I traveled the globe extensively for a couple of years, leaving the grind of media behind for a different sort of grind.
It’s all a grind, but if you’re a grinder, you love it. And I did. A couple hundred thousand miles in a flying machine each year is a bit much, but I loved it. Most of it, anyway.
Venturing to garden spots such as Jiujang, on the shoreline of an empty portion of the Yangtze River in the People’s Republic of China, the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where long-horned water buffalo roamed freely along the roadside, and the industrial zones of Central Mexico where the air was a color of orange that you’d swear was impossible, I witnessed a great many things that made me crave the comforts and security of home.
But none of them pulled as hard as the absence of truth.
You may be surprised to know that, regardless of where you are in the world, you can still find local media – oftentimes published in English.
You may not be surprised that these publications were not designed for the locals, who don’t speak, read or write English. Quite obviously, they were designed for visitors.
Spend enough time with these journals while also having access to local people who have some closer connection to what’s happening in their own country, and you quickly get the drift that the news you are reading doesn’t necessarily reflect the news that’s occurring.
It wasn’t that the stories were written inside out or upside down, although I read some stories – in China, in particular – that made you wonder whether the propagandists were a bit lead-footed in pressing the accelerators of their messaging.
No, if you read long enough, and a week is plenty of time for a wellness check on the news anywhere in the world, it wasn’t what was being published but what wasn’t being published.
World Press Freedom Day, which is Friday (May 3), conjured these thoughts.
I have watched with curiosity how media in Illinois has covered the recent stories of two state representatives who have been charged with driving under the influence, each within a short distance from the statehouse, on what was essentially a work night. Kam Buckner, a Democrat from Chicago, was arrested on March 29 a few blocks from the capitol. Steven Reick, a Republican from Woodstock, was arrested Wednesday (May 1).
Each man was arrested early in the morning during session in Springfield.
Illinois News Network, the only free-access statehouse and statewide content provider in Illinois, reported on both of these stories in real time.
Buckner was passed out or sleeping (he said he was “exhausted”) with an open container nearby. Body camera video of the former University of Illinois football player obtained by Illinois News Network speaks for itself.
Reick was cited for driving above the posted speed limit and a lane-change violation, and acknowledged that he had been drinking too much. “I made a stupid and regrettable decision last night and accept full responsibility for my actions,” he said in a statement. Police records said Reick had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.135. The legal limit is 0.08.
INN published stories about Buckner on April 3 and April 5. INN published the video, which we received via a Freedom of Information Act request, on April 29. The video was aired by WGN-TV, CBS 2 Chicago, and NBC 5 Chicago within 24 hours of moving through our news wire.
All information is neutral. If you provide facts and adhere to the journalistic standards of objectivity, as a reporter you are providing the truth.
Buckner’s DUI wasn’t covered in any way by the Springfield Journal-Register, until it was packaged at the bottom of columnist/reporter Bernard Schoenberg’s news story on Reick's arrest, which was published on Thursday (May 2) – an hour or more after Illinois News Network broke the story. The arrest occurred less than a mile from Springfield Journal-Register's office.
The headline of SJ-R's single story: "State Rep. Reick charged with DUI."
Schoenberg, who writes a twice-weekly column and covers government, had not previously written or commented on Buckner’s DUI. Schoenberg did not reply to two separate requests for comment.
Angie Muhs, top editor at the SJ-R, did respond to a request for comment on why the paper appeared to have selectively covered one story and not the other with the same urgency, or a comparable editorial approach.
“As you probably know, Bernie does two columns a week, but also news stories,” Muhs said via email, carbon copying Schoenberg on her reply. “He learned of the arrest of Rep. Reick the day after it happened, and did a news story. That provided an opportunity to catch up to a story we hadn't had the staffing resources to do earlier – the arrest of Rep. Buckner. We credited INN with having been the organization to break that story. At this point, Bernie has not mentioned either arrest in his columns.”
Schoenberg’s most recent column included items on Gov. J.B. Prtizker’s progressive income tax pitch to businesses, hall of fame journalism honors at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and a recap of intramural basketball games played by the state legislators.
Politico’s Illinois Playbook, a daily email newsletter roundup of Chicago, state and federal news with implications for Illinoisans, is written and aggregated by Shia Kapos. She included a link to a story about Reick’s DUI on Friday (May 3), but still hasn’t reported on Buckner’s DUI.
“Illinois Playbook works to present news in a nonpartisan way,” Kapos said via email. “We try to catch the most important headlines on any given day – but sometimes, we miss a few.”
I asked Kapos in a follow-up email if she had planned to write about Buckner, but did not receive a reply.
Overseas and a long way from home, I craved the smell of fresh air and sound of the birds (which are all but absent from most cities in China, sadly). I missed seeing recognizable people, eating recognizable food, and drinking whiskey that was served at the temperature of coffee.
But I missed the truth in media even more. In fact, and I have shared this publicly before, it was that longing for truth in media that brought me back to the industry.
While I couldn’t hold Chamber of Commerce-approved press created for foreign tourists and business travelers accountable for building a facade on the news wherever I may have been in the world, I can’t help but expect to see complete and fair coverage here in my home state and across the country.
Moreover, as a news consumer like you, I demand it.