Over Easy: Don’t attack journalists when they’re as necessary as ever

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 4/17/2020 9:07:35 PM
Modified: 4/20/2020 3:05:03 PM

When we moved into our West Lebanon bungalow in the 1980s, we found a yellowed newspaper in an old trunk that had been left behind. “GRAFTON MAN, BOY AXE VICTIMS” screams the June 4, 1938 front page of the Manchester Union.

There were, as they say, big doings in the Upper Valley. A manhunt was on for a suspect who was thought to have killed two people on a “small isolated farm” after arguing about wages. A local sheriff indelicately reported that their heads “had been smashed and cut to pieces by blows from a woodsman’s axe.”

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley, two Claremont men were being held on murder charges in connection with the “holdup shooting’’ of a Newport shopkeeper. Gov. Philip Lafollette, of Wisconsin, who had recently announced the birth of a new National Progressive Party, spoke to some 2,000 people at Dartmouth College.

Out in the wider world, under a Vienna dateline, the Associated Press reported that “Kurt Schuschnigg, former chancellor of Austria whose fate at the hands of his Nazi captors still is uncertain, was married to beautiful Countess Vera Fugger von Babenhausen today at a ceremony he could not attend.”

Congress had passed a massive relief bill but was squabbling with President Roosevelt over oversight. The State Department declared that bombings of civilian in Spain and China were “barbarous.” A man interviewed by the FBI in a Florida kidnapping was identified as “John Manuel, negro.” Eww, says the year 2020.

There were 12 stories and three photos shoehorned onto the front page. All for three cents.

The page now hangs in my Dan Mackie Garage and Detritus Museum, next to a Shirley Temple album cover and a half-dozen retired New Hampshire license plates (the Live Free or Die chorus). It reminds me of a great age of newspapers, when they brought the world to your door, even in hard times.

In 2020, the challenge for newspapers is harder. They already had an underlying medical condition when COVID-19 turned the populace into recluses and made the economy stand still. The internet and social media already have been doing a kind of vicious bloodletting, drawing away advertising. According to Forbes, newspaper ad revenue dropped nationally from “$37.8 billion in 2008, when the Great Recession began, to $14.3 billion in 2018, a 62 percent decline.” Now that the bottom has really fallen out, 2018 seems like the good old days.

When the Valley News recently announced layoffs after the COVID-19 crisis began, I was struck by one reaction on the paper’s Facebook page. “The paper needs to close up. It’s not any good and it’s time to go,” said one area man, who said the internet had passed it by. He was scolded by a couple of loyal readers, one of whom wondered why he bothered to insult the paper after he’d written it off. “Cause I love train wrecks,” he replied.

So do some others, apparently. A later Valley News Facebook post drew scorn from a small group of angry critics on the right. One called the paper “the biggest left-leaning rag in the Upper Valley,’’ which is almost a compliment, really. But he directed toward its personnel a vulgarity related to the anus. I’m tempted to respond in kind, but I’m sick of that sort of thing. It brings out the worst in everyone (I do think I could be pretty good at it though).

As a retired Valley News alum who still writes a column every other week, I am pulling for the paper. I can only imagine the weird, disorienting challenge of covering the news when on the surface nothing much is happening here — witness the streets that look like a scene from a ghost town — and yet ominous dangers are afoot. For many of us, the hours and days pass by uneventfully. It’s like watching the grass grow or, more relevant to these times, each other’s hair.

I am beyond impressed by the job my old colleagues are doing, but I have long known that most journalists are highly dedicated, motivated not so much by the money (only fair to middling compared to many career paths) but by the belief that they do work that contributes to the common good.

What people might fail to recognize about journalists, at least the ones I have known, is that they have little or no agenda other than informing their readers. Their job is not to tell officials — even a president — that they are doing a great job. Their job is to look for flaws and blunders that must be corrected, to discover facts that readers deserve to know.

Yes, journalists are a pain. Their questions may seem snotty, to certain ears nasty. But there’s a long, sad history of institutions formed to do good making profound mistakes — even to the point of criminality — when misdeeds are hidden to protect the organization.

If a society is to be great, if democracy is to work, people in power, at every level, need to be accountable. They should and must be able to explain themselves. Don’t attack the questioner, just answer the question.

It’s ironic that if newspapers could adapt their presses to produce toilet paper instead of news their troubles would be over. It would be like printing money.

But they are in an awful state as the economy slumbers. It has gotten so bad that this week the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, laid off some of its stars, including Drake Maverick, No Way Jose (!?) and Luke Gallows. It has gotten bad enough that newspapers like the Valley News are asking for donations to get them through this mess.

I have clicked on the donation button on the Valley News website. Hundreds of others have rallied to the cause, too. You may think the internet can replace all that the paper delivers, that we can remotely inhabit a virtual Upper Valley, but old newspaperman that I am, I remain skeptical.

And subscribe if you are benefiting from the content being offered for free on the paper’s website during this emergency. Unlike Santa’s elves, the people who work in the news business don’t live on magic and cheer. They are good people but sometimes stressed to the limit as they perform what has long been described as “the daily miracle”: producing a newspaper.

Dedication can only sustain them until the bills come due.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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