Cory Booker’s (Media) Deal With the Devil

Newark’s media-savvy mayor knows how to bring white money back to a black city.

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker was furious about the 8,000-word Esquire magazine profile of him and his beloved city. “I exploded,” he says in the new documentary, Brick City, with just, rage, when I read it.” The 2008 article described Booker’s heroic quest to awaken the “city of zombies” and the “Goddamn Zulus” residing in Jersey.  Indeed, it was a stunningly racist portrait of Newark and its leader, written by Scott Raab, an accomplished (white) writer you’d expect to know better. When he wasn’t summoning violins with purple prose about “cannibal,” “animal” violence,  he was anointing Cory Booker as a green-eyed Magical Super Negro, swooping into battle with “old school ghetto despots” to save the “feckless negritude” of Newark. 

You know, typical, stereotypical, welcome-to-the-jungle reporting—Booker as the Great Yellow Hope. And Esquire even had the nerve to say he wore bad suits! A few minutes after the mayor's on-air tirade, his radio show co-host David Cruz lays a concerned hand on Booker’s shoulder. “Well, you probably shouldn’t have told the guy," says Cruz, "that you tore the crotch of your suit pants ….”

“I know,” Booker says, looking wounded. “… I really trusted him.“

“Did you learn a lesson?” Cruz says, “because you can never trust the media.”

It was an interesting time to complain, as seconds earlier, Cruz had been grilling Booker for their monthly local call-in radio show, and Brick City documentary film cameras recorded the whole exchange. The much talked-about five-part series (directed by Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin and executive produced by Forest Whitaker) debuted last week on the Sundance Channel and will have its encore starting Saturday. Even when he’s complaining about the media, to the media, while being filmed by another member of the media, Cory Booker has a message he needs to get out. It’s all part of the job description of today’s "urban" leader. The battle for the future of communities like Newark begins with changing perceptions. Before he can change the institutions, he has to change the narrative about them. (And if that means taking on Conan O’Brien via YouTube, then so be it.)

A whole and more accurate story would explain that post-industrial communities like Newark have become veritable islands, cut off from the kind of resources needed to truly address deep-seated issues. The story might begin somewhere before slavery, then move on to racial and economic segregation.

Booker knows as well as any other black person in Newark that the endless hagiography being spilled about him since his 2006 election is simplistic and plain inaccurate.

As he told Cruz: “The reality is there are heroes all over this city. I struggle to match their greatness every single day.” 

Later, he promised that “we are on pace to make Newark the model for urban transformation.”

“We are going to rewrite the books on crime. Newark, New Jersey.”