Trashing public servants shouldn’t be why we do this

July 31, 2011 

Contrary to what some media-averse officials probably believe, journalists as a rule don’t gather in a closed room and chortle with gleeful self-satisfaction after having scorched some public figure in an investigative report or commentary.

And contrary to the belief of those who think we’re in cahoots with the government entities we’re supposed to be keeping a watchful and skeptical eye on, we also don’t coddle officials or look the other way just to avoid awkward and unpleasant conflict. (We get accused of that, too. Quite a lot, in fact.)

Of course, some media/entertainment figures are ideological blowtorches, and watching them deflate political stupidity and hypocrisy can be enjoyable. I think Dennis Miller, P.J. O’Rourke, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart are all hilarious, and Stephen Colbert’s faux-right-wing shtick is pure genius.

Even those of us who usually try to be reasoned and responsible can take momentary pleasure in just loading up, figuratively speaking, and firing both barrels. If somebody has done or said something (or (ITAL)is(END ITAL) something) ridiculous or despicable enough, an editorial blast is eminently justified. I’d be lying if I said it isn’t gratifying to verbally flay somebody who manifestly deserves it.

But I’m reminded of an observation the late Pauline Kael, the best movie critic who ever lived or ever will, made about the art of writing reviews. She said panning a really bad movie -- especially if it’s bad because the filmmakers are lazy and cynical and greedy, as opposed to just incompetent -- can be fun, but it isn’t sustaining. It’s a wrong and lousy reason to become a critic. A good reviewer should love movies, and what he or she should enjoy most is singing the praises of good ones.

So here’s a confession -- and I do not speak for the Ledger-Enquirer, the newspaper industry or the whole vast media universe: My default position has always been to give public servants, especially at the local level, the benefit of the doubt.

If that comes across as either an audacious and ridiculous lie -- especially in light of recent events and editorial responses -- or a confession of journalistic negligence, so be it.

The fact is, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one in this line of work who feels a certain degree of empathy for public figures. For one thing, we know some these people, and sometimes have known them for years. They aren’t ideological or political abstractions; they’re people we might see at the store or in a restaurant or at a ball game or at church. Their kids go to school with our kids.

More to the point, I don’t think most of them take on the hassle and public scrutiny of civic involvement for fame or money, because only the most self-promoting or corrupt of them are likely to get much of either -- at least, not if they do their jobs honestly and well. Law enforcement people in particular are grotesquely underpaid and underappreciated.

If there’s one thing public officials and those of us who cover them ought to be able to commiserate about, it’s that we’re at the mercy of the same hecklers -- that cluster of faceless and pseudonymous critics dedicated to the premise that officials are by nature incompetent and dishonest, and media folks by nature unprincipled and malicious.

Public servants and media folks have this in common as well: The good ones are dedicated to good government. Call it self-serving if you like, but I can assure you that nobody here is in it for the money. We’re in it because of a shared core value -- an unshakable conviction that the public’s business needs to be conducted in public, and that when mismanagement and mistakes are made on public time and the public’s dime, those must be public as well.

So when these pages are dominated by harsh criticism of city government, or the poor performance of our public schools, or accounting lapses in the sheriff’s office, those are not commentaries written in any spirit of joy or fun.

It’s one thing to blast away at some official in Washington or a politician half a continent away, when neither is likely to read it or even hear about it. It’s quite another when the people affected by what we write can, and probably will, pick up the phone or fire off an e-mail or pay us a face-to-face visit, and the exchange most likely will not be pleasant.

But it goes, as they say, with the territory. That’s one more thing public figures and their media watchdogs are supposed to have in common: They understand that.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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