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Gratitude for the brave truth-tellers
We understand the horror unleashed by Hamas, and a lot of other tough stories, because clear-eyed journalists step forward to tell the story.
A word of gratitude for the brave, emotionally competent correspondents who give us hard truths.
Fire had raced through the flimsy mobile home so quickly that a sleeping mom inside, and her toddler son, hadn’t managed to escape. I was a beginning reporter, tagging along behind a volunteer fire captain just older than I was who seemed eager to make me understand that he had seen it all before. He led me into a bedroom where the charred body of a slender young woman lay half on the bed, her feet on the floor, as though she had fallen backwards as she was trying to stand.
“It’s what she breathed in that killed her,” the firefighter announced. “Better than fryin’ alive.” I turned around and stumbled outside, where the bright sunshine blasted away my revulsion. But over the past half-century, I have not forgotten what I saw that day.
It’s not unusual for journalists to confront horrors in the course of their careers. But unlike the callous young firefighter who hoped to indoctrinate me to the cult of coldness, we don’t benefit by closing ourselves off from empathy. To give news consumers — readers, listeners, viewers — a true piecture of what lies beyond their view, we need to gain a deep understanding of what we see and hear, and then tell it straight. Truthful storytelling demands engagement, even if it is painful, and honesty, even if we know it’s hard for our audience to absorb.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the aftermath of last week’s attack by Hamas militants on Israel. Because brave journalists rushed to the Negev Desert, and because they stared unflinchingly at horror, the world knows of the inhuman brutality of the terrorists’ work: children decapitated, vibrant young people ripped by rounds from automatic weapons, families wiped out by bombs.
This is not the work of the talking heads on cable channels, or of the barstool experts whose simplistic rants fill talk radio airwaves. It’s not random videos of dubious credibility served up on careless web platforms. It is a task taken up by brave and emotionally competent correspondents for honest news organizations — journalists who believe that people might better live alongside each other if they more fully understand what’s going on outside their own back yards, in all of its joy and tragedy.
Yet the reality of what reporters see can be debilitating, for even the most experienced among them. I thought of that as I watched a moving CNN report by Nic Robertson that aired on the first day after the slaughter. Robertson is a London-based senior correspondent and diplomatic editor for the network, who for three decades has rushed to wherever news is happening, there to steadfastly present what he has seen to the world.
In the middle of the night Israel time, Robertson was barely able to keep his composure as he described live for an American audience the scene he had just absorbed, at what had been an all-night music festival near Re’im, three miles from the border with Gaza. Robertson is usually calm in the retelling of facts; on this occasion, he stammered and occasionally turned away, as the vision replayed in his mind.
“I’m trying to be professional, and I’m trying to tell the story, and bear witness to the barbarity, and the callous, cruel, cold-blooded and calculated killing that Hamas was ripping upon those poor innocent young people,” he said. Young women appeared to have been raped alongside the corpses of their friends, then murdered; countless young people were gunned down as they ran into the desert. Alongside the roadway, there were abandoned shoes, burnt-out cars and a twisted baby stroller. In a bomb shelter, blood and human tissue covered the floor, and bullet holes pierced the walls. It was, Robertson said, “face-to-face, utter barbarism.”
It is hard to hear details of the slaughter, and there will surely be stories soon detailing a brutal response by Israeli forces that will be similarly agitating. That’s not to suggest a moral equivalence between the remorseless savagery of Hamas and the response to it by Israel. It’s merely to say that all of it, I’m sure, will be covered accurately and fairly — and with empathy for all those devastated by the violence — by a number of brave journalists on the scene.
I know Nic Robertson only a bit — our wives were colleagues and pals in a newsroom decades ago, and our daughters were college classmates. But I believe I understand the ethic that motivates his reporting. It is captured in the words he used in that live report: to “bear witness,” so that the truth of what goes on in places and circumstances most of us will never know will not be lost.
In the free world, it’s our expectation that citizens need such truth-telling to gain the understanding of reality that should underlie their choices at the ballot box. An informed electorate, we have always thought, is the best defense against tyranny. That’s what makes the distortions and outright lies of Fox News and its imitators tragic: It is contributing to the disarmament of democracy by players more interested in personal aggrandizement than the good of the community. This is happening at a fraught moment, with international tensions involving major powers at a level we haven’t experienced in years,
The best antidote to the tensions of our time remains what I believed it to be five decades ago, when that firefighter led me through a burned-out home to show off his disdain for sentiment. That is, I still believe in the fundamental value of good journalism.
It takes physical courage to travel into a war zone, though correspondents are often protected by body armor and an armored vehicle, and they rely on military intelligence in the hope of avoiding the most hazardous ground. But the work of ethical journalism requires emotional courage, too, which can’t be protected by body armor or a reinforced chassis. There are a lot of impediments to delivering clear-eyed truth-telling — that is, journalism that is based on empathy for those involved in the stories and a determination to help your fellow citizens understand the world..
There will be plenty of talk in days to come about what is happening in the Negev Desert — about Israel’s response to the massacre, surely, and whether Israel’s tight suppression of the two million people living in Gaza encouraged the growth of extremism there. Those are fair issues to report and debate. But in a civilized world, there is no place for the brutality that Hamas unleashed in the Negev. The reality of what happened is crushing. Bearing witness to that horror is a task for the bravest and most emotionally competent among us, and I’m grateful to them.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Nashville, Tenn. (The Tennesseean, tenneseean.com)
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
Muncie, Ind. (Muncie Star Press, thestarpress.com)
Minden, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
For helping children, only one state is worse
Vanderbilt University, one of the nation’s leading private academic institutions, exists a bit uneasily in Tennessee, which has become a solid red state in recent years even as the Republican party has adopted an overt hostility to higher education. This won’t help win the university local freinds: Vanderbilt research has found that among the 50 states and District of Columbia, Kentucky ranks 49th in helping children thrive and families escape poverty. Frank Gluck reports in The Tennesseean that changes in state laws concerning childcare and poverty assistance could lift Tennesseans out of poverty, but that’s “something extremely unlikely to occur under the state's current Republican leadership.”
Coffee has returned to Vermont
For years, road travelers in Vermont could get a cup of coffee at state-operated rest areas. The pandemic ended that. But now the coffee is brewing again, which Dan D’Ambrosio in the Burlington Free Press reports is thanks to a state contract with a nonprofit organization aimed at helping people recover from addiction — which also happens to operate a coffee roaster. Jenna’s Promise, named in honor of Jenna Tatro, who died at 26 in 2019 of an opioid overdose, had the winning bid to provide the service. With the touch of New England hospitality, officials note, Jenna’s Promise will be able to spread its message of encouraging help for people with addictive disorders.
Weird assault charge filed
Sometimes you think a headline can’t be right, like this on a story by Douglas Walker in the Star Press: “Muncie woman held after allegedly brandishing ink pen, machete.” Really, brandishing an ink pen seems rather de minimus in the context of a machete, don’t you think? But the headline writer had a point. Turns out the woman, annoyed by the heat in her apartment, held a pen to her landlord’s (left) eye, and asked, “How do you like seeing?” A slight laceration resulted. Another man in the building said the same woman came toward him with a knife — which surveillance video revealed to be a bit more threatening: the woman “approached that man holding two machetes behind her back, and then swung one of the weapons at him,” Walker reported. The man locked himself in his apartment to avoid contact with the woman — who had retreated to her own apartment, and after “efforts to persuade” her to come out were unavailing, a SWAT team forcibly removed her and took her into custody. There was no word in the story about custody of the machetes or the ink pen.
State-silenced racist siren won’t sound again
Some communities in bygone times had “sundown ordinances,” which required people of color to be out of town by sundown — when a warning siren would sound. (Incredible, right?) As Miles Yellow Swan reports in the Reno Gazette Journal, the Nevada Legislature only this year passed a law forbidding communities from sounding sirens historically associated with sundown laws. But in Minden, a county seat town of a few thousand people in Nevada’s northwest corner — land that was home to the Washoe tribe — some (presumably white) residents have found it hard to part with the tradition of the 5 p.m. siren. So the will-it-come-back-or-not issue was once again on the town council agenda, notwithstanding the state law. Speakers took both sides, including some who “defended what they see as an innocent representation of the town’s culture,” Yellow Swan wrote. In the end, the board decided not to try to circumvent the law and restore the wailing of racism on the Nevada prairie.
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