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A Time for Commitment
Sometimes it’s the reporter’s agenda that makes a story great.

Two weeks ago, I weighed in on the debate over whether journalists should or shouldn’t sign recall petitions like the ones filed this year against Gov. Scott Walker. Today, further thoughts on that topic.

In justifying rules that keep their employees out of personal participation or engagement with “controversial subjects,” news organizations typically frame the matter as one of preserving their reputation with the audience – as when Journal Sentinel editorial page editor David Haynes told me, “Participating in political activity sends our readers the message that we’ve already made up our minds.”

At some news organizations the policy is so strict that, I’ve learned, at least one withdrew its offer of a summer internship because the chosen journalism student admitted to signing a recall petition.

News organizations fear their credibility with readers and viewers will be tainted by such overt expressions of partisanship as signing a petition or posting a yard sign.

But does that really work? And is it really necessary?

Some media critics now openly and forcefully question the conventional professional wisdom embedded in the old newsroom maxim, “If you’re going to cover the circus, you can’t sleep with the elephants.”

When Gannett Wisconsin newspapers confessed that 25 of its employees had signed Walker recall petitions, and publishers declared that to be a violation of the chain’s ethical code, Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer raised a fist in print.

“Free the Gannett 25!” he wrote, and then took part in an hour-long chat at the Poynter Institute on the issue of how far journalists could or should go in taking a stand.

In his column Shafer presented the issue as one of transparency:

So the ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe.

In a just and utopian world, news organizations would permit modest political activism by journalists – campaign contributions, placards on their lawns, bumper stickers on their cars, attendance at rallies, even the signing of recall petitions, etc. – as long as the journalists were willing to declare it. This proposal isn’t as radical as it sounds. At the core of the current journalistic codes is the notion that judging journalism requires us to judge the conduct of the journalists producing it. Instead of suppressing the political lives of journalists, why not allow that which is now covert to become overt and give readers more information to assess coverage?

It’s an appealing stance. And in this era of greater transparency, aided by always-on-connectivity and the ocean of electronic information in which we swim, with respect to many things political, it may be not only rational, but almost inevitable.

But there’s another angle here. Whether or not they’re candid about it, there’s another party to whom news organizations want to avoid sending the message of “bias”: news sources and newsmakers themselves.

Bill Lueders
That’s where Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Watch placed his focus when he told a Madison radio interviewer he didn’t think signing a petition was appropriate for him in his particular role supervising the coverage of political campaign spending.

“I want to let Scott Walker know that he can get a fair shake with me, that I will be fair with him, that I respect him as governor, and I don’t presume to be the one to tell him that he needs to go,” Lueders told Amy Barrilleaux.

And that too is an understandable and rational stance.

In an email to me, Lueders also noted something else: “These policies are driven by concern about how media outlets may be attacked. If the public wasn't looking for reasons to impugn reporters, this might not be an issue.” 

Now consider another twist.

Think back to some of the deepest cultural and social controversies in our nation’s history – like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, or the labor unrest that marked the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The journalistic work we most admire from those eras was certainly not the sort of bland, uncommitted, get-both-sides-of-the-story-and-don’t-choose-one-yourself kind of reporting that rules enforcing strict nonpartisanship seem at risk of producing.

Instead, it is the work of committed, passionate people who were driven to expose fundamental injustices and who did so out of a strong core of values about what was right and what was wrong – people like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair in that earlier era, or Gene Patterson, Tom Wicker or Earl Caldwell in the later one. As Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times wrote a decade ago:

It was a story where the issue seemed so cut and dry and the injustices so stark that reporters struggled to remain objective, though many found it difficult not to become emotionally involved. Seeing hard-eyed state troopers (always described as hard-eyed—and they were) in Selma slamming their clubs against the skulls of blacks who were demonstrating for the right to vote left reporters feeling there weren’t two sides to this story.

Now, one can argue that there’s still a line to be drawn between an overarching passion and set of values, on the one hand, and actively signing up for a particular cause.

Nelson and his colleagues in the South in the 1960s probably didn’t join the NAACP and certainly didn’t march in the protests that they covered – that wasn’t their job. And arguably, they may have still had more credibility because they stuck to that job, with all the passion that they felt for the justice of the cause they were covering.

Yet, sometimes, it is impossible not to be part of the story in a much more intimate way.

That’s what happened to Louis Weisberg back in 2000 when he was writing for the Chicago Free Press. Weisberg, who now edits the gay biweekly Wisconsin Gazette, called up Fred Phelps – infamous for the hate-filled protests he leads around the country directed at gays.

“I told him when I called that I was a gay man calling from a gay newspaper,” Weisberg says. “I told him that I wanted to give him the chance to explain to my readers why he hated them so much.”

Phelps readily agreed to an interview. “He said that, on the contrary, he loved us. That's why he was trying to save us, he said. He told me that the preachers who lied to me and said it's OK to be gay were my real enemies, because they were coaxing me straight to hell. Or words to that effect.

“We spoke for a very long time – maybe as much as 45 minutes (or so it seems now). He sounded very compassionate at times, but occasionally spurted out over-the-top statements – sort of as if he had Tourette's syndrome.

“He was much nicer on the phone than in person. On the phone, he was almost likable in the way he spoke so passionately about his convictions. He left no doubt that he meant what he said and believed that he was doing good in the world.”

Why was Phelps so willing to be interviewed – even by someone completely upfront about being so at odds with him?

“I think he saw the interview as a chance to speak directly to gay people,” Weisberg says. “There were several times when he insisted, ‘You must put this in your story  . . . ’ before he cited a verse of scripture.” And given the questions he asked, he adds, it would have been impossible for Weisberg to conduct the interview and not disclose he was gay.

“I think that he saw the interview as an opportunity, although he was occasionally cynical and predicted that I would twist his words to suit my purposes,” he continues. “I took that as a challenge to write the story in a way that he couldn’t say I did that.”

But there’s no question Weisberg had a deeper political and social purpose to his story. “I wanted to let readers know how Phelps felt about them and about his activism in his own words. I also wanted to find out what made him tick – why he was so obsessed with homosexuality of all things.”

The story Weisberg wrote contrasted Phelps with the Rev. Greg Dell, a Methodist pastor and pro-gay activist. “Astonishingly, they had attended seminary together – they were cut from the same clerical cloth,” Weisberg says. “Yet their interpretations of their religion couldn't have been more at odds. The story was an attempt to explore how that happened.”

Even within his own clear point of view, Weisberg strived to step back, “letting each of them tell the story of how he ended up with a particular set of beliefs,” he says. “For my audience, just quoting Phelps accurately was inflammatory.”

At the same time, though, he brought his point of view directly into the interview, and considers that an important dimension to the encounter.

“As a gay man, I was able to say with authenticity, ‘It hurts me as a gay man when you say these things,’ and thus force him to respond to an actual person in explaining his views,” Weisberg says. “I think that challenged him to think beyond his canned rhetoric and it gave the story more depth.

“I didn't just ask him questions or get information from him. We were two very disparate people having an interaction. There was give and take that provided dimensionality to the story. I was also able to tell Phelps how Dell thought about him – and vice versa – and record their responses to each other. I was able to show each man from the other's point of view.”

When Phelps came to Chicago and held a protest some months later, Weisberg showed up and introduced himself.

“He seemed to remember me,” Weisberg says. “In person, confronted by an overwhelming number of counter-demonstrators (his clan numbered fewer than a dozen, while the pro-gay faction numbered as many as 1,000), he was much harsher. In fact, he was furious and scary . . . .

“I remember him saying to me – out of nowhere – ‘You're dogs eating your own vomit.’ I think about that sometimes and wonder what he meant.”

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Jay_Warner Posted: 5/16/2012 12:11:36 AM
 0   0    

So where does that leave us, or equally important, where does that leave an editor, trying to set some sort of policy? 'Objectivity' was impossible in Selma, 1965. When Gandhi marched on the salt factories, objectivity was impossible for the reporters. When Gov. Walker, and/or the Republican Central Committee, calls me, an aging geezer, a "labor thug" for standing around the Capitol building, is 'objectivity' or neutrality possible? Maybe; nobody beat me up. When a Walker supporter refers to teachers as terrorists, must the reporter maintain 'objectivity' and neutrality? Or can they ask said supporter if we are to turn over our children to said terrorists each day? Certainly that's a reasonable question; a parent would want to know whether the implications of such a statement had been considered. I think we're looking at a continuum here, perhaps a continuum of starkness in values. Some people think the values demonstrated by Walker and friends are so extreme they can't be tolerated; others find them superlative. If the reporters can't reveal and express their opinions to some extent, we may wind up with newspapers touting the line most suited to the publisher's finances. Or the line most suited to the loudest whiners. I think it's time to push your thinking a little further, to see if you can find a place for a rationally opinionated reporter and editor.
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