A lot can happen in six seconds, yet it is not a metric to measure a life.
Rather, men and women should be measured by their achievements or lack thereof. They are evaluated by their performance, their values, their ideals and, perhaps most important, what they have done to further life for the rest of us. Did they lead us, did they teach us, did they inspire us…did they comfort us in times when we were down? And that is only a sampling of what we ask of those who chose to lead.
Yet a six-second video threatens to be the yardstick to judge the 40-year career of Joseph “Jay” Brennan, who retired suddenly last week as principal of Bishop Hendricken High School.
The pieces don’t fit in the story.
How is it that Jay, as school President John Jackson told us, doesn’t recall using the derogatory words to describe blacks and Jews and that the clip apparently taken with a cell phone could be years old. It makes one wonder if someone was out to get Jay, and for what? Or could it be that the someone who sent the clip to WPRI and the NAACP was out to get the school? And for what reason would they do that?
Those suspicions were reinforced when one of our subscribers stopped in Friday. He questioned why the Thursday Beacon hadn’t carried a story on Jay. I told him the WPRI story broke late Wednesday afternoon and we didn’t have the time to follow it up before the paper went to press. He was satisfied, but like me he was troubled by the lack of context to Jay’s comments. In the video, Jay appears to be joking. He’s wearing a tie and looks to be in his school office.
That discussion and sequence of events were all the more vivid after viewing the movie The Post. The film tells the story of the Washington Post’s passion to beat the New York Times on a story that became known as the Pentagon Papers. This is not to suggest the sudden retirement of a school principal is anywhere comparable to the top secret report about the Vietnam War that Dan Ellsberg leaked to both papers in 1971 and the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the newspapers’ right to publish them.
But I couldn’t help comparing how news was reported then and today. While the Times was first to break the story, the Post sought to verify the information, and it wasn’t until they obtained a copy from Ellsberg that they were running it.
We don’t know where the Brennan video clip came from and we doubt that WPRI does either. Verification of information is fundamental to reporting. I suppose Jay’s picture and his words make what he said irrefutable. And we know from the stories concerning this case that the news media followed up with calls to the school, the diocese and to Jay, although they were unable to reach him.
Such an incident – a principal’s use of the “N” word – wouldn’t have been a story in 1971, which tells us we have progressed in recognizing and confronting racism. Secondly, if it had been an issue, the man in the street didn’t have the technology to record or disseminate it. Few had power.
Today, everybody can play reporter, posting what they see, hear and what they think on a variety of social media outlets. One wonders with such connectivity whether the government’s own assessment that the Vietnam War was un-winnable would have been a secret for as long as it was. That would have been a positive.
Nonetheless, we pay a price for this instantaneous unfiltered flow of information. As in the case of the Jay Brennan video, we’re getting a six-second snippet of conversation with no understanding of why, how or for what purpose. How much more of what’s out there is equally suspect of motive and manipulation?
I can tell you Jay Brennan is not a racist. I have known him for nearly as long as he has been at the school. I have seen him grow with the institution and fill the leadership role as principal following the departure of Brother Thomas Leto. He has worked to make the school inclusive of people of color, different nationalities and different religious beliefs.
I have talked to Hendricken alumni about this, some of high stature in the community, and they, too, don’t believe what Jay said in those six seconds is reflective of the man. Yet they reason that doesn’t matter because the words are the words.
In this case, look beyond the words and measure Jay and the school by the history of actions. Most telling is what Jay did when this video surfaced. He put the school first, retired and apologized.
We could wish the same of all leaders.