Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I 'bout got jumped

During a break in the exciting meeting this morning, an older black gentleman pulled me aside. He identified himself as one of the individuals I had quoted in an article last week, and seemed quite distraught, saying things about me having misquoted him, tricked him, and wanting to know where I got his phone number. When I had no clue what he was talking about, we stepped outside the room while the meeting came back to order.

When I got out there, he laid into me. Now, this was quite a surprise to me. When I interviewed him on the phone, we had what I thought was a wonderful conversation. He is the vice-president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and when I couldn't reach the president quickly, the ex-VP referred me to this man. We spoke for a while, and I really enjoyed talking with the man.

But now he was quite irate. He was quickly joined by the president of the NAACP (who had returned my call -- he seems very good about that) in alternately interrogating me and berrating me. I could hardly get in a word edgewise, but eventually figured out that the older gentleman thought I had said the president gave me his number; I had really gotten it from the old VP (I'm quite positive that's what I had told him). Regardless of where the number came from, he holds a leadership position in an important group when it comes to the issue of redistricting to create a majority-minority district, so I couldn't see where the problem was in my talking with him, especially since I told him I was with the newspaper, interviewing him for an article on race and elections in Pender County.

But as the shouting continued, I realized what they were really mad at. I had quoted him when what he said didn't match up with what the others in the group who were pushing for the current redistricting plan said. He had apparently caught some heat from his group, because they were all supposed to be marching in lockstep on the issue. I think that I quoted him accurately and in the spirit of what he intended. But I gave a contrasting quote from a vocal black proponent of the bill, along with his quote suggesting that maybe it wasn't quite so crucial. Ironically, this group probably has no idea how hard I worked to actually find an actual minority who agreed with the principles and particulars of this redistricting proposal -- that was the hardest work about the whole article; catching up with a person who really believed in everything it stood for, and thought it, as a whole, would really be good for blacks. Even those who spoke up supporting it publicly had private reservations (at least one highly placed individual actively pushing this through privately admitted off the record that he didn't think the whole thing was best for blacks.)

But that's why they were yelling at me -- they were accusing me of deliberately calling the guy and tricking him into saying something that would sound like he was against the bill, so that I could just get a black person who was opposed to it. They were accusing me of trying to pit a black person against a black person. And while they were yelling at me, not letting me get a word of explanation in, over came a leader in the local Democratic Party and jumped in. "You're a minister, and you did this," he said. "You should be ashamed. You need to pray!" When he also went on along this vein, and none were inclined to listen to a word I had to say (and people were coming out of the meeting saying the conversation was disruptively loud), I just went back inside.

But I was mad. That's kind of unusual for me, really -- I don't get mad often, certainly not at people who are practically strangers. But this was uncalled for, particularly on the part of the Dem Party leader who jumped in uninvited and began to berate me, attacking my ministry, integrity, and spirituality without allowing a word of defense.

So at another break in the meeting, when most people had cleared out but this man remained, I went and spoke to him. I told him that I had done nothing immoral or unethical in writing the article, and I could explain what I had done if he actually cared to know, but that for him to attack me like that was most definitely immoral and unethical. He said, sure, he wouldn't mind hearing why and what I did. He then told me that the older man in question is dying of cancer, given two months to live, and isn't really qualified to express himself clearly -- I shouldn't have used him as a source. I explained that I had no idea where this man stood on the issue. I had simply started calling black leaders, and in particular the NAACP, about this issue -- it would have been unethical for me not to have done that on this issue. When I couldn't reach the president, and the ex-vice president referred me to the current vice-president, he didn't tell me anything about the man's health. When I spoke to him on the phone, we had a fine conversation, with no indication that he couldn't think or speak clearly. Having interviewed him, it would have been unethical of me NOT to have used his quotes, considering that he was the only officer of the NAACP I could reach in time for the article. I had my notes from our conversation, and I could assure him that I quoted the man accurately and fairly.

He blustered a bit about how he was just trying to protect a friend and would do the same again. Then he gave me a shot about taking the Republican side -- maybe I should write for the paper across the county that is perceived as the Republican paper. I told him I wasn't interested -- I'm a registered independent and voted a split ticket in the last election.

The meeting was starting back up again, so I had to go back to my seat. The fellow was friendly enough after the meeting, so hopefully no lasting harm done. It does sadden me that this older gentleman was hurt and doesn't want to speak to me again -- I liked him and surely meant him no harm. But I can't be responsible for making sure that every source is toeing the party line when I talk to them. It would be irresponsible, unethical, and immoral for me to withhold the truth from the people of the county in order to please a party group.

If the Republican Party had acted as dishonestly as the Dems did on this one, I'd be calling them out on it too. I would interview and quote without apology, so long as I was being faithful to the truth. And that's all I can do.

Maybe this is one of those things that some people don't like about the newspaper business.


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