Becky Johnson is a staff reporter for the Smoky Mountain News. I know both Becky and her editor, Scott McLeod, and respect their work. If you’re not familiar with The Smoky Mountain News, it covers Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties in Western North Carolina. Becky could teach Katie a thing or two about reporting. Case in point:
Becky wrote a story in the Feb. 21 issue of SMN, which is a near perfect example of the craft of reporting. It paints a picture. It tells a story. But most of all, it presents facts from which an astute reader can draw some interesting conclusions. Most of all, Becky does not preach to the reader. She doesn’t present a pre-chewed conclusion which the reader/listener is expected to accept.
Are you listening, Katie? Reporting is about facts. Editorials are about opinions.
Becky’s lead on her article has the flavor of an O’Henry short story. “When Commissioner Glenn Jones pulled into the Stillhouse Branch trailer park in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Swain County last October, he’d strayed far from the campaign path of most candidates.”
As the article recounts, Jones won his re-election bid by just 200 votes. He obtained at least 130 absentee votes in these trailer parks, etc., where he was “helpful” to the residents in filling out their ballots. But was there any illegality in the efforts of Jones and his friends?
Katie Couric, reporting on Bush administration officials, uses language to make clear her belief (and that of her network) that they have violated the law, in the scandal du jour. Becky Johnson, on the other hand, raises the question whether laws might have been violated, and then gets and reports actual facts, from which readers can reach conclusions.
Are we moving to swiftly for you, Katie?
Becky writes, “One discrepancy that emerged ... involved the signatures of witnesses on absentee ballots. Every voter must have two witnesses sign their absentee ballot envelope, verifying its legitimacy.” The candidate cannot sign as a witness. According to residents interviewed, the candidate came by with just Willard Smith in tow, Willard being “an 82-year-old kingpin of the Democratic Party.” Smith’s wife Genevieve, signed as a witness, but she wasn’t there.
Another witness whose signature appeared was George Arvey, a resident of a targeted apartment complex. Some voters whose absentee ballots were witnessed by Arvey say he was never there. Two other types of potentially illegal activity are factually presented in the article.
It seems to me that CBS is belatedly reaching the same conclusion about Katie Couric and the Evening News, that Coca-Cola reached about New Coke long ago, and Ford reached about the Edsel even longer. New Coke was abandoned for Classic Coke. The Edsel was just plain abandoned.
There are only two options for CBS. Abandon Katie Couric. Or, teach Katie how to report competently. If they choose the latter route, they should start by having her read Becky Johnson’s story about Commissioner Jones’ election tactics.
If Katie does learn to be a real reporter and hangs onto her job, I’d say she owes Becky a bonus. A year’s pay for Becky, which would be a few hour’s pay for Katie, sounds about right.
To read Becky’s fine story, go to www.SmokyMountainNews.com. Click on Search Archives on the lower left. Then, at the top choose 2007 and then February. It’s the first article on 2/21/07, “Election Controversy Plagues Swain.” Anyone, not just Katie, can get from this a primer on how to report a story with style, accuracy and competence.