Is it news, just sen­sa­tional, or pub­lic sham­ing?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Chuck Plun­kett

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.

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