered version. She said she would ask her editor, Mr. Jaynes. When she got back to me, she sadly informed me that Jaynes still refused to publish my opinion piece, even after weeks of back and forth communication with the Tribune and my presumption that it would be used.
When I realized that no amount of compromise would suffice, I became angry and contacted Jaynes personally. I demanded to know why he still refused to publish my opinion piece after I had agreed to change it. He reiterated, as Tracy had done, that he was afraid that the Hasson family would sue the Tribune for libel, because I used had the word "slum-lord."
When I once again offered to take out the one offending word, Jaynes still refused. It was then, I believe that I lost respect for the man as a publisher and editor. Unfortunately, after that point, I also attacked him for his lack of courage and we both began a petty, adolescent series of back and forth emails, full of sarcasm and pithy insults, which I personally regret. Still, I was incensed that my opinion piece I had worked so hard on would not be used after so many weeks of being led to believe that it was a good bit of writing and would be included in the next paper.
The entire incident sparked a very important process though. It provoked me to think critically about how censorship effects the life of a writer. I began to think about this issue sporadically and despite my intense boredom with things like law and the legalities of the written word, I began to research such things as slander and libel. Some of what I learned was enlightening and other issues I explored only made me more angry. When I considered that my piece was targeted for the chopping block, though other journalists thought it was worthy of publication and a valid social statement against the wealthy exploiting the powerless, the voiceless and the ignored, I seethed with resentment. My essay covered topics as old as mankind and as timeless as religion and clearly embodied the concept of writing as a social act!
In so doing, I can feel vindicated that what I was expressing was valid and as evidenced by the support of other journalists, should have been published anyway, with the dangerous word "slum-lord" included in the body of the essay! The fact that my opinion piece was rejected, after over three weeks of back and forth discussion about its merit, and tone and that it would in fact be published, is a clear indication of how the silencing of writers and speakers is a slow and politically motivated process. This process effects not only our perception of what freedom of speech really is and whether or not we have a right to it but also whether this time honored American right is slowly becoming eroded through the double edged sword of the slippery concept of political correctness.
Rejected Opinion Piece on the Grove Hotel:
Submitted to The Portland Tribune Newspaper
As a Portlander born and raised here, I've spent many decades seeing The Grove Hotel and wondering about it. Even as a child in the early seventies, in my fathers old blue station wagon going by on Sunday drives, the image of the Grove Hotel haunted me. I wanted to know who would live in a place like that. My father, a WW2 veteran and war hero told me, "Sad sailors live there, honey." Then it occurred to me, I often saw the image of sad looking, elderly men sitting in the windows looking out forlornly. I never forgot those images, winter or summer, nor did I forget The Grove Hotel.
The recent article in The Portland Tribune confirms my worst suspicions. That The Grove Hotel is not only a vermin infested health hazard but also an example of greedy, immoral slum-lords at work. Naturally, those who live at The Grove Hotel are not considered desirable tenants. Many suffer from mental disorders and need special care and attention, which as human beings they deserve. But for the previous and long standing owner, MORRIS HASSON to take advantage of socially marginalized, low income members of our community in Portland, charging outlandish rents for filthy hovels, with peeling paint, crawling vermin and dangerous out of code conditions, is morally reprehensible
This man has been made rich by the suffering of the unfortunates of the world and his excuses as to why continued improvements were not made is about as flimsy and self serving an excuse as I have ever heard. Of course damage happens to rental properties, that does NOT justify the complete lack of consistent repairs needed on a permanent basis to make a rental property habitable and safe for human life.
The Portland community overall will do well not having slum-lords like MORRIS HASSON acting as property owners/agents. The fact that Erik Sten has been involved in making this tragic dilemma with The Grove Hotel a manageable situation and has helped to lower the rents for Grove Hotel tenants is a blessing and further proof of his good character and excellent reputation as a politician who truly wants to help all members of our community, even the outcasts and the ignored.
Perhaps this story will spark those who can, to become involved, especially with regard to getting the vermin problem taken care of so that these tenants are not forced to suffer more than they have. That elderly people and younger tenants for that matter, would have sores all over their bodies because of "bedbugs" is outrageous and an abomination. Whatever happens to The Grove Hotel, these people need to be helped. They need others who care enough to do what it takes to take them out of a life of despair and poverty to something better. No matter what their histories or mistakes in life, they each deserve better than The Grove Hotel!
So, there it is, in all its dangerous implication and possible risk. Not the most outlandish or extreme of opinion pieces is it? Exactly right--its not. And not motivated by any form of personal gain. To me, it is only a simple and honest representation of social truth as I understood it to be. An honest expression of outrage at the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves--"the voiceless and the ignored." But when an opinion piece like this is ultimately rejected, for fear of offending an individual who is not only breaking the law by refusing to provide safe living conditions for the low-income and marginalized of our society but also lying to Oregon state officials, then we have reached a point where freedom of speech becomes jeopardized and the search for truth and social justice becomes more and more threatened.
I do not regret calling Mr. Morris Hasson a slum-lord. It was a fitting description for him, based on the criminal neglect that he and his family allowed to happen for decades in a local Portland hotel that Commissioner Randy Leonard aptly described as "a Hell-hole."
"Theresa Griffin Kennedy is a writer and social activist, completing a masters degree at Portland State University in Adult Education. Her goal upon completing the degree will be to teach incarcerated offenders creative writing. With a focus on the middle east and human rights, Ms Kennedy has written articles on the human rights of women in the middle east, the homeless and the mentally ill. Poetry and the art of the personal essay are also strong focal points and continue to be explored in her writing. Ms Kennedy continues to write, submit her writing and be published."
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