Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why I Won't Write Political Stories Anytime Soon

Dial back in time to 1996.

Bill Clinton was running for his second term, and I ... I was second-guessing a decision I'd made as a cub reporter back in 1988.

So let's amend our little time capsule and dial back further ... to 1988.

I was one year out of college, still green and hungry to make a name for myself in the world of journalism. At age 23, I was working at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall paper called "The Coatesville Record" (now defunct) in south-central Pennsylvania. One day, Dave Lanute, one of my two editors called me over to his terminal.

"Are you registered to vote?"


"What party?"


"Change it."

I blanched. "Change it to what, Dave???"

"Change it to Independent. You don't ever want anyone knowing which way you lean politically. Ever. They will use it against you and claim that your news coverage is biased. You don't have to do it. It's not a prerequisite for working here. It's just some friendly advice. It will save you headaches down the road. OK, that's all I wanted to tell you," Dave said, and then turned back to his computer screen like we hadn't even been having a discussion.

I changed to Independent that same week.

But when 1996 rolled around, I was hankering to register Democrat so that I could vote for Bill in the primary.

By this time, I was a "newswoman" (yes, that was my actual job title) for The Associated Press, covering Pennsylvania politics in the state Capitol, Harrisburg. If you visited the Capitol, you'd go straight up the sweeping marble stairs in a blindingly beautiful Rotunda, then hang a left through the door at the top -- and you'd be in the AP Bureau. And you'd see me sitting at a desk in the left-hand corner, busily calling people for quotes and pounding at my keyboard.

It was mid-winter, so about three months before the primary election. Three Republican staffers, all young guys, came into our bureau. Simultaneously, all five of us looked up. One of the GOP staffers started laughing.

"What do you want?" my bureau chief asked.

"We don't want anything. We're here to tell you that all of you are going to love what's coming out soon," replied one.

"And that is?"

"That is ... We have gone through voting records of every reporter who works in the statehouse and are listing their political affiliations so that lawmakers will know how biased they are when they report on their bills."

The room was silent.

"Good luck with that, jackass."

(Yes, that comment came from me ... sitting over in the left-hand corner.)

They all looked at me, and one raised his eyebrow, smirking. "Oh we don't need luck, we already did it."

"Then if that's the case, you'll find that those of us with two brain cells ARE REGISTERED AS INDEPENDENTS. Now go away, I have a story to write, and my deadline was five minutes ago."

They stood in the doorway with their jaws agape. I looked up from my keyboard. "Go bother someone else, I said! We're busy! Get out of here!"

I had a lot of fun that day, throwing that in their faces. I thanked my old editor at the Coatesville Record with every breath as I smiled to myself while they slunk away.

But now let's speed up in time ... to 2016.

I have been a full-time freelance journalist since I left the newspaper industry 15 years ago.This morning, I was on Twitter, bouncing private messages with a friend who had known me during the time I worked for the AP. He brought up an important question:

"You are so biased! Reporters need to be neutral, right?"

See, he was referring to my penchant for tweeting heavily about my views against Donald Trump. Today, not only am I registered Democrat, but I hold nothing back in my political viewpoints on social media.

So this needs to be addressed, both for anyone who wonders about it and for those of you who are just starting out in your professional careers as journalists:

Yes, I'm a reporter. Yes, I have covered politics in the past.

But you will not see me writing political stories anytime soon. In fact, if you dig through my social media posts, you will not see me posting any opinions about any of the topics on which I write.

I refuse to take political assignments. I am at a point in life where I can pick and choose the types of clients for whom to work. My clients are either military magazines or business magazines. I stay away from reporting on daily news -- and I definitely stay away from politics. I'm a political junkie at heart, and I loved (loved!) covering politics 20 years ago for the AP. But that was a different lifetime. And I've decided that it's more important to me personally to be able to present my views and objections to political happenings that I feel are putting the country at peril.

In my former life, I was required by my employers -- news organizations -- to shelve my views in order to try to give each story as much objectivity as I humanly could. Does it mean that reporters are objective? Of course not. Notice I said, "humanly." We're all humans, and if someone tries to tell you that they're an "objective journalist," never read anything they write again, because they're a big liar.

However, we are to maintain the appearance of propriety as journalists, and as much as it depends on us, report stories with as much fairness as we can muster.

It wasn't always easy for me. I can remember one specific story in Elkton, Maryland, when I sat across the table from the Grand Dragon of that state's Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was passing around leaflets near public schools, to recruit teenagers. I can tell you that I honestly wanted to lunge myself across the table and choke the smile off of that monster's face. But I wrote a story from the interview -- an objective story -- that laid out the facts about what the Klan was doing and how school district officials were combating it.

No, the Grand Dragon did not like that story at all -- and it's because he thought it would be a puff piece. That's how well I masked my feelings.

But back to politics. I think that in this era of social media, it's very important for young journalists to realize this:

If you're going to be on social media, keep your political views to yourselves. Register as Independent. Go after every story as if you were covering a nebulous PTA meeting. And you already know this, but it bears repeating: Do not allow your views to taint your coverage.

When I know that my views on an issue or a subject are so strong that it prevents me from doing my job, I back off. I refuse the assignment.

Now there is an exception here. There are times when your past experiences or who you are as a person will contribute to the story. For example, I am a former Army wife, and my ex-husband went through three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving me home with a newborn infant, three weeks after this child was born.

Obviously, I am going to have strong views about the war.

However, I do have the perspective about how military life affects military families. So my stories will focus on how to help your child cope with deployments. How to reconnect after you're reunited. How to deal with PTSD.

What you will NOT see me write about, however, are stories about the political decisions shaping our troops. I do believe that the war was an illegal war. As a result, I would not write stories about pending legislation on war efforts, for example. You would not see me doing a profile story on a Congressman with a Hawkish view.

Here's another example: I'm a single mom, and as a self-employed writer, I pay for my own health care insurance policy. You would not see me write stories about Obamacare, however. You would not see me write stories about the insurance industry.

But you might see me write stories about how to shop for insurance plans ... or how to cut your home budget to make room for health care expenses.

Do you see the difference?


Back to my friend's original question about my political tweets and my anti-Donald-Trump stance:

I would never take an assignment that would involve Donald Trump or his shenanigans. I would never accept a story about a political rally, an anti-immigrant campaign or even on the plights of immigrants.

However, you will definitely see me tweeting about it. You will definitely see me exercising my free speech right as an American to vociferously shout down hatred and bigotry.

And as for the rest of the stories out there ... oh, there are so many stories! ... You will see my silence on issues where there is a chance that my byline may be linked to them.

There are plenty of stories from which to choose. So choose wisely ... and wisely conduct yourself so that no one can say you acted with impropriety.

And when in doubt ... register Independent. And keep your big mouth shut about it.

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