Just trying to make news FAIR | AspenTimes.com

Just trying to make news FAIR

Roger Marolt
Aspen, CO Colorado

I think it is fair that I explain my participation with FAIR (Fair Accurate ” actually it’s “Aspen” but I’ll take a liberty to make a point ” Investigative Reporting).

FAIR is a new, local nonprofit organization that aims to present important local issues in a concentrated, accurate, and unbiased manner via the Internet. Good luck, right? I, along with Tim Semrau and Bill Dinsmoor, am a founding board member and perhaps its greatest skeptic. Trust me, though, its success depends on that.

Bias in news media, whether it is due to reporters’ personal views seeping into stories, erroneous and selective fact presentation, or even the choice of which stories to run, has been a ubiquitous topic for some time. Many people would like to have it eliminated so that they can form their own opinions about any given topic based purely on factual information. Is this doable? I am anxious to find out.

Can FAIR add anything to local discussion in this town of one weekly and two daily newspapers? Maybe. That’s the strongest endorsement I can give. I think the local newspapers are excellent.

Ironically, it is interesting that an article about FAIR in Monday’s edition of The Aspen Daily News by Curtis Wackerle reveals why FAIR might serve a purpose here. I’ll first say that Wackerle’s article was good. Overall, it presented the story fairly accurately.

But, the piece was factually incorrect regarding some background on one of its principals, namely me. In his article, Wackerle said that I had previously written more than 75 letters to the papers under false names.

Was this fair reporting? No, I believe that Wackerle sold me well short. What he said was literally true, but it didn’t reflect the actual truth. His words were akin to saying that Barry Bonds has hit more than 300 home runs, which is true, but Barry Bonds has in fact hit 762 home runs, and there is a whole lot more to the story. Was the assertion accurate? Not even close. One hundred and eighty-five letters of my letters over the course of nearly four years, under 23 pen names were published in the local papers. Did Wackerle investigate this? No, even though it would have been easy to do. The letters I submitted to the papers have been compiled and published in a book titled “Dear Editor:”. It has gained a strong, local cultish following. It has appeared on the local “best seller” list. Our bookstores have it on their shelves and you can obtain a copy at any national chain, online, or at the library. So, without the “F” the “A” or the “I,” why Report this “fact” as Wackerle did?

Now, I didn’t want to hang Wackerle out to dry like a pair of longjohns over the shower curtain after a waist-deep powder day, but doing so highlights a point: Newspapers don’t always get it right. Wackerle may have mentioned my letter-writing escapade so that you would identify with me in the article, or he might have done it to embarrass me because I backed him into a skiing challenge that he couldn’t win. It doesn’t matter. He made a factual error and it may influence a reader’s opinion about our organization by its association with me, after all, I was far more prolific, creative, and resourceful than he portrayed.

This is not to suggest that I honestly believe we can do a better job than the local papers in reporting the news. I know how hard the job is. It’s one thing for an ordinary citizen to attend every PTA meeting for a year and then take three weeks to write a letter to the editor about the elementary school’s hot lunch program. This person will likely get everything absolutely correct, to the placement of each semicolon. On the other hand, let that person try juggling half a dozen current stories, attend all varieties of meetings and interviews, meet continual deadlines, all the while struggling to make each particular piece interesting, accurate, or simply intelligible, for pay that approaches that of a street performer and you can understand the difficulty of being a reporter. Consider all of this and the fact that they take on the job each day, then you will understand how passionate they are about their work and how committed to it they are. Reporting the news is not as easy as it reads.

A big obstacle FAIR is up against is funding. Are there enough people here who believe that the news they currently get for free from local newspapers, television, and radio stations can be enhanced by independent detailed investigative reporting to the point where they are willing to write a check so that it can be produced? I don’t know.

Perhaps more importantly, will donors expect select information to be presented? If “investigative reporting” doesn’t happen to jibe with a particular donor’s expectations of “truth,” will the benefactor continue to fund the operation? Again, I don’t know. I do know that no honest person can make anyone happy all the time.

Traditional media outlets rely on advertising dollars to support them. Advertisers are getting something besides the story when they write a check to the paper. In fact, they may not care what the story says as long as circulation is strong and their advertisement gets broad exposure. Counter-intuitively, that might give conventional media more freedom to report the truth.

As far as these issues go, the existing news sources appear to have a pen up on us. In their daily efforts to get the news right, the local papers have a series of checks that a story goes through before it sees print, which involves editors, proofreaders, and good ol’ chitchat around the water cooler with other experienced professionals. We are proposing to accomplish this with a staff of one person, possibly two.

Finally, “bias” too often has the connotation of impropriety, laziness, or ineptitude in the context of disseminating news. This does not reflect what I believe. Bias is not only what is reported, it’s what is not reported, as well. No medium can report everything that happens. Thus, what is reported is a reflection of what the medium believes their audience is interested in. In this sense bias is absolutely unavoidable. It’s like personality, and as each of us has it, so does every news outlet, including us.

What is FAIR’s strategy to overcome these obstacles? We plan to cover only a few, broadly important stories at one time and do them in greater depth. Admittedly it is a simple solution to a complicated, popularly perceived problem. Will it work? We won’t know unless we try.