I voted then & now

I was a journalist for 37 years and I covered elections as a reporter — including George Wallace briefly — and later I directed political coverage as an editor. I also voted every chance I got.

I’m proud of it.

This issue comes up because the New York Times published a piece on how its political reporters attempt to remain impartial during election season. Peter Baker, its chief White House correspondent, said: “As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any non-journalism organization, I don’t support any candidate, I don’t give money to interest groups and I don’t vote.”

I have always been a Democrat, although once I became editor, the publisher told me to re-register as an Independent. (I didn’t do it.) I didn’t want to give anyone the impression that I was campaigning so I never gave money to an interest group or political candidate. I did not put up any yard signs in support of any candidate or issue.

But I did vote.

I’ve always had opinions, and it would be silly to suggest that I didn’t. I didn’t think that was enough to disqualify me from voting or doing my job, for that matter.

Michael Kinsley addressed this 20 years ago.

Eric Wemple at the Washington Post quoted U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson – referring to a juror that President Trump tweeted as biased – as saying, “Having an opinion about the president and some or even all his policies does not mean that she couldn’t fairly or impartially judge the evidence against Roger Stone.”

That’s the way I feel about voting.

Sunday sampler

It’s pretty much all-election, all the time on the front pages of today’s newspapers.

Burlington: Professional baseball in Burlington is in danger, and now its baseball operations has changed hands. And the new operator wants to keep baseball in Burlington, the Times-News reports. “The transaction comes at a time of much angst in the minor leagues, and in Burlington in particular. The local team is one of 42 listed for contraction in a much-debated plan by Major League Baseball to reduce farm teams after the 2020 season.”

Raleigh: Election time and African American voters are getting all kinds of love from the presidential candidates, the N&O reports. And they’re promising big money to historically black colleges and universities, of which N.C. has 11. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as many candidates, the ones who are still in it, making that big a focal point because they understand the power of the African-American vote, which is very, very important,” said Harry L. Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a member organization for historically black colleges.

Greensboro: I’m not sure I remember the story of Eugene Hairston, and that embarrasses me. A black teenager, he was lynched by a mob in 1887 in the town I live in. The News & Record reports that a group wants to create a monument to acknowledge what happened as a way to confront the legacy of racial terrorism.


An argument for newspaper endorsements (again)

In preparation to vote in the primary, I spent part of this morning reading newspaper editorial endorsements. Oh, I’m pretty sure I know who I plan to vote for for president, but that’s not the only primary election on the ballot. I also can select a U.S. House member, Council of State candidates and judges. And I gotta tell you: I need help making an informed choice there.

That’s where the newspaper editorials come in. I’ve read my local paper and the editorial pages of other papers enough to know that they take thoughtful stands on the issues. I know that their writers have either interviewed the candidates and/or studied their positions and their track records. I know they deliberate over their endorsements because I’ve participated in some of them.

They take their endorsements seriously.

So, when I read this morning that the Arizona Republic editorial board announced it would no longer endorse candidates, I shook my head.

“Modern readers are changing how they get their news and what they expect from it. They’ve told us in focus groups, surveys and by their online reading habits that they want news and opinion more relevant to the way they live their lives. What they don’t want is another media kingmaker.”

OK, I can understand that in the presidential race; don’t agree with it, but understand it. But the ballot is filled with choices. Most every day — less often than before — editorial pages offer opinions on the issues to help readers sort through their own positions. Now a newspaper will do that on issues that affect readers’ lives, but stop short of helping them decide on candidates whose actions will certainly affect readers’ lives? Doesn’t make sense to me.

I tried to research down-ballot candidates without using editorials. Straight news coverage tended to deal primarily with biographical information and bland quotes on positions. Candidate websites were almost all general policy positions that everyone could agree on.

It becomes a guessing game. (Yes, I know the tired refrain: “I like endorsements because when you endorse someone I know to vote for the other guy.”)

And I’m a regular consumer of news. I pay attention. I want to be informed. Now, imagine people whose lives are filled with, well, the demands of life and don’t have much time to keep up with candidate positions. What do they do when they go into the election booth? How do they choose between this lawyer seeking a judgeship or that lawyer? This candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction who is a former teacher or the other who is a former teacher?

In a way, the Republic actually argues in favor of endorsements as they argue against it: “You need information to understand your community, to seize its opportunities and help solve its problems. In a democracy, newspapers are your eyes and ears on government, courts, police departments, public schools, anywhere the people’s business is conducted. The information we bring you is essential to holding your government accountable.”

Editorial pages want a robust discussion of the issues, and newspapers want a robust democracy. Endorsements aid that.


David Zucchino and ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay earth like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads. The men scanned the sidewalks and alleyways for targets. They wore red calico shirts or short red jackets over white butterfly collars. They were workingmen, with callused hands and sunburned faces beneath their wide-brimmed hats. Many of them had tucked their trousers into their boottops and tied cartridge belts around their waists. A few wore neckties. Each one carried a gun.”

That is the opening paragraph of “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the New York Times. (And a Durham resident, UNC grad and N&O alum.) It tells the true story of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. It was a violent coup, actually, by the white power structure over a functioning, multi-diverse city government.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Zucchino returned to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media yesterday to talk about his book with 250 or so students and visitors. He kept us spellbound with this story, which many of us — me included — didn’t know much about. Here is a video of his talk. I grew up in Tulsa, which had its own racist massacre in 1921.

One of the advantages of teaching at Chapel Hill is access to interesting speakers. Zucchino’s talk was free and open to the public. I didn’t know Zucchino at the N&O; he left for the Philadelphia Inquirer the year before I arrived. But his reputation as a reporter and writer was already established. My wife worked with him at the N&O, and we spent some time with him years ago when we were traveling through Philly. So, I’ve followed his work — primarily through his journalism as he’s reported from the Middle East. He’s a master storyteller.

He told me yesterday that he’s itching to get back to Afghanistan, which is his “beat.” There are stories to be told; there are always stories to be told.


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O publishes a story from the Observer about the meaning of political parties in the presidential race. Sanders, Bloomberg and Trump have all taken zigzagging political paths. “Political parties, in recent years, have become takeover targets for moguls and ideologues looking for vehicles to accelerate their ambitions and agendas. These candidates’ policy positions don’t always match up with the parties’ historical stands on issues. But they gain entrance — and sometimes control — because they have something the parties want.”

Charlotte: Apparently there is a a new system for distributing donated livers that some people fear could cost the lives of people awaiting transplants. The proponents of the new system believe it will save more lives. The Observer explains. “There’s little question that the new system will mean a change for patients in the Carolinas. Statistical modeling has shown that under the new system, patients here will typically be sicker before they get a liver transplant.”

Online harassment? Here’s what’ll help

“Lisa Wilson was just looking for some good news to write about when she posted an inquiry to a local Facebook ask-and-answer group.

“You always hear people saying, ‘Why don’t you ever write any good news?’ and that’s what I was trying to do,” said Wilson, a reporter with The Island Packet in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and The Beaufort Gazette in Beaufort, South Carolina.

But what she got were angry comments from readers frustrated with the local paper’s recent implementation of a paywall on their website.”

Every journalist has a story like that.

Now, my former colleague and friend Andrea Martin is published on Poynter today with a piece about dealing with hostile online comments. Andrea, who surveyed local newspaper journalists as part of her master’s thesis at UNC-Chapel Hill, pulled together three good recommendations for newspaper managers. I wish I had known them when I was an editor. Here’s why:

“Local newspaper journalists who participated in the study said they are beginning to feel indifferent about their roles, are already stretched thin, and are frustrated by a lack of support and guidance on how to handle online incivility. They avoid reporting on certain stories or ask to switch beats, and in some cases leave the industry entirely.”

Returning to the View from Nowhere

I retired from journalism eight years ago. I’m an American citizen. That gives me the right to express any opinion I want, including endorsing whomever I please for president.

So what to make of this column that argues that someone out of journalism shouldn’t express a political opinion because it might damage media credibility? In this case, the writer at Poynter argues that Sam Donaldson, who is 85, should not have endorsed a presidential candidate.

“Donaldson is free to do as he pleases, but it’s disappointing and damaging that he felt his endorsement of a presidential candidate was more important than preserving the integrity of the institution that he served so well for most of his life,” Tom Jones writes.

I suppose this espousal of the “View from Nowhere” is a perfectly reasonable position…for someone stuck in the 20th century.

Jay Rosen started writing about journalism’s use of the View from Nowhere back in 2003. “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it,” he writes in a 2010 Q&A.

I express opinions here and on social media. Regular readers know where I stand politically. Do News & Record readers now think, “Oh, no! I wondered if the paper was biased, and now I know for sure! I’m not going to trust the paper any more!” I doubt it. Put aside, for a moment, the fact that the paper has had three editors and three owners since I left it. (Also put aside the fact that 99.9 percent of News & Record readers don’t read this blog.)

Jay again: “In the old way, one says: ‘I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…’ 

“In the newer way, the logic is different. ‘Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…’

“If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.”

Read the whole Q&A. It’s worth it. 

In fact, I was a View from Nowhere follower during most of the time I was the editor. I didn’t advocate it so much as I was simply passive about its use. But as I and the staff began blogging and as we all became more comfortable casting off the institutional voice and speaking like humans, my mind began to change. Toward the end of my time, I began arguing – unsuccessfully – to put editorials on the front page.

Before I was the editor of the News & Record, I was the editor of the editorial pages. We wrote editorials every day, taking positions that, most of the time, were progressive. Before I was appointed editor, the publisher and I had a brief conversation about the perception of our editorial position affecting our news coverage. He said something like this: “Be tough, be fair and you’ll be fine.”

And I don’t remember any reader raising the issue about my background.

Sunday sampler

Wilmington: You know that Ring doorbell that takes video of people on your porch and front yard helps fight crime, too, right? The Star-News describes how police in Wilmington use it, and the controversy over whether it is an invasion of privacy. And how it’s another piece of a growing collection of technology cops use: “With Ring, officers can register the time and location of a suspect who walked past the camera, as well as his face, and employ the StingRay to track his phone number and travel patterns. From there, it can gather aerial imagery of his whereabouts and movements with SABLE.”

Carteret: We all kind of know that after a disaster, such as a hurricane, all kinds of conmen come out to rip people off. The News-Times tells how it happened in Carteret County. “The first contractors the McInernys asked to repair their home began evading the couple when Ms. McInerny requested documentation – required by their bank for insurance purposes – proving they were licensed and insured contractors. The contractors continued to attempt to avoid the couple even after Ms. McInerny ran into one of the men at a hardware store.”

Charlotte: Will black voters get behind a new candidate to take on Trump if Biden falters? That’s the headline in the Observer, and it’s a key question for Democrats in North Carolina and South Carolina. Tim Funk of the Observer outlines the possiblities.

Raleigh: Robyn Tomlin takes the front page to explain what McClatchy’s filing for bankruptcy means to the paper’s readers. Explaining your company’s financial situation is tough; I know, I’ve tried to do it back in the day. Robyn does it well. “While the bankruptcy filing this week has no effective or immediate impact on our staff, our readers or relationships with our advertisers, it is important to note that there’s a lot at stake here. We take our Constitutionally protected responsibility to inform our communities and produce journalism that holds power to account to heart, each and every day.”

Journalism: When the tough get roughed

A reporter friend of mine was shoved by a volunteer at a Bernie rally today, and it left her unsettled and angry. It reminded me of the time that Joe Killian, who was a reporter at the News & Record, was shoved to the ground at a 2008 Sarah Palin rally in Elon.

Joe wrote about it at the time on his blog.

I sidled up to one of the Obama supporters and asked why they were there, what they were trying to accomplish. As he was telling me a large, bearded man in full McCain-Palin campaign regalia got in his face to yell at him.

“Hey, hey, ” I said. “I’m trying to interview him. Just a minute, okay? “

The man began to say something about how of course I was interviewing the Obama people when suddenly, from behind us, the sound of a pro-Obama rap song came blaring out of the windows of a dorm building. We all turned our heads to see Obama signs in the windows.

This was met with curses, screams and chants of “U.S.A” by McCain-Palin folks who crowded under the windows trying to drown it out and yell at the person playing the stereo.

It was a moment of levity in an otherwise very tense situation and so I let out a gentle chuckle and shook my head.

“Oh, you think that ‘s funny?! ” the large bearded man said. His face was turning red. “Yeah, that ‘s real funny…” he said.

And then he kicked the back of leg, buckling my right knee and sending me sprawling onto the ground.

(This is from a post at the Daily Kos because I can’t get to Joe’s post. Read the whole thing there.)

I asked Joe about it today. He still wonders if he should have tried to get the guy arrested, but he didn’t then because the guy had vanished into the crowd, and Joe knew that Palin was the story, not some reporter. Even so, he was harassed by people who read his account for weeks afterward. Some suggested he deserved it; others think he made it up.

“Threats I’d have shrugged off or laughed about in the mid 2000s now make me really take caution and watch my step,” Joe said today. “Political rallies, particularly, feel like potentially dangerous places.”

That’s coming from a guy who was arrested in 2016 in the legislative building as he was trying to do his job as a reporter during a protest.

The late Mark Binker wrote this about the Palin incident:
After today I’m wondering – and this is just wondering at this point – whether Republicans aren’t in some respect giving their supporters license for this sort of crap. If the story you peddle is that your guys are the good guys and all those who stand against them are the bad guys, and the “liberal media” is in that second column, might there be a message there – even if it is one that is misconstrued and carried to a stupid extreme in some cases?
He wrote that in 2008.

“Never accept all the edits”

When editing one of my student’s stories last week, I rearranged the sentences in a paragraph to make it clearer. Or so I thought. Knowing that some editor’s changes are really just fiddling around, I left a note explaining what I did, and added: “We can change it back, if you like.”

She responded: “As for the sentence rearrangement in the intro, I’ll do whatever you think is best. You’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have.”

True, but many times that simply means I’m older. (A lot older, but that’s irrelevant.)

My response to her: “I’m going to teach you two lessons right here and this alone will be the worth of the semester:
“First, editors aren’t always right. I’d say, maybe 75 percent of the time with the good ones. If you get one who thinks he — they’re almost always male — is right 100 percent of the time, start looking for a new job because he’s an asshole and will eventually treat you poorly. You want an editor who will listen to you.
“Second, as you know, I teach that intelligent readers react differently to a story. Neither is wrong. They just have differing viewpoints and appreciations. So, you could be right in how you wrote a phrase or a sentence or a paragraph or a story. If you like what you have, say so. If I feel strongly that you’re wrong, I’ll tell you and we’ll talk it out. But it’s your story, not mine. Your name goes on it and I want you to be proud of it.
“This isn’t just me. This really is the way of the world in journalism. At least with good editors.”