Is it news, just sensational, or public shaming?
When I was getting started in journalism, an editor sent me to a small, poor, predominantly black town in Arkansas to cover a rally by the Ku Klux Klan.
A caveat: I’m doing this from memory. As you’ll see, a story was never published. Who knows where the notebook ended up?
What I remember is that more than 100 men, women and children marched in hooded ostentation to the town square.
It was a Saturday afternoon, but nothing seemed open for business, which of course added to the sense of desolation.
The black townsfolk turned out to confront the Klan.
The Arkansas State Police sent a large contingent of troopers, white and black, to prevent bloodshed.
The Klan featured speakers to anger the townsfolk.
As the townsfolk grew agitated, they drew closer. As they did so, the troopers stepped in to form a solid blue line before the KKK assembly. As the townsfolk drew closer still, the police sent in troopers in riot gear, carrying batons.
It was a trap and everybody knew it. The Klan hoped to use the police protection to humiliate the townsfolk: and, if at all possible, see that they were beaten with sticks.
The speakers heightened their rhetoric. It was not pretty the things that they said. Several of the townsfolk, beside themselves with anger, tread right up to the blue line.
I gave up hope for a peaceful ending. But somehow, enough wise souls managed to convince their fellows to let this despicable demonstration play itself out to jeers, but not violence.
Some of them explained it to me. Too many of them had seen it before.
In a parking lot afterwards, the KKK members were getting out of their robes and having snacks.
Troopers I talked to shook their heads at the spectacle.
I was exhausted from running around. I had pages and pages of notes. My heart and mind raced.
My editor said come on back. There would be no story.
I couldn’t believe it, but his goal was to make sure nothing happened. I thought plenty had happened, but he said he meant violence. That the KKK said hateful things wasn’t news. If there was no violence to report, he wasn’t going to give those KKK so-and-sos any publicity.
Otherwise, the Klan would hold these rallies more often. More towns would face the scourge. Hate would become emboldened.
In those days the internet was new and little used. State papers like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette could get away with adhering to the perceived higher standard that holds it wasn’t news unless they said it was.
I’ve struggled with that editor’s decision for years. Some days I think he was right, and wise. Other days I think differently. At the very least, no matter what I think, I consider the decision easily defensible.
Recently, we saw the case of Dr. Michelle Herren, the pediatric anesthesiologist who made racist, stupid and false comments about Michelle Obama. We saw it because it went viral, not because of who she was. Herren is hardly a public figure.
Herren’s social media post went viral, in large degree, because news outlets, including ours, produced and wrote stories about it.
The stories concern me and raise many questions. Not because of what she said. I share critics’ abhorrence of her statements.
But when does a newsroom put its brand behind a viral episode of public shaming? When does it decide not to?
It’s a loaded question for newsrooms. Sadly, the coverage is not only expected by today’s increasingly polarized audiences, but demanded. You don’t report it, you get shamed, too.
And so these kinds of stories result more and more often. More are subjected to the scourge, and hate is emboldened.
I regret I can’t settle on an answer, other than to stick with the case-by-case judgment-call practice already in place, and to urge assignment editors to take a moment and think it through.
But I admit deep down in my soul that I fear where this trend is headed.