Why I Am a Storyteller… Into the Great Divide (Part 3)

Please consider reading Part 1 and Part 2 before this entry.

My time toiling in the bowels of daily journalism taught me all too much of the pain and suffering in the human condition. Of course, I could discuss the victorious nature — how some could come out the other side of these moments to serve the greater good.

Truth is, people just aren’t generally like that. When driving down the highway, people want to see the carnage of the accident. Without the threat of arrest, I believe few would pull over for emergency vehicles with sirens and lights. Forget being respectful if there’s a funeral procession.

I entered graduate school in Washington, D.C., with the hope of covering public policy. Sure, the frustration of bureaucracy might bother some, but I’d covered government; I’d experienced storm drain debates at city councils and bus route bickering at school board meetings.

During my tenure at the American University program, I attended Pentagon briefings, U.S. Supreme Court hearings, State Department press conferences and many other elements of the day-to-day journalism. I brushed up against the elite Hollywood-of-the-East power players, seeing Senators, Secretaries, Congressional wonks and so many more.

I was enamored.

As my graduate school ended, an opportunity arose at the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. An inroad into the world of first-rate daily journalism at a nationally recognized newspaper! I jumped at the chance.

Compared to the newsroom I’d experienced, the LA Times didn’t vary much except it seemed much more quiet when I joined in late 1991. Soaking up every element I could, an undercurrent seethed through the space.

It would take me a while to figure it out, this toxicity that infected the cube farm and caused reporters to hate, despise, undermine and envy one another.

Unlike my experience of camaraderie, the LA Times didn’t function as a collective. my seven or eight months, I would figure out where this discontent germinated.

Before the partisan politics of Fox News in 1996, the collective media — as so many like to say — experienced the same division. Certain reporters could get the California Republicans on the phone and spin a story to their point of view while the Democratic side would do the same.

I’d finally reached the pinnacle, the top of the proverbial hill in journalism. While I’d been serving just as a research assistant, my immersion in the Los Angeles Times newsroom at the center of American power found nothing more than partisan politics — left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative.

For all my own opinions and political leanings, I never wanted to descend into a prison of singular perspective, as these ragged men and women appeared to be.

I began seeing the “news” in a whole new light.

Teaching Bias

While in graduate school, I’d also been a teaching assistant to two journalism professors. They’d seen a lot of my work, not only on the dentist case, but also some work on skinheads and recruitment efforts in the South Florida area.

Despite being among those hated by the skinhead group, I’d managed to report on the activities and even have face-to-face interviews with leaders of the white supremacy movements, controlling my own emotions.

In my professors’ opinions, it made me uniquely qualified to teach how to be unbiased.

With each of these classes, I’d begin with one question: “Who do you hate?” I would repeat the question and wait until I got an answer from several students, which in those pre-9/11 days seemed to be universally Hitler and — for some reason — Madonna.

Over the course of the next hour, we’d discuss our bias. How to recognize and acknowledge our own internal prejudice then compensate for it. Then I’d ask, “Who do you love?”

Any strong emotional investment in an issue drives bias.

Looking back, these future journalist got one whole hour on being unbiased from a teaching assistant — not exactly an adequate amount or appropriate stress. At the time, my own internal ethics dictated what I thought all journalists except for those at the tabloids.

Now I found that a journalist’s own opinions motivated how each reported and subsequently wrote. As I’d examine more and more media outlets, I’d discover the LA Times wasn’t alone in this distortion.

I crossed this Rubicon in journalism, a moment for my career I recall well.

Opinion Is News

Opinion is a foundation of all “news.” Why does a newspaper or network cover something? Why is it deemed worthy to be at the top of the hour for 80 seconds or buried before a commercial in just 15 seconds? What makes the front page?

Call it judgment over what’s more or less a news story, but that’s an opinion.

Recently, Fox News decided which Presidential candidates for the Republican nomination would appear on stage and then proceeded to attempt to dethrone Donald Trump. Despite whatever pundits and talking heads might say, the move backfired, giving Trump even greater legitimacy in the race.

I can go forward with dozens of examples of skewed reporting. Yet, my recognition of bias makes me a better media consumer. I know when I am being manipulated.

Jon Stewart proved to be a master of unveiling the media’s bias and the kabuki theater it’s become, especially if you consider his dismantling of CNN’s “Crossfire” among the many examples.

Looking back, who knows just how intentional the environs of the newsroom there happened to be. I’d been in this idealistic academic tower for more of my adult life than out in the so-called real world. My exposure to what happened on the mean streets and courtrooms of South Florida had driven me to the marbled hallways and granite columns of Washington, D.C., only to find a dystopian career ahead unless I made yet another drastic change. I needed to change or let the plan of my life turn toward an aimless endeavor.

I turned to opinion in order to extend my career in journalism. That’s the next chapter of my story.

 

All of these entries are from memory, which are absolutely crystallized but some details faded through the last twenty-plus years. Further, I’ve added opinion, as this is not a piece of journalism, but my own story.

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Michael Cheek

With more than 20 years of communication experience, Michael Cheek offers solid marketing expertise, especially in the digital frontier. He currently resides in Georgia but he's open to relocate anywhere the opportunities take him. Learn more at http://MichaelCheek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/MichaelCheek and see more about his professional experience at http://LinkedIn.com/in/MichaelCheek. Reach him via e-mail at mcheek@gmail.com.

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