On a train to New York, a week ago Monday, I read an email on my iPhone from a distraught father looking for help. I wrote back and asked him to call into my talk radio show on IQ 106.9 the next morning. Kristen Graham, the education reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, detailed the radio interview on her blog that afternoon. Fox 29 and NBC 10 covered the story that night. Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and a few hundred other websites had the story by the next morning. Fox News covered the story that night. The next day, it appeared in London, Rome and a dozen other overseas newspapers.
From my iPhone to international in 48 hours; that is the power of the new digital media. There are no local stories anymore. Every story has the potential to draw global interest.
The father who emailed me is Richard Pawlucy from the Port Richmond section of the city. His daughter, 16-year-old Samantha, is the Charles Carroll High School sophomore now known as the “Romney t-shirt girl.”
By now you know the story, she wore a pink Romney/Ryan t-shirt to school on “dress-down Friday” and was humiliated by her geometry teacher, who claimed the school was “democratic” and that wearing such a shirt was like wearing a t-shirt that said KKK.
The fact that this classroom incident made it around the world speaks volumes about the times, the political climate, the culture and the media. It mattered not that it was a fleeting moment of misjudgment in a classroom of 25 teenagers. It was that the story played on so many emotions and passions and divisions. On the surface, the story is about freedom of speech. But underneath, a perfect storm of race, politics and public education swirls.
The day after Richard sent me the email, I invited Samantha and her mother Kristine into the IQ 106.9 studios to be interviewed live on the air. As we waited to go on, Samantha was buried in her smartphone, reading texts from her friends and posts on Facebook. Some of the posts were threatening. This shy girl, who can’t be an inch over five feet tall, was visibly shaken. She was an accidental cause célèbre and she wasn’t enjoying the part.
During the show, Samantha cried several times. So did her Mom. Once, when I was defending Sam against a caller who thought she should toughen up, I started a retort with “If it were my daughter … ” and my voice cracked. The story is powerful with emotion. In this new digital media, emotion trumps importance.
But stories fueled by passion and emotion are fleeting. After a week, the national media was long gone. Local media portrayed the day that Samantha returned to school, supported by 200 veterans and radio listeners, as a fitting ending to the story.
Only the story hasn’t ended. Samantha is still being threatened; she and her sisters now have to find a new school. The teacher has not been disciplined, and what was promised by Mayor Nutter and Superintendent William Hite as resolution turned out not to be true.
The story has substance now, but the media has moved on to the next sideshow in the 2012 campaign of partisan divide.
And all I think about is a 16-year-old girl who didn’t want any of this. We did. I start to think, “If this were my daughter … ” And I fill up again.
UPDATE: Governor Mitt Romney called the Pawlucy house last night (Oct. 10th), while Samantha was at Taekwondo class. ”Who is this and what do you want?” mom Kristine asked sternly, thinking the caller was a reporter. The answer came after a pause, “This is Governor Mitt Romney.” Kristine followed with, “Oh my God, I am so sorry, sir.”
The Governor then told Kristine “Samantha is a very courageous girl. Please tell her to keep up the good work. Thank you so much for your support.” Kristine asked if the Governor could please call back between 9 and 9:30 when Samantha was due home. Romney didn’t make any promises and so far has not called back. Samantha is disappointed she didn’t get a chance to talk with the Republican presidential nominee, but thrilled that he took the time to call.