Readers need to read between the lines

Everything you read in this newspaper is accurate and true. Really. No one paid me off. Just keep two things in mind: 1) News stories cannot possibly explain exactly what happened. 2) The story that doesn’t get printed is the one you should worry about.
I learned this as a reporter for a small specialty publication. One of my first duties was to call a Republican congressman’s office and find out why he opposed funding the Americorps program. The switchboard operator connected me to their specialist. The conversation went something like this:
“It’s a money-sucking, left-wing big government program that wastes taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” he said without hesitation. I began typing and asked him to elaborate. He rapidly made some disparaging remarks about “volunteers” receiving pay, then abruptly stopped.
“Are you typing?” he asked. “Uh, yeah.” “Are you a reporter?” “Uh, yeah.” “You can’t go around misrepresenting yourself like this. I thought you were a constituent. You can’t print anything I said. You’ll have to call our press secretary.”
The press secretary, a very pleasant, articulate man, told me their opposition to Americorps was simply because balancing the budget was more important than funding unproven programs. When asked if he considered it a “money-sucking big government” idea, he carefully chose his words to repeat his first statement in a more colorful manner.
My editor confirmed my mistake and told me to use only the press secretary’s comments. Apparently, we could use the other man’s responses if we mentioned my unethical tactics. But that would be unwise. Because we were already perceived as a left-wing publication, we had to take extra care to be unbiased, and not look like we were out to get anyone. If we did that, we would lose our already marginal credibility.
I’ve since learned that information should be verified by at least two independent sources, or one very reliable source. I’ve also learned information is restricted by print space and deadlines.
And a good reporter balances articles by interviewing persons of comparable status from both sides of a story and from the top down, usually the chief executive officers, presidents, department heads or spokespersons, then mid-level managers, etc. You will rarely read how the janitors felt about the latest bank merger.
Status is important inside the newsroom. Shocking stories written by brash young reporters eager to shake things up are often tempered by layers of editors who have a better understanding of, and fear of, libel suits. In many cases, the substance of such stories remains intact, but the content is rearranged to maintain a more neutral tone.
Editorial writers and opinions columnists have much more leeway than beat reporters, but with their prominent position in the paper comes added responsibility. They cannot be loose cannons. And even though personal opinion defines their writing, they generally comment on actual events, oftentimes derived from current news stories. The end result is often a jazzed-up, controversial news item with a less than neutral tone — the very article the brash young reporter wanted to write.
As a freelancer submitting an article to a college newspaper, I have to be careful not to come across as a complete wacko. Notice how I took great pains to avoid mentioning that I believe the “politically correct liberal media elite” is a big hairy lie created by fat-cat powerbrokers as a paper-tiger adversary to manipulate public opinion.
And how this lie allows fat cats to scream about unfair coverage in the mainstream television and print media outlets that are owned and operated by fat-cat corporations. And how this lie destroys the credibility of small, marginally liberal publications that have opportunity to devote more space to analysis of a single subject, such as the Minnesota Women’s Press. Or how calling alternative papers like City Pages “biased” and “liberal” trains the general public to disregard any well-researched, in-depth and accurate articles they run.
As a consumer of the news media, it is your responsibility to supplement the facts they provide with other points of view. Read the alternative press and specialized publications for in-depth coverage. Try Readers Digest once in a while — become familiar with the way thousands of people see the world. Or better yet, hang out on Chicago Avenue or Lake Street after midnight sometime and compare your findings to the police reports in the paper. Actively challenge what you read.
In his novel, “The Things They Carried,” Minnesota author Tim O’Brien describes a true war story that never happened.
Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: “Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, ‘The fuck you do THAT for?’ and the jumper says, ‘Story of my life, man,’ and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.”
That’s a true story that never happened.
Ed Day is a copy editor and freelance writer at the Daily. Send comments to [email protected]