Occupational Hazard, 3 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald


In “A Pirate Looks at Forty” Jimmy Buffett describes the dilemma of one for whom the cannon doesn’t thunder: “My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around.” He could be describing journalists as well.

Journalism and piracy aren’t the only occupations disappearing, of course. The Chronicle of Higher Education and other pricey academic newsletters report regularly that universities are turning out more English and history doctorates than there are jobs to accommodate them. The magazine isn’t as worried about the loss of journalism jobs, possibly because journalists aren’t their audience. A site search of The Chronicle turns up 59 mentions of “journalism major,” mostly in job listings, and 268 mentions of “English major,” including this one:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all — being a human being. We’re sorry. Something went wrong.

I’m allowing for the possibility the search engine’s comments may be involved in that response. Still, something has gone wrong. The Daily News-Record is running stories about the Warren County sheriff to fill space with seemingly local stories. Six Virginia dailies will soon publish only three days a week, and by mail. The kid that started out delivering papers and wound up as a reporter will have to go back to the lemonade stand for spending money.

The disappearance of the jobs is only part of the stories. The other half of the problem is the remaining jobs being wasted. The ADF lawsuit against the city schools is a good example. All due respect to the plaintiffs’ toxic mix of umbrage and self-pity, it’s a BS story. A religious group with too much money is peppering local school systems with legalistic jeremiads to force the group’s views on their neighbors, but it’s being treated as a legitimate legal effort to defend the rights of the aggrieved. Granted, it’s supposed to be treated that way so long as it’s happening in a room where technology is banned and the man in charge wears a dress and waves a hammer, but I have to wonder about the overkill in covering it.

The Citizen, The Breeze, The Daily News Record, and WHSV had stories on one of the hearings. Without challenging the importance each placed on the story, there was not enough variety among the stories to warrant the work of at least four people.

First off, that’s three other stories that didn’t get written that day. Second, that would have been a good story for the city’s publicist or someone quite like him to report. The court system, which at least no longer requires wigs, could have provided real-time transcripts with free technology (Google Docs, if you’re wondering), but instead some number of writers with legal pads spent their afternoon listening to legal absurdities. (Asking a teacher to use a student’s preferred pronouns is like ordering the teacher to call a student “comrade,” an attorney argued with a straight face.) But because each hearing and ruling was covered as a daily story and not as part of a trend, there were that many reporters writing that many stories without mentioning that the suit was part of a 40-year effort by the Christian right to dominate, manipulate, and exploit the nation’s courts and legislatures to force their religious views on their neighbors.

The same fantasy, so-called objectivity, kept national reporters from calling Donald Trump a liar until it was too late, and keeps local reporters from fully covering the religious lawsuits. That’s an issue covered in depth by Jim Fallows and Dan Froomkin on their blogs, and they both do it better than I do.

Both also write extensively about both-sidesism, the flawed concept that there are two sides to every perversion of the political and legal systems. Reporters have for decades let that concept give them a false sense of completeness so long as both sides are quoted. Sometimes that means a single quote or a “couldn’t be reached” disclaimer for one side, before they dash off to pin the “controversy” tail on another ass of a story. The process, the habit, protects liars. The journalistic responsibility to find out what is true becomes secondary.

The most cynical take on that so-called fairness and objectivity at the local level is that it’s another part of the business model. If a city councilman or a car dealer was arrested for DUI, the paper had to cover the story to maintain its credibility while giving the driver’s side of the story so other prominent folk in the business or political community would feel safer. The general rule was that if a person might ever be in the paper for another reason — he or she, usually he — got the opportunity to explain his actions. If the arrest was the only thing newsworthy about a person, he’d get his day in court but not his moment in the paper.

The double standard wasn’t for ethical reasons. The idea was to let advertisers know they’d be treated “fairly” if they ever got in trouble. The other half of that cynical equation was editors and managers more a part of the business than the journalism community who used the ethics of the profession as an excuse to run stories they knew would be popular with readers but not advertisers.

Granted, in Petersburg and Harrisonburg I worked with small, ethically challenged newspapers. There were papers in Virginia large enough on their own or part of large enough chains to maintain higher ethical standards. But the idea that newspapers approached ethical behavior as a matter of principle was never as abstract as it was painted. Newspapers were selling credibility and ad space. You could lose advertising revenue and still be believed, but credibility had to be maintained to sell papers to put ads in. It was always a business decision.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.


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Comments

4 responses to “Occupational Hazard, 3 of 4”

  1. Nathan Avatar

    Well, the previous two articles were rather boring. This one reveals the author’s political bias, inclination for misrepresentations with perhaps a little religious bigotry thrown in.

    Here’s a quote from the above article:
    “The ADF lawsuit against the city schools is a good example. All due respect to the plaintiffs’ toxic mix of umbrage and self-pity, it’s a BS story. A religious group with too much money is peppering local school systems with legalistic jeremiads to force the group’s views on their neighbors, but it’s being treated as a legitimate legal effort to defend the rights of the aggrieved.”

    I assume the lawsuit below is the one he is referencing. One would think a former journalist would at least provide the specific name, if not a reference the readers could follow to judge for themselves.

    HARRISONBURG, Va. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a group of parents and teachers will be available for media interviews Tuesday following oral arguments at the Rockingham County Circuit Court in their lawsuit against the Harrisonburg City Public School Board. ADF attorneys are asking the court to temporarily halt the school board from violating parents’ fundamental rights by concealing information about their children’s mental health and from forcing teachers to violate their religious beliefs by affirming the board’s view on gender identity.

    “Parents—not public schools or government officials—have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing, care, and education of their children,” said ADF Senior Counsel Vincent Wagner, who will be arguing before the court on behalf of the teachers and parents in Figliola v. Harrisonburg City Public School Board. “Schools can’t keep secrets from parents about kids’ mental health, especially when it comes to decisions like these—decisions with potentially life-changing consequences. We’re asking the court to let parents and teachers do their jobs.”

    Upon a child’s request, school district policy requires staff to immediately begin using opposite-sex pronouns and forbids staff from sharing information with parents about their child’s request, instead instructing staff to mislead and deceive parents. The policy resulted in the school district implementing “Gender Transition Action Plans,” which make clear that students’ families will only be involved where it is deemed “appropriate.”

    https://adfmedia.org/case/figliola-v-harrisonburg-city-public-school-board#:~:text=HARRISONBURG%2C%20Va.&text=ADF%20attorneys%20are%20asking%20the,board's%20view%20on%20gender%20identity.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Perhaps the reporter finds it acceptable for a school system to not only defy the code of Virginia, but proudly announce that they are doing so.

      Code of Virginia, § 1-240.1. Rights of parents. A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.

      1. Nathan Avatar

        It’s blatant misrepresentation to claim that this lawsuit is an effort by religious people to force their views on others.

        It’s actually quite the opposite. School systems are forcing their beliefs on teachers and others.

        “Upon a child’s request, school district policy requires staff to immediately begin using opposite-sex pronouns and forbids staff from sharing information with parents about their child’s request, instead instructing staff to mislead and deceive parents.”

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Sir, your disdain for the high ideals of your (our) former profession is disappointing but explains quite a bit. I never wrote a news story that called someone a liar and it grates when I see it today. It is ten times more effective to show that someone is a liar. In Trump’s case, the line is “whose continued claims that the election was rigged have been rejected by his own Attorney General and every court that reviewed them.” I call your claims that particular lawsuit is bogus and raise you a dozen bull*&^% claims around the myth of climate change, all totally bogus.

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