“What kind of journalist are you? Do you write the truth? Or are you one of those fake journalists?” Because if you’re an honest journalist, that’s ok. But…”
Moments earlier, I’d been having a lovely bar conversation with this man about beer at a brew pub while he pet Rusty. But when he finally asked what I did for a living, and why I was visiting his town, the conversation got dark, fast.
But I was ready, because I’d had this conversation several times recently. And it strikes me that it’s just the kind of this New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger was talking to President Trump about recently in the White House.
Rusty and I have returned from our annual cross-country trek. For most of the past decade, every summer, I’ve packed my dog and my bag into a car and road-tripped across the U.S. It started out an a makeshift book tour. Then it turned into dispatches from small towns about fraud or economics. Now I do it mostly for fun, and to gather string for all kinds of stories I work on. I think many national journalists are fairly criticized for writing only from lofty perches in New York, or D.C., or Los Angeles. I pride myself on knowing what’s going on in Ohio, and Missouri, and Montana. I’ll have lots of thoughts on that in the coming weeks. (Here’s a sneak peek: The places I can’t wait to revisit? Boise, Oklahoma City, and Nashville. There’s plenty of data suggesting America’s future is in places like these. Also, they were a lot of fun, and the energy seemed far more positive.)
One story I have to tell from Road Trip 2018 right away, however, is this: Identifying yourself as a journalist in America today is risky.
Once upon a time — well, last year, and every other year of my 25 as a reporter — I was consistently met with smiles and curiosity when I told people I was a journalist. Almost always, they were eager to tell me what I should write about, and to ask me what I had seen along the way.
That’s changed. Fast.
This summer, I had multiple experiences like the one described above. “Who do you work for? Why do you attack everything? Oh, you worked for NBC, THAT place. All fake.”
Make no mistake: In that scene above, my new acquaintance wasn’t being funny. He was angry, and he wanted me to know it. Things got tense, fast. His friend actually left.
It was a really strange trip. And it changed me. I became much more selective about announcing my profession. When I did, it would often wreck an otherwise nice trip to a brew pub.
I don’t want to overstate this: I never felt physically threatened. More like a family dinner turned sour. I never felt at risk the way Sulzberger warned Trump that “Enemy of the People” language might be putting overseas journalists at risk.
But it made me feel bad to “admit” I was a journalist, like I was saying I was a Communist during the Cold War or something.
In my other life, I play music in bars. I am pretty expert at diffusing tense situations. It’s kind of an essential journalism skill. So I know how to make jokes, how to change the subject, how to agree with someone just to move on. And I do all those things when these “Fake News” confrontations occur. But I also try to see each of these moments as a chance everyone involved to learn something. So I do what reporters are supposed to do. I ask questions.
“Why do you hate journalists? They’re all biased against people like you? OK, name three journalists you hate.”
Most people can’t do that. I try to convince them that their dislike should be more specific. They dislike a single TV personality, or perhaps even an entire TV station. But that’s only a small, small fraction of the world of journalism.
“And in fact, here I am, sitting next to you, with a dog you seem to like, listening. Maybe all journalists aren’t monsters?”
I try to make people think a bit. And I genuinely hear their complaints, which often have a lot of validity. Yes, I saw that CNN piece which exaggerated things. Sure, there are stories that should be told which never see the light of day (you have no idea how much I agree with that.)
In the moment, it rarely seems to work. People don’t change their minds during a single conversation. But I like to think the thought of me having a respectful dialog sticks in their minds and might make a difference down the road.
I’ll never stop telling people I’m a journalist, of course. I’m damn proud of it. Also, I usually disclose that as soon as reasonably possible to be fair. Even if I’m not quoting someone, if a conversation I have might end up informing something I write or broadcast, people should know that’s possible.
The revelation can sometimes put a damper on one of my favorite life activities — BS’ing with strangers in a strange bar — but, that’s the price I pay. (My own mother has, on occasion, stressed that dinner table conversations about family are “off the record.” I’m used to this.)
Something much more than dampening is happening right now, however. An honorable profession has somehow been turned into a scandalous one. That should alarm every American who has ever opened a history book.
Let me close with something else, however. I have had perhaps as many conversations with precisely the opposite outcome. People have thanked me for being a journalist, to the point of embarrassing me. They have thanked me for being willing to visit their communities. They have thanked me for persisting. It’s lovely, really. It’s a bit unnerving that people feel a need to do so, but I certainly appreciate it.
I don’t know where this ends. I know where it has ended in other countries; I will soon be writing a story about that. Convincing large populations that journalists are dangerous is straight out of every authoritarian’s playbook.
Here’s how I try to leave every conversation I have about this subject. Most people are angry because they feel journalists are biased. Of course they are. Everyone is. I’m biased. I try not to be, I try to do my best, but of course I am. That’s why my mom taught me that intelligent people read at least five items on the same topic from multiple points of view and make up their own mind. Hating someone because they are biased kind of means you hate everyone. Free speech advocates like to say that the solution for Hate Speech isn’t censorship, it’s More Speech. That’s true about bias, too. Don’t hate what you read, or the person who writes it. Just keep seeking out more opinions, and keep an open mind. The solution for biased journalism isn’t hate, it’s more journalism.
More from the road soon.