Friday, January 12, 2007

Self Censoring or Common Decency?

A bit more than thirty years ago, I spent a little time as a reporter for a small daily in Rhode Island. Most of what I did involved school committees and village councils in outlying communities, but sometimes I was allowed feature assignments. For me, the plum of these left me wandering around a county fair for a week, staff photographer in tow. We had a grand time exploring the fair, interviewing people and preparing friendly stories on potters and pigs.

On Saturday, the fair ended with a performance by an old-timey band (“Don’t call it ‘Bluegrass,’" the leader warned me) and a beauty pageant whose contestants were local high-school seniors. Though I really wanted to stick with my story on the musicians, I knew that I had better feature the young women, so I settled on the grass beyond the stage and the photographer (as usual) prowled around for his shots.

Only one of the contestants had real sparkle; not only was she quite attractive, but she was clearly both talented and smart. During one of his passes within earshot of my resting place, the photographer and I agreed that it was no contest, really.

At the end, the judges did that usual beauty-contest thing of announcing the rankings of the finalists from the bottom up. You know, “the fourth runner-up is… “ and then the third, and so on. Finally, there were only two left, and the envelope was opened, stating who the first runner-up (and, therefore, the winner) would be.

The sparkly one, of course, was still standing, as was another young woman whose progress had surprised me. She showed no talent, no particular interest, and did not speak well. Oh, and she was rather plain.

The photographer had edged up to the stage and, I saw, had his camera focused on Miss Sparkles, ready to snap the reaction to victory. The announcer looked at the sheet and read off the name of the first runner-up.

The photographer got a picture all right, but it wasn’t the one we had expected. He printed it, though there was no way it was ever going to get used. I think he just wanted to see it, as did I. For it showed a young woman in shock and disbelief.

The lesser candidate, of course, had won.

Ever the professional, the photographer had quickly gotten a shot that we could use—and I had soon managed to get a few clichéd words from the chief judge, a woman of some renown and power in the town, a woman who had contributed quite a lot to the community.

Unsatisfied, I started asking questions around, trying to find out a bit more about the winner—but not through anyone associated with the contest. I knew I would never be able to print anything I found that way, but I dearly wanted to know why the one young woman had won.

It didn’t take me long: a few questions determined who her parents were. A few more, and I knew the names of her aunts and uncles—a group that included that chief judge I’d interviewed who, I also discovered, was the prime organizer of the pageant.

Even had I wanted to, I could not have included that in the story. Though it might have been lots of fun to see that picture of the runner-up on the front page over an exposé of the pageant, I would never have done that. The damage to the runner-up would not have been undone (it probably would have been exacerbated) and the winner would have been humiliated. It wasn’t my place to write something like that, anyway—I was supposed to be making people feel positive about the fair. Oh, and the paper never would have printed such a story—if for no other reason than the aunt’s power in the town.

Was what the paper and I did good journalism? No. But, sometimes, humanity needs to triumph over professionalism. Yes, the pageant may have needed reforming, but the damage was small. The damage to the town from exposure could have been much greater, ending up with various camps hating each other and the aunt’s positive contributions neutralized (at best).

Now, I’m not saying what I did (or didn’t do, to put it more accurately) was right, simply that it was more appropriate, given the circumstances.

The decision I made not to pursue the story into print (and the decision the paper would surely have made not to publish it) fit well within the newspaper ethos of the time, the same ethos that had allowed reporters in Washington, DC more than a decade earlier to sleep well at nights—though they knew they were not reporting all the “news” (Jack Kennedy’s ‘assignations,’ for example) they collected.

Strangely, one of the downfalls of journalism, reaching its depths in the Clinton years, was a new belief that “professionalism” demanded the pursuit of any story and the printing of all of them, no matter how unseemly. “Professionalism” trumped both community and propriety—and led to what?

To little more than disdain for the “profession” and unfortunate distraction from the real issues of the day.

Is that a more worthy outcome?

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