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  • Last modified 42 days ago (April 18, 2024)

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Catting around with democracy

Eight-month-old Zenger, pretty much my only family member still living in Marion, is growing into a cantankerous cat.

Whenever my suitcase comes out — as it often does these days — he jumps in the middle, bats at everything I try to put in, and tosses out whatever he can.

If I hop in the shower, he knows it’s just a matter of time. He perches atop a bathroom sink and loudly yowls, then attacks my towel as I’m drying off.

He’s even tipped over wastebaskets as I head out in hope of delaying my departure.

April has been a lonely month for Zenger.

To him, I’m the furless, tailless giant with only two legs whom he occasionally allows to sit in his chair, sleep on his bed, and dangle things in front of him — provided I continue to keep his food and water bowls well provisioned.

He knows I often venture out, as he would like to do, into whatever world exists beyond his house. Leaving while the sun shines is fine, but failing to return after it sets is worrisome. Have I fallen victim to some predator — local police, perhaps — marking the end of his endless supply of sustenance?

Still, he’s a patient and hopeful soul, always positioning himself to stare out a window as I return from work or the many trips I’ve taken to speak about what happened last August when our newsroom and what has become his house were raided.

Two weeks ago, it was a national convention of student journalists. Last week, it was the William Allen White lecture in Lawrence and a media law seminar in Kansas City. This week, it will be an investigative reporting symposium in Berkeley and student editors in Wichita. Next week, it will be presentation of Northwestern University’s medal of courage in journalism.

I’ve become an old hand at being wired for sound. Three different microphones buried beneath my necktie last week in Lawrence captured words I muttered that were one-third as memorable as White’s in his famous “What’s the Matter with Kansas” and “To an Anxious Friend” editorials.

Still, I tried to go beyond what happened last August — and the unfortunate image it has created for the community I love and came back to — to talk about what people can do to prevent such things. And not to be a hypocrite, I put journalists squarely in the crosshairs of responsibility.

As an industry and a profession, journalism and journalists must stop worrying about embracing new technology and start worrying about losing their grasp on the type of news coverage necessary to make democracy function. That means asking tough questions, insisting on sometimes blunt answers, and reporting truth whether it is positive or negative — even if it’s not convenient, pleasant, or wanted.

Historically, news organizations were created and run by people with strong connections to their communities.

They weren’t people hopping from town to town in search of promotions.

They weren’t businesspeople wanting to sell off real estate and make quarterly dividends look good by slashing staffing.

They didn’t enter the profession for wealth or fame but because they believed, as Thomas Jefferson did, that given full and complete information, the public generally will do what’s needed and right — even if it differs from what the journalists themselves might want.

“Show me a beloved newspaperman and I’ll show you a crappy newspaper.” It’s an adage, typically with a more colorful word substituting for “crappy,” that has become even more important to understand these days.

Too often, journalists are swamped by public sentiment in opposition to anyone who rocks the boat.

Living in Pleasantville, however, is what persuades citizens there’s nothing they can contribute to the democratic process. So instead of healthy debate over things of actual impact, they become polarized over hot-button issues like whether transgender abortion doctors are illegally crossing the border to stuff ballot boxes and take away guns.

Journalists aren’t the only ones who need to ask tough questions and insist on straight answers. Politicians need to do likewise. And so do citizens.

At Monday’s Marion City Council meeting, for example, one council member asked why the city was paying a rock-hauling company for computer software. Another failed to mention that the city had voted little more than a year earlier to spend $5,000 on a study someone else thought hadn’t been done in years. A third questioned why one of the city’s highest paid employees, the head of its electrical department, was out reading water meters, which a less well-paid employee could do.

In each case, an answer was given, but it basically was a brush-off, and no one pressed for more. Support was expressed for merit raises but quickly was dampened by a desire to give raises across the board, essentially rewarding mediocrity over excellence. Always trying to be pleasant can eat away at the fiber of what made America great.

All of us — journalists, officials, citizens — need to realize that it isn’t rude to insist on meaningful answers and that Pleasantville became a place worthy of its name only after its artificial sense of being pleasant was replaced by a sometimes messy but infinitely more productive sense of reality.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 18, 2024

 

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