It was about 20 minutes after 10 p.m. on Primary Election night. I answer the phones at night when I’m here, and that night I figured it might be someone who wanted to know how a certain race had ended up. The man on the end of the line started in on me, of course not knowing who had picked up the phone at the Valley Courier, because I had just answered, “Valley Courier.” He told me we needed to stop printing such biased reports and we really needed to get rid of that Ruth Heide because she was biased.
I tried to find out what he thought “she” had been biased about, and I might have received a better answer had the man been sober, but I could never quite get a specific answer out of him. He ranted a bit before the conversation ended, and the “biased” reporter he was talking about went back to work, getting another edition of the paper out.
That same week five newspaper staff were shot to death at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland: Wendi Winters, 65, worked in special publications and was the daughter of a World War II veteran, and she was known for sponsoring midshipmen; Rob Hiaasen, 59, killed on his wife’s birthday and leaving three children, worked as an assistant editor, “one of the most gentle and funny people I’ve ever known,” his brother author Carl Hiaasen wrote; Gerald Fischman, 61, was an editorial page editor who was “kind and giving” teaching young journalists over the years, also enjoyed traveling; John McNamara, 56, a staff writer, was a University of Maryland Terrapins fan; and Rebecca Smith, 34, was a sales assistant who had just been hired recently and was described as “kind and considerate.”
In other words, they were people, just like all of us. The “media” are people.
We, the “media” live in the same communities and experience the same life experiences as everyone else.
During the salmonella crisis 10 years ago, we reported on the tainted water story, but we also experienced the drinking water restrictions that everyone else did. We had drunk the same water, and some among us got sick, just like hundreds of other people. (I was fortunate not to be one of them.) We hauled water for baths until the chlorine flush had cleaned out our water supply, just like everybody else.
The difference was that we were reporting on the story that also affected our lives.
That is our primary job, as I see it, to provide information as correctly and objectively as possible. Sure, we make mistakes, because we are human too, but we do strive to keep the mistakes to a minimum. And most of us try to be objective, even though the caller the other night didn’t think so. But I guess I’m a bit biased when I say that.
In the current mammoth fire, we once again are both conveyors of information and affected by the story. We breathe the same smoky air as everyone else. Our hearts ache for those whose houses were lost in the fire, for the landscape lost forever and the wildlife affected by the blaze. We know and care about firefighters who are on the mountain. We are trying to help victims, just like everyone else.
We have an obligation to inform, and we have been trying our best to do that. We have a duty to chronicle the history of our area, and we are trying our best to do that as well.
Sometimes when officials think they have to shield folks from “us,” the “media,” it stings a bit, because at least most of us are not piranha looking for someone to devour. (I know a few, but that’s true of every profession from doctors and lawyers to clergy and reporters.) We are doing our jobs, just like the emergency responders and incident management folks are.
We do care what happens to the folks affected by the fire, because we are part of these communities too. These are our neighbors and friends. This is our valley, and our mountain, our river and sky.
We live here too.