One needs a somewhat thick skin to work in either print or politics. Former Spirit Lake Beacon Editor Abraham Funk worked in both fields during the late 1800s, so I imagine his skin was as thick as the beard he sported in those days. But in both occupations, there sometimes arises the need to challenge the implication that one is lacking in moral fiber, commitment and professionalism. The recent penning of such implications by one of Iowa's state legislators has made for such a time.
"Local news is often the closest to fair and honest reporting that we can get," State Rep. John Wills told constituents this week, while generalizing members of the media in his defense of recent voting law changes in Georgia.
I don't intend to attack Rep. Wills with this rebuttal. Quite the opposite. I believe I understand what he was getting at, and I want to help his broader point across the finish line. But to get there, the first step is to correct his statement about local news. The staff of this local newspaper aren't the closest thing to fair and honest reporting our community can get. We are fair and honest.
We print the bad and the good from this community as we have for more than 150 years. We write features on the achievements and hopeful high points in our community. We write articles on various crimes and unexpected deaths that happen here too. We print the comedy and the tragedy, and we do it by conveying the words of others rather than our own point of view — save for opinion content such as this.
That's a small but critical distinction.
I'll give our representative the benefit of the doubt, and assume he intended his criticisms for specific, large media corporations — the cable news talk shows for example — though this isn't the first time he has generalized "the media" to the disappointment of the local news staff. I would assume Rep. Wills did not truly intend to imply this newspaper and others like it are simply a lesser degree of the televised shouting matches constantly on display in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
If Rep. Wills' words were taken at face value, it would mean our coverage of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst's July visit to Lakes Regional Healthcare — which Wills attended — was less than honest. It would mean our reporting on an award given to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley during his August visit to Milford — which Wills also attended — was unfair in some way. It would mean anything this staff writes is at least somewhat suspect in his view — be it a local house fire, the retirement of the most senior county supervisor or a historical look at the Spirit Lake VFW's namesake. I'm sure that's not what Rep. Wills meant, but it is what he wrote.
This isn't to say the newspaper isn't without its fair share of mistakes. However, the mark of a good newspaper is that it admits to its errors, publishes corrections and keeps whatever opinions or causes its staff may hold dear consistently confined to the corners of the opinion page. But, in my experience, when folks cite bias in the ever-nebulous "media," they're most often talking about those who do just the opposite — who aren't interested in reporting so much as railing, who don't report the news but merely howl about the news others already reported. And, dear readers, it's important to know which is which.
Too many of us don't know what we're consuming anymore when it comes to news — a point which I think overlaps with what Rep. Wills was trying to get at.
As I said, news is the conveyance of someone else's words — not the opinion of the reporter — but some of us have come to believe news is anything spouted by a well-dressed person sitting behind a snappy-looking desk. The thing is, it's pretty easy to wrap opinion in the typical trappings of news and pass it off as such — it's called news commentary. I'll agree with Rep. Wills and say many in the news commentary business have shown themselves to be unreliable and biased but, by the same token, they're not news reporters. They're commentators.
I compare it to how watermelon-flavored candy stacks up to an actual watermelon — the real deal doesn't have much in common with its sugary counterpart when we stop and think about it. I'll put some extra emphasis on the idea of thinking about it. Obviously, the candy is sweeter. It's more popular. It's easier to carry around all day. But many seem to be unaware of which one they are eating, or they've simply stopped caring — so long as it tastes good.
And with that kind of demand, the market has indeed been flooded with watermelon-candy commentators wrapped up in sleek suits and disguised with snappy-looking sets to assure us they're providing news rather than speaking their opinions. They're on our TVs, they're in our palms, they've even been made into bite-sized clips and pictures on social media so our brains can pop a few whenever we get a little peckish. And after gorging ourselves on a steady stream of watermelon-candy commentary for years, the disturbing thing is that many folks now find a slice of actual watermelon appalling to their senses. Without the sugary pucker of someone telling us what we hope to hear, true news reporting is deemed indigestible and tossed to the side — and, ironically, sometimes labeled as fake. We prefer the sugar high of artificial flavoring to the genuine article (pun intended). We want the instant gratification of wrapper-clad sweets rather than actual, fruitful news which takes time to cultivate.
And if we're only eating sweets, we aren't going to grow as a people.
Your local news isn't falling short of the mark. It is fair an honest, just as it should be. And without fair and honest reporting like ours, there will be no stories for the bellowing watermelon candies to distill into syrup and use to bait us into whipping ourselves into a frenzy. Your local newspaper is better than that, and I say that without reservation. We have a purpose and a calling in our role of informing this community, and it's one we take quite seriously — as any good reporter or representative does.
"I will tell you the truth always," Rep. Wills wrote earlier this year. "You may not like it, but it will be the truth."
It's a good motto in both print and politics. On that, I'm sure we can all agree.