Log Cabin Chronicles

How not to make friends, influence people, get rich, or win ~ be a journalist

John Mahoney


It's clear after a lifetime of reporting that while you may influence a few people on some issues, it's no way to make friends or retain the few you have.

Any newsman who strives to be a fair witness, to write even-handed, stories replete with the obvious "facts" and the not-so-obvious background details, is going to alienate half of his readership on any given controversial issue.

If you work at your trade long enough and aren't a complete weenie, sooner or later you'll write about enough local issues to piss off everyone you know.

There's no escape, short of backing off and only reporting "good news" and always being "positive."

And there's no dodging the reality of social pressure for self-censorship in a small town or rural community: "Either you're with me or you're against me or at least shut your mouth about it" is the operational ethic. Friendships can hang in the balance...

What is the role of a reporter, especially one involved in community journalism where the mayor, councilors, and the president of the Chamber of Commerce may be friends or neighbors?

Certainly it is not to act as a conduit for mayor and council, their private pipeline to the taxpaying voters through which they push their sanitized version of the "truth" arrived at only after hours of deliberation in secret meetings conveniently labeled "work sessions?"

And neither is it to be cheerleader for the local Babbitts, braying loudly for each new government-funded make-work project while staying mum about the flaws in the community that need fixing for fear of giving offense or "making the town look bad."

The streets may be dirty, the buildings shabby, unemployment endemic, and there may be little kids going to school without breakfast but for God's sake don't put that in the paper, or on-line. It's so...negative.

No one - reporter, mayor, councilor, businessman, educator - is infallible. None of us have a lock on the so-called truth.

I've never met a single politician - local mayor, state governor, U.S. president - whom I believed to have been anointed by God to pass along the revealed truth, uncommented upon.

However, some do act from time to time as if they believe they are divinely inspired and their position on any given issue is The Word revealed.

All opponents, of course, are liars and evildoers bent on nothing less than wholesale destruction of the community.

To write it any other way is to be "negative" or, at the very least, "not positive."

It's part and parcel of today's Culture of Complaint where everyone, especially those who see themselves in charge, is a victim.

There always has been press bashing - it's called killing the messenger. Community newspapers are often subjected to pressure from business interests and politicians to get with the program, to get on board, to be team players. To be "positive" for the greater good community good.

Lapdog journalism -- that's not the proper role of a community newspaper.

The press and government, by their very natures, have an adversarial relationship. And that is very healthy, indeed. It's needed to insure accountability and honesty in the conduct of public affairs.

Politicians and bureaucrats, despite professing the ideals of democracy, transparency, and open government, do their best to present themselves and their actions in the best possible light - even if that means subterfuge, distortion, and misrepresentation. Or, sometimes, outright lies.

Yes, a community newspaper has a responsibility to cover "good news" stories, public and private success stories -- they're an essential part of the fabric of the life of the town and they make good reading.

But the local editor also has the obligation to report on the negative stories that are an equal part of community life.

And when it comes to council doings - how residents' taxes are spent, bylaws that are or are not enacted - the obligation is serious to not only report the public actions of council, but what went on behind the scenes to arrive at a given decision.

This is the part of the job where you piss people off.

It's the reporting of covert actions by politicians, or apparent conflicts of interests, or discussing in print some heavy baggage from the past that can alienate, embarrass, and irritate.

This is followed by public and private badmouthing which sometimes leads to serious attempts to whiplash the editor into line by real or implied threats of economic blackmail - canceling or non-renewal of subscriptions, pulling advertising.

Any community newspaper publisher committed to doing the job right has been subjected to this.

If journalism is your calling there's nothing to be done except keep on playing it straight down the middle, be honest, and don't back off. You won't win any popularity contests, of course, and don't plan on making a whole lot of friends amongst those who would call the shots...

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Copyright © 1999 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/10.99