By David Tulis
School board dissident Rhonda Thurman shines through a story in the Sunday editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press that castigates her for representing her north county constituents. The commoners who are supporters of Mrs. Thurman are increasingly skeptical about bureaucracy and the blessings of costly factory schooling, and like her for not pussyfooting with special interests.
The story by Kevin Hardy, a writer at the newspaper for about four years, offers basic reporting about Mrs. Thurman. The newspaper is the city’s largest and still most influential media outlet, run by a printer and publisher with at least two newsrooms and a host of magazines and newsprint periodicals. Mr. Hardy’s 3,000-word feature presents Mrs. Thurman as a hard-working outsider on the school board who asks annoying questions and is so routinely dissatisfied she votes “No.”
Mrs. Thurman lost a write-in campaign for county commission as she sought to fill the seat held by Fred Skillern, a conservative from Soddy-Daisy. She was defeated 3,448 to 1,731.
How a feature becomes a hit piece
The story is a queer bit of journalism. Mrs. Thurman is ignored during the runup to the balloting Aug. 7. Three days after the primary, Aug. 10, the big story about her appears. Perhaps the editors are being gracious, running a negative story after voting. But the paper saved its ink, declining to serve the public interest prior to the vote. Perhaps it feared that publication prior to the vote would have galvanized voters in her favor
“NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER[;] In Rhonda Thurman’s world, as in much of politics today, ideology is everything. Compromise is weakness.” These heads sit on a tiny grid of “nos” too small to read except for the discerning eye wearing reading glasses. The story suggests erroneously that voting “No” is an ideology, when really it isn’t. An ideology may cause a long string of tough questions and no votes, but that in itself is not one. Feminism, gay theory and Marxism are ideologies. They reshape one’s perception of the world and one’s actions according to an intellectual construct or premise; ideology is a form of manmade religion, each with doctrines of salvation, action and predestination.
Notice, too, “Rhonda Thurman’s world” in the headline — the rest of us are in the real one. Mrs. Thurman is far from being an ideologue, but nonetheless has become, “arguably, one of the most notorious politicians in Hamilton County’s history. But she represents something larger, a political shift toward an America that increasingly embraces the politics of no.” Mrs. Thurman says she represents the taxpayers, but here she is notorious, “generally known and spoken of, usu. unfavorably,” according to Black’s law dictionary. Notorious describes someone who fled the country to avoid paying taxes or who murdered a lover with a maul.
Bad word choice. Prejudicial. The accusation is sensational, and powerful enough to control how some readers absorb her acquaintance for the rest of the story. In numerous board 8-1 votes, Mrs. Thurman is the dissenter. When she asks questions, colleagues “roll their eyes.” Mrs. Thurman sometimes finds a “sympathizer” on the board, and the tally is 7-2. The “despised and idolized” political figure who helps run Allure beauty salon on Highway 58 is guilty of antics, we are told. She rants. As a former newspaper copy editor, I like colorful language — it helps make the story subject real and robust. But these words make Mrs. Thurman difficult to take seriously. They belittle.
Presuppositions of the story are unspoken. A main one is the defense of the state-centered status quo through its schooling and student warehousing complex. The story sympathizes with the hidden parties upon whose toes Mrs. Thurman has trod. Her terms on the board offend the idea of bureaucratic and administrative perfection, hiding as it does the inner working of the “gigantic indoctrination and sorting machine” of public school. Public schools are wending their way toward dissolution and a public revolt; the story quietly supports their continued maintenance. No doubt, Mrs. Thurman shares in this idea, being loyal to Hamilton County schools. The story articulates this perspective by lamenting the loss of the spirit of compromise expected from conservatives. “America has traded compromise for stalemate, immoveable grandstanding. *** Political scientists bemoan the slow death of meeting at the middle *** [government is] becoming more polarized. *** She embodies obstruction instead of accomplishment. *** She became a thorn in the side of many administrators *** .”
What redeems local paper?
The story provides explanation for Mrs. Thurman’s motives. She is “a fiscal hawk. A watchdog. A no-nonsense conservative. And so long as she’s standing in the right place, she doesn’t mind standing alone.” Her bid for the county commission is described as a “rescue mission” to keep a conservative on the commission.
The reporting in the newspaper is massaged to make Mrs. Thurman look like a primitive country person with a reactionary attitude and belligerent mien. The story is redeemed by Mrs. Thurman herself, who emerges in the details as a genuine character, a hard-working hairdresser and a nitpicker who reads piles of documents submitted to her by petitioners, contractors and policymakers.
What makes the piece valuable for the reading public is that despite it being revised to give the perspective of the editors and progressive theory, it does not stifle the witness Mrs. Thurman makes of herself.
Thurman works long days, and she hasn’t taken a vacation in seven years. She’s so busy she won’t take on new customers.
This is all part of the Thurman persona, all part of the story she sells. The self-made woman forging a living on her feet with her hands, a politician too busy for shenanigans.
Over the years, salesmen and deliverymen have been surprised to find her here.
“You really are a hairdresser?” they ask.
“You think I lie?” Thurman responds.
What saves the hit piece is that the ordinary reader of good sense is able to see her apart from the faux packaging, the misleading ingredients list. The story’s judgment is harsh, but the facts of the case are before the jury, and the reader is the judge.
Mrs. Thurman is a woman of Christian conviction and determination. She is taking fire from the largest media house in Chattanooga for her virtues, which are the defense of the ordinary taxpayer. In a day when men lack chests, she has one. Her thrift, temperance and common intelligence let her stand before the gaggle of favor seekers and service providers pursuing their livings on the public dole, and offer sales resistance.
Sources: Kevin Hardy, “NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER[;] In Rhonda Thurman’s world, as in much of politics today, ideology is everything. Compromise is weakness,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Aug. 10, 2014
See John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction[;] a Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010), 2015 pp
The following exchange with Lana Sutton of Chattanooga News and Review on Facebook may be interesting:
Lana Sutton — Do you remember when the newspaper editors would tell me not to quote her, and I would anyway? That’s before she got on the school board.
David J. Tulis — Lana, say more about this directive. I had not been made aware of it when I worked as copy editor at the newspaper.
Lana Sutton — I don’t remember who told me not to quote her, but it was one or more of my superiors on the editing staff, or I wouldn’t have considered it a directive. I’m surprised the editors didn’t talk about who could be quoted, and who couldn’t, which would explain to some extent why her quotes made it through — if you were editing. It was not unusual for me to be told that people who spoke in opposition to issues relating to the local government were “kooks,” and I shouldn’t quote them.
However, Rhonda Thurman and the late Deborah Matthews were, at the time, two of the few people who would even give me quotes that were in opposition to what the school board and leadership said.
Teachers for the most part were scared to death to say anything that their bosses could take issue with, and were often so mute on controversial issues as to worry me about their ability to think on behalf of the children first, not their jobs first.