by Jay Johansen | Sep 8, 1997
Perhaps you've heard Andy Warhol's famous dictum that in the twentieth century, everyone will be famous, but only for fifteen minutes each. Well, here was my fifteen minutes.
A few years ago I ran for school board in my little town, Xenia, Ohio. I lost, lest you wonder. But along the way I was invited to several debates with my opponents.
The most fun debate was the first, sponsored by an organization called Citizens for Excellence in Education". (That's the "CEE" in the banner.) The debate consisted primarily of questions from the audience. Well, the people who disagreed with me were extremely hostile. Most of their questions were of the "isn't it true that" variety. They interrupted me in the middle of answers, shouted insults, etc etc.
I think this cartoon gives a good idea of how the local paper perceived that debate. The reporter even called me the next day to ask me, "Are you okay?". At the next debate, sponsored by the PTA, they changed the format to have the candidates give prepared statements rather than accept questions from the audience.
I did get in some of my own digs, by the way. Like, they were absolutely incensed when I criticized a book then being used in the elementary schools that talked about "different types of families". The book included many examples of "families", including a single mother, a homosexual couple raising a child, etc. all portrayed as normal and happy. Interestingly enough, of all the families in the book, only one included two parents of opposite sexes raising their own children, and in that case the father was staying home taking care of the kids while the mother worked. I commented that I believed that if the schools were going to be telling kids what constituted a normal, healthy family, surely traditional families should be at least mentioned, and the advantages discussed. Children in bad family situations would be better served, I suggested, by being assured that this is not normal, that help is available, or at least that they are not condemned to have a family like this when they grow up. Why, they replied, this was absolutely intolerant. Who was I to say that one kind of family is better than another?! A little later they asked what I thought the schools should to help children from dysfunctional families. What are you talking about? I asked. You just finished explaining to me that one family is just as good as another. How can you now say that some families are dysfunctional. Isn't that awfully intolerant? Unfortunately, they didn't see the irony.
As I mentioned, though, they generally demonstrated their tolerance by screaming insults at anyone who disagreed with them.
All told, it was quite entertaining. And I figured, Wow, lots of people get their name in the paper, but how many make it to the political cartoons?
Actually, the first time my name was in the paper, I thought it was rather exciting, like, wow, I'm famous. But after two or three times it quickly became, Oh no, what are they saying about me now?
When a newspaper reporter interviews you, you may sit and talk for fifteen minutes to an hour. Then they take a couple of sentences from what you said and print it in the paper. Television is even worse: they may not even air a complete sentence. Think about it: Suppose you spent an hour discussing your views on some serious issue. Unless you have prepared very carefully, it is quite likely that somewhere in there you would say something dumb. Even if you were careful enough not to say anything that you hadn't thought out in advance, you might still make statements that were poorly worded so that they could be taken two ways, or could be taken out of context.
Reporters have a way of selectively reporting when they want to make a point. For example, in that school board race, there were two organizations in town that were interested in education: Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative group; and the Xenia Pride Coalition, a liberal group. The liberals were trying to say that there was some great conspiracy among the conservatives to destroy the school system or some such, so they were absolutely sure that anyone who talked conservative must be a member of CEE. While I was largely sympathetic to them, I wasn't a member and had never done anything to help the organization, but they absolutely refused to believe this. So at one point I told a reporter that when I became interested in running for school board, to find out what other interested people in the community were doing I attended a couple of meetings each of CEE and XPC. The next day there was a story in the paper that "Johansen admits he has attended meetings of CEE". The fact that I had also attended meetings of the liberal group was never mentioned, even though I had said it in the very same sentence in the interview.
Example two: A reporter for another paper called and told me he was doing a story on parental involvement in education. We talked a bit about my thoughts on the subject. The next day they printed a story about how conservatives wanted to cripple the school district with all sorts of obstructions under the guise of parental involvement, and he quoted me (as well as a school board candidate in another district) as supporting a proposal that I had never even heard of until I saw it in the paper. (The proposal was that no material could be used in the schools until it had been made available for inspection by parents for 30 days. If he'd actually asked me about it, I probably would have said that I supported the principle, but the mechanics sounded awkward.)
Since I've been involved in various social and political causes, I've found that there are a fair number of times when I have personal knowledge of something being reported in the news. And I've noticed that about half the time, the news media get important facts wrong or leave out important facts in a way that is misleading. Sometimes this sounds like honest mistakes; other times I suspect deliberate bias. But I have to wonder: If when I know the truth, the media get the story wrong half the time, why do I believe them when they talk about things that I know nothing about?
© 1997 by Jay Johansen