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Say it loud / May 02, 2018
Um, I’m beginning to wonder about this whole “news” thing. Did you catch the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner, featuring the comedian that everyone — generally speaking, this roughly translates to “meaning no one you know” — is talking about? Michelle Wolf, a regular on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” served up an after-dinner roast that put characters such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway and other Trump faves on a very sharp spit. I watched Wolf’s Saturday night speech the day after on my phone. Her delivery struck me as a tad uneven but many (if not most) of her jokes were hilarious. Washington was scandalized. Why?

In our present era, telling the truth is apparently an apology-inducing event. “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” wrote Margaret Talev, a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and head of the WHCA, after controversy broke out over Wolf’s routine. This statement begs the question: What the hell is wrong with the leadership of the WHCA? Instead of following Talev’s directive — wouldn’t want to be divisive, right? — Wolf spent her time at the dais ripping (rather cleverly, in my opinion) Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders as a brazen liar — a fact-based critique — and shaming the national press for its sundry failures as anointed truth-tellers of the Republic. The routine stung for good reason. If you haven’t seen it, you probably should.

(Be forewarned, Wolf told an abortion joke that was certainly in bad taste, although the whole point was to draw attention to the hypocrisy of so-called right-to-life conservatives who finance their mistresses’ abortions; this actually happened with Elliott Broidy, national deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a close Trump ally, who was revealed by the Wall Street Journal to have paid $1.6 million to his mistress, a Playboy bunny, after she became pregnant. The deal bought the woman’s silence and more: “She alone decided that she did not want to continue with the pregnancy, and I offered to help her financially during this difficult period,” Broidy said in a statement once his odious conduct was exposed. Remind me again: which of these characters — Michelle Wolf or the people who were the butt of her jokes — has trashed basic standards of personal decency?)

Don’t get me wrong. I think many reporters are doing a fantastic job from their rarified D.C. perches. (I certainly don’t envy the poor schmoes who are stuck on the 5 a.m. Trump Twitter beat.) And Wolf’s comedy routine could have accorded a teensy bit of credit to the heroic work of journalists in ferreting out the corruption and lies that have the Washington sewer system working in overdrive these days. Wolf could have done all that except for the fact that she was asked to do a comedy routine at a fundamentally ridiculous event, wherein media stars hob-nob with the political elite in a misguided show of “civility” and “unifying” purpose. As if the torrent of scandal from this toxic White House mattered not the other 364 days a year. Wolf came prepared to blow the entire charade to smithereens, and by golly, let’s hope she succeeds.

Doing the work of honest, in-depth journalism is not particularly easy. It’s not hard work in the same way that digging ditches for a living is hard work, but like ditch-digging, the news biz — especially at the local level — is populated by lots of people who keep at it diligently without a big payoff in terms of wealth or recognition. You do get to be at the center of the action, which is a psychic reward of a certain kind. But more and more, the world of journalism and newsgathering is being supplanted by the grassroots — hello Facebook! — and scorned by a disturbingly large share of the public. It’s common knowledge by now that many people are retreating into separate spheres of reality based on what the sources of news they choose to consume and believe. If objective truth itself is at risk,what happens to the people who are supposed to keep track of it?

There’s a crisis in local news afoot in the U.S., and we can only guess how much damage will ensue as time goes on. My guess is the story will not be a pleasant one. The Virginia Press Association republished a piece in its newsletter a few weeks ago about five Virginia papers that have recently closed — in Hanover, Hopewell, Caroline, St. Paul and Tazewell — ending a collective newspaper tradition spanning a combined 673 years. Meantime, you may have seen the video circulating online, produced by Deadspin, that takes aim at Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of nearly 200 television stations in the U.S. (including WSET-TV in Lynchburg, which strikes me as a credible news organization for the most part, points to follow notwithstanding.) Sinclair is a conservative media giant that has been aptly described as “Trump TV,” with aspirations of dominating local news coverage in mid-level markets. A regular feature of Sinclair broadcasts is the “Terrorism Alert Desk,” which serves the sole function of stirring up public fears in service to a right-wing agenda. Recently the Sinclair home office dictated that local broadcast anchors read a statement on-air decrying the spread of “fake news” from “members of the media [who] use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’” The Deadspin video spliced together dozens of local TV anchors all uttering the same words — “fake news” — in a creepy montage that illustrated just how hollow Sinclair’s professed scorn of political agendas really is.

Take all these developments together and what you have is a deeply unnerving era in the news business, local news included: homegrown media institutions are being weakened from within and without, and various bottom-feeders and ideologically-driven outlets like Sinclair are eager to fill the void. Unlike newspapers that purposefully strive to keep news content and editorial opinions separate (go check the title at the top of this page if you don’t believe it) Sinclair and Fox News regularly cross the line between legitimate reporting and propaganda pushing. The biggest purveyors of “fake news,” sadly, are the outfits that claim to be its greatest foes.

But let’s place this debate in nitty-gritty context: a future where news organizations can survive and thrive because they are able to pay their bills. The Virginia newspapers listed above closed up shop because the industry’s traditional business model — advertiser-supported publishing — is in grave danger. Here at the News & Record and The Mecklenburg Sun, we’ve held up pretty well, better than most, thanks to you, the reader, and thousands others like you who continue to stick with us despite perhaps not loving every aspect of what we do (raising my hand here). Our newspapers also exist because of our advertisers, who cover our expenses in the expectation of getting something in return, which is the marketing oomph that we work hard to deliver — successfully so, we believe. But hey, let’s be honest: the two most influential figures in the newspaper business right now are Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, zillionaires both, neither of whom is likely eager to cop to their complicity in the death of local journalism. Zuckerberg’s baby, Facebook, is rightly coming in for criticism as a soul-sucking enterprise that profits off of junk news while driving ad revenue away from traditional news organizations; Bezos’ laudable role in restoring The Washington Post to greatness (mostly by keeping his hands off the operation and being a good owner and paying the bills) cannot obscure the fact that the Post is a mere sidelight for Bezos, whose main predatory company threatens to put brick-and-mortar retailers out of business. Just to be clear, these local brick-and-mortar folks are the same people who sponsor your kids’ ball teams, keep downtowns humming along and underwrite hometown ventures, not least of which is your local newspaper. Facebook and Amazon are community-killers each in their own way, and local news orgs are the canaries in their coalmine: among the first to suffer the consequences.

It’s a fraught world, in other words, and just like everyone else, journalists must find their way in and around it. That’s the real reason why the response in certain media quarters to Michelle Wolf’s performance was so awful: no one respects groveling, especially from outfits like the White House Correspondents Association that are supposed to fulfill the function of being the public’s eyes and ears inside the nation’s corridors of power. A semi-obscure female comedian shows up for a dinner one night, tells a few jokes that are dead on the money, some that used nasty words that the President of the United States has pretty much trademarked under his name already, and because of this the national press corps gets its knickers in a twist? Did this really just happen? I have no idea exactly how the news industry navigates the shoals of an uncertain future, but I do trust in first principles: report the news as fully, fairly and accurately as you can, and let the chips fall where they may. Sucking up to power is a terrible look at a time when most consumers of information are eager for unvarnished, fact-based information. Expecting the final product of this work to be controversy-free is a fool’s wish.

A few weeks ago, this newspaper published a story on the public display of a noose at a Charlotte County household, a demonstration of animus between neighbors that carried a plain intent to intimidate. We caught a lot of grief for publishing that story. It was ugly, to be sure, which is not something we would ever deny. The usual criticisms were lodged — “you’re just trying to sell newspapers,” and “all you’re doing is running down the community” — which, along with not being remotely true, also ignore two essential facts. First, to the point that we have an unspoken obligation to protect the image of Southside Virginia by suppressing bad things that may happen here, gimme a break — the racist display of symbols is something that can and does occur anywhere: a hangman’s noose could pop up next at an Alabama trailer park or an Ivy League college fraternity, take your pick. Vile deeds should never go unrecognized. Second, for all the agonizing over the media’s tenuous role in our fact-challenged reality, the truth for those of us who do this work at the local level is that we fulfill an essential public service function: We show up and record what happens at local government meetings, we take people’s photos, follow local ball teams, and tell members of the community much of what there is to know about the world around us. We embrace this role because we think the job is important, and hope our readers and advertisers will help us continue at it. All this said, performing a service has never implied we have a responsibility to be servile.

The truth can hurt. It can be upsetting. Truth is subjective and disputatious and often ambiguous. But whatever form it takes, truth requires constant effort and skill to ferret out, a reference point that should be a matter of pride for anyone toiling away at the business. For those who can’t or won’t face up to the demands of this mission, please do the rest of us a favor: Get out. Otherwise, it’ll be comedians, not newspapers and newsrooms, that will be the only people left standing to report on the world around us.

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