The Smoke Eater For Friday, July 3, 2020

A letter from the editor.

Good day, this is The Smoke Eater for Friday, July 3, 2020, and if you're wrong at least you said, "I choose."

Quick Hit

* A brief interlude *

NOTE: I haven't forgotten you, or quit, dear readers. I've just been busy trying to get (and keep) my shit together.What follows is an email I sent a former journalism school professor this morning. Another friend encouraged me to post it since I've been trouble writing over the last few weeks.

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Like a lot of other journalists I've been having a great degree of difficulty remaining objective, and I was wondering what your thoughts are about the current state of the news business.

I'm staring at a blank screen, watching my cursor blink and I don't know what to say to my audience. It's been this way for almost a month. I remember all the things I was taught in school, and the story you told about the poor family in rural Illinois. They had no food, one of the kids was crying from hunger; and you posed an ethical question: Would we help them get some groceries?

If we help them, we change the story and violate the principles of objective journalism. It's no longer about a starving family wondering if they'll eat tonight, it's a story about the kindness of strangers. If we don't help, we continue to uphold the values of accurate reportage, and risk losing part of what makes us human.

Our job is to write the story, warts and all. But external pressures on the very foundations of journalism seem to be poisoning our society. The president calls us, "the enemy of the people," a phrase coined by Stalin to attack political enemies and the press. Yesterday, the mayor criticized reporters for directly quoting the police superintendent's plan to "clear the corner" this weekend. Police are deliberately maiming credentialed journalists and have the audacity to lie about it to other reporters. Even protestors are attacking us in the streets. And my own family has called me "fake news," yet they always fail to tell me what constitutes "real news."

I can see why politicians and the police are upset with journalists. A good reporter poses a challenge to people in a position of authority. It's our duty to hold them accountable for their words and actions (or lack thereof). We dig up dusty skeletons from the halls of government, and force people to acknowledge uncomfortable truths.

And I can see why protesters have sworn off the press. The demands many activists have fought for are often parsed down to four second sound bites or clipped quotes. Press photos have been used by white supremacists and the police to harass and attack innocent people and activists on-line and in real life. They don't see us as part of a solution, but part of the problem.

As for my family, well, I'll just say that I appreciate the opportunities and experience.

I have tried explaining that, as a freelancer, I'm not beholden to vulture capitalists, investors, boards, a market share price, red-handed editors, deadlines, or any of the other things that contribute to the neutering of a story. But one can't stand on soapbox and swear upon the SPJ Code of Ethics that they will report "just the facts" because that too violates the principles of our own ethical standards.

A shooting on the West Side isn't just another shooting on the West Side, it's a violent expression of humanity struggling to survive. But instead of talking about how people in the community refused to speak in fear of reprisals and a genuine desire to grieve in peace, we write, "police officials say..."

It's considered an original sin to fraternize with the subjects of our stories, but it's fine for political reporters to rub elbows and grab drinks with city officials. Yet if we work with activists to protect their identities without violating the sanctity of our professional standards, somehow that's "manipulating the subject."

If a major newspaper publishes an op-ed full of lies, inaccuracies, or straight-up racism that acts as a call for violence, it's giving equal voice to members of the community.

When a SWAT officer pepper sprays me and a member of the National Lawyers Guild on May 30th (despite her trademark yellow hat, my comically large press credentials, and our standing 50 ft. from a line of protesters), he tells me he was, "just doing his job."

I'm not sure what it means to be fair, or neutral, or objective anymore. I know what I see on the streets. It's cops -- sworn to protect and serve the community-- trying to pick honest to God fist fights. It's protesters chanting that silent cops are guilty of enabling corruption, and should quit, even when police whistleblowers are marked as pariahs. It's politicians at every level of government dragging their collective feet in fear of breaking the very Machine responsible for injustices that persist to this day.

I don't know what else to do but clean my camera lenses, tie on my facemask, and hang my credentials around my neck. There's another action this afternoon, and the city health officials say coronavirus infections are rising, but I still have a job. Even if that makes a bastard.

One More Thing...

OK, here's a cute critter video: BABY GOATS!

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