The press works best when it poses hypothetical questions instead of regurgitating hypothetical answers. Better still when the questions are rooted in a knowledge of at least part of the answers to real questions, and best of all when it knows both the questions and the answers and keeps looking for the truth in the cracks of interpretation.
That’s where the dirt is, and whatever else gets swept aside in the interests of money, reputation, influence and abuse of privilege.
Journalists learn that truth is as evasive as human virtue; it exists, but as a vapor, sometimes fragrant, sometimes malodorous, sometimes swept aside with errant windy currents. As such, it often has the nature of an attraction found along some woodland path, which means picking it up can bite you, stick to you, follow you home or stalk you long after you have ceased to consider it a current threat.
So was the case as 12-gauge blasts crystalized glass and mangled flesh in a newsroom in Annapolis last week. One moment, the hush of air conditioning and the hum of electronics, the next, a roar of chaos and carnage.
It happens now and then. We tick people off. And we do it with intent; it is our calling to afflict the comfortable and shed light on shadowy intent. Still, though we sometimes ponder the possibilities while clicking away at the keyboard, filling a page with words that some will feel like blows from a hammer, we pound away in a rhythmic patter to meet the next deadline. No pun intended.
At the end of most shifts, most of us leave an untidy desk and head for home, or, as a college professor once said in releasing our class, “wherever it is you go when you leave here.” The old cliché is of an unkempt, poorly groomed, wisecracking cynic heading to a bar to hoist a few beers before falling asleep in front of the TV in a walk-up apartment. But even those of us who were that way now go home to a significant other and tend to mundane things like laundry, mowing a lawn, and running the kids to practice.
Sometimes we will watch our children as they play and consider what they do not suspect about the world. Things we know that make us cynical, and sometimes even a little afraid for them and what awaits them after all the hypocrisy and plundering of public trust that we see and they never do.
What journalists learn is that good and evil is a lot like the continuum of our children’s lives: The beginnings are neutral, very basic and transparent, but gradually transformed by awareness of what is self-serving and what constitutes a threat to human needs or desires. As we make allowances for errors in judgment, we gradually see the erosion of that innocence that was so fleeting, and we are drawn into actions designed to achieve certain outcomes. Goals and competitive interests collide like teens in helmets on fields of play, but still, there are rules.
When newspaper people watch a sport, they may be more aware of the role of the umpires and referees. Someone monitors the games of life to ensure that justice survives zeal.
The crowd screams for the blood of the umpire, the coaches cast aspersions on the lineage of the referee, and children so loving and cuddly become sullen teens resentful of adult scrutiny. The public decries the brassy arrogance of “the media.”
But the work is necessary if we are to have civilization that is worth leaving a record of its time.
Madmen and felons will always be a threat, but no more a threat, really, than the slick suit-and-tie merchants of deception that would dominate others for power and wealth.
The man who tried to slaughter truth along with innocent news staffers in Annapolis did not want people to know his name.
The colleagues of the murdered reporters and editors picked up the story and wrote it anyway.
And so it will be.