When I was in my early twenties, I took a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in North Carolina. The publication covered the political and cultural happenings in a semi-rural county outside Chapel Hill, where I lived. I attended town council and school board meetings, church breakfasts and criminal trials. We’d print in-house mid-week and I’d help the entire team prepare the papers for delivery, sorting sections and stuffing them with advertorial inserts, our fingers black from the ink by day’s end.
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but now – in my late thirties and having kept up a freelance writing career in the years since – I recognize that the job gave me a real-world, thorough education, imparting more useful information than I might have learned had I chosen to go to journalism school.
I’ve been thinking about that job since Trump became the Republican candidate, and then our president. I’ve been strangely missing it, despite the fact that I swore I’d never write about zoning ordinances again. And I’ve been feeling defensive, too, as I watch the far-right vilify the mainstream media, calling out news outlets like CNN, The New York Times and many others as “fake news” on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Trump fans digest alt-right “alternative facts” – the inaugural crowd size, imagined voter fraud and unfounded wiretapping claims – with ease, under the subversive guidance of the new regime.
This not only scares me, it infuriates me. As much as my Democratic friends and I may disagree with them, Trump supporters have a right to admire and embrace his platform and decisions. I’ve gotten better than I used to be about accepting political opinions that differ from my own, admiring the swirling dissent and fiery passion that makes up this nation.
When they dismiss the hard work journalists do, however, my empathy disappears.
Once, when working at that reporting job, I wrote a story about a businessman in the community, accidentally exchanging his name for that of another resident who shared the same first name (and who did not have as good of a reputation). I don’t know how I let this mistake slip, but the intended subject of my story called to yell at me for a stinging ten minutes that I remember well to this day. There was no question in my mind that I deserved the scolding, if not the level of intensity.
I’ve gotten better than I used to be about accepting political opinions that differ from my own, admiring the swirling dissent and fiery passion that makes up this nation. When they dismiss the hard work journalists do, however, my empathy disappears.
Another time, I got the amount of a town’s budget deficit wrong, perhaps an even bigger mistake although less personal. Beyond the newspaper making a correction, I took time to apologize to the town manager, with whom I had a good relationship, one I worried would disappear following my error. After going through those motions, I still felt awful.
I’m not telling these stories to relive my youth or expose my sensitivities, but to point out that I remember these incidents – and a few others – because the necessary education I received on the job included learning that the facts were everything, and mistakes were taken seriously. I double-checked numbers and quotations, and took plenty of time with the weekly sheriff’s report, ensuring each surname and street name was spelled correctly, because it matters.
Editors at the papers I’ve worked with throughout my writing career have done the same, fact-checking my work at every turn, and asking questions; at bigger outlets, like the ones the president criticizes, the process is even more rigorous.
I was never a superstar reporter, or even sure what I’d do with the rest of my life, but delivering a respectable product when I filed my stories was important to me. Yes, because I didn’t want to get in trouble. Also, I knew that people depended on me and my coworkers to deliver their news, unsullied, non-opinionated and based on our very best efforts at research and clarity. Church breakfasts and criminal trials alike.
When the president cries “fake news” about legitimate news sources, in tweets or in person, it’s easy for me and many similarly-minded Dems to roll our eyes, text outrage to our friends and plan marches and phone calls to Congress. These public displays and calls to activism are important and I’m anxious to see what happens next, among protesters and in the Capitol.
It continues to plague me, however, even keeping me up at night (a foreign feeling as I have three young children and usually sleep like the dead). This growing sentiment on the right, equating unflattering news with lies while actual lies pass as the new world order, ingraining heightened fear and xenophobia in communities where these feelings could likely be softened through thoughtful dialogue.
Being a reporter taught me something else important: how to talk to people in difficult situations. I stopped individuals who wanted nothing to do with me for “on-the-street”-type interviews and questioned witnesses at drowning sites, a sad beat for me each summer when the nearby lake drew many boaters and amateur fishermen.
Questioning someone on their facts and beliefs when they’re going to flat out refute you is difficult. I know the reporters at trustworthy news outlets won’t back down from the conversation with the president and his team in the briefing room and beyond. But the rest of us bear responsibility as well, and what I hope will happen on both sides of the aisle is that we begin emulate their persistence in smaller, offline venues, where talk can really make a difference: the town halls, back yards and school fundraisers that populate our lives.
I hope that Trump supporters and Trump resisters will ask each other the difficult questions that the mainstream news has been wisely asking all along. “Where did you hear that?” and “Why?” and “What else?” Then, like good reporters do, we’ll stop a beat, and listen.