The Thin Black Line
Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University. They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases. PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport). While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.
It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear. As a journalist, for me it was pure gold. And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing. But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.
Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse. And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.” The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.
Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story. And I did. But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis. And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize. So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.
The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos. I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against. I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink. This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards. And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.
I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons. But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons. By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions. That is how it should be.