The ‘Bells’ heard ’round the world

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When Peter Lovenheim turned in his “Jingle Bells” story, I knew right away that it would be well read and generate a number of comments on RochesterBeacon.com. But I’d be lying if I told you I thought the article would result in news coverage—and a torrent of online comments—around the nation and across the globe. Yet that’s what happened.

Jingle all the way? Maybe not” was posted on our website and delivered to subscribers of our Weekly Review email two days before Christmas. It became clear immediately that the number of email clicks would be higher than for any other Beacon story since our launch in October 2018. Pageviews on our website were high too through the holiday weekend—and then they skyrocketed. It’s now the most-read article ever on RochesterBeacon.com, by a large margin.

The tale of how the story went viral, how it was covered by other media, and how readers here and elsewhere reacted is one worth telling, I think. It says much about the state of the news media and public discourse today.

The story’s origin

Paul Ericson

Peter, the Beacon’s Washington correspondent, is an alumnus of Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School who splits his time between homes in Brighton and the D.C. area. As he relates in the article, his interest was piqued when he read a notice posted earlier this year on the Brighton school district’s public website—in a section on “Diversity and Equity,” where the district chronicles its years-long anti-racist, anti-bias initiative—that Council Rock had dropped “Jingle Bells” from its music curriculum. It prompted him to reach out to Council Rock principal Matt Tappon and other staff; he also communicated with Allison Rioux, Brighton Central Schools assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, whose 2017 article influenced the decision to remove the song.

While initially spurred only by curiosity, Peter soon believed this could be a story for the Beacon. We discussed it, and I agreed. The idea: to explore the roots of “Jingle Bells,” written by James L. Pierpont in the mid-1800s, and why Brighton educators had decided, in Tappon’s words, that the beloved holiday song had “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”

The 1,700-word article Peter wrote was deeply researched and nuanced. It did not judge the school’s decision; instead, it presented a wealth of context and asked readers to make up their own minds: “Is Council Rock’s decision to stop singing ‘Jingle Bells’ a reasonable step to create a more inclusive school curriculum, or an instance of well-intentioned overreach?”

Response and reaction

Why did Council Rock drop “Jingle Bells?” Tappon and other staff pointed to Hamill’s article, which said the song’s first public performance may have occurred in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show, where white entertainers performed in blackface. When Peter told them Hamill was “shocked” by the decision to remove “Jingle Bells” based partly on her research, Rioux supplied another explanation: “Some suggest that the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song Jingle Bells. While we are not taking a stance to whether that is true or not, we do feel strongly that this line of thinking is not in agreement with our district beliefs to value all cultures and experiences of our students.”

After Peter told them he was planning to write a story about the decision, Tappon and Rioux declined to comment further.

On Dec. 28, Brighton superintendent of schools Kevin McGowan struck the match that caused a media wildfire. In a nearly 700-word message emailed to the Brighton school community and posted on the district’s website, he offered a full-throated defense of the Council Rock decision, adding reasons that neither Tappon nor Rioux cited. It was not, he went on, “‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested.”

Before McGowan’s message appeared, no other news media had picked up on the story. Quickly, that changed. On the Dec. 29, the Democrat and Chronicle posted a story. The local TV stations covered it too. Soon, “Jingle Bells” news stories were popping up far and wide, by publications ranging from USA Today, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the New York Post to American Military News and Law Enforcement TodayFox News also hopped on the bandwagon, and the AP News wire helped to spread it across the country. Outside the U.S., coverage of the story and McGowan’s response has appeared in Toronto, in the London Daily Mail and in several Indian outlets including the Hindustan Times.

Some of the coverage was balanced and reasonably thorough (locally, the D&C’s story stands out). But quite a bit of it was slapdash, silly or politically charged. (The Law Enforcement Today story begins: “Ever hear the saying, ‘Liberalism is a mental disorder?’ Welcome to Council Rock Primary School in Rochester, New York.”) Many outlets mentioned the Beacon and provided a link to Peter’s story, so readers could see the entire piece, but others did not. A few had only a short story and then presented McGowan’s message in its entirety.

Wherever it appeared, coverage of the “Jingle Bells” story let loose a flood of reader comments. On Fox News alone, there were 5,700 comments as of Tuesday. As with the news stories, some of the comments on news sites and social media have been thoughtful, restrained and even well-researched. Others have been scornful, snarky and vituperative—whether directed at Brighton education officials or other readers with whom they disagree. Thankfully, Beacon readers have generally been civil in their debate. One reason, perhaps: We will not post comments by those who do not provide their full name or otherwise violate our comment policy, which among other things bars abusive, ad hominem material. On our site and others covering the story that we’ve checked, readers who submitted comments overwhelmingly opposed the school’s decision.

Questions worth asking

Again, I must be honest: We are very happy that Peter’s “Jingle Bells” story and the district’s response to it have gone viral in this country and abroad. Maybe we’ve picked up some far-flung readers. At the same time, it has reminded me of the challenge we face trying to live up to our mission statement, where we talk about “illuminating truth’s complexity” and being “a source of and forum for ideas and perspectives that are rooted in intellectual openness.” In the digital realm, where many news sites subsist on clickbait and powerful platforms like Facebook operate with algorithms that prioritize anger and rage, the line between careful scrutiny of hot-button topics and simply fueling the fire can be awfully thin.

Personally, I’d be fine to go a few holiday seasons without hearing “Jingle Bells,” especially renditions like this one. But is the song truly tainted by racism? Does it have no place in an elementary school curriculum? Or should it, as professor Kyna Hamill says, “be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed.” There might be no right answers, but to me, the questions are worth asking.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

6 thoughts on “The ‘Bells’ heard ’round the world

  1. Several important questions keep getting overlooked in the media coverage of the Jingle Bells Caper. First, when the easily-verified fact of the composer’s support for the Confederacy and slavery was available as justification for shelving Jingle Bells, why did Council Rock and McGowan simply regurgitate what they had read elsewhere and pulled the plug because the song MIGHT have been indirectly associated with minstrel shows and MIGHT have exhibited aspects found in racist songs of the period? Are the values of independent research and independent thought no longer taught in Brighton schools?

    Secondly, and more importantly, the Brighton School District’s involvement in this issue carries the faint scent of hypocrisy and inconsistency. Specifically, Council Rock notwithstanding, it appears that students in all other Brighton schools remain free to perform Jingle Bells as an officially-approved song. To carry that thought further, have the Brighton school authorities launched a process to apply the standards used to sideline Jingle Bells, namely that they might have, “the potential to be controversial or offensive” to ALL songs permitted to be sung in the district’s schools? And what about the follow-up standard for nixing those Bells, namely that it’s a Christmas song (which it was never written to be) and is therefore a possible affront to non-Christian religions? Is this being applied so that ALL Christmas songs will now be blocked from performance in the Brighton schools?

    Lastly, speaking of the topic of the commendable banning of songs because of racist antecedents and connotations, perhaps McGowan needs to be told that he better ban any singing of the Star Spangled Banner for the same reason. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder, and many scholars believe some of his lyrics denigrate blacks. Just plug in “is the star spangled banner racist” in a search engine and see what pops up. Surely consistency demands that the same standards used to exile Jingle bells be used to ban the singing of the National Anthem.

  2. Great background story. The Rochester Beacon should be proud of the way you handled a story that clearly struck a nerve. I read Peter’s original story and copied it for use with my Educational Leadership students I teach through Stony Brook University and Molloy College. These are challenging and difficult times. I commend Peter for his balanced and well researched article. In the spirit of full disclose, I am also a graduate of the Brighton Schools although I did not attend Council Rock. I went on to teach social studies at Brighton from 1973-1980. From Brighton I moved into high school administration, serving as a high school principal for 25 years, at four schools, in three states. I retired as a superintendent of schools on Long Island and continue to teach teachers in programs to secure administrative certification. I love The Beacon as it keeps me up-to-date on local Rochester issues.

  3. I’m gonna be honest, Paul, that I immediately thought “oh, they went for clickbait” when I saw the original article. It was hard not to feel that the author was fishing around on school DEI websites for something that could provoke this kind of viral reaction. Yes, it wasn’t over the top, but in what way is an elementary school’s decision about making its lower grade music curriculum more inclusive “news,” except that it feeds into a popular narrative about “liberals gone amok?” And lo, it came to pass. I was a little disappointed by this decision.

  4. I find it interesting when McGowan says “we couldn’t be more proud of our staff and the work they continue to do…” when 95% of the people polled disagreed with the decision to remove Jingle Bells from the music curriculum. He also said that this wasn’t “cancel culture”. That is exactly what it is. It isn’t against an individual or business, rather a curriculum that they have control over.

    Minstrel shows were acceptable 150 years ago, when this song was first sung. Is blackface acceptable now? No it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean we should banish it because it may or may not have been used in a minstrel show in the 1800’s. It was never meant to be a racist song, but the assistant superintendent brings up that “the use of collars on slaves with bells may be connected to the origin of the song…”. Isn’t he making this a racist point when there isn’t one?

    You can’t erase history, you can teach it. In my opinion, these little actions, as little as they may seem, continue to chip away at our country and our freedom. I’m glad to see so many disagree with the school’s decision. I know not all disagree with the school’s decision, which is fine. That’s what makes our country great. We should be able to agree to disagree, but the minority shouldn’t be able to make the ultimate decision. Democracy is based on the majority.

    As for looking through the lens of equity, I agree. Add new and different songs and cultures to the music curriculum, but don’t look for reasons to eliminate classics that have been around for generations and loved by generations of people.

  5. Brighton is the sort of place with a lot of “Black Lives Matter” yard signs and not very many actual black people. Rochester City Schools have much more important issues to consider.

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