Opinion Column: Caught My Eye, Crossed My Mind
Does The General Public Really Want Unbiased Forms Of Media?
By: Forrest R. Church, Publisher
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
“The media is biased” …
“The media is in bed with corporate America” …
“The media is an extension of the Democrat Party ” …
“I wish we could go back to the days of Walter Cronkite where ‘true journalism’ existed” …
“I ignore the media as they have nothing but agenda to push, I’m better off not knowing what takes place in the news” …
Have you heard such quotes in recent years? I’m sure you have, no matter what side of the political aisle you align yourself on concerning issues (local, regional, national, and/or international). Maybe you feel precisely this way. If so, you are not alone.
Whether you ARE or ARE NOT a person of faith, whether you are FOR or AGAINST local levies, whether you voted for BIDEN or TRUMP you are probably in the mindset that the media, in general, has lost its focus. In-kind of an odd showing of unity, this belief is something most actually agree on in a very divided world.
Often, I actually agree with these media concerns despite being a member myself. I too have reviewed news coverage and within a short amount of time could tell it was slanted. Most times I watch/listen to/read the news it is common knowledge it is biased coverage. I too wish the media, in general, would go back to old-school journalism, something we work hard at doing at “The Village Reporter”. I’m not saying we are 100% perfect, but I can promise you we work hard at it. It is not that difficult to publish facts to the community and if you do want to express your opinion as a media outlet, clearly list it as such in opinion columns (such as here), not mixed in the main news coverage format.
Unlike most people who only watch certain cable news channels, a handful of their favorite podcasts, and particular YouTube talking heads, I purposely listen to media that I know is slanted against my personal opinions on politics. I do so to get an opposite perspective. Try it sometime if you want homework.
Turn on CNN and/or MSNBC and watch ten minutes of coverage on a New York Subway Shooting and then turn on Fox News and/or Newsmax on the same coverage topic. Tell me if they are not already trying to twist the shooter’s motives into the political platform’s perspective they try to align their coverage with. It aggravates me across the board, in my opinion, it should aggravate society as well.
One of the things that I enjoy most concerning covering local news (our publications date back to the 1870s) is the majority of news published is about achievements, why it is great to live in local small communities, athletic accomplishments; things that people from all perspectives generally enjoy. It is rewarding to catch students hitting a game-winning shot or looking like a million dollars at a local prom when they walk in with their date. We love featuring “grandma” that has been planting flowers in a downtown district for years. We love it when council members and mayors work their tail ends off to make their towns a better place to live. How remarkable is it to share a teacher’s retirement story on the number of children’s lives they have touched over the decades. Those are the stories that warm my heart when I send the newspaper pages to the press and/or online.
However, from time-to-time issues do arise that split our communities and we find ourselves in the middle. This is a time I have to put my shoulders back and be prepared to receive negativity. Unfortunately, as I have said in prior columns you can make 99.9% happy and you only hear from the .1% who are displeased. These hot topic issues have happened before, they are currently happening with May’s vote, and will happen again I’m sure.
GEESH, GET TO THE POINT …
I hold teachers, clergy, police officers, and elected officials in high regard. But I can tell you from past and present experience, that some of the worst behavior can come from these folks, though very rare (I’m thinking of 3-4 instances in almost 21 years). Most that find themselves in these fields locally are some of the most outstanding citizens I can think of that give night and day to their communities. I believe these few bad instances of conduct flared up more or less because a rare few are often not challenged due to being authority figures. Thus when the small-town media challenges them on a topic they cannot, check that, occasionally do not, handle it well. I’m not a psychologist and I’m still trying to figure out the guy I shave with every other day, so that is just a guess on why we (and other media outlets) have had an occasional issue in the past.
Around 15 years ago I recorded a phone call from a local school where I was called an MF (use your imagination) from a faculty member, from the school phone (caller ID), at 10:45 a.m., from the administration office, while school was in full session. Now there are a lot of reasons that conversation was wrong on all levels, that is a column all its own, but you can imagine what would happen if a student did that in a classroom. The call was recorded because ironically it was not the first one I received from upset members of that district for allowing the community to express “anti-levy” opinions as “Letters To The Editor” along with ad space purchased by a local individual wanting the salaries of the faculty published again (already printed within school board articles throughout the year like they are for all school districts covered by the media). This stirred up a hornets’ nest unlike any I had seen in my young publishing career.
When addressing the vulgarity and lack of professionalism with school leadership and board members, it was denied, upon which I offered to play the recording (at that time recordings of meetings and/or phone calls were pretty rare). Long story short, an apology was offered and we moved on.
I could have blown up that situation within our newspaper in a column such as this one, but decided it was a bad moment for them, give grace. God knows I’m not perfect, I often overact before my first cup of coffee and for heaven’s sake do not cut me off in traffic. The Lord has worked a lot of those rough edges off me but I have a long way to go before I’m that smooth river rock (another column, another time). And at the end of the day, I was not the only one being mistreated. There were many others in the small district having similar poor experiences; conversation was openly shared at the coffee shop about strongarm tactics used (threats of boycott, etc.) thus I was not the only person/business being mistreated.
The point of that story? Voters in that district turned down the school levy numerous times in a row. In my opinion, this was due to behavior, not because of voters logically looking at the school’s needs. My experience with a single unprofessional faculty member was not uncommon as anybody that questioned, or in our case, allowed the questioning of the levy was strong-armed in the community (businesses and individuals).
The levy eventually did pass; I think on the fourth attempt, but it took some serious time to heal the wounds. Several years later I look at this unnamed district and am proud of how far they have come. They made some personnel changes and that ugly chapter is for the most part behind them. They are doing a knock-out job educating children within the district and I believe there is a pretty good relationship between the community and school now.
Why tell that old story in 2022? Having reflected on that scenario over the years there were a few people on both sides of that levy issue that tossed fuel on the fire which exploded into a very ugly situation and did years of damage, as they were, for the most part, left unchecked to treat people on opposing sides of the levy issue poorly (along with small-town businesses).
FAST FORWARD TO THE PAST FEW WEEKS …
I had a recent conversation with a Pro Wauseon School Levy member who WAS very respectful but concerned with ad space bought within “The Village Reporter” last week. They felt that an advertisement recently purchased showing Wauseon Faculty salaries should have said: “not the opinion of the newspaper” on the disclaimer. I don’t know if we see eye to eye after our conversation, but my respect has probably grown for them for contacting me and rationally having a text conversation followed by a call on the phone. I have had this similar conversation with a few other business and community leaders in Wauseon recently and the end result, at least on my end, is more respect than ever for them. I thought his question and my answers might be valuable information for this column.
My response: “We have always kept an open platform where all voices are allowed (article coverage, ads, Letters To The Editor, etc.). The only time we have ever disallowed opinions and views/or free speech has been on our website when violence or over-the-top language is used in comments on news stories. We stand with those wishing to have a voice, even those I may disagree with personally. This is why we have been considered one of the few unbiased outlets in Northwest Ohio.”
“The quick answer is media should not have opinions, it should be an open platform (unless they have opinion columns that do not mix opinion in main news coverage). Since the 1870s I’ve never seen that statement used in our news editions that I have published or in the archives well ahead of my time. I would have to put that disclaimer on all the coverage over the past three months where “For Levy” information was published within our pages (almost all public meetings covered were Pro Levy topics).”
In closing, the message stated, “Not the most enjoyable part of my job. Honestly in the world of Rachel Maddow (extreme left) and Sean Hannity (extreme right), people do not know how to handle unbiased media. People say they want unbiased news coverage but when an opposing side expresses their opinion within unbiased coverage they lose their mind and react poorly.”
I truly believe this statement wholeheartedly. The opening of this column stated how people from all perspectives feel about the condition of the media. Despite feeling this way, I believe many truly do not want any perspective that challenges their beliefs when push comes to shove. The old phrase I heard a long time ago, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of your opinions” comes to mind.
The truth of the matter is if a media outlet shares unbiased factual data A LOT will challenge your opinions. If you get upset and tell every unbiased media outlet to jump in the creek because you do not like something appearing on half of Page 13 while loving the other 47.5 Pages of coverage in a 48-Page newspaper proving local news (including coverage that supports your election opinions in other areas of the same newspaper edition), you are never going to have a source to bring forth unbiased news. Even if you stick to your preferred platforms on cable, podcast, YouTube, etc., at some point there will be news content you do not appreciate, including news published inside “The Village Reporter”.
Example – Fox News was faithfully followed by conservatives for forever, leading the network to often destroy its viewing competition in the ratings. Often multiple competitors combined had fewer viewers than Fox News. Then Fox News called Arizona for President Biden earlier than any other media outlet in the last election, massively upsetting President Trump supporters. Within hours the most popular Conservative News Network had millions of followers turn on them, many still today will not watch the network over 18 months later. That is certainly their viewing right, but I will admit I sat in amazement watching this, as Fox News competitors celebrated. Years of being happy with the news channel tossed out the door because of a debatable election call (which proved to be correct) for the State of Arizona for President Biden 30 minutes earlier than other media outlets on election night.
LEAVE HOT TOPICS ALONE?:
I have had conversations on should “The Village Reporter” stay out of local issues since when publishing facts, after all, we will step on toes no matter how lightly we report. Let’s be honest and look at the numbers. Unless it is a Fire or Library Levy around the greater Williams County – Fulton County area (they almost always pass by a 70-80% margin), 40-60% will either be for or against other levy topics with the middle ground choosing the outcome. It would be nice knowing we would not step on the toes of half the voting residents in the area by skipping anything political within our coverage.
But no, we have a responsibility to bring forth facts and as stated above, via an unbiased platform. We cannot worry if a factual article, paid-for ads, and/or “Letters To The Editor” upset some. Again, we publish all coverage on topics, including unpopular ones and those that are the complete opposite of my personal opinions. For those of faith, can this be where “iron sharpens iron” can be inserted?
Maybe an anti-levy voter has their reason for not wanting more taxes on older people who haven’t had kids in school for decades and live off a tight fixed income, in the midst of high inflation increasing living rates 10+%? Maybe a pro-levy voter wants the best for their children, their property values (good school district is important for property value), and thinks faculty members are underpaid considering the time they put into children’s lives and countless expensive degrees required to teach? Both perspectives can be respected, though they are different, correct?
Right now, the Wauseon School levy is an extremely hot topic. I’m not ready to say the ugliest I have seen in the two decades of publishing local news but towards the top. There is a lot of stress within the community of Wauseon and in my opinion, faculty are doing their best to weather this storm, while bringing forth valuable information to voters.
Some behavior recently (both sides) has been just about as unprofessional as the phone call I mentioned above, though none of the less than pleasant “attacks” have been from any official campaign representatives or faculty members. I have received a handful of apologies from official members who indicate they cannot control how non sanctioned members act/behave.
Some examples? Those who are against the levy more or less accused us (and other media outlets) of being an extension of the school’s agenda. Why? Because we report what is said at the local school board and council meetings (public meetings). This seems pretty unfair to accuse local media (ourselves and our competition) of being biased when those making these statements could have attended these meetings, placed themselves on the docket, and stated their displeasure in front of the community. I stand with anybody who wants to express their voice, as I keep saying, even if I do not agree with them. But an effort needs to be made on their part to have their own voice heard, not just get mad at the media for not highlighting the perspective enough.
On the flip side, I (our office) has received several nasty calls and social media messages from those in support of the levy this past week, due mainly to the last edition’s purchased ad space (faculty salaries – public records). That’s right, those that fight for the education of local school children are threatening others (boycotting business, questioning integrity, and even questioning the faith of those they disagree with). Familiar sounding tactics to the example I wrote about above.
Would this be allowed in the classroom? Of course not, but because we allow an open platform in print, on our website, and on social media pages, we are now the enemy of the levy effort? This sounds a bit like the voices being silenced on large social media platforms right now (another column for another time / Twitter & Facebook shutting down conservative voices).
This is unfortunately the kind of society we live in now, due in part to social media. Many will toss a relationship they have spent a lifetime building because their “friend” or “relative” voted for the other candidate. We live in a “toss” society, just block them and remove them from your life if they do not agree with you on a topic. Toss the relationship out in the trash because social media has a block function (how many people in your circle are coming to mind as you just read the previous sentence)? They are not for higher taxes … boycott, discontinue business, etc., despite forgetting the amount of support given to your little league baseball program, purchase of athletic uniforms, helping disadvantaged students in the same district you say you support. Disposable relationships (business and personal).
See how being fair and balanced, sharing both sides just ticked everyone off concerning this hot topic? Remember my comment above, do people really want unbiased media or just media that is in their camp’s perspective?
And of course, it is important here to state again that only “a few” have acted poorly, certainly not the multitudes. Most that have contacted us with questions within the last week have been very respectful and that is appreciated. We learned a few things in these conversations and without giving out personal information, have been able to educate several readers who contacted us on the matter.
I have also talked to leaders of the Levy Campaign including a four-way phone call and shared some of these concerns, they assured me that they have appreciated our past news coverage and “the few” that I mentioned are giving their campaign a bad name are not official members and do not represent the majority working to pass the levy (they are non-faculty members).
I would also like to extend an appreciation for a local clergy member that viewed some of the hatred spewed towards us and offered prayer.
DOWN WITH ALLOWING FREE SPEECH …
My response to an upset reader, who unlike the respectful callers/writers mentioned above, started the conversation with an attack (boycott of business, questioning of my faith, along with questioning my integrity for allowing ad space to be purchased) …
“I’m saddened that you write on my personal page to attack us. I’m saddened that you do not want an unbiased newspaper. Real journalism that gives everyone an open platform does just that, you will not like a lot, heck, I pay publication of material and do not like a lot that makes our pages. It’s not my job to twist what is published. While I am not the biggest fan of ad space bought showing the salary of public school employees, they are public records that anybody can request and they are currently being heavily circulated in Fulton County via flyers and on social media. In addition, local media publishes faculty salaries when covering school board meetings throughout the year.”
At the end of the day, slandering our news operation via these attacks actually brings a heck of a lot more attention to the very subject matter people attacking us are upset about.
Most of those contacting us assume that this ad space was bought to hurt the levy, however several including myself question that mindset. One of the Pro-Levy points has been how reasonable Wauseon Faculty Salaries are compared to state averages thus showing salaries could be a positive for the district on fiscal responsibility conducted by the district. This was the hope of a school board member I discussed this possibility with late in the week.
A random thought as I close down this column that has turned into a book …
I wonder if those against the levy will threaten a boycott of our business (and others) when Pro Levy materials are published?
Politics are ugly. If you are involved in any way, be prepared. I tell myself I am ready each time an issue flairs up, but almost always an attack comes out of thin air and often from those I least expected.
As mentioned earlier “divide and conquer” tactics, whether intentional or not, are often used. Hate your neighbor if they do not want a levy sign in their yard. Do not support the business with a Trump sign in the window (yet they sponsor your child’s T-Ball Team). Boycott a local newspaper that employs local residents that in turn pay taxes to the school district you say you support (along with boycott threats to other area businesses that have allowed faculty salary flyers to sit by an entryway). On and on.
While much of this column revolves around the Wauseon Levy, the town/school name can easily be replaced with another neighboring district and the same will likely occur.
We will continue at “The Village Reporter” to give all voices an opportunity, whether popular or not, whether I agree with them or not.
My encouragement to the voters of the Wauseon School District and all “hot topic” issues in the area now that early voting is open for the May ballot, is to avoid voting off emotion. My encouragement to the community is to vote off research, sought out facts, and if you choose, your heart.
Are you from outside the Wauseon District? Sitting back and enjoying this division discussed here as a form of entertainment? I can just about guarantee your little community will experience something similar or may have recently been through it. The past story mentioned above and recent experiences are one of the countless others I can share and I’m only in the mid 40’s with twenty years of publishing under my belt. My experiences are not uncommon in our industry when talking to publishers and editors with 10, 20, 30, 40 years more professional experience than myself.
As I recently told a member of the levy committee, you will have hard-core people who will be AGAINST the levy (maybe 25%). You will have educators and those in their circle all FOR the levy (maybe 25%). But the 50% in the middle will determine the levy’s outcome. Even if my numbers are way off, those in the middle will still be the deciding factor. If there is poor behavior from either side, those in the middle will jump ship and vote emotionally. Not because of a good factual data decision but because they did not like how “Jane” made threats online or how “Jim” bought ad space and put information that was disliked within it. While we do not endorse issues one way or another, voting this way seems foolish in my honest opinion (guess I get to have an opinion too after all).
When you are done voting, maybe you can smile at the neighbor that offsets your vote after ballots are cast?
Maybe you can go eat eggs at the restaurant that had the political sign you did not like in the window?
Remember that we are still a community after the May election is over and more importantly keep in mind we are blessed beyond measure when we compare living to other areas of the world.
Forrest R. Church may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org