Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Burning Bridges Beyond Repair
I am not an enemy of the people. Nor are any of the local news media folks I know "enemies of the people" - and I know many of them.
They are all good people - beautiful people - who do their jobs with determination and grit, and who would never dream of making up a news story, or of using their position to go after someone just because.
People who are in the media are your neighbors. We send our children to your schools, we walk our dogs, we spend our money in your community.
No, the people who write the local news are not CNN or FOX or MSNBC. But the jobs they do are similar. Just not so, well, big league.
The recent tweet from #45 cut me to the core. I am not longer a working news reporter, but I took my job seriously. I lived and breathed it 24/7 for decades. I wrote enough words to have created numerous books, but instead I chose to write small articles, deciphering information so that you, my neighbor, would have some inkling as to what was happening in the immediate world around you.
I was a government reporter and at various times I have covered meetings in multiple counties. I've written for more than a dozen publications, including The Fincastle Herald, The Roanoke Times, The New Castle Record, The Roanoke Star, The Roanoker magazine, The Vinton Messenger, The Salem Times Register, and several that are no longer in existence. So take nothing I say here as an implication of my resident county alone, because I have covered meetings in eight different counties over the years, as well as numerous towns. Regardless of location, the routines are the same. The elected folks gather in a place in a meeting open to the public to do the public's business. The public seldom shows up.
I was there. I was your watchdog, ensuring that your representative was really representing you.
While you were at your 9-5 job and then settling down with your children and/or spouse, sometimes I was working on hour 14 of my job that day. Breaking news doesn't wait. Meetings that are supposed to run for two hours sometimes go on for seven. I didn't get to close up my notebook and go home simply because the clock said I was heading into overtime.
While you were fixing dinner, I was making sure local government officials followed the rules (they don't always) and obtaining the facts offered at a planning commission meeting, a board of zoning appeals meeting, or a supervisors meeting. Afterwards, I dissected them as honestly and truthfully as I could so that you, the reader, could see what your government was doing.
Because I was there, officials could not go into a closed session to discuss things behind closed doors. I would call them on it if they tried. I knew the Virginia Freedom of Information (FOIA) front to back and didn't hesitate to cite it if I had concerns. My presence alone was enough to keep them in line, usually. They knew I would write "the council then went into closed session, refusing to cite a legal reason under the Virginia FOIA" if they tried to do that. I did write that more than once, and on occasion that was enough to upset a few residents and create a stir. They didn't do it again.
That's what the media does. We keep you, the people, informed. We sit for hours at boring meetings, taking notes and listening to mutterings of elected officials so we can quote them correctly.
I spent long nights watching the electoral board count votes during elections. I watched school boards make decisions that affected your children. I drove home at midnight after long public hearings on battleground issues such as budget figures and tax hikes. I woke up at 3 a.m. to finish an article due by 7 a.m.
I sat with your representatives and talked to them about current issues. Then I wrote about it. I never wrote with an agenda, though I have been accused of that a time or two. I just wrote what happened at meetings or what an official said. I have been told that most people liked my work because they considered it to be fair and balanced. Republicans thought I was a Republican and Democrats thought I was a Democrat. I used to laugh at that, and for the longest time I never told anyone my political leanings. If you read this blog regularly, you know now I lean left - and being a journalist is one reason why. I have been in the homes of many of our poorer residents, seen how they live, and watched the "free market" system screw people over without a second thought. It's not a very fair, or even Christian, economic system.
Supervisors frequently found me problematic, because I quoted them. On more than one occasion, I had to produce a tape of the meeting to an editor (I used to tape them all), to prove I'd quoted someone correctly. Most frequently the complaint was "I might have said that, but that is not what I meant."
Mind reading is not part of a news reporter's job. If #45 or one of his representatives are speaking about something but mean something else, there is no way to know that they have misspoken. Unfortunately, in the visual medium, the news is immediate, taped, and hard to fact-check during live appearances. That makes the fact-checking look like the speaker is being picked on - but the media has a duty to go back and correct errors. If there was not a massacre in Sweden or Bowling Green, then the media has a responsibility to make note of that.
If a supervisor said he was going to do away with this or that, and I reported that, but he really meant something else - who's at fault? Usually I was on a deadline, with the story due two hours from the time the meeting ended, if I was lucky. I had little time to call someone who seldom answered my calls anyway.
But I did double-check frequently, and as a result I am pleased to report that during my career there were very few corrections on my stories. Occasionally I would mistype a number, and I am terrible at computing percentages, so sometimes, yes, I messed up. One of the most aggravating corrections I ever had to make came about because an editor thought he knew more than I did and rearranged my article to the extent that he completely changed the facts. I stopped writing for the publication after that story ran.
Once I wrote an article about local volunteer fire departments that did not go over well with the volunteers. Volunteer fire departments can be cliquish, and many members attacked me. Hard. They sent letters that the editor would not even let me read, they were so hateful. The story came out of a town hall meeting held by an elected official. Several members of a local volunteer department showed up to report that calls were not being run efficiently, that volunteering was down, that, frankly, the community was suffering and people were dying because the locality needed paid firefighters and emergency service workers. I checked with the county dispatch and did follow-up on rescue calls and sure enough, the locality constantly was having to ask for assistance from neighboring communities or from volunteer departments on the far end of the county. I did the legwork; the story was right. But a certain segment of the community demonized me for writing it. The irony of it all was that my husband used to be a volunteer firefighter, and is a paid firefighter. I knew what was going on probably better than most reporters, and I was sure of my facts. What I had miscalculated was the ego of the volunteers involved.
News reporters spend hours at dull meetings, often coming home after midnight to type out or record a story, just so you, the reader or listener, can know what is going on. So you will know that your next-door neighbor was killed in a car wreck, that your landlord's house burned down, that your government just decided to give millions of tax dollars to a private corporation for a few jobs that won't pay more than $40,000 a year.
That is not being your enemy. That is doing a job so you can stay informed. It is offering you information so you can act upon it, if you choose.
One of the things I learned over time was that no two people read a story the same way. People frequently do not read the bylines of articles. Many times I was stopped and someone said, "Did you know thus and so happened, I read it in this publication." I would smile and say, "Yes, I wrote the story. I believe you must have missed a paragraph during your review, because the article actually said . . ."
So even though I gave it my 100 percent, the readers (and viewers) didn't - and don't - give it their 100 percent. They skim, they read only headlines, they take away from a story only the things that confirm their world view. Reporters can't be responsible for how a reader comprehends a factual, well-written article or news report.
Unfortunately, issues between the press and politicians are long-standing. *In 1800, a newspaper wrote this of Thomas Jefferson: If he were elected, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced . . . the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."
Despite that villainous description, it was Jefferson who supported what has come to be known as The Fourth Estate. He said that if he had to choose between "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," he would take the newspapers without a government.* And don't forget, the press and the freedom thereof is explicitly mentioned in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Knowledge is key to democracy. That means reading things you do not agree with, learning things you don't care to know, and understanding that the world is about more than just you and your opinions.
The present day hostility toward the news media is terrifying. The current Republican administration needs a common enemy, and it has chosen the press to vilify for the moment. (Incidentally, creating a common enemy is on the list of how to become a dictator at WikiHow. Controlling the media is also listed frequently in discussions about how to create a fascist state. (WikiHow is not a source I would use in an article, but this is a personal blog entry and therefore opinion. Different rules.))
*The current Republican administration has gone after the media, and been openly hostile towards it, almost from day one. #45 said he had a "running war" with the media; his pal Bannon called the press "the opposition party" and said it should "keep its mouth shut."* Some of his other representatives have been openly critical as well.
Once public trust in the media has been undercut - once it has become even more politicized than it already was - the damage will be very hard to undo. Maybe the public trust has already reached that point where it will be very hard if not impossible to repair, I don't know. I hope not. Society here has depended upon a free and vibrant press to move forward and to keep politicians on their toes for more than 200 years. If the Fourth Estate goes down, we will all suffer mightily because of it.
*Quotes taken from Time magazine, February 13, 2017 edition, page 4.