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.)