Support the Bill of Rights — all of them

One of the neat things about the Constitution is its durability and steadfastness. You don’t look at the Bill of Right and decide that one is more important than the other. States can’t pick and choose parts of it they want to follow or ignore, even though they occasionally do. When there is conflict, well, that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court is for.

That was my thinking when I read about the hubbub caused by the posting on WRAL’s site of a search form to find people with conceal-carry handgun permits. The permits are public records, and, like marriage licenses, divorces, birth certificates, criminal records and land transfers, they are available to anyone who wants to see them.

Of all of those public records, which are the most private? The birth of a child? A failed marriage? Nope. Gun ownership. At least it is based on the uproar about making the records easy to find. There’s something about guns that gets people going. (Thank you, NRA.)

The WRAL action making concealed-carry permits easy to search has caused some to criticize the TV station, saying the action is an invasion of privacy and could endanger the lives of lawful, gun-owning citizens. I haven’t seen any evidence that such availability of public records endangers lives, but I suspect it is possible that lives are endangered whenever at least one party has access to a handgun.

One blogger — anonymous, of course — personalized it with a blog post titled “First Blood,” that calls out Mark Binker, the writer of the news story on the growth of concealed-carry permits. I know Mark Binker. He used to work for me. I doubt he is bothered one way or the other by any backwash in the publication of the search tool.

I won’t weigh in on WRAL’s motivations. As a First Amendment advocate, I think public records means records are public. They should be easy to get to. If someone wants to make them searchable, that’s the way of the world these days. Why, there are tabloids that print the names and photos of everyone who has been arrested. That’s certainly an invasion, too. It may not be nice, but it’s legal.

It is ironic, though, that staunch defenders of the Second Amendment have trouble defending the First Amendment.

Update: Another site — I’m not going to link to it — writes a bio of Binker culled from information in the public domain and encourages its readers to contact him politely and let him know their disappointment that the station published the search tool. It’s a fascinating ethical question that I’m sure doesn’t occur to the site’s writer — again anonymous.

You object to putting public information out in the public. You think it is wrong and dangerous. As a result, you do the exact same thing and go a step further by encouraging people to take action by contacting someone?

Your tax dollars at work

Mark Binker, capital reporter for the News & Record, tells of a visit to his home by the FBI.

She explained that she was doing outreach, particularly in advance of the big national convention coming here.

She said I should feel free to let her know about anything that concerned me.

I asked what sort of thing would concern me that I would call her about.

“That would be your determination, not mine,” she said.

Mark is a conscientious, law-abiding citizen. He’s also a journalist, which means he’s an independent-minded cuss. My guess is that the FBI will learn what Mark knows when they read it on his blog or in the paper.

P.S. I am one of the friends Mark consulted on the normalcy of an FBI visit.

Godspeed, Mark Binker

Mark Binker, one of the best political reporters in the state, is leaving the News & Record after 12 years to join WRAL in Raleigh. He joins Laura Leslie to give WRAL one helluva capital reporting team. Mark will be a multimedia investigative reporter there.

Fiona Morgan and I were speaking to Andy Bechtel ‘s Advanced Editing class at UNC a few weeks ago, and we started talking about state government coverage. “Mark Binker is a rock star,” Andy or Fiona said. Maybe it was both of them.

Mark is a truth-telling rabble rouser. He doesn’t care if he’s talking to the governor, the senator or his editor. He’s going to ask the questions he wants to ask and point out the inconsistencies and contradictions until he gets what he wants. I know; I’ve been on the receiving end. He’s exactly the kind of journalist every reporter should aspire to be.


The View from Nowhere and editorial pages

I have always been puzzled by some people who have strong, consistent opinions about issues of the day but don’t believe that editorial pages should have the same. Despite explanations to the contrary, some true believers insist that editorial pages should be unbiased. At first, I thought they were being disingenuous or close minded. Now I think it is just that they don’t buy what editorial pages do. In a interesting way, it supports Jay Rosen’s case of the damaging effects of the View from Nowhere. And it gives editorial pages an opportunity for more transparency.

This attitude became a little clearer to me after an exchange on Facebook yesterday with Marcus Kindley, former Guilford County Republican Party chairman. The issue came up at Mark Binker’s FB page and concerned House Speaker Thom Tillis canceling his subscription to the Charlotte Observer because it was too liberal. (I have edited our exchange slightly to eliminate asides. I have not changed any spelling, sentence structure or punctuation.)

Marcus: “what I’ve always found disturbing is that, yes a newspaper in NC might say yes for 140 years the Democrats played dirty tricks time and again, with the lottery, the budget, appointments, campaign contributions etc. but come election time they endorese the Democrats Time and again. so the reporting means squat if they haven’t the integrity to endorse someone else. Just watch this coming year and they’ll all fall in line at the editorial board to endorse the Dems, unless the Republican has no chance of losing or does not have an opponent.”

Me: “Just for the sake of discussion, Marcus, have you ever supported a Democrat? Editorial pages are like individuals. They have fundamental principles on which they base their support of candidates. It isn’t surprisingly that they tend to support one side more consistently than another, just like individuals.”

Marcus: “With the premise you put forward the paper should not present itself as a NEWS organization, but a mouthpiece for their own Political agenda. And they should change their name to: We are the propaganda wing of the NC Democrat Party, just for truth’s sake, but alas that would take courage and honor. As far as supporting a Democrat I haven’t found one worthy of my support in recent history…. Just to be clear John, as I understand you to say, the editorial Board is not unbiased and therefore we all should look at it’s comments with suspicion of the truth being ….. left out if it doesn’t fit their narrative.”

Me: Let me be clear, too. The editorial board is responsible for the editorial pages. That’s it. So, your assumption that it governs the entire paper is not correct. Editorial pages, by definition, are opinion. Let me turn the rest of your comments around. Are you saying that we all should consider your opinion with suspicion of truth being…left out if it doesn’t fit your narrative? I would assume the answer is no. At least I hope so. The same is true of editorial pages.”

Marcus: “John, I don’t hold myself out as the  Holy Grail of Truth, but in answer to your question, I don’t hide behind ” Jouralism” in my opinions. I state my beliefs and all know where I stand, in my opinion the editorial board endeavors to give the impression that they are the aribrators of truth an all should bow down to their declarations from on high…Why not try this on the editorial page, with each printing… We represent the Progressive Liberial Opinion of the Democrat Party on this page. At least then the casual observer will know where you are coming from, from the get go.”

Me: “I believe that editorial pages do just what you say at the beginning of your comment. I think they state their beliefs and people know where they stand on whatever issue they are opining on. Unlike you, they don’t represent one political belief system, which is where we differ, I suppose. I have seen editorial boards oppose tax increases and support Republicans. As a reader of the N&R, you have, too.”

When they are at their best, I think editorial boards do what Rosen describes later:

For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you?

And Kindley has a point, I think. Editorial boards need to fly their political colors higher so that readers know what they value, how their opinions are formed and from where their authority comes. The alternative is that readers will assume Kindley’s position or worse. 

“Life is not an audition, and neither is our work”

In the comments of this post, Jay Rosen asked: A related factor is: what is the style of reporting you want to be doing if you are just passing through on your way to some place more cosmopolitan?  If you see your performance in Anytown, USA as an extended audition for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post, then you will try to do Inquirer journalism in Greensboro. But maybe that’s not what Greensboro needs. In any case, you can see how this could lead to homogenization.

It interested me because I think it based on an outdated premise. Fifteen years ago, yes. Reporters — all journalists — who were ambitious and wanted to work at large papers set their sights high. But in the past five years, at least, most of the reporters leaving Greensboro — and I think the other medium-sized newspapers in North Carolina — are leaving the business entirely. You all know the reasons why.

One of them is that jobs at large papers have dried up. And in a real sense, it’s not safe to aspire to work at the largest papers in the country. The Chicago Tribune? The Philadelphia Inquirer? The L.A. Times? They’re all laying off people, or are taking dubious journalistic steps, or are struggling mightily. And if you do get on at one of the large papers, you’ve hung a big target on your back. Reporter FIFO.

Mid-size papers prize large J journalism and small j journalism. They want the same stories that the Washington Post wants, and the same ones that the community weekly wants. What they don’t want — or shouldn’t want, to be more precise — are the stories that everyone else is doing. In days gone by, reporters in Greensboro wanted to go on the presidential political campaign trail, wanted to go to Iraq during the war, wanted to go to the NCAA Final Four even if a local team wasn’t playing, and wanted to travel to Augusta during Masters week. We sent them, too. (Well, not to Iraq.) We sent them because it was fun to compete with the big dogs and it was a reward for the reporter. And no question, in some cases the reporters wanted to go because it made for good clips for their next career stop. I’m sure that some reporters who wanted to move to big-city papers did swing for the fences every time they came up when they should have been hitting singles, doubles and hit-and-runs.

But those were the old days when there were more reporters and more money. Did the readers care that a local reporter was in Augusta or Des Moines reporting a national story? Not that I’ve ever been told. But those were the days when we didn’t think we had to worry about “our” newspaper becoming “the” newspaper to readers. We were ignorant and prideful, no question.

But what do I know? I asked Jay’s question of a couple reporters at the News & Record who are top drawer, ambitious and certainly qualified to move to larger papers. Their answers are what you might expect them to say. But I know them well enough to know they aren’t blowing smoke.

From Mark Binker, who has covered the state capital for the News & Record for a long time:

So what Rosen is really asking is that if I, as someone who is entrusted with the job of covering state government and politics for the News & Record, would be doing something differently if my ultimate career ambition is to be at a bigger paper. 

The answer is no. The further answer is my editors should fire my ass posthaste if the answer were yes. Why would I want to be the kind of person (or employ the kind of person) who sacrifices the broader good for my personal goals?

I do the job I do because as far as I can figure it’s the right way to do it. Yeah, I do some goofy and lighthearted stuff. That’s my byline on a weather story in today’s paper….

But I also have been involved in helping to show the odd public official the way out of office. People in my readership, including some of those involved, learned about the state legislature redrawing county commissioner lines on the sly from my reporting. I’ve tracked down the governor to ask her what the heck she meant by “suspending elections.”

Further, who else other than my colleagues Joe (Killian) and Amanda (Lehmert) are watching the Guilford County and Greensboro City governments with a dogged an impartial eye? Are you telling me the work that Taft (Wireback) has done bird-dogging scandals and transportation issues isn’t of value to everyone in our community, not just those who happen to take the paper?

In short, our work here is an important and impactful as if it would be if I were doing it for a big city paper. In fact, the job of state house reporters in general and local newspapers like the N+R is all the more important because there are fewer of us doing it. Everybody is covering the presidential race and the machinations in Congress, but hardly anyone pays attention to the state political scene where decisions much closer to the quick are made.

So no, we do what we do because it’s important, because this is where we want to be, at least for the moment. Life is not an audition, and neither is our work.

Joe Killian, who covers county government:

I think a demonstrable ability to do really good news features may more marketable than really good beat reporting. To write a great news feature you have to get into the subjects’ lives, get things out of them they may never have said to other people (or anyone at all) and you have to be able to craft a good story with what you get.

Those are all things you have to be able to do as a beat reporter, too. But some of the work that it takes to be a good beat reporter – developing relationships with people who may never end up in your stories, but will still be invaluable to finding and getting your stories – is very hard to demonstrate to a potential employer through clips. If you’re a good beat reporter it should look like big stories – Mark Binker’s pieces about the ABC board, for instance, or my revelation that Guilford County paid $47,000 for a website that was never finished and getting the first interview with the guy they hired – just came out of nowhere and you were there to write them. No one sees – and it can be difficult to shine a light on – the hard work it takes to build a network of people who trust you and respect your work, and therefore will feed you information or have conversations with you in which they might not even knowthey’ve given you a killer story idea.

I asked Jeri Rowe what he thought about this, though. As a former beat reporter turned feature writer turned award winning columnist, he said he thinks demonstrating versatility is important. He said you need to have a grounding in beat reporting, demonstrate you can really write through good features and alsoshow them you can do multimedia/web journalism.

Couldn’t agree more with him on the multimedia thing — although as resources grow more slim most young reporters are probably going to have to do that on their own time and their own resources (including social media, which doesn’t cost their newsrooms anything).

Although he points out, and I agree, that going somewhere bigger isn’t necessarily the answer if your goal is to do stories about which you’re passionate and to make a difference in your community. That’s about finding the right fit, whatever the size of your publication or audience.

Personally, my advice to reporters looking to “move up” has been simple.

* Learn everything you can about digital. Make sure your digital footprint is large — blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Show you have skills. Link out on your blog. Curate on Facebook. Be smart on Twitter.

* Write every type of story you can. No experience is a bad experience. Who knows what will catch another editor’s eye. I came to the News & Record to interview for a reporting job. It wasn’t until I got home that they called and offered an editing job.

* Attitude is vital. The HR people cringe when I said it, but my whole role in the interview process was to judge organizational fit. I wanted someone who could do every type of reporting and writing and would be happy doing it. I wanted someone who was a lifelong learner. And I wanted someone who was open-minded to try stuff, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense.