Struggling with the boundaries and inadequacies of journalism and politics in our time

Downtown Versailles, Kentucky in summer 2022.

I fell asleep on the ride down to Versailles, Kentucky.

Population 10,347, it’s a one-time farm town that’s been gradually subsumed into Lexington as a suburb, complete with quick-built housing tracts and The World’s Biggest Kroger, so I’m told. 

It is about as far removed from the crush of big-city life as you can get, and still retain 400 channels of cable TV and a Dairy Queen – but no Starbucks here. Instead you get a local bourbon distillery (Woodford Reserve) and drive through liquor stores.

A seven-hour drive from Chicago, the psychic distance from home unloads troubles from my mind. But a visit here always reminds of other ones I’ve put aside.

Versailles, pronounced VER-sails, is a tremendously picturesque place, once acting as a stand in for Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in the Orlando Bloom vehicle, Elizabethtown, a movie partly about the charm of small town America. Everyone here is nice, and it still has a pharmacy with a soda fountain in the “downtown”, across from the Woodford County courthouse and library.

People like me can ease into a place like Versailles pretty easily. I’ve been coming here to visit my in-laws for eight years now, and people here smile, wave from their cars and lawns, and generally take it easy. The gun shop people are pleasant enough – that’s where you can get good country ham – and everyone seems to get along pretty well without any real fuss.

A guy like me can miss a lot of things if I’m not looking for them. 

Like Black people, or really any people of color. Flagrantly out gay people with butch or dyed haircuts, people from other countries, and basically anyone that’s different. Different from what? Well, if you have to ask, you don’t belong here.

And Versailles reminds of a problem I’d set aside: Where exactly do I fit in today’s America?

It should be easy for a guy like me to just plop into Versailles – in fact a nice middle-aged, white couple from Chicago’s western suburbs just moved in next to my mother-in-law. I could be that guy. But I feel a steady itchy feeling every time I’m here. Sort of like the ground is repulsing me, pushing me away so that I don’t stay too long, because the environment knows that I’d just cause a bunch of problems if I decided to make camp.

But – and I didn’t really notice it until I got to Versailles – I’ve been feeling that same itchy feeling back up in Chicago. The problem I’ve been having, I now realize, isn’t a problem with the place I’m in. It’s actually much more existential: I don’t feel like I fit into the idea of America and I’m not sure the current American idea knows what to do with me.

For the last one hundred years, we’ve been living in a nation of institutions where individuals sought a place in an organization or social structure to give them meaning and a set of rules to live by. Specifically for me, when I was a young man, I thought that working in Congress and a presidential administration, I’d have a chance to improve society and get deserving people the resources they need to thrive.

But for many reasons, primarily that I felt like politics had become professionalized so that ideology was less important than psychopathy, I pursued my other ideological love, building news organizations. 

News – that hoity-toity journalism word doesn’t fit for me – has largely remained a redoubt from the dissociative changes of the last twenty years. The world of news supports a great deal of self-examination, which sometimes becomes navel-gazing, but is always piercing self-critique so that if you’re part of the real news tribe, you’re kept honest by the constant vigilance of your peers – if not yourself.

So here I am, a firm believer in the institution of news. Not just the big publications you know, but also the strivers in small towns, independent newsletter writers, and whoever struggles to tell sometimes uncomfortable stories with as many double-checked facts as they can find.

Despite its dwindling ranks, I think the news field is strong. You can find young aspirants, still learning the business but committed to the idea, as well as old practitioners with battle scars and earned wisdom to guide the youngsters. There aren’t as many as there used to be, but they’re out there, trying their best to keep the institution alive and well.

The thing is, I’m wondering if that institution is headed in the right direction – along with many others – as our nation slides further and further away from democracy to kakistocracy, anocracy, and a dominion of conformity so that “different” people no longer have a place to be.

Well trained news people learn to think critically about all things: Who, what, why, when, where? To truly know the answers to those things, you often have to ask uncomfortable questions and spend a lot of time peeling back the layers. This makes true reporters and editors poor members of any government that’s not a full-fledged democracy, since that’s the only kind of society that can sustain the constant disruption and probing of critical thinkers.

In my time as a reporter – and a politico – the bulwark of American news reporting has been that the critical thinking is omni-directional. Everyone is subject to the relentless questioning. No organization is spared the question: Are you sure you know you’re doing the right thing?

The thing is, in the last twenty years, we’ve gotten a pretty good sense of who is right, and who is wrong.

This is a dangerous idea, I know. Because, part of the way you stay objective is by declaring nobody’s right all the time. If you’ve picked an ideological direction, what milestones do you use to keep you from running too far in one direction? When do you become red guards, or brown shirts, or inquisitors, policing ideological purity?

I don’t know. 

One thing I do know is that reporters supporting a nation’s fight for survival have a clarity and purpose that becomes intensely useful to the people they serve. I’ve been thinking a great deal about Ukrainian reporters, in particular Ilya Ponomorenko, a reporter for the Kyiv Independent as he travels across his national battlefield, recording blown up Russian tanks, and urging his people forward. This man clearly knows what side he is on, and it lets him work with a kind of clarity American reporters miss.

War is a clear, existential threat: You lose the war, you can lose your country, and someone else takes over, which means you and many you hold dear could lose their liberty, property, and lives.

What if the fight you’re in is about just one or two of those things? Is that existential enough? And how do you decide the boundaries of the fight and what is credible reporting?

As a reporter who knows the taste and feel of political organizing, I feel deeply inadequate working on news stories about clear injustice. As a political organizer, I knew I lacked credibility with average people trying to determine whether my promises were backed by truth or snake oil. Is there a way to combine the two without losing both the credibility of reporting and the galvanizing of political organizing?

I don’t have answers to these questions. But for the sake of defending American liberty – and the threatened lives of those who are different from the white, hetero, American originalists – it seems like some kind of journalist-activist would be more appropriate to our era. 

This is not very far from where journalism was one hundred years ago. Editors led newspapers with particular ideological slants, and rallied readers around their perspectives. Eventually called “yellow journalism” because William Randolph Hearst did it the most in his newspapers – which were printed on distinctive yellow paper – it led America to war, and fueled a nativist populism not unlike the kind promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

Clearly, that’s not where we want the institution of news to go. But are we doing right by America by remaining aloof? It seems that we’re all in the middle of a fight for the soul of our nation, and if we don’t pick sides today, something will happen down the line where someone else will pick sides for us.

And then we’ll all be living in Versailles, whether we want to or not.