KSN&C had posted news of his creationist writings from the early 1980s. We also picked up a news story from a professional news outlet that contained an error - which we quickly corrected. Cheek and I exchanged a few testy emails.
Cheek argued that it would have been better if I had "checked with [him] first BEFORE posting" rather than "always post[ing] first and "then forc[ing him] to respond to [the story] ex post facto." This was particularly germane in Cheek's case since he now rejects his former creationist position. It would have been better for Cheek if I had. But it was his choice not to mention his paper to the Kentucky board of education that had selected him as a finalist. When the issue surfaced he was immediately put on the defensive.
It is my understanding that when he got "the question" from reporters covering his interview in Kentucky, "he looked stunned for about 20 seconds," and then "very forthrightly" rejected his old paper and expanded his thoughts on religion and science with appropriate detail and recognition of the court's ruling in the Dover case.
But is KSN&C really practicing journalism by simply aggregating such news stories? I think not.
Fellow blogger Tom Eblen, who writes for the Herald-Leader and teaches journalistic ethics at UK tells me that one is a journalist when one practices journalism. I take that to mean, actually putting in the time and doing the work it takes to research the issues, check sources, capture quotes and accurately reflect the differing points of view that attend every news story and to do it from primary (first-person) sources. This pursuit is a noble and critical component of our democracy and like many Americans I am concerned for its future.
In most cases, KSN&C dabbles in semi-journalism. A lot of time and effort goes into assuring that our reporting is authoritative, but we are clearly at the mercy of what others write. Mistakes are to be avoided, but if someone errs it is up to the author to be responsible for their own content.
As I argued to Cheek, "You are responsible for handling what you write. I am responsible for handling what I write. "They" are responsible for handling what they write."
Cheek and I were ultimately unable to agree but my final message to him was,
Finally, and sincerely, I have no personal animosity toward you. It's not about that for me. I have my own opinions, but I am largely disinterested in which individual becomes our next commissioner. That's the board's job to determine, and I don't have a vote. When that selection is made, I'm going to reprint the news - good or bad - no matter who the commissioner is. I will express opinions along the way.Is it fair to Cheek for me to reflect on this experience? It happened. He is a public figure who was vying for the top job in our state's educational system, and that's "my beat."
I can understand how you might be frustrated, or even angry, that I found your old creationist paper and printed the fact of its existence. I anticipated and opined that it would be seen as "a problem" by many. I think that has proven to be true. I have wondered aloud why you didn't alert the board to its existence. If the Herald-Leader can be believed - and, right or wrong, I rely on their reporting every day - ...they wrote that it did not come up as an issue for you in Missouri [where Cheek was also a finalist]. But really Dennis, none of that makes me the responsible party when it comes to handling the fallout. It was your [paper], and your responsibility to handle it - which you ultimately did very forthrightly. I believe if you had done that up front, we'd be having a very different conversation right now.
More recently, KSN&C has been doing something very different - practicing real-live-honest-to-goodness journalism by "covering" the Petrilli v Silberman trial. This was the kind of detached, yet face-to-face journalism real reporters do every day. For eight full days I sat with H-L's Jim Warren on a hard bench, tapping away on my keyboard, trying to capture as much data as I could. [...not my preferred method, but Judge Ishmael "took away" my digital recorder.]
On the last day, waiting for the jury to return with their verdict, John McNeill mentioned to the judge something about how my blogging and Twittering changed the ambiance of the courtroom - which in his mind became reminiscent of an old WWII movie with the lilt of the telegraph dotting the away in the background; dot da dit dot dot dit - only now it was; tap tap, tap tap tap.
The experience of reporting a trial was more demanding than I anticipated. In court by 8 AM to catch any discussions before the jury arrived; the reporter is pretty well stuck there. To leave for a moment is to risk missing the story. To misunderstand a ruling is to misreport. Then, somewhere around 5PM when the brain is a bit mushy, some kind of story must be written. Several days I found myself "too tired" and not having a deadline or an editor - but having a wife - chose family time instead. I would get up at 5 AM the next day (as is my custom) to post my story. Some days I could bounce off whatever Warren had done the night before.
But that wasn't the worst of it. The very situation put me squarely in conflict with people I know, trust and respect on both sides of the issue. I was neutral in a land where everyone was expected to be loyal and take sides.
As a former principal in Fayette County, I was a colleague of Peggy Petrilli's when she was still at Northern. I was publicly supportive of her work in a Herald-Leader Op Ed and viewed her selection for Booker T Washington Academy as an important history-changing effort in our community. I said I'd be watching what happened.
I had also written in H-L about Fayette County's need for strong consistent leadership at the top following a string of short-lived superintendents. The degree of turnover had left a district somewhat adrift. There was a lot of undirected talent in Fayette County and Silberman seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.
But the case also brought forward a string witnesses and visitors to the courtroom that I knew or had worked with, including a couple I worked with pretty closely. Bob McLaughlin had been my director for a number of years, and if he had remained so, I'm pretty sure I would have worked in Fayette County a little longer. And if either one of us ever needed a little "therapy" Jock Gum and I could simply walk next door and get it; me for him, and he for me. Bob and Jock testified on the same day and there aren't a whole lot of people I like better than these guys.
Add to that Barbara Connor, Mike Burke, Becky Sagan, Mary Browning, Mike McKenzie, Vince Mattox, Jack Hayes, Lisa Stone, Amanda Main Ferguson, and I know I'm forgetting some - like I say, it was not easy to be neutral. I sensed periods of discomfiture with the principal combatants. Some days they could manage, if not a smile, a pleasant nod. Other days they avoided eye contact. In my head it was related to whatever I had written the day before, but maybe that's just ego on my part. They may not have read KSN&C at all, but were only reacting to the pressures of the trial itself.
But the stories got read. A modest little niche blog, KSN&C readership - typically eduwonks and news types - doubled and doubled again as Fayette County and North Carolina teachers, and a surprising number of young lawyers, appear to have discovered it.
But that's no match for Jim Warren's readership at the Herald-Leader. Despite their economic woes, H-L readership has never been higher and Warren's stories are read by thousands.
But the news business is in trouble.
On the eve of President Obama's health care press conference, the Herald-Leader came and got Warren out of the courtroom. Concerned by the length of the trial and needing an experienced hand to interview some local folks on health care issues, they sent a young reporter to fetch him to help with the story. Apparently, there was no one else to do it. When he returned the next day, he asked me, "They didn't settle, did they?"
But there is no substitute for the work Warren does. If the case had not fallen in July, as it did, I could have followed the case for KSN&C readers, but I could not have covered it. And I would not have caught issues related to how the law was argued (twisted) before the jury, issues of privilege or the incredible claims by one director that she had never marked a principal down in any category of evaluation in her entire career. We're going to have to talk about that issue some more later.
Warren joked with me that bloggers are the new journalists who would transform news gathering - but we both know that's not true. Newspapers may change but I think there are a few critical constants that remain.
- There is no suitable substitute for the professional practice of journalism.
- Professional journalism is crucial to democracy.
- Local papers may well pool journalists for future coverage of state and national news but local papers must "own" local news.
- Most bloggers fail to rise to the level of "journalism" most of the time and all too frequently fail the test of neutral reporting. Neutrality is just not "their thing." Political voice is.
- Lots of folks are going to continue to want a print edition of "the paper."
America needs a new model for supporting news gathering and it can't be governmental. Perhaps new media foundations will emerge.
The media will continue to publish stories that shine an unfavorable light on certain powerful individuals and those individuals will continue to attack the media as a result. There may even be some psychological satisfaction for the general public doing so as well.
But by some means, the work of professional journalists must be preserved. It is far too important to be left to the amateurs.