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Of Jelly Jars and Preserving the Press

Editor's Note: Lean to the Left welcomes Dan Luzadder, long-time journalist and author of a new book, "The Manchurian Journalist," which examines the media and how reporters are often influenced by special interests and government agencies. Below is Dan's initial article for Lean to the Left:

AI-generated image of police at work
Police investigate blood on the sidewalk, but it turns out to be jelly. The incident was accurately reported by a small-town local newspaper. AI-generated image.

The Wahkiakum County Eagle, which has been reporting on Wahkiakum County in Washington state since the 1890s, noted in its news columns last week that local police in Cathlamet were dispatched to investigate “blood” on a sidewalk at a local park.

           

An officer – we are not sure what forensics were involved - determined that the blood stain was actually “fruit preserves,” a fact dutifully reported by the paper.


It was not much of a story, perhaps, compared to national news content where the daily count of incidents of blood on American streets and sidewalks is reported as tragedy.

           

But no matter the ‘importance’ of the story, the weekly Eagle was likely doing a better job of bedrock journalism than most of what was reported around the country last week.

 

That’s because, as a venerable institution that has followed the rules of the journalistic road for more than a century, The Eagle is still doing what has always been done by the best journalists – checking things like the police logs, the county court filings, the local assessor’s office for property transactions and the prosecutor’s calendar.

 

Many if not most of the Eagle’s major journalistic competitors, meanwhile, have let the systems of traps and beats of historical reporting technique evaporate, and as a result they have lost their way. They’ve become outlets for political arguments, and posting of press releases.

 

In a recent report on MSNBC, in which host Stephanie Ruhle was interviewing West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin during an event in Aspen, she asked him about the sad state of political polarization. Manchin surprised her by citing a “polarized” press as causative of our political dichotomies.

 

Rhule seemed flummoxed and she foundered for a moment.

 

But Manchin – who in May leaned right as he switched his voter registration from Democrat to Independent, after last year declaring he would not run for the Senate again – was recognizing something significant.


Preserving the Press

 In a political environment in which democracy is endangered by a collapsing Fourth Estate – leaving the electorate to suffer the infections of deliberate disinformation and the malaise of misinformation – our polarized press has become a primary contributor to that chaos. And it’s done so by forgetting the rules of the journalistic road.

 

Newspapers like the little Wahkiakum County Eagle have always been important to the growth, development and protection of their communities and the adherence to things that those communities – no matter their size, small town or a nation - value most about our democratic system: our First Amendment rights to a free press and free speech.

 

No matter the changes we’ve seen from the days of John Peter Zenger and legions of journalists onward, the institutional methods for gathering and reporting news of community significance have relied on the same principles – principles that, unfortunately, are slipping away.

 

Institutional newsgathering systems were and remain foundational to trust and truth, to accurate reporting and to mutual community respect and participation, to understanding ourselves and developing tolerance for divergent perspectives – all components of strong democratic communities and their well-being. But the institutions of journalism have become impaired as those fundamentals are forgotten.

 

The great newspapers that were once the repositories of vigorous and thorough reporting, on the public record, that captured history in their pages, creating trackable, reliable, factual information from which to build the historical record, are fading like ghosts of the past.

 

There are few multi-newspaper towns left and many American communities have no newspaper at all. Most that remain have cut staffs deeply; they have also sacrificed institutional knowledge of newsgathering and source-building in the process as they hired younger journalists at lower wages.

 

Major papers continue to wrestle with our deteriorating news environment by ending print editions, charging for obituaries, cutting days of publication, trying to save dollars and stave off extinction – and not doing well at either. We are left with thinly-stretched local television news crews and an emaciated national press that relies ever-more on the unreliable social media platforms.

 

Even the academic communities in which journalism schools once flourished are finding that to help graduates find jobs they must look toward “public relations” as alternatives to the fine art of news reporting and writing, on deadline, in the public interest.

 

No doubt there are many causes of our polarization of American political perspectives and of the press. The pressures of attracting viewers and readership are more complex with the plethora of outlets and perspectives that social media has gifted to us. As electronic access has changed our learning landscapes - and as we’ve seen extreme views introduce us to manipulation of news and information for political gain – we seem at a loss for solutions for preserving the press.

 

Pundits who are persuaders, and not representative of an independent press, use ideological commitments to one side or another to attract like-minded followers, and justify their own role in polarizing our cultural ideologies, even as they diminish our tolerance for each other’s ideas – and for each other.

 

That is why it feels worthwhile, at least to someone who has lived a life in local journalism, to reflect on the value of the Wahkiakum County Eagle and the long litany of its editors who understood that checking the police log, developing sources, recognizing a story, and reporting it accurately, creates the fabric of community.

 

“Fruit preserves” on the sidewalk at Strong Park in Cathlamet was reported because the local press had access to the police log, recognized that reporting the “unusual” is the byproduct of checking the “traps” where news is found, and by setting a sentence in type, on this minor event, which will now be preserved, and rendered accessible, for decades to come -- the creation of living history and the story of our daily lives.

 

To “preserve” the institutional reporting that tracks ‘blood’ on the sidewalk – and is relieved to find that someone dropped a jelly jar – is far more important to democracy than we might ever imagine.


The Manchurian Journalist cover

Check out Dan Luzadder's book, "The Manchurian Journalist," here.


An interview with Dan about his book and journalism in the U.S. will stream on YouTube and major podcast channels July 29..

 

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