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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story

Back in the day when I was a young reporter for a small daily newspaper in a small city on the far outskirts of Kansas City, I always resented it when the big boys came to town. "The big boys," in this case were the Kansas City media who'd meander into town once or twice a year. I suspect this migration was at their editors' orders - being sent to the hinterlands either as punishment or to boost ratings or readship in that wasteland the Kansas City media referred to as "north of the river."

If it was a TV reporter who came, even the most crowded city council chamber would part like the Red Sea as the camera person entered the room, followed by the inevitably news-bunny with hair lacquered enough to withstand gale-force winds. Or, if the reporter was a man, with a jutting square jaw that seemed to enter the room a good 30 seconds before the rest of him. They'd shoot some footage of the unfolding meeting, then would depart to shoot a "stand-up" with the reporter looking earnestly into the camera (and usually taking about half the crowd with them to stare transfixed at a live image that they'd see repeated on the 10 o'clock news).

Newspaper reporters from the big city were more annoying still. They'd make it a habit to sit just behind me at a meeting and interupt my note-taking with questions like "Who is that?" ... "How do you spell that name?" ... "Who's here that I can talk to and get the story in a nutshell?" I've fantasized many times about telling them something like "You really should talk to Councilman Jones about that, but make sure he's taken his medication first or you might end up interviewing one of his other personalities." In the end, I'd relent and point out the best sources for them to talk to in the interest of them getting the story right (though there were times when a sotto voce version of "You want me to write your story for you, too, you lazy asshole?" escaped through gritted teeth).

The reporter would then scamper back to Kansas City and bang out 300 words or edit a 20-second spot for the news broadcast. But the resulting story would never quite sound right, even if it was completely factual. The stories always sound exactly like what they were: a product of someone who'd never been there before and probably wouldn't be back again unless he or she pissed off the editor again.

What was missing from the stories were a sense of context. "Context" is one of those ephemeral qualities that I'd be hard-pressed to define. The closest I can come is comparing it to having a feeling for the community and understanding it on a very basic, viseral level. That's not to say I was a better reporter than those sent up from Kansas City, but I like to think that I was better prepared to connect the dots on important stories without skipping over any of the dots that could give the story its proper context.

Even now I feel a proprietary sense about my own "neighborhood" and when I see the national media trying to cover local stories I get that same sinking feeling I used to get when I found a strange reporter on my turf.

Take, for example, a story that ran today on Page One Q. Across the top of the web page ran a stacked headline in bold red letters about notriously homophobic "minister" Fred Phelps making threats against an appearance by Judy Shepard, mother of slain gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard. Click on the link and it takes you to a story headlined: Westboro Baptist Church poster protesting Judy Shepard mentions explosive devices

Say what? Phelps has gone from being a buffoonish pain in the ass to a bona fide terrorist?

Above a reproduction of one of Phelps' ubiquitous faxes reads the following:

Westboro Baptist Church, the rabidly homophobic group run by Fred Phelps has targeted a speech by Judy Shepard, mother of the late Matthew Shepard, as it's next target of protests. The speech, at Montana's Carroll College, is scheduled for this Tuesday evening.

A flyer distributed by the church (below), the church claims that Judy Shepard is "avaricious," speaking out against hate crimes in an effort to accumulate wealth. The same flyer, posted on the Westboro Baptist Church website, connects the event to "Improvised Explosive Devices, leaving some to wonder if the Church intends to use such devices at the speech. (Emphasis added.)

Beneath that is a copy of Phelps' fax and it does, indeed, mention IEDs. Here's exactly what it says: "Thank God for IEDs! God Himself Has Become America's Terrorist, Killing Americans In Strange Lands!" Then it flows into Phelps' usual spiel ... Judy Shepard, mother of fag ... blah, blah, blah ... picket Carroll College, sodomoite whorehouse ... yada, yada, yada.

After the fax, Page One Q asserts the following: "Because of threats made by the church, the Montana Human rights network has been denied the right to have an educational table outside of the event."

OK ... to be fair I have to note that some other media reported Phelps' group had made a threat before it was splashed across Page One Q. Here's what the Helena (Mont.) Independent-Record had to say in its story:

Nancy Lee, spokesperson for Carroll, said that’s the point of the conference — to promote tolerance for everyone, regardless of their race, sex, religion or sexual orientation. But what concerns her about allowing the Human Rights Network to set up a table on campus is a threat by a radical anti-homosexual organization to picket the event. A flier sent out by the group also makes references to the use of “Improvised Explosive Devices.”

Oh my heavens! Run for the hills! Fred Phelps is threatening ... to ... PICKET! He's never done THAT before! Whatever shall we do?

Oops! Sorry about that last paragraph. I forgot to turn on my sarcasm filter. So back to the business at hand. Here's what we have: one fax from Phelps in which he makes Judy Shepard and Carrol College the objects of scorn plus a newspaper story that mentions Phelps is threatening to picket the event with a half-dozen or so rag-tag family members from his "church." Combine those two bits of information and take out the extraneous stuff and you're left with "Fred Phelps is threatening ... Judy Shepard!" It makes for great copy, if you like to play faster and looser with the facts than Weekly World News dreaming up another "I'm Carrying an Alien Bat-Boy's Child!" story.

What about the reference to IEDs? I can almost hear the scoffers among you ask.

Well, since you asked, here's the "context" for Phelps' sudden obsession with Improvised Explosive Devices. Way back in the late '80s and early '90s Phelps and his clan jumped on the anti-gay bandwagon. Seems the Phelps family compound in Topeka is just across the street from Gage Park where gay men have been known to engage in illicit sexual activities. Guardian of public morality that he is, Fred began a one-family quest to rid Gage Park of sodomites. Not content to stop there, he found he could get attention by picketing funerals of gay men who had died of AIDS. Apparently we weren't dying fast enough to keep Fred and his clan busy, so he started picketing anything remotely gay. Staging "The Laramie Project"? Fred would be there. Concerts by Melissa Ethridge? Count on Fred to show up to let people know that fags AND dykes burn in hell.

Soon Fred begin to see subtle fag influence everywhere ... kind of like an alcoholic in the drunk tank sees cockroaches crawling all over his skin. "Tolerance" and "diversity" became words Phelps zeroed in on like a hawk preparing to swoop down on a field mouse 300 feet below. He picketed the funeral of Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" fame because that other Fred dared to speak of tolerance. And just as soon as it seemed Phelps was running out of rocks to turn over in the search of that ever-ellusive homosexual agenda, along came 9/11. Islamic terrorists didn't topple the World Trade Center and fly into the Pentagon, in Phelps' way of thinking. No, that was God destroying America for tolerating all those fags. Suddenly Phelps' on-line empire expanded from the original to And all those American soldiers in Iraq killed by IEDs? That was really God's handiwork as punishment for a "filthy fag nation." Suddenly instead of wasting time picketing fag funerals and the funerals of those who dared mention "tolerance," Phelps found a new target to picket: the funerals of soliders killed in Iraq.

Earlier this summer IEDs became a standard refrain in Phelps' regular faxes and fliers. I think he just sort of likes to say IEDs. He's even gone back to 1995 when a couple of college students set off a small explosive outside his house and claimed that he was a victim of an IED. So now just about every fax that whisks its way out of the Phelps compound thanks God for IEDs - the true smiting implement of God's vengeful wrath.

So that's the context that got missed in the Page One Q story. Phelps hasn't suddenly decided to turn terrorist and blow up Judy Shepard with an IED. That's not Fred's style. He'd rather provoke someone into attacking him so his can scream "victim" and "persecution" and then file a lawsuit against his oppressor. (Things like that happen a lot when just about every member of the family is a law school graduate ... as in the case of the Phelpses.)

Although it's fun to imagine the headlines if one day Phelps would mix up some Kool-Aid and pull a Jim Jones with his motely band of followers, that's not likely to happen. Neither is he likely to change from obnoxious asswipe into Rambo Phelps, God's chosen avenger against fags and their moms. Fred's way too fond of publicity and realizes that if he's dead or in jail, he can't keep rolling out those faxes and picketing funerals.

You know, defending the likes of Phelps against accusations and insinuations made on a gay news web site gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's sort of like using the First Amendment to argue in favor of such literary works as Helga - She-Bitch of the S.S. or Daddy's Little Butt-Boy. When it comes right down to it, there are so many, many, many reasons to despise someone like Phelps that we really don't need to manufacture any more reasons.