KETR

Can I Just Tell You: Covering Challenging Stories

Jun 6, 2020
Originally published on June 6, 2020 5:17 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, if I could have a few words - because I know that pride is a sin, I try not to indulge in it too often. But one of my proudest moments as a journalist was in 2012, when I received the Randy Shilts Award given by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. In their words, it's bestowed for consistently bringing stories of the LGBTQ community to life in mainstream media outlets. I am proud not because I needed another plaque - I've been out of my downtown office so long I don't remember if I ever actually got the plaque - but because I admire Randy Shilts so much.

Randy Shilts, who died in 1994, is widely credited with being the first to establish a beat about the LGBTQ community for a major newspaper. He reported all kinds of stories about political figures, community activists, people living with AIDS, people serving in the military. He co-authored three bestselling books, most notably detailing the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. in the remarkable "And The Band Played On."

Shilts was a thorough, incisive reporter and eventually a beautiful writer, and in his work he tried to make visible and whole what had always been rendered invisible or portrayed as broken. But that does not mean he was universally applauded. It was reported that he was actually spat upon on Castro Street after he called for the closure of gay bathhouses in San Francisco in an effort to slow the spread of AIDS - in other words, for telling the truth to save people's lives. Another Bay Area journalist called Shilts, who was openly gay, a traitor to his own kind.

In a note included in his first book about the pioneering gay political leader Harvey Milk, Shilts described how he saw his role. He wrote, I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and if not be objective at least be fair. History is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.

Can I just tell you? It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the relevance to the current moment when journalists are attacked as traitors, kicked and shot with rubber bullets, arrested, tear gassed - oh, I'm sorry - sprayed with pepper balls - by the government and then also at times harassed by demonstrators, all while just trying to do their jobs and tell the world about what is happening.

While I haven't been out in the field in the current crisis, I've done my time. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the alcohol on the breath of the Pat Buchanan supporters who followed me around on the convention floor at the GOP convention in 1996, where I was one of the very few black journalists or even delegates there. And they took it upon themselves to scream at me every time I went live.

And you know what I also remember? The smug indifference of the news executive - who shall remain nameless - who saw the whole thing from his plush skybox and whose only response was to airily inform me that I would have a better time with, quote-unquote, "my people" at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Yes, he really said that.

And I tell you that only to say that the journalists trying to describe the current moment are not perfect. Some of them are great at their jobs. Some of them are not. Some of the people directing the coverage are good at their jobs, and some of them are not. But the people I respect are standing in the sun and the rain and the tear gas - oh, sorry - pepper spray - for you so that you can see what they see, so that you can hear what they hear. And the people I respect are also trying to reach the people who aren't shouting so you can hear from them, too.

Randy Shilts knew that people were dying, and attention had to be paid, and truth had to be told, even if some people - even if the people he cared about the most - would hate him for it. And while I know pride is one of the seven deadly sins, I can't help myself right now. I am proud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.