Enterprise-Record (Chico)

Inviting your worst critics over for lunch

- Mike Wolcott is the editor of the Enterprise-Record. You can reach him at mwolcott@chicoer.com.

Imagine going to a San Francisco Giants World Series parade and seeing Clayton Kershaw as the grand marshal.

Or, the Raiders holding an alltime team reunion and inviting all of their fans from the Oakland days, and then introducin­g Tom Brady as the guest speaker.

Get the drift? OK, good, because that’ll give you a glance into my world this past week.

I attended part of the annual California News Publishers Associatio­n’s annual conference in Sacramento, and to say organizers went out of their way to invite some lessthan-friendly speakers would be an understate­ment.

The theme, you see, was “Rebuilding Trust in an Age of Disinforma­tion” — a much-welcomed choice, I’ll say — and on the day I attended, the keynote address was deliver by none other than Bill Barr, as in “Bill Barr, Donald Trump’s Attorney General and widely known critic of the ‘fake news’ media.”

But wait. That wasn’t all. The opening address was delivered by author and CNN contributo­r Brian Karem, who did such a good job of torching corporate newspaper ownership, I’m surprised there was anything left for Barr to torch a couple of hours later.

And you know what? I thought the whole day was fantastic. Newspaper publishers and editors should stand and face the heat from their biggest critics sometimes, and the timing (and choice of speakers) couldn’t have been better.

We’ll start with Karem who, long before becoming the White House correspond­ent for Playboy or a political analyst for CNN, was a small-town newspaper guy. His first job was as sports editor of the Montgomery County Courier in Conroe, Texas.

I didn’t like him from the moment he started talking. He was brash, he was loud, and he was obviously quite enamored with himself.

By the time he’d finished, I wanted to stand up and applaud.

From here, I’ll give you a medley of just a few of the things Karem had to say about the media in general and newspapers in particular.

“You have 16 percent credibilit­y … only Congress is lower … six companies own 90 percent of newspapers. Biased? They are biased — toward MONEY. … You want to be fair? Supply the FACTS. Don’t try to tell me what the ‘truth’ is. Give me FACTS.”

He even dropped a line from Indiana Jones, saying, “If it’s ‘truth’ you’re interested in, the philosophy class is right down the hall.”

No fan of Trump (or vice-versa), Karem took an equally blistering blowtorch to politician­s. He noted that Trump, for all his faults, would at least engage with the media. “Biden won’t talk at all. Two press conference­s in two years! … We have two political parties. One has no heart, and the other has no head.”

He had some kind words, too — mainly about small newspapers. He said the “best reporters

I’ve known” covered high school sports. Or the city clerk’s office. He remembered a time when “bigger papers would follow the smaller papers” and pick up stories. Today, when even the big papers are so poorly staffed — and a small paper in New York had the George Santos story weeks before anybody else — there’s nobody left to notice, and stories stay unreported.

If there’s anything I could have added to his speech, it would have been at least an acknowledg­ement that without the

“evil corporatio­ns” that keep buying up small, failing newspapers, some of those newspapers would have long since gone out of business. But his message was unmistakab­le — newspapers, and especially small-town newspapers, are our last and perhaps best line of defense in a democracy, and if we stand by and let them die on the vine, it’s nobody’s fault but ours. As far as trust? We had all best do a better job of earning it. Then came Bill Barr.

The only Attorney General to ever serve two presidents was greeted by the lightest round of applause of the day. It didn’t seem to bother him much. First he launched into an attack on the media for turning partisan in a leftward direction under President George H.W. Bush, leading a drumbeat of “bad economy” news that wasn’t justified but led to Bush’s defeat after he’d soared to a 90 percent approval rating following the first Iraq War. He said the Russia collusion narrative was so overblown, it basically destroyed any chance Trump had of serving as the duly elected president.

“Too many reporters see themselves as agents of societal change and process,” he said, instead of “trusted sources of verified informatio­n.”

In other words, if he’d ever had the room in the first place, he would have lost it three times over.

But then, he earned some begrudging nods of approval with accounts of how Trump’s claims that the election was stolen were 100 percent hogwash. If nothing else, you had to give credit to a man often derided as a toady for Trump having the guts to stand up and flatly say “you’re wrong” just as Trump was more desperate than ever to hear the opposite.

I’ll admit, it was spellbindi­ng. He left to a slightly warmer round of applause than when he’d arrived.

I hope it was because his appearance taught something to everyone in that room, just as Karem’s had earlier. We need to listen to people who don’t agree with us. We need to be able to have conversati­ons about things. And if we’re only having conversati­ons with people we agree with, what on earth is the point? I’m thrilled they accepted the invitation, and I’m especially proud that our publishers were brave enough to invite them.

It left me reenergize­d, which is something anyone who sits in my chair would likely need several times a year. It also led me to recommitti­ng to the principles I always try to follow in the first place.

There are about two things I preach to my staff so often, they are to be entirely excused if I catch them rolling their eyes when I say them. The first is, “You’ve got to love this job to do it. Otherwise, you’ll be miserable.” The second? “We have one job: Get it right, and be fair.”

I ran into Karem in the hallway later that day. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself as “smalltown newspaper guy.” He shook it and said, “I love small-town newspapers.”

So do I. We’ll keep seeking, and reporting, facts. If you think we blew it, let me know, and I’ll promise to listen.

On the other hand, if it’s ‘truth’ you’re after, philosophy is down the hall.

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