If you haven’t met the “f*** you” lady, you will soon

I came out of work late this afternoon and was heading over to a gathering at a local pub to watch the U.S. play in the World Cup. All I had on my mind was where I might go to grab a big bag of pretzels to go with the beers.

So I’m walking down the front steps of the Missourian and notice an older woman in uncomfortable looking summer attire — I mean, she really looked as if the heat were getting to her — standing opposite the Missourian on the sidewalk. I noticed her because her arms were in an unusual position — both aloft, fingers of both hands pointing skyward. I zoomed in on those hands and noticed a strange thing: She was looking directly at me and flipping me off with one hand. The other arm was in a backstroke position, and she seemed to be flipping off the columns in the distance behind her.

I stopped. I am sure I was squinting in her direction, wondering what the hell was going on over there in her world.

“Are you press?” she shouted at me.

“Uh… yes?” I said, hesitating because I think of myself as a teacher first, most days, with journalist hot on the heels of that self-identification. But it depends on when you ask.

“Yeah?” she said. “Well, f*** you!”

I might have scratched my head at this point. “What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. Cars were rushing by.

“F*** you! F*** the press!” She jabbed those middle fingers toward the sky — bam bam bam — as if she hoped they would make a sound, like explosions, maybe.

I was, I admit, somewhat taken aback. “Well, um, okay,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “F*** you. I am exercising my freedom of speech.”

I stood there looking at her, considering this. What, I wondered, had prompted this anger — a fury of such intensity that she was absolutely okay with directing it at a total stranger. I had no idea what to say, but I knew it would not be fruitful to ask her what we had done to wrong her, we, “the media.” Whatever that means, these days.

So I said: “Must be pretty uncomfortable walking around like that.” What I was thinking was, “How awful it must be for you, angry lady, to walk around with so much rage.”

But she took it literally and meandered on down the sidewalk toward Ninth Street with both arms raised in the “F*** you” position, which she had by now perfected, a kind of modern dance of outrage, the kind you sometimes see homeless people perform on the sidewalk.

I scurried away with a feeling I’ve had often in the past 10 years: It’s a growing sense of how we’ve lost the PR battle, in journalism. We’ve never even joined the battle on our own  behalf, and, unfortunately, the “other side,” the cynical purveyors of fact-free, biased “news,” have very shrewdly stepped into that void and won converts to the idea that the media are the enemy.

I read this terrific piece in the L.A. Times last week about how Americans are as deadlocked as Congress, unable to talk across the divide of their differences. Reporting on an “unusually extensive” survey of 10,000 adults by the Pew Research Center, the LAT story says:

Although a majority of Americans do not hold such consistent ideological views, those who do have a disproportionate influence on elections. They engage much more in politics, vote more consistently, especially in primaries, and give much more money to candidates.

They also increasingly live cut off from adherents of the opposite party, choosing friends and picking places to live that reinforce their political outlooks.

Yikes. And you know if you look at your own social media circles, I’m guessing, that the people you’re hanging out with in digital spaces are probably mostly a lot like you in many ways. But I’m not sure — maybe that’s a generational thing.

So what was the “f*** you” lady really saying to me from across the street? Had some great personal wrong been done to her, or someone she loved, by “the press”? I don’t know. She was too angry to engage.

But standing across the street from me with the cars streaming between us, I saw her as symbolic of something: our own failure in the media to find ways to help people engage with each other across divides. To help people discover in each other areas of agreement and sympathy. I think we in journalism have a responsibility to figure this out, quick. I’m less worried, honestly, about becoming the target of some unhappy woman’s fury than I am about what it means for the democracy when we can’t even talk to each other anymore with civility and respect. She saw me as a symbol, too. And she hated me.

I think we have to do something about that, but I don’t know what exactly it is. Clearly, in this age of people selecting exactly what they want to read (often choosing what aligns with their existing beliefs), we have a challenge of daunting size.

What do you think we can do as journalists to help narrow that divide? (Yes, that is a blog prompt — a tough one, I admit.)

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12 Responses to If you haven’t met the “f*** you” lady, you will soon

  1. emmavandelinder says:

    As sad as that is, I have to say that I laughed halfway through this post! What she was doing is pretty outrageous, but also pretty uncommon. While I agree that many people think that the news media is a biased, money-focused industry, it comes out in much smaller but much more frequent ways in my life.

    When I tell my guys and girls my age what I’m majoring in at this school, the two responses are “oh, me too, what track?” or “Oh, so you’re going to be the one feeding us faulty information soon, huh?” It’s said jokingly, but it’s also not.

    I know this is not the entire focus of your post. You’re focusing in on polarization and confirmation bias, which are two unfortunate things in society today. One of my favorite examples of polarization and it’s harmful effects on democracy is the video of John Stewart on Crossfire (if you haven’t seen it, it’s a must! LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFQFB5YpDZE) a few weeks before the show was cancelled. His point? Stop making news polarized; stop trying to pretend there’s a black and a white, an “us” and an “everyone else.” That’s not how the world works and it stops educated, openminded conversation from flowing.

    What could be more important to democracy than educated conversations and open-mindedness? Not much, in my opinion.

    The other issue to tackle is confirmation bias. People want to hear that what they think is right, because there are very few of us who enjoy being proven wrong. But being at fault or being incorrect is where we learn the most, and it is an essential part of growing. So what happens when we feed biased news information to people who don’t want to be wrong? They choose sides, and quickly they become stagnant in their thoughtfulness. It’s disappointing.

    I think the best way that we can challenge polarization is to try to create calm, educated conversation. Calm to help the polarized, confirmation-biased person know that arguments aren’t threats, they are learning opportunities. Educated conversations are probably key, because fighting fire with fire (bias with bias, misinformation with misinformation) is not going to help create a learning environment for conversation.

    I don’t know how to create conversations like this with people on a large scale. I know from experience that these tactics work on one-to-one scales.

    Recently I visited a farm bureau event at which a farm bureau employee (or something, I didn’t catch his title) decided to approach me because he knew I was with the Missourian. He explained to me, with a frustrated and accusatory look stuck on his face, that he and many others at the event were disappointed with the way the Missourian has reported on the Right-to-Farm amendment. I kindly apologized, offered to give him information to call an editor and share his opinion, told him that his opinion was valid and all that jazz. He quickly wiped the disgusted look off his face and politely shook my hand and thanked me for my time.

    There is nothing more satisfying than fighting ignorance and emotionally driven accusations with kindness and information. It’s a big battle that we have to fight as journalists, but I think we will one day win it.

    • reedkath says:

      Good for you and the way you handled the Farm Bureau man! I have also observed that one on one, people can be pretty receptive and respectful of other points of view. They want to be heard, and when they are — they listen in return.

  2. tmcook23 says:

    I agree with you, Emma. It’s definitely more of a challenge to address this issue in large-scale media than it is in one-on-one conversations. Here’s my response to this post: http://tmcook23.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/narrowing-the-divide-of-a-polarized-tug-of-war/

  3. Pingback: In response to the “f*** you” lady | Alex Bond's Missourian Blog

  4. hannahspaar says:

    Posts like this make me glad I still get alerts for this blog, Katherine. Over here in Odessa we’ve been dealing with a lot of politically-charged negativity online lately. It’s oddly comforting to remember we don’t have a monopoly on all the confounding anger.

  5. Rachel Brooks says:

    I think being informed and avoiding hot, connotative words can help bridge this gap. Here’s my response: http://rachelcbrooks.blogspot.com/2014/06/narrowing-divide.html

  6. Pingback: Katie Pohlman

  7. sekn83 says:

    Haha! Looks like we all agree the hardest part of addressing this issue is the fact that we’re a large-scale operation.


  8. Pingback: The F*** You Lady | Kendra Johnson Photography

  9. Reblogged this on person. journalist. etc. and commented:
    If you wonder why I remain loyal to my college professor’s class blog, look no further than anecdotes such as this.
    I remember the climate toward j students on our campus. Participants in the program were generalized as pretentious, and I was often glad I was not lumped into that lot. (As a senior, other J-Schoolers were convinced I transfered late in the game. In fact, I was a direct admit.) We, as a unit, were not well received.
    Perhaps though, it is pretentious. As a field. Journalists come into people’s lives, ignoring comfort zones and attribute these invasions to the need to inform the masses. But who says the masses want to be informed. Ignorance is, after all, pure bliss. Yet likely only for those who have never known knowledge.
    In any case, much about this career does make you a pariah. It can be thankless; and if I’m honest, I wouldn’t let a colleague poke around my life. Or my family’s.
    Still… public damning of us all? C’mon.

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