Opinion

News media can tell you what’s the matter with Kansas. But you have to do the repairs.

June 8, 2022 3:33 am
Members of the Kansas news media gather to cover Gov. Laura Kelly's signing of a cut in the state's sales tax on food. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Members of the Kansas news media gather to cover Gov. Laura Kelly’s signing of a cut in the state’s sales tax on food. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The news media won’t save you.

The news media — even the opinionated and outspoken parts of it like this opinion section — won’t save Kansas or the United States. I wish more people understood this, because if you want our nation to see a revival in civic participation and progressive values, you have to act.

Twice within the past month, Kansas Reflector has published pieces that show the challenges in front of us. Editor in chief Sherman Smith’s analysis “How the Kansas Legislature avoids scrutiny by hiding in darkness” summarizes years of frustrations at how the people’s business has been obscured by legislative leaders. My own examination of how a “Report on legislators in ‘far-right’ Facebook groups doesn’t tell real story of Kansas extremism” dug deep on what various Republicans believe.

Each offers a clear if implied message. If you want more transparency about what bills legislators pass and how, the process needs to be changed (I highlighted a handful of options in a follow-up column). If you want to know what your legislators believe, they must be challenged and held to account by constituents.

But Kansas Reflector can’t do either of those things. Only you can.

Since the Watergate era, the public has grown to fundamentally misunderstand the American news media and what it can accomplish. Yes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s dogged reporting helped bring down a president. But it only did so because the public paid attention and the lawmakers who represented them took action.

Here’s the brutal truth: Editors and reporters have limited power by ourselves. We uncover facts, assemble them into a coherent whole and publish our results. Those of us on the opinion side include our informed judgments and impressions. But no one has to talk to a journalist. And no one has to take what journalists send out into the world seriously.

We do our best. We tell the truth. Then we publish.

The reading, the understanding, the taking decisive action — we aren’t equipped to do those things. We aren’t an activist group, which works to assemble a diverse coalition of community voices to make change. We aren’t a political party, which works to engage would-be candidates and voters to pass actual laws. We aren’t a branch of the government, which writes regulations or enforces the law.

President Donald Trump talks to members of the news media in October 2020 along the South Lawn driveway of the White House before leaving D.C. to begin a trip to Minnesota. (Tia Dufour/official White House photo)

I’ve lost track of the times commentators berated news media during the Trump presidency and beyond (never mind that these same commentators are part of the news media themselves). Why did TV news outlets broadcast his rallies? Why did we allow that horrible man to gain power? Why didn’t we hold him to account as he rampaged through Washington, D.C.? Why didn’t the two impeachments result in his removal from office?

Lately, we’ve seen similar complaints in the wake of horrible gun violence. Why doesn’t the news media step up to show the faces of children killed in school massacres? Surely that would change the public debate, wouldn’t it?

These folks are picking fights with the wrong people. Journalists did sterling work in covering Trump, not the least of them being David Farenthold, who won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize covering the corrupt real estate tycoon for the Washington Post. Staff from the Post and the New York Times both won the next year for their coverage of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. And whether you agree with broadcasting Trump’s rallies or not, you can scarcely argue that the candidate didn’t make news during them.

When it comes to gun violence, the record is just as clear too. Journalists have created projects tracking mass shootings and other kinds of violence throughout the nation and in their own communities.

If people still decide to elect Trump as president, what are journalists supposed to do?

If clear and compelling coverage of gun violence doesn’t provoke legislative change, what are journalists supposed to do?

We tell you what happens. When we can, we tell you about options to make things better. But we can’t make a single person vote a particular way, and we can’t make a single legislator change his or her mind. Journalism — even the most activist and crusading — isn’t built to achieve specific policy or electoral outcomes. Both those who write stories and those who read them do our nation a disservice when they act otherwise.

We can do important things. Kansas Reflector has shown time and again that we can hold the powerful to account. We can shine a bright light in dark places. Through this opinion section, we can call for a better society and give activists a platform to share their ideas and dreams. My first column as opinion editor, back in August, laid out my beliefs. This section has and will raise powerful, resonant voices. But who will actually create the change that Kansas and the United States so desperately need?

That’s up to you.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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