By RAHN ADAMS
Until President Donald J. Trump called journalists “the enemy of the American people” earlier this week, I had forgotten just how adversarial the news media, the press, could—and should—be.
Well, no, I hadn’t really forgotten. It’s been around 27 years since I was last paid to report the news, and as time has passed I’ve tended to mentally downplay the more stressful aspects of being a small-town newsman and have focused on mainly the more enjoyable duties, the more fun or more adventurous assignments, and the many positive relationships I experienced as a newspaper sports stringer, staff writer and photographer, and as a radio reporter and news director—a career that encompassed most of the 1980s, basically Ronald Reagan’s two terms and George H.W. Bush’s first couple of years. But I remember those days well.
It was one thing to hear Trump’s self-serving and unconstitutional indictment of the press reported on TV; it was something else to then be attacked on Facebook by an ignorant Trump troll simply because I had posted a comment supporting the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, a policy that Reagan ended in 1987 around the time that I transitioned, shall we say, from radio news back to newspapers. (If you’ve worked in radio and haven’t been fired at least once, then you really didn’t work in radio—or didn’t get the full monty, at least. But that’s another column for another week.)
Without replaying the whole Facebook “pissing contest,” which was what one real-life friend astutely called it later, I tried to emphasize to the troll (yes, troll is a real word defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) that he really didn’t know what he was blathering about—that he’d never worked in the news business himself, much less in the broadcast news business that was directly affected by the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine while I was a radio reporter and later news director.
Without having known me then—partly because he was probably still wearing short pants at the time (yes, I know that guys of all ages always wear short pants now, but just go with the metaphor, OK?)—the troll stated uncategorically that I had been a biased newsman and that I had skirted the Fairness Doctrine in controversial interviews by basically playing devil’s advocate in my questioning. No, you don’t know what you’re talking about, I said at least three times. I don’t think he believed me.
I’ve also been told that telling people they’re wrong and even presenting them with facts to prove it do no good toward changing their wrong thinking; that approach just makes them angrier and even more entrenched in their erroneous position, or so that story goes. In fact—now there’s a good word to look up in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary—this week’s The New Yorker ran an article entitled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” It’s a good—but long—read. It also uses some words that you might need to look up, and it employs complex sentence structure like some of my sentences here.
So from now on I’m going to try not to argue with anyone. I’m just going to say, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I know from experience that I’m right and you’re wrong. That’s basically how I handled the troll the other night. I mean, it used to work for my father years ago when I’d ask how he knew something that he had just told me was right. “Because I’m older than you, that’s why,” he would always say. Well, it kind of worked. And I didn’t get too exasperated, usually.
That Facebook encounter had at least one other positive result—it made me wonder why the troll had taken his particular position so opposed to the mainstream news media and why he was so convinced that all reporters have always been and continue to be biased. I had suggested that he didn’t understand the difference between straight news coverage and opinion (editorials, columns, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor). That may be one reason for his attitude. The main reason, however, is probably because he and other Trump supporters take their cues to oppose “the enemy of the American people” from Trump himself. Even someone still in short pants can understand why a liar doesn’t want the truth known.
For the record, when I was assigned to do straight news—like, say, to cover a county commissioners or school board meeting, or to handle the law enforcement roundup, or to report on the civil and criminal courts, from grand jury indictments to arrests to trials—I tried my best to be as objective as I could be and to present a truly fair and balanced report with the time I had to produce the story, whether in print or on the air. I knew that many readers of that newspaper or listeners to that radio station depended on me to give them the straight facts of whatever story they were consuming, since they couldn’t be or had chosen not to be wherever I had been paid to be on their behalf.
In other words, I was those small-town Americans’ representative at that commissioners meeting, or in that sheriff’s office, or in that jail or courtroom. I was most assuredly not their enemy. Often I was a good friend, especially to those individuals who were directly involved in the news that I was covering. How do I know I’m right about that?
Because when I left the news business to become a school teacher, the commissioners’ secretary—probably the one person who knew everything that went on in county government—told me that my stories had always been fair (as in even-handed, not as in average or fair-to-middling) despite some confrontations over things like potential Open Meetings Law violations. That’s why.
Because the old sheriff of one county where I had worked for several years ran into the new sheriff of another county where I had just started working—they were at a state sheriffs’ association meeting—and the old one assured the new one that I’d treat him and his department fairly, as I had done for the old sheriff and his deputies. That’s why.
Because when I covered a major cocaine-trafficking investigation, I was complimented on my work by the district attorney and by several of the defendants, one time in the hallway outside the courtroom when a man I didn’t recognize asked to shake my hand because he’d liked my stories so much and then, when court resumed, went inside to be sentenced—and by the state legislator who said my coverage had prompted him to write and sponsor a drug trafficking-related bill that became law. That’s why.
And then there was the time that I wrote an editorial-page column—my penultimate column for that newspaper, I think—in which I finally expressed my opinion of an on-going civil lawsuit brought by a property-owner association opposing construction of a big new bridge from the mainland to the barrier island where the plaintiffs owned houses.
I’d been covering the bridge controversy for at least a couple of years, and I had gotten to know and like folks on both sides of the issue. I don’t remember any complaints about my coverage during that time. As far as I know, there were no complaints because it had been a straight news assignment and I had made every effort to be objective in presenting the facts of the case.
Part of the property-owner association’s opposition to the bridge had to do with potential environmental damage that a modern, high-rise bridge would do to the barrier island, compared to the inconvenience of the old floating swing bridge already there. So the property owners’ motto was “Save Our Bridge,” a slogan that they printed on T-shirts that they sold to help pay legal fees. I bought one, in fact.
But I did make some mistakes as a reporter, I admit—like writing that particular column the week before I covered the next property-owner association meeting. In my column, I had pointed out that since the barrier island’s pristine nature was compromised when the very first home was built there in the 1950s after Hurricane Hazel had swept the island clean, the association should change its rallying cry from “Save Our Bridge” to “We Were Here First.” They weren’t amused.
I’ll always remember what one of the older property owners told me that day. He was someone I truly admired for several reasons unrelated to the bridge fight. Fortunately, neither what I had written nor what he said to me then kept us from still being friends later on. It certainly didn’t make me an enemy of all those property owners—not that particular one, at least.
He was a big guy, kind of like the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. I was sitting in one of the folding chairs set up in the vacant bays of the volunteer fire department building. He approached me with a smile and leaned down so that what he said would be between him and me. “Just because you’re telling the truth,” he whispered, “doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is always right.”
Hmm. I’ve thought about that koan-like statement often over the past 27 years, and I think I know what my friend was getting at. Sometimes I think I agree with that sentiment—that the truth often hurts and that maybe we shouldn’t always have to face it, or make others face it—but sometimes, heck, most of the time, in fact, I don’t agree. Why not? Because it’s true, but it isn’t right. That’s why not.
As it was, I didn’t know how to respond that day, and I just sat there until the meeting started. Now, if I could talk to my friend again, what might I say to him about the truth when so many people now would just yawn and ask, “So what?” and then go on with their business?
Hmm. I might tell my old friend something former CBS News reporter and anchor Dan Rather wrote in his prescient 2012 memoir, Rather Outspoken, about getting to the crux of any controversial story, and whether or not to report what one has found to be true: “For a journalist, the truth always matters, and that should be reason enough.”
Eventually, in Part Two, I’ll have some more stories about my good old days as a small-town “enemy of the people.” Be sure to tune in—unless President Trump says you can’t.