It is unbecoming for a journalist to become the center of a news story -- and it’s rarely a good thing when it happens.
Which put me in a somewhat awkward position when my recent vacation was interrupted by an unexpected email from a rather large publication, which appears to be doing a story about, well, me. Prior to my tenure here at this newspaper, I covered news up in North Dakota, and in my time there I reported on a sexually explicit library book in the young adult section of a public library. This story sparked intense public response: some were outraged, some were vocal in their support. It became a statewide issue. Legislation has been proposed. Lawsuits threatened. Everyone is talking about it.
Not a bad response for a small-town paper!
So now here I find myself looking at a series of leading questions from a national-level publication. It wants little old me to comment on my own work, to answer for what I’ve done. And I almost did. Yet I never make any big decision alone, and so I consulted wiser men and women than I, and decided that the best answer was the simplest.
“I stand by my reporting.”
See, as healthy as my ego is, I don’t really want the news to be about me. Maybe that’s exactly what they will still do. Perhaps this article will feature a number of individuals who will allege and accuse and claim and say all manner of things about me, things which I can no longer prove or disprove. If they wish to shoot the messenger, then they’re welcome to try; I’m more bullet proof than people think.
Reporting the news and doing it right, with balanced reporting and honest quoting, means that my work speaks loudest on its own. It isn’t about me -- not this story, and not any story I write. And should that change, then something has surely gone terribly askew.
Yet I wrote out some thoughtful answers to their questions, and I’d hate to see work go to waste. So I wanted to share a bit of what I might have said to this publication, to answer their leading questions.
Why did I write the story? To inform the public and to spark discussion. That’s what any journalist does. I sought out as many “sides” of the issue as were available, gave them all opportunity to speak and reported accurately what they said.
And what is the heart of this discussion? In Valley City -- and now across all of North Dakota -- it comes down to two basic questions: was this book, Let’s Talk About It, an example of pornography or was it an educational manual? And should it, in either case, be available in a library, in a place where children can have unrestricted access to it?
I think that banning books is generally a bad idea, but restricting sexually explicit material from the eyes and hands of young children has been standard practice in the United States for decades. It should be worth discussing, openly and earnestly, whether a book like this is educational or erotic. In fact, I asked the library board and the state library association and the national library association if they have any definitive distinction between pornographic material and educational material, and they do not.
If we cannot even agree on what the difference is between pedagogy and prurience, then what exactly does that say about the state of our society?
Regardless of how you feel about the book’s content and its appropriateness for children, it is essential to any healthy democracy for things like this to be discussed, robustly, openly and without fear of retaliation. The library board at various points during this controversy refused to take public comment, limited the opportunity for public comment, and obstinately stood by the placement of this book without any consideration for compromise. There’s no middle ground here, there is no coming together. It must be one way or the other way.
The massive response to this story, at the community level and the legislative level, indicates to me that we need to have these discussions, and we need to have these opportunities for compromise. I do not think anyone involved in this matter, on either side, has genuinely evil intentions. Rather, everyone has a good intention: providing for children what is best for them. However, it is regrettable, but true, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and both sides of this issue believe it is the other who is paving that road. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to pull over, stop the car and talk about our final destination -- ‘ere we get there and realize we’ve made a very wrong turn.