Why Isn't Clay Jenkins the Headline on the Immigration Story? Guess.
Send me door-to-door to find quotes on how people feel about shelters for immigrant children, I can find this family to interview. Half hour max.
As a lifelong reporter, I can't help looking at the babies-at-the-border story and worry about the way my own craft tends to tilt a narrative like this. And don't think I think I'm Goody Two-Shoes. If anything I know the drill too well.
A front-page story in The New York Times yesterday was called, "Towns Fight to Avoid Taking In Migrant Minors," and included quotes like this one from a 51-year-old volunteer fireman: "That's my tax money taking care of a foreign national or however you want to classify them. I don't want to take care of a foreign national. It's not my problem."
I'm not saying there's anything wrong or illegitimate with that quote. I'm just saying you could dump me out of a car with a notebook and a pencil anywhere from Nome to Key West, and I could spot the dude in the crowd who would give me that quote.
The main thing I wondered as I read down into it was, "When do we get to Clay Jenkins?" And, indeed, I did find our local county judge, about 1,300 words down into a 1,600-word story, where veteran Times reporter Manny Fernandez presented what I thought was a moving account of Jenkins' activism on this issue. Fernandez describes how Jenkins went door-to-door talking to neighbors near a school in Grand Prairie being considered as a shelter.
"I was blown away by their support," Jenkins told the Times. "I don't feel like we have to solve the border crisis for a terrified child to be shown some compassion."
Something deep in my own bones as a newspaper person tells me that Fernandez and his editors obviously were right: Jenkins was not the top of the story. As long as you've got helpless children alone and adults who don't give a damn, that's the headline and first paragraph. I can't always explain it to people outside the business. The best I have been able to come up with is a sort of half-assed theory of the more immediate peril:
I'm on your street. You are coming out the door at me. I know about two things happening on your street. One, a woman at the far end of the block has established a wonderful experimental school in her house, and she's down there right now helping learning-challenged second-graders achieve full literacy.
Two, your meth-head ex-con neighbor just kicked through the glass doors in the back of his house with an assault rifle in both hands and is headed out the driveway toward you. So, in terms of what I should tell you about first, what's my lead? It's really up to you.
What fascinates me about Jenkins' approach to the problem, however, is that he cut us out of the paradigm. He did an end-run on the media and went door-to-door. And by the way, any experienced reporter can tell you that door-to-door is where it's at.
If you get out of the car and survey a mob already gathered at the focal point, you know that you've got people who have shown up to play certain roles in the drama. They have their costumes on, and they already know their lines. That's how you know how to get the quotes you came for quick and easy and get the hell back to the office with your shirt still dry.
But door-to-door you get people as they are, people who aren't expecting your knock, people you are interrupting from the normal flow of their lives, and they usually don't give you scripted quotes. More often than not, they speak from their hearts.
Is it not interesting that the reaction Jenkins says he found door-to-door in Grand Prairie actually comports with what the national polling shows -- that, yes, people are worried about immigration because it is unresolved, but a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents want Washington to come up with comprehensive, humane, reasonable solutions including a path to citizenship and do not favor Draconian mass deportation.
I was haunted by a letter-to-the editor in The Dallas Morning News recently from Octavio Tripp, consul general of Mexico, in which he outlined Mexico's approach to its own southern border crisis, which included, "Formal and orderly crossing ... Encourage formal entry into Mexico and facilitate the acquisition of regional visitor cards for Guatemalans and Belizeans."
Wow. Recognize that the people are coming over one way or the other. Instead of chasing them around the countryside, welcome them, card them, keep track of them and enforce an orderly set of rules for whether or not they can stay. Why can't we do anything like that?
I worry we in the media may be one reason for the erosion of reasonableness in our society. Have we trained up or at least egged on a cadre of right-wing shock-jock eyeball-bulgers who show up at the news sites to speak their meth-head insanity lines? And then we jump out of the car with our notebook, say to ourselves, "Prime eyeball-bulger at 72 degrees," run over there and ask him, "How do you feel about the government spending your tax dollars to help Mexicans?"
Not sure. In the chicken and egg debate about media and social behavior, I'm about 78 percent an egg man -- society does it, we cover it. I rarely give us credit for being smart enough to do much better than stay a jump behind.
But, wait. Why isn't Clay Jenkins a national story? He's this Texas county judge. (Thinking as Yankee reporter self, need sentence explain what hell county judge is.) He's volunteering to bring refugee children to his county hundreds of miles from the border. He went door-to-door to do his own reporting on it. He swears he found overwhelming support out there.
Maybe eventually he will be a lead story. Some reporter like me gets sent to those same neighborhoods. Spots house with confederate flag in garage window, Rush Limbaugh bumper sticker on red pickup size of Abrams tank. Knock-knock-knock. Hey. It's my professional duty to come back to the newsroom with meat for the beast.