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Wahl to Wall: The atmosphere in journalism has changed

Wahl is editor of the Chieftain.

Published on July 10, 2018 4:07PM

I have never really been someone who lives with a great deal of fear. But I will admit, when I heard the news that a gunman had entered a newspaper and killed five people in Maryland, a shudder went through me head to toe.

It’s not as though I’m not aware my job comes with dangers. I once spent 48 hours under police protection because of a public threat made against me. Another time I stood by while police officers carefully examined the undercarriage of my vehicle after someone called the newspaper office to say a bomb had been planted there. None found.

But mostly, I’ve been able to find amicable solutions to disagreements and move forward. Occasionally, it’s necessary to simply agree to disagree.

But the atmosphere in which journalists work today has changed, and I’m going to say not for the better. The “media” has become the enemy for so many, and waging war appears to be a natural outgrowth.

The Chieftain is about as far removed –– practically and philosophically –– from CNN, the New York Times or Washington Post, yet there are those who see us in the same light.

I’ve often told people the difference can immediately be experienced by attempting to place a call or pay a visit to “the editor.” If you call CNN, you may get an intern. If you call the Chieftain, you get the editor. That’s a major difference.

Why? Because you have a voice in what we publish. I can’t tell you how many people have called or stopped me on the street in the past year to ask why we didn’t cover a particular event or topic. My usual response has been “didn’t know about it.” We’ve been able to respond to most of those suggestions to provide a level of coverage. We will continue to do that. “Drop a dime,” as we used to say when pay phones were common.

I will be the first to say I understand a great deal of the angst that the large national news outlets engender in people. You can drive a truck through the bias displayed by most national media outlets. I get that, but that’s them, not us.

I have been told several times in recent weeks that we should simply print the news and not express opinions or challenge public bodies that flaunt the law. They’re only volunteers, and they’re doing their best.

That’s true. I will be the first to express my admiration to those who run for office and serve. It can be a difficult job.

But that doesn’t relieve any of them of their responsibility to follow the law as it is written, particularly in the case of Oregon open meeting laws, which are among the most feckless I have encountered after working in six states.

I hesitate to call them “laws” because they come off sounding more like “suggestions.” The intention behind them is good –– public business should be conducted with the public present –– but the reality is there are no teeth.

I have read great portions of the archives of the Chieftain going back 100 years. In a future column, I am going to share some of the issues the newspaper has unashamedly championed over the years.

We have never shied away from informing readers but also educating them –– and occasionally inciting them. That was part of the reason why the founding fathers of our nation added “freedom of the press” specifically to the U.S. Constitution –– to make sure that tradition would never die.

Wahl is editor of the Chieftain.


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