Talk of the media town lately has focused on the bias of the press, the fake news of the mainstream and whether journalism as an above-the-fray art is dead.
My two cents? Dead as a doornail. Dead as dead can be. I know full well. I was fired for just the type of news bias that President Donald Trump blasts on a near-daily basis.
And here’s a tip to keep in mind. The media’s not just unwittingly biased.
The media’s very often head-on, all-out, glaring-eyed, aggressively, angrily fever-pitched intentionally biased. Trust me on this. I’ve been part and parcel of the media for years and have seen, too up-close-and-personal for taste, just how the liberal minds of the supposed Reputable News Outlets work.
It was just such minds that fired me a few years back from my local newspaper job for the offense of writing politically right when I should have gone left — for countering the leftist environmental views of the paper’s owners and pet green-grouping colleagues in a freelance expose that I wrote — get this — after receiving the go-ahead from one of my editors.
Take notes. Media bias isn’t just a national problem. It’s local, as well.
Flashback: Fauquier County, Virginia, a small bucolic community about 45 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. I was hired some years back to report on government — in part, to provide a somewhat different and more aggressive voice to the paper’s normal coverage. I was huge on FOIA; I reported regularly when government officials broke “Sunshine Laws,” the state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act. I also reported regularly on what I saw as corrupted local zoning and permitting process — processes that were stymied by radical environmentalists at every turn.
That wasn’t just perception.
The local Piedmont Environmental Council sent missives and operatives to condemn and deny just about every developmental request that came across Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Supervisor desks. They paid their people to attend these local meetings, and to oppose, oppose, oppose any and all developer, builder and business seeking to set up camp or expand in the county — including those tasked to build schools.
Adding voice to the PEC presence were some of Fauquier’s wealthiest and most elite. One particularly heated meeting included the insistence of a local horse owner that the outdoor lighting of a proposed winery event might cause nervousness among her beasts — and therefore, the event permit ought to be denied.
But back to the PEC: This is a group that pretty much ran the local government. Not only were their staffers ready at the arms to attend government meetings. But their volunteers served on local boards — the types of local boards that vet and vote on the development proposals that eventually wind up before the elected planning and zoning commissioners. The types of local boards that produced reports, studies and research that these planning and zoning commissioners would then cite as reason and cause to halt the developmental permitting process.
Moreover — and talk about the D.C.-based revolving door of government service and lobbying — past PEC members oftentimes ran for slots on the Planning Commission, Board of Education, and on the Board of Supervisors. Once elected, they would set up shop to stall as many development requests as possible.
One Planning and Zoning Commission member who was especially tight with the PEC even served simultaneously on the Board of Zoning Appeals — a blatant violation of local conflict of interest codes. Think about it. How, as a denied developer, can you possibly get a fair shake on your development application when the same parties you’re appealing to already said no?
Suffice it to say, if you were a developer in Fauquier County, a builder, a homeowner seeking to expand, a business owner hoping to set up shop — a business owner hoping to hang a sign outside your business door — the fix was in: PEC and its band of merry environmentalists were the final arbiters. No, no, not now and no were the usual decisions from the government boards.
Well, turns out, PEC was a group started by the owners of the paper that employed me. Imagine that. No wonder all the coverage — at least until my hiring — had gone in PEC’s favor. No wonder PEC couldn’t stand me, and regularly complained about my coverage to me, my editors, and the paper’s owners.
Now fast-forward a bit to an issue that grabbed the hearts of the PEC crowd — the establishment of a National Heritage Area land designation that would touch on much of the county, called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. At the time, the second newspaper in the area had folded and my newspaper picked up some of the out-of-work journalists, at least one of whom had commenced to cover the JTHG NHA with what can only be described as a fawning spread — or series of spreads. The stories, bluntly put, couldn’t have spun any more positively if PECers themselves had written them.
Enter one of my editors, who approached and asked if I’d be interested in writing a story with more balance, one that pointed out, say, some of the negatives about the NHA that showed how it could impede upon private property rights. I said yes — but that I’d rather freelance something, too, to get extra money. My editor agreed, and what came about in terms of my freelanced piece was a long, well-researched story for an outside nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., that looked at all the money flowing in and out of the PEC, and that drew the picture of how the group’s influence at the local level was indicative of how governments at all levels could be corrupted by special interest environmentalists.
I showed the piece to another editor — the executive editor — so he wouldn’t be blindsided.
Hours later, I was called to his office and fired. His words? I went after “their” baby — meaning, the newspaper owners’ pet, the PEC.
It didn’t matter that the news the newspaper was publishing about the JTHG NHA was little more than white-washed, one-sided propaganda — fake news. It didn’t matter that the firing, somewhat ludicrously, was an underscore of the newspaper’s owners’ own biases. It also didn’t matter that the firing, through my executive editor, had come from the same owner who had sent me more than a couple notes over the months about my great coverage — and whose father, another owner, had stood just feet from my face at one point of my tenure there and promised, rather out of the blue and randomly, that I’d always have a job with the paper.
In the end, bias won. Bias and the preference for more faked, less truthful news drove the owners to fire me.
Yes, Virginia, news bias and fake news do exist.
So let’s not be so surprised when Trump hits at the media as an “enemy,” and when news outlets and news people are accused of intentional bias — of intentionally skewing and faking the news. It happens, it happens frequently, and it happens at all levels of news organizations.