Dear Readers,

It’s time to resurrect The RAT!

The RAT is an award for worst media coverage of Takoma Park. It was first proposed in the 90s following a flood of disdainful articles and columns about our city. They had recurring phrases such as “stuck in the sixties.”

They all mentioned the rats.

They said the soft-on-animal-rights city council proposed live-trapping city rats to release in rural Frederick County. It was false, but once it got into print, it was picked up by reporters and columnists whose standard of “research” was to copy and paste from all the previous articles and columns.

The RAT award was proposed, but before one could be awarded the nasty, misinformed articles stopped. This was around the end of the Reagan/Bush era (Sixties out!) and the beginning of the Clinton years (Sixties in!). Journalists think they are heroes who stand up to power. In reality they are sycophants who watch to see who the powerful are kicking, then get their boot in.

But, the RAT is back! There have been two RAT-worthy articles about Takoma Park this summer. The media is again sneering at us, and again getting the facts wrong.

Gazette reporters Aaron Kraut and Alex Ruoff collaborated on the June 27, 2012 story “Filling the minority void in municipal government.” It was an article about city council minority representation. They focused on Takoma Park and Gaithersburg, and briefly mentioned other Montgomery County municipalities. By “minority” they meant non-white. They did not include gay, female, non-Christian, green (as in “environmentalist,” not skin-color), socialist or any other minority likely to be found on the Takoma Park city council.

You’d think that with TWO reporters working on it, they could have dug a little deeper. Sure, the city council, up until the recent special election, was all white. They didn’t bother to find out – or they ignored -that over the last thirty years there have been many non-white councilmembers. There have also been a number of female and gay councilmembers and mayors.

Horses may do a better job when they wear blinders, but not journalists, Mr. Krout and Mr. Ruoff. The city clerk could have filled you in about the historical council make-up in less than 5 minutes if you’d just bothered to ask.

Shallow journalism, yes, but shallow enough to win The RAT?

Not with Victor Zapana as the competition.

Hippie dippy

Zapana’s Washington Post July 9 article “A ‘post-hippie’ Takoma Park,” at least rephrases some of the stereotypes, but clearly he’s dug into the Snark Archive. He opens with “It’s taken four decades, but Takoma Park may have finally started to leave the 60’s.”

Exhibit “A,” he says, is that “after years of flagging interest” the city council disbanded the Free-Burma Committee.

Poor Mr. Zapana was too worn out from copy-and-pasting phrases from the Snark Archive to read the actual council ordinance.

There he would have read that the city’s Free Burma Act was suspended twelve years ago when the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Massachusetts. So, since 2000 it was a legal impossibility to enforce the Act, it wasn’t due to “flagging interest.” It was pointless to keep the committee going, so the Act was repealed last March. Also, as those of us who follow the news know, San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has been freed as part of a general loosening up of that county’s regime. So, even as a symbolic gesture, the Act and the committee are not needed.

Exhibit “B” is that officials might make “significant changes to the nuclear-free zone ordinance because it’s just too difficult to enforce.” Zapana gets this idea from his own June 19 article “Takoma Park grants waiver to ‘nuclear-free zone’ ordinance.”

Unsustainable recycling

Journalists frequently recycle their own and other journalists’ work. Isn’t it interesting that following Zapana’s June 19 article, two articles on similar themes came out three weeks later?  Zapana’s own “post-hippie” Takoma Park article, and a New York Times article “Sometimes Fiscal Urgency Tops Desire to be ‘Nuclear Free,’ Cities Find” came out within days of each other.

Times reporter Adeshina Emmanuel covers the same issue – nuclear-free cities – but with more depth and considerably less snark. Emmanuel succumbed to only one stereotype, calling us “the People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” Otherwise the article is a fairly accurate account of the issue, treating the existence of nuclear-free ordinances around the country with respect, not ridicule.

In his “post hippie” piece, Zapana took the low road – via the rat-hole. He recycled his own article to write a new one that was even more disdainful and snide. His point of view was that Takoma Park has started to come to its senses at long last, shedding it’s silly, eccentric ideals, and embracing the norm. Most of the people he interviewed supported his view, but were not exactly representative of the community: a real-estate dealer, a newly-arrived young couple, and a commercial real-estate owner/property-/manager, who is quoted as saying “the hippies have left.”

He also quotes Eric Hensal about a week before Hensal lost the race for Ward 5 councilmember, “It’s almost like Takoma really is at the post-hippie phase.”  Hensal the candidate was criticized by some for not having been previously involved in city politics, committees, community groups, or much of anything else.

What is a “hippie?” Who are these “hippies?” Where is an interview with an actual “hippie?” They exist only in the mind of the journalist, they exist only as an insult, a caricature to giggle at. That’s how journalists get the boot in.

That’s not reporting. Any mindless jerk could say “Most reporters writing about Takoma Park are a bunch of clowns!” without having to prove it. A real journalist would cite proof, give examples, quote quotes.

Oh, wait, we have.

So, this clown, Mr Zapana is the main contender for The Rat. So far. There are months to go before the year is out. Worse things have been written about Takoma Park in the past. So, keep vigilance, dear readers, and send in your nominations.



Here is more detail on Takoma Park’s media image and the rat story.

Back in the 80s and 90s the media wore out their sleeves laughing up them at us. Writers cannibalized each others’ work, so each new article and column repeated the same sniggering phrases: “stuck in the sixties,” “People’s Republic of Takoma Park,” “Berkeley of the East,” and “Birkenstock-wearing,” for example. They listed the same local characters such as Sammy Abbott and Catman, the Motor Cat guy. They mentioned the Free-Burma Committee, and the city’s nuclear-free zone, . . . and the rats.

The rat libel started when a couple of residents asked if the city could offer live-capture rat traps at the late, lamented tool library. According to former Takoma Park mayor Ed Sharp “This got noticed by PETA who liked it, started publicizing it, and suggested that the rats could be taken up to Frederick County and released.”

PETA’s proposal to release live rats in rural Frederick County inspired an irate letter from a reader who got it all turned around. He attributed the proposal to the Takoma Park city government, says Sharp. A columnist for the paper (Sharp thinks it might have been the Sentinel) blasted the city for it’s live-rat release plan –  without fact-checking. Despite Sharp’s attempt to correct the record, the lie was out there – and you know what they say about a lie releasing all it’s rats before the truth can bait a trap.

The rat story spread like the bubonic plague.

It got into a scabrous column by Donald Kaul, Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register, that mixed all the phrases, half-truths, and snark together and whipped them, and himself, into a froth. As far was we know, Mr. Kaul never set foot in Takoma Park – he said he got his information from a friend who lived here –  but his column was reprinted in major newspapers all over the country.

His take on Takoma Park was picked up by other columnists. Here’s a 1992 mention in the Seattle Times. Columnists love writing on what other columnists write about – they don’t have to fact check, assuming the first columnist did all that.

And the rat story lived on. Here’s a 1998 mention in the Los Angeles Times. Here it is being repeated in 2004 on an internet comment page

Do we have any sculptors or craftspersons who would like to volunteer for an interesting project? Must have ability to depict rodents.

– Gilbert

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

1 Comment on "GRANOLAPARK: The RAT"

  1. Groovy column, man. The only addition I would have made was a mention of “tie-dyed,” which for years appeared in every article about our July 4 parade or street festivals. Kind of like: “The ’60s came alive again in Takoma Park and the hippies were out in force, wearing Birkenstocks and tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts, openly passing joints to one another and flashing peace signs while carrying, “Shoot the Pigs” signs.” Or something like that.

    One of my fave examples of horrible reporting on TP was a WaPo piece on unification, printed right before the entire city officially became part of Montgomery County. So, the vote had been taken, w/ 88 percent of TP residents in support. The Assembly, which was always the high hurdle that had to be cleared, had approved the move. But here we were, just a few days before the done deal was officially, well, done, and the Post printed a front-page piece about how the city was “divided” on the subject of unification. It quoted no “regular Joe” residents who had voted in favor of unification, relying for its thesis on one person in the former P.G. portion who thought it was a racist move and completely unjustified. I know who this person was, and believe me, her opinion was not reflective of the city’s as a whole

    So far as I know, the Post had ignored the issue up to that point: No reporting on unification before we all voted or during deliberations by the Assembly. But when it was all a fait accompli, and the clock could not be turned back, here came the Post to raise the specter of racism and claim that as a community, we were “divided” on the issue. This after an 88 pct-12 pct vote IN FAVOR of unification, a cause that had been supported for years by people who rightly thought it insane that 1/3rd of the residents were in one county and 2/3rds were in another.

    Not too surprisingly, we voted to unify in the county where 2/3rds of us already lived.

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