Out of the Dolderums

A word on journalism

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/28/20

Last week, my colleague Hannah McClellan and I attended a pair of rallies in downtown Pittsboro. We went not as participants, but as journalists — objective parties to what became a fiercely …

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Out of the Dolderums

A word on journalism

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Last week, my colleague Hannah McClellan and I attended a pair of rallies in downtown Pittsboro. We went not as participants, but as journalists — objective parties to what became a fiercely polarized confrontation of ideologies.

Here’s what we came to understand about the day’s event after painstakingly inquiring of many tight-lipped attendees: some Trump supporters, many of whom drove in from Alamance County, were the first to plan a rally, having publicized their intentions two weeks earlier. In response, a left-leaning organization called Chatham Takes Action scheduled a counter-rally to fall on the same day.

What ensued was mild chaos.

Is that description an oxymoron? Sure is. But given the constancy of chaotic energy in this country, we’ve reached a point where we must assign degrees to its severity. So, on this day, the chaos was mild.

In practice, that means there was only one fistfight, just three inimical standoffs (read: mob confrontations) and police only had to interfere twice (that we witnessed).

In the moment, adrenaline and a hyper-awareness consumed me as I think it does all reporters when the prospect of breaking coverage looms behind every spittle-ridden expletive to cross a picket line. My focus was the story — don’t miss the quotes; don’t miss the action; capture everything just the way it is.

Those tenets are, really, the journalist’s creed. As an engineer is committed to building a safe bridge and a doctor committed to saving his patients’ lives — so, too, are journalists committed to capturing the truth.

It is the very reason I worked hard to break into this career for which, on paper (math degree?), I was not strictly qualified. Because I love the truth.

Now, I understand that just as there are engineers who cut corners, and doctors who practice recklessly, there are some journalists who neglect the beautiful trust with which they have been endowed — that is, to accurately represent the goings-on of their communities.

But all three of those retromingent scoundrels are the minority in their respective fields.

Journalists — real journalists from respectable outlets, not social media hacks and organization-backed shysters — take pride in their commitment to the truth. They go to painstaking lengths to ensure fair coverage of their subjects.

Truth-telling is our focus at this paper, and not for fear of reprisal. Frankly, it’s not like we’re under intense scrutiny akin to what The New York Times or The Washington Post might experience; we could exaggerate here and omit there without serious retribution. But we would never. Why? Because we take pride in ethical journalism.

So, it irked me when at last week’s rallies some attendees attacked not just our paper, but our very profession. All of us — journalists, that is — are “communist pawns,” they said. “Liars…garbage.” To paraphrase some of their more lurid insults: “excrement, and that from whence it comes.”

Nasty people have always reviled truth-tellers. Richard Nixon famously despised newspapers. Years after the Watergate scandal broke, Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in the Nixon administration, reflected on Nixon’s vehement campaigns against a free press: “He really hated the press,” Kissinger said. “As soon as there was an unfavorable article about him, he’d send notes around prohibiting you from talking to the (Washington) Post or to this or that reporter … It was a big mistake.”

It’s true that most articles about Richard Nixon from 1971 onward were not positive. But why? Because a communist press set out to undermine his reputation? Nope. It was because Nixon did bad things and tried to hide them. That was the truth.

Granted, writing the news is an imprecise craft, but so is medicine. We can’t dismantle the medical industry because doctors occasionally make mistakes and we can’t discount the press because reporters sometimes get it wrong.

Phil Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, once described our work as an “inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand…”

It’s a tall task, but a noble one. It is important.

I know those loud people from last week’s rallies, should they read this, will not likely change their minds about the value of a free press and the ethical standard to which journalists closely subscribe. To them, truth is whatever they choose to believe, whatever they want to hear. That’s O.K. — I’m sure the astute reportage of Facebook groups and private subreddits will keep them abreast of what’s really going on in the world.

But to you, dear readers, who demand a more rigorous standard of journalism — if you care more about reading truth than confirmation bias — let me be clear: that is our commitment, too.

Take comfort, there is still truth to be found.


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