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Wolves in journalistic clothing

Published on -4/29/2013, 9:08 AM

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Many of us feel flattered if a reporter asks to interview us, gratified that someone might value our perspective. Even those with normal ego levels (heh!) can enjoy seeing their names or images in the media.

Be careful what you wish for.

In my experience, most reporters -- or "journalists," as some prefer to be known -- are decent, sincere people who want to serve the public good while trying to make a living. "Objectivity" might be a reporter's stated goal, but what constitutes objectivity can be a highly subjective matter.

Must one give Flat-Earth perspectives attention equal to that invested in modern cosmology? Does aspiring to be "fair and balanced" require treating nonsense as though it had the same merit as extensively validated data? Or is regarding anything as established fact a fatally subjective stance by definition?

Six hundred years ago, "established" scholarship regarded the earth as flat and static. Now most of us know the earth is spherical and mobile. Isn't there a risk today's beliefs will be discarded similarly someday?

Yes, but to a much lesser degree than beliefs based on the profound ignorance of past authorities. It is highly unlikely we will ever decide that Round Earth Theory is wrong.

A good reporter can acknowledge the existence of absurd beliefs without implicitly elevating them to the same stature as research-backed fact. A good reporter can mention pseudoscientific claims but still identify the preponderance of contrary evidence as such. Good reporters not only relay what significant people have to say, but also investigate the ostensible evidence to which each side lays claim, if only as "background."

That's in a perfect world. Unfortunately, reporters can bring a viewpoint to their interviews, an agenda; the perceptive interviewee will be tempted, at some point, to wonder "what's his angle?"

A common tactic of the agenda-driven interviewer is to present the appearance of friendliness and good will, as though he really does sympathize with what the victim is likely to say. This is at least courteous, and sometimes genuine, but at other times it's a scam, intended to lure the subject into some verbal indiscretion that can be quoted out of context to support concepts he actually finds reprehensible.

I've met these pros. Although years of experience trying to "read" patients, to assess their forthrightness and honesty, has given me a few tools to detect hoodwinkers, I've been fooled too.

During my Rez days, a glossy national magazine, "Hippocrates," decided to remodel its image into something edgier. I took a call from a reporter ostensibly interested in the state of medical care provided to Indian populations. We had a congenial chat, as I described the successes and challenges we faced on the front lines in the Indian Health Service.

But he seemed inordinately interested in a pet theory of mine, which I'd only mentioned off-hand.

I suspect that some of the devastating consequences of the Conquest, the often-genocidal European invasion of the Americas, could be linked to a particular cultural phenomenon. For many tribes, the world and all life in it were part of a coherent whole; there was no practical distinction between the sacred and the profane. The whole world is a Spirit World. All things are sacred, all acts are "spiritual" in some sense, whether it's painting a war pony, thanking the spirit of a recently killed buffalo, or exercising caution at twilight when "rocks move around."

Indians brought these concepts of spiritual "medicine" to the forefront of their conflict with the Europeans. Some warriors courted special medicine power that caused bullets and arrows to miss them.

What Europeans brought to the fight was not only "profane," it was downright casual. Numbers and technology, certainly. But some whites were happy to trade their "high-tech" guns to their potential opponents, in exchange for nothing more than a pile of furs. An Indian wouldn't think of selling his amulet or his medicine arrows.

Deeply revered concepts central to the Indians' identity clashed with materialistic, cynical postures -- and cynicism kicked medicine's butt. It wasn't even a fair fight. This trashed The People's sense of worth, undermined their confidence in the only world they knew, and their place in it.

Do today's poverty and dysfunction arise from that critical outcome? It's a grim hypothesis, and in hindsight, the reporter was far too interested in it.

Shortly, a photographer from the magazine came to get some images for the article. He shot a cute little girl giggling -- truth! -- as I set her broken arm. We visited an endearing old man, chatting as he fried salt pork in a cast-iron skillet on his woodstove. Good human-interest stuff.

But not the "right" stuff. They sent a different photographer who immediately visited the local jail, where I made daily rounds before work. I also introduced him to a handsome young man who was only a few tenuous weeks into his recovery from alcoholism, a potential success story; later, he took the poor guy to an off-Rez bar and bought him drinks.

The article revealed his agenda. Life was terrible on the Rez, health care a risky gamble, government indifference rife. Absolutely normal teens driving by, looking out car windows, were described as "wounded-looking."

They treated me OK, personally, but portrayed quality care and competent providers as anomalies. Focused entirely on problems, ignored successes. An attack ad posing as journalism.

Live and learn. And let the interviewee beware.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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