A woman in Chattooga County (Northwest Georgia) did last week what I'm sure a lot of people would like to do to me — the wife of that county's lone commissioner poured a cup of Coke over the head of a local reporter, saying, "You deserved that."
The event made national news and the Coke-pouring wife was reportedly arrested for the assault. The reporter left the meeting, Coke dripping from her hair. (The incident was apparently sparked by something that had been posted on Facebook.)
I've never had a Coke poured on my head, but have gotten some pretty hot phone calls and emails from people who didn't like something I wrote. "Moron" and "idiot" are two very common phrases I get.
Fair enough. People should be able to disagree. And I've been writing this editorial a very long time, so getting fussed at isn't new. It goes with the territory.
I consider myself an equal-opportunity critic. I don't care where you grew up, how many degrees you have, what your political affiliation might be, your race and age, or who your mama is — if you're a public official and you screw up, or say something really dumb, you're fair game for an editorial critique.
Shining a bright light on a public official or agency is one way the public can hold their elected (and appointed) officials accountable. It's part of our democratic process to make public officials defend their actions, especially when those actions are suspect. There is a long tradition in this country of newspapers giving voice to this process of accountability with investigative reporting and editorials.
One of the advantages we reporters have in this regard is that we get to see a variety of public officials across a broad spectrum of government agencies over a period of years. Often, the reporter has been covering a government longer than any of the elected officials sitting around the table.
That kind of institutional knowledge is helpful when we write a story about a government action; it allows us to provide context and background that would otherwise be unavailable to the reader.
It also allows us to write editorials that go beyond what's on the surface, to cut through the BS and political posturing to get to the underlying issues at play. Nothing happens in a vacuum and many of the issues we see have deep roots in the past.
But there's a cultural war in the nation today that seeks to undermine and dismiss this kind of traditional aggressive reporting and political commentary.
Part of that revolves around technology where social media saturates people with millions of messages, often times fake or misleading. It's amazing how gullible people can be when they see something on social media, no matter how inane the posting might be. Social media postings seem to turn on our "stupid button." The result is that people often believe the crazy stuff they see on social media over news done by legitimate reporters. (The anti-vaxx movement is a case in point; people sometimes believe false anti-vaxx memes on Facebook over what their own doctors and objective reporting tell them.)
Another aspect of that is the polarization of our political culture where people reject anything, including facts, that don't fit with their preconceived narrative about the world.
We have an example of that in a letter to the editor where the writer complains about some Fox News reporters not being Republican enough for him. "Remain true to the Republican-centered programming that has grown Fox into a powerhouse," he writes.
"Republican-centered programming?" What the hell is that?
What this writer is really saying is that he doesn't want any information — news — that might challenge his predetermined view of the world. He wants his internal political narrative reinforced, not challenged. He doesn't want any viewpoints except those that he already agrees with. His mind is made up, don't confuse him with any pesky facts.
But facts are facts are facts. When a significant percentage of a country reject facts and say they want only propaganda, that country cannot survive.
Which is where we are in the U.S. today. People of all political stripes reject fact-based news that doesn't conform to their narrative. That's true on the left and right, but has become epidemic among some Republicans. (A recent Monmouth University poll shows that more Republicans believe Donald Trump is equal to, or better than, George Washington as president. Propaganda is to blame for creating that kind of irrational thinking.)
Making this even more complex is that our 24/7 news channels, and much of what you read online, isn't really news, it's commentary. That has blurred the line between reporting and opinion such that many people can no longer tell the difference. Facts get lost in that confusion.
All of this is very troubling. The war on traditional reporting and fact-based news has been unrelenting since 2015. The nation has become hyper-polarized into two very different tribes who see the same facts very differently based on which bubble they live inside. Many people would rather believe lies that reinforce their own world view rather than facts that challenge it.
There are no moderates left in our political culture. Every politician on the state and national level has to be partisan no matter what the issue might be. That's because the public has become so partisan and demand that their elected officials reflect their extreme views. Democrats have to be hyper-liberal and Republicans hyper-pro-Trump.
Which makes the U.S. little more than a large banana republic. Throughout most of the nation's history, our culture of moderation, compromise and service-above-self mentality was the foundation of success. Extremism on the left and right were kept to the fringes while moderates held to the political center.
The one time that wasn't true, in the 1860s, we were plunged into a bloody civil war. While such a geographic conflict is unlikely today, we are in a sense experiencing a propaganda civil war being played out on social media and in our legislative bodies at the state and national levels.
One of the casualties of this propaganda war has been fact-based reporting. Media outlets that seek to do traditional reporting have come under fire for not being partisan enough. It's insane.
It's not clear that partisan politics had much to do with the Coke-pouring incident in Chattooga County. That county has long had some heated local politics (my mother and uncle were editors of the local newspaper there in the distant past and I lived there for a few years as a child.)
But public decorum in many of our local government meetings has gone down hill in recent years. We've seen that at some meetings this past year, especially in Hoschton where comments from both the public and government officials sometimes devolved into ugly, personal verbal attacks. Rezonings also tend to bring out the worst in people.
So far, nobody has tossed a Coke on my head. I guess it could still happen since I have no plans to stop writing anytime soon. Having grown up in a newspaper family, the ink is in my blood. Guess I'll continue giving public officials hell until I run out of words.
But if I piss you off and you decide to toss a Coke on my head, mix a little Maker's Mark bourbon in with it first.