When I was sixteen, my hay fever - allergies to Vermont's lush timothy - became so severe that I could no longer buck bales for local dairy farmers. I tried it on a June afternoon when the ever-present threat of thunderstorms meant going at double-time, stacking bales in the sweltering loft of a wooden barn before rain dampened them and could, on some distant, winter night, cook them to the point of combustion. With sheer North Country determination, refusing to be deemed a "wuss" by my friends in the loft with me, I soldiered through that day, staggering out of the barn at dusk virtually blind, my eyes swollen shut, my nose so tightly plugged that each breath was a challenge. A trip to the emergency room and two shots of antihistamines later, the world slowly came back into focus, though the view - clearly eliminating 90% of possible teenage employment for me - was none too appealing.
"Why don't you go up to the Newport Daily and see if they'd put you on as a stringer?" my dad suggested a few days later.
I was reluctant. Northern Vermont teenagers were supposed to work in the hay fields. Or in the woods cutting pulp - four-foot sections of softwood for paper mills. Or driving fence posts down through glacial till more rock than soil. Jobs that would tighten their forearms and, at least while they were young, give them strong backs. All the better if they came away with a chainsaw scar, a mashed finger, or temporary limp - red badges of courage attesting to their toughness. Little chance of that with a notepad, I figured, working for a newspaper.
But, it was an era when a father's suggestions really weren't. They were edicts phrased enough like questions to make a boy feel slightly more independent than when he was simply told what to do. So, mostly because I knew arguing would do no good, and partly because I figured there was a better chance that Roger Clemens - the great hope of the 1987 Red Sox - would renounce his record salary, tossing the horsehide for free - than that a newspaper would hire a boy, I reluctantly agreed.
"All I want to know is if you've got a driver's license and if you can write," Terry Albee, managing editor of the Newport Daily Express, asked, cutting off my much-rehearsed introduction.
Yes to both, I replied, and just that easily was hired - for five dollars and eighty-seven cents an hour - as a part-time reporter, a notch above the stringer position my father had suggested I offer.
My first assignment was an Albany selectmen's meeting at which all the routine business of one of Vermont's smaller towns was talked about in round-table format once a month. I sat in the back of a dimly-lit room, my pen scribbling non-stop, taking down conversation like a courtroom stenographer, sure I could spin the most mundane hour and a half into a tale worthy of the front page. I drafted out the story later that night in my bedroom and the following morning, long before the sun rose and burned the mist off the Clyde River behind the Newport Daily Express, was hammering away at a keyboard hooked to a large monitor where green letters and a blinking, white cursor strobed.
Forty-five minutes later my masterpiece was saved to a 3.5" floppy disk and proudly handed to Terry Albee, who took it over his shoulder without looking away from his monitor or missing a single puff of his cigarette.
"Stick around," was all he said, so that's what I did, taking up as unassuming a place in the little break room as I had the night before at the selectmen's meeting. I was trying to get the courage up to pour myself a cup of coffee when Terry stood up from his desk and barked, "Mosher, you still here?"
"Ought oh," the sports editor, who I knew through his coverage of my high school baseball and basketball games, said on my way back into the newsroom. He smiled and winked as I walked into the world of journalism where the first lesson I learned was that you could take a well-crafted, two-page story, complete with suspense and climactic drama, and eviscerate it to less than three paragraphs.
"You're not writing a book," Terry said. "You're giving people the news, and that's ALL you're doing. You write a good lead and then, as concisely as possible, you tell what happened. And that's it. Nothing more. Read this," he said, pointing to what was left of my article. It didn't take long. "No opinions, no feelings, no extra.... no extra shit in it. Got it?" he asked, and before I could answer the lines disappeared, replaced with a page layout where something wasn't fitting to his liking. "God damn," he said, and then again, as if a more forceful invoking might yield his desired results, "God damn!"
That was almost 30 years ago. Back when the only internet I knew was the AP "wire" which national stories rolled off every morning. Before I'd seen a cell phone, much less a smart phone, and a full 15 years before I could imagine taking a digital picture. A lot has changed. Most of the editors I worked with in Newport have passed away. Most of the reporters there now - I assume - carry laptops, and I'm willing to bet it's been more than a few years since a kid arrived at 4:30 in the morning to work in the complete blackness of the darkroom, fumbling around with film canisters, winders, clothespins, and developing solution. My writing, undoubtedly much to the dismay of Terry Albee's spirit, has swung a wide berth away from the newsroom style of direct and to the point.
That's okay, I tell myself. After all, I'm no longer recounting a Brownington elementary school board's decision to pave - or not - an outdoor basketball court. Or lugging a boxy, Pentax K1000 camera around, hoping my indoor subjects remain stock still while I press the shutter, allowing a beam of light to hit my "high speed," ISO400 film. I'm not, as Terry Albee more than once reminded me, invoking the same deity with the same forcefulness that he did my first morning in the newsroom, working in "black and white."
"Black and white," he would say, his finger jamming into a random spot on yesterday's copy. "That's what news is. You see? No opinions, no guessing, no personal this or that unless you're doing an editorial, which you won't be. The only thing that matters here is the who, what, when, where, why and how. Nothing else. See the world in color, but report the world in black and white."
That, including the years I spent getting a degree in journalism, was the best advice I ever got, and I wonder now, scrolling through CNN on my phone, what the hell has changed? When did so many of our national news agencies decide that simply presenting the facts wasn't good enough? That we need them spun toward one of the poles, liberal or conservative, politicized to conform with an agenda, left or right, loaded up with subjectivity, and then spit out in bold, headline letters as news. At what point were we, as the people who read these articles, deemed no longer worthy of coming to our own conclusions based on facts? No longer in need of opposing views? This intellectually inferior?
It's insulting. Not just to the standards of journalism, but to the public as well. And worse, it erodes the credibility of what has always been an important check against tyranny, radical societal trends, and injustice. It is the modern day version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, played out in large-font type exactly like this morning's CNN top story, "8 Words That Should Scare the GOP."
That's not an editorial, flagged as an opinion, or buried down below stories on our looming tax legislation, advances in North Korea's missile program, or, heaven forbid, a human interest piece with a happy ending. It is, according to CNN, the most important news at this point in the entire world. A headline with the word "should" in it. It would be stricken from the lowliest high school newspaper, crumpled and hurled to the floor of the smallest newsroom in the most rural part of Vermont or Montana, and, had I ever presented something similar to Terry Albee, would have resulted in a dressing down the likes of which I shudder thinking about.
We are living in a time when many major media outlets apparently view their purpose - perhaps their most important role - as taking the president of the United States to task. That man, Donald Trump, whether raging on Twitter about LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of three (unenviable) basketball-playing sons, or throwing full support behind a Senate candidate who said that the last time America was great coincided with the owning of slaves, has done nothing to deserve otherwise. From his insinuating that a current US Senator would trade sex for campaign donations, to his monikers for world leaders, to his late-night rants on social media, he exhibits a fundamental lack of respect for the position he holds, trampling roughshod over virtually every notion of presidential dignity. And I can say that here, clearly my own opinion, well outside what should be the confines of straight journalism.
Sure, it's news when Trump proclaims the ruler of North Korea "Little Rocket Man." It's worthy of reporting, but without the whole host of subjective adjectives - bellicose, inflammatory, confrontational, belligerent - that so often accompany it, speculation about his state of mind, and the highlighted opinion of one reporter regarding his fitness for the job. Statements by our current Commander in Chief, left accurately intact and standing on their own, speak better than a reporter's interpretation of them. Reading the "news" these days, I find myself wanting to jump to my feet and cry, "Objection! Calls for speculation! Reporter is testifying!"
Somewhere along the way, whether in the drive for ratings in this world where a video of an obese man falling in Walmart may garner a few hundred thousand views online, or through a fear that readers are incapable of stitching together facts, or with a misguided sense that this is investigative journalism exposing some deep-hidden evil, our news is rarely black and white.
Still, many of us rely on the news to help form opinions for matters as important as who we wish to govern us. We grew up believing that behind this news there was stringent fact checking, a high level of impartiality, and a faith in all of us to make an informed, personal decision based upon the situation. Not upon a network's take on the situation. There was a place for that - in editorials - if we wanted to know the personal opinions of people working for various media companies and, when these organizations were deserving of the high regard in which we held them, those were often important opinions to get.
In todays' world, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and NBC rammed Hillary Clinton down our throats while they marginalized and dismissed Bernie Sanders. I saw it after each primary debate when Clinton was lauded and Sanders was barely taken seriously. I often wondered if I had witnessed an entirely different debate than the one reported on.
Across the aisle, FOX stumps solely for the Republican Party. I would argue, with so much of the country reliant upon the media for news, that both are counterproductive to a democracy which, in theory, reflects the will of the people, not the will of a corporation driven to guide those people. I would argue that journalism comes with a sanctity for the truth and a duty to present it, untainted and free of agenda. That anonymous sources had damn well better be vetted, enough time taken playing devil's advocate to validate the truth in a feature, and, when opinions are offered, they come from people willing to give direct quotes, not from the personal data bank of one reporter.
What's the end game, I wonder? The furthering of an agenda, either liberal or conservative, through the constant filtering and slanting of our world's happenings? Apparently so.
It's an era of buzzwords - ideas and movements prefaced by a hashtag and minute-by-minute trend monitoring. Website hits, Google searches, and page views dictate how long a theme remains current and to what lengths a reporter must go to keep it fresh in the minds of viewers. After the deserved fall of Harvey Weinstein, how often have I opened a news app on my phone to see the top story involves decades' old accusations of impropriety against someone else? Well, that's an important tool of press - to give voice to people who have not found it elsewhere in a system which has failed to recognize them. But how often have these stories focused so strongly upon the accusations that I come away certain of someone's guilt? It's almost as if, caught up in the rush for headlines, we've abandoned the principal of presumed innocence. How dare someone deny making a lewd comment twenty years ago? And, who really cares if they deny it or not? An accuser has come forward so that is story enough.
I was working one late afternoon at the Newport Daily Express when I was seventeen. I'd learned how to write a lead by then and, the same sports editor who I'd met in the break room my first day on the job, had given me a column's worth of space for my less journalistic essays, making it easier to pare down everything else I wrote for straight news. I took a call from a man who swore up and down that a local car dealer had reneged on a six-month guarantee provided with the sale of a used car. He was convincing, said that he had some documentation, and pleaded what sounded like a very believable case. I took careful notes and then, when we hung up, called the car dealer who, predictably, denied everything vehemently with more than a few choice words for me.
The following morning I was excited to run it all by Terry Albee, and I'd done enough passable work so that this time when we talked we did it away from his monitor and the constant distractions it provided. He listened to everything I said and when I finished explained exactly why there was no story - at least not yet.
"You've got one person saying one thing and another person saying the opposite," he said. That happens all the time, and we aren't in the business or airing everyone's personal gripes. Now, if you've got four or five people all claiming they've been screwed by this car dealer - people who have filed civil suits in a court where a judge has agreed there's enough evidence to proceed - then that's the start of a pretty good story. This, as it stands right now, is just an argument. Arguments aren't usually stories. The truth, which is what we need if we're going to run with something, is probably convoluted and lies somewhere in between what these two guys are saying."
Today, the accusation is the story. Yes, it will be alleged, but the story will roll hard down the line on the word of one party. It's a print now, prove later mentality that does little to affirm my faith in our media, even when time bares out the validity of original reports. When it doesn't - when retractions are offered, reporters suspended or fired, and apologies issued - the entire media's credibility is irreparably damaged. Sadly, by the time some of these errors come to light, lives have been altered. The press and its followers have acted as judge and jury and their sentence drags on well beyond any attempts to make amends.
Maybe it's our decreasing attention span. The fact that so many of us have gotten used to swiping left, swiping right, scrolling up and down and, in less than 100 characters and well under 15 seconds, getting all the information we think we need. Doesn't leave a reporter much room to flesh something out. A glorified headline and a few sensational sentences thrown up tabloid-style and it's on to the next hot topic.
There are certainly media companies better than others, and even the ones I'd rank well down the list don't earn the title fake news from me. I'll leave that trumpeting to someone else with a pun very much intended. But they aren't black and white either. My hope is that we will begin to see through that. That we will be leery of the superficial, read with a sense of caution, and, hard as they may be to find, seek opposing views before jumping to conclusions. If that is no longer the responsibility of the media, then I believe that the onus shifts to us.
I believe that the best decisions come with the best information and that we have an obligation to ourselves to be well-informed. We have the wonderfully unique ability on this planet to be able to question. To analyze. To, at the very least, make certain that what we see, hear, and read passes a basic litmus test of sensibility and logic before we embrace it. Not doing so is, in my bluntest, black and white estimation, being less human.
** As always, these photos (some of them black and white) of ice crystals and December landscapes, including the feature picture, "Geometric," can be found on my photography site.
"Lonely" by Jake Mosher
"December Rose" by Jake Mosher
"Homestead" by Jake Mosher
"Winter Park" by Jake Mosher
"First Snow" by Jake Mosher
"Patched" by Jake Mosher