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This Is Not Fake News: Journalists Covering COVID-19 Wage a Potentially Deadly War With the Truth

By Ron Sirak • @ronsirak
March 19, 2020

The ride from my home to New York City was 40 miles when 9/11 happened. A year earlier, I had left the Upper West Side of Manhattan after 28 years when my daughter went to college so I could be closer to Golf World’s Connecticut office. Everyone in my world knew someone who died in the World Trade Center or knew someone who knew someone. No one was unaffected. The COVID-19 crisis is going to be the same – only nationally, globally.

Now, I live in Wellfleet, Mass., a town of 2,000 on Outer Cape Cod that jumps to 17,000 during tourist season. The average age of full-time residents in Wellfleet is 62 and I drive that number up. Sadly, I wonder when we will have our first patient and our first victim. It seems inevitable.

This is my community and it will be impacted. We will all have our communities impacted. In fact, we’ve already suffered brutal economic blows. My heart aches for our collective pain. My blood boils at how unprepared our leaders were for this inevitable outbreak and how slowly they responded to the crisis.

Fortunately, here mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, a Democrat, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, have shown the kind of aggressive leadership lacking in Washington. Those senators who held up the relief package are no friends of mine and the eight who voted against it will get no Christmas card from me.

In addition to Wellfleet, there is another community to which I belong – journalism. This is the 50th year in which I’ve received payment for writing. My first efforts were for the Lancaster (Pa.) Independent Press covering a student building takeover in February 1970 at Franklin & Marshall College, where I was a sophomore. I wrote about the takeover from inside the building.

When I left the grimy mill town of New Castle in Western Pennsylvania for F&M in 1968 the plan was to prepare for law school, become a lawyer and then go into politics. Bobby Kennedy was my hero. On the night of my graduation from Neshannock High School in June, 1968, Bobby was murdered after winning the California primary.

Indeed, 1968 was strange. The Tet Offensive exposed the lie from Washington that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam. President Johnson opted not to run for re-election. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed and students occupied buildings at Columbia University. In August, the Democratic Convention turned violent in the streets while inside the convention Chicago Mayor Daley spewed anti-Semitic venom and reporters were hauled off for doing their job.

By the time I got to freshman orientation at F&M, I had slipped from being a Kennedy Democrat to being one of those students – and we were a tiny fraction of the overall college population – who marched for an end to the war as well as justice for minorities, women, gays, workers and the environment. Shortly, journalism mattered more to me than the law.

My first editor was Lamar Hoover, a Quaker who had worked for decades in journalism, most recently at Gourmet magazine before tiring of the tough economic times in New York City and moving to Lancaster, buying a 1700s farmhouse and taking over the weekly alternative paper.

Lamar taught me a great lesson. He said: “Readers don’t care what you know; they care what the people you know know.” What he meant was be a reporter. Find the people who best understand what you are writing about and turn that information into a story that will enlighten readers.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of talented people at the Lancaster Independent Press, LNS News Service, The Associated Press, Golf World and Golf Digest. They worked hard and they cared deeply. The truth mattered to them. Getting the story right mattered.

Very few get rich or famous as a journalist. Something inexplicable makes them want to write. Something even more mysterious makes them want to be a journalist. Telling the story is one skill; figuring out the story is another. The best can do both but the reporting will always be more valuable than the writing. The facts matter.

It annoys me when those journalistic skills and that commitment to the truth are demeaned. I have a high tolerance for disagreement on social media. I’ve learned to ignore those who attack simply because a keyboard gives them that opportunity. But in recent days I’ve started to block those who blame the media for the COVID-19 crisis.

These critics first said journalists were over-hyping the impending pandemic. Now that it is fully upon us they pick at the media for trying to figure out what happened to allow this. But the only way to avoid a repetition of this disaster is to find out where the ball was dropped so it never happens again. That’s the role of a free press in an open society.

This pandemic is not fake news. This is as real as it gets. Reporters never have a reason to get a story wrong. Their reputation is their most precious asset. But sadly, too many readers now think that if they disagree with what’s reported that it must be fake news. But, literally, reporters die to get it right.

In my 18 years at The Associated Press I worked with journalists both more talented than me and braver than me. While I was there, Terry Anderson was kidnapped by terrorists in Beirut and held seven years. Victor Simpson’s 11-year-old daughter Natasha was murdered in a terror attack in Rome airport. Sharon Herbaugh died in a helicopter crash covering the war in Afghanistan. John Daniszewzki was shot covering the fall of Communism in Romania.

And those were just the people I knew. They were not covering fake news. And it will not be fake news when journalists die covering the COVID-19 crisis. That is a statistical certainty, not hype. It will be real people who die doing a job they really care about.

There are a lot of first responders trying to save lives: Doctors, nurses, technicians, police, fire fighters, those who provide our food and more. While many self-quarantine, they are out there doing their jobs.

Journalists are among them. On a local, national and global level, they are trying to keep us informed and they are trying to find out what happened. There is nothing fake about this crisis or the risks taken by those covering it. The truth is, they are searching for the truth.

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