March 17, 2017 10:09:55 AM
Here is the rule for reporters in as short a form as I can provide.
If the focus of your reporting is to "catch" a politician doing something wrong because you don't like him or her, or because embarrassing politicians makes you feel important, sooner or later, you will write something stupid.
You've seen Trump's 2005 tax return by now.
I know the rule because I've covered small-town/small-time politics for decades. I've broken the rule, and I stopped because I hate looking stupid. If you're a reporter long enough, you'll find plenty of scandal and wrongdoing without looking, and sometimes it'll be that one city councilor you thought you really liked. When that happens, you go numb, interview the guy like you've never met him before, and then go to the least popular bar you can think of and have three beers. You won't need company.
I stop at three because I've discovered that more than three makes you doubt how you wrote the story, just as more than three beers used to make me call old girlfriends, which is not always a good idea. If you're a reporter, and you weigh more than I do, maybe you can have four.
I don't think reporting in this country is fully tainted by bias, but I think individual reporters are very trapped in the idea that sane, number-filled coverage of proposed legislation is not worth writing when you compare it to the tiniest scandal. Because of this, the reporter half-asses the story about millions of dollars worth of legislation, and goes back to finding out if the state rep. has ever slow-danced with a he-goat.
We've all seen this kind of reporting. You pick up your morning paper, or turn on the television, and there's a huge bells-and-whistles story saying the mayor has $700 worth of unpaid parking tickets.
Meanwhile, in the same town, the school department is overpaying for textbooks by about 3 percent, which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars year, something a reporter would only know if he/she read every line of the 46-page school department budget, AND made 15 boring phone calls to textbook companies.
The school department is not overpaying because of systemic corruption, either, not most of the time. They're doing it because they're too lazy or too stupid to call around for a better price.
Reporters often end up writing the parking ticket story in a feverish, apocalyptic tone because it guarantees the front page, and it will embarrass the hell out of the mayor. Generally, you get the story from an anonymous tipster who get fired from the Traffic Enforcement Division for showing up drunk six Mondays in a row. The guy knows one piece of low-grade scandal and, once the union loses the fight to keep him employed, he calls the paper or the television station.
Good, solid, painstaking reporting will nearly always embarrass someone in power, even if the reporter isn't out to grab the front page or feel that he has "brought down" the head of the Traffic Enforcement Division. The story about the unpaid parking tickets will not bring anyone down. The mayor will pay up, and the textbook mess will go on for decades because it's a bore to write.
If President Trump says the recent overblown story about his 2005 tax return was a reach, and a shameful reach, he's right. He is right about the press more than the press wants to admit, and he's right because he's sold enough ethically shaky products to know how it's done.
I had to go numb to write that, and now I'm going to have three beers, but only three. I'm married, and calling old girlfriends is an even worse idea now.
Marc Dion, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a reporter and columnist for The Herald News, the daily newspaper of his hometown, Fall River, Mass. For more on Dion, go to go to www.creators.com.
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