Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gatekeepers

I work for the news. I'm a reporter. But I'm not a gatekeeper. My professor Dr. Terrell (great man) once told me that. "You are not the gatekeeper, and you will quickly discover that when you get a job in television news." What is a gatekeeper I asked myself. I didn't know what he was talking about at the time, dismissing his knowledge as a former journalist who had turned bitter about the business. Now I realize he isn't bitter. Not at all. Just a professor trying to do his job: educating the future journalists of America.

When I landed my first job in Yuma, Arizona I didn't think about gatekeepers (who are these people he's talking about!?) and the subject didn't enter my consciousness until more than a year into my job when I was covering the border beat. Yuma is positioned right along the border with Mexico. That means a lot of drug smuggling and illegal immigration. The obvious stories, right? Another obvious story was when several Senators stopped by to take a tour along the Arizona/Mexico border. This was at a time when the National Guard was literally building a wall along the border.

So it was yet another trip from elected officials. They wanted to see the progress the National Guard had been making. They were also there with U.S. Border Patrol Agents, talking to them about their progress as well. Great, I thought. A pretty PR story for the U.S. Border Patrol. The agency, you may agree serves an important role in our country. Nobody will deny that. Some however, will argue that the agency is flawed.

The border patrol visit was at a time when border violence was increasing, and I got the sense as many of these stories as I was covering that this would be the same as the rest. SAMPLE SCRIPT: "SENATORS VISIT THE BORDER AND SAY THE BORDER PATROL IS DOING A GREAT JOB." That was the obvious, until we approached a section of the border that was borderless. No fencing, no barbed wire. Something the Yuma Minuteman thought was unfathomable. To balance the story (and I'm sure I'm not the first reporter to do it), I did a walk and talk about the porous border. It was unsecured, and I showcased just how easy it was to cross from Mexico and into the U.S. Three steps. That's all it took. This was post 9/11. Unsecured borders? Didn't this pose a significant terrorist threat? The U.S. Border Patrol and Senators had already left by this time. Their tour lasted ten minutes (and yes I put that in my story too). Why? Because it was clear that they were there to show the American people that Congress was taking action. I couldn't keep track of how many of these stories I was turning.

My approach for this story was making sure everyone at home saw the big picture. Yes, the B.P. is patrolling and yes, the N.G. is building a wall but was enough being done?

I should note, I was a young, newbie in the business and it was my first lesson about gatekeepers. The story aired that evening on the 10 o'clock news which I anchored at the time. The next day I came in, and my managing editor yelled at me as soon as I walked in the door, "how could you do that stand-up!? The Border Patrol is threatening to arrest you for crossing the border illegally." Is that a JOKE I asked. Arrest me for taking three steps!? Wow, I thought to myself. Is this because I broke a law (which I was innocenetly unaware of, and still to this day doubt I did anything terribly unlawful seeing that we were authorized to be in the area) or was it because it didn't make the U.S. Border Patrol look "good" as an agency? I told my managing editor to tell them to come and arrest me. Don't threaten me, do it. Clearly it was a scare tactic. They were not happy, and managers agreed that I should lay off my border reports for a few weeks. I was outraged. They assured me it was just for a couple weeks. I reluctantly agreed. Weeks went by and when the opportunity came up to do another story with the B.P., I volunteered. The B.P. was releasing its monthly numbers; a statistical view of how well they were doing. I asked if it was just another photo op. for them as an agency among other important questions. Seemed fair to me. My job is protected by the U.S. Constitution. I can ask WHATEVER QUESTION I WANT. That's what I thought anyway. I reported the story, along with the numbers. There was nothing controversial about it but the next day the axe fell on me again. Not because of what aired, but because of what I asked at the press conference. My News Director at the time told me the higher ups at the Yuma Sector of the B.P. clearly weren't thrilled that I was there to cover the story. They called to complain yet again.

Sadly, it was the last border story I covered. I had reported dozens over the years in Arizona. Most were about drug smuggling, illegal immigration and ride alongs showcasing what border agents do when they patrol the border. Other stories focused on the illegals that crossed and why they came.

Years later, I still look back and it's mind boggling that I was pulled from covering the border beat. I now realize that it's the lesson Dr. Terrell taught me in college. Gatekeepers. The world is full of them. Just didn't know they existed in journalism.

P.S. If there's any doubt that terrorists could use ports of entry and our porous borders to infiltrate, take a look at this link: http://www.stanford.edu/~amotskin/index_files/USMBorder.pdf

It's a recent risk analysis report from Standford University that outlines the dangers of current border conditions. If you don't want to read through it, its conclusion is that the statistical data shows the odds of a terrorist entering the U.S. through our borders are rather high.

8 comments:

Kody said...

I enjoyed reading your comments about the border patrol operations. I can't believe that just because you did and honest piece of journalism about the threat to our security you were taken off the "Border Beat". It sounds like you were put on the back burner yourself right along with your stories.

Rochelle said...

Any public agency will vilify the person giving accurate information just to cover themselves ... the main casualty is the truth ... at what harm to whom.

Naytron said...

I enjoy reading thoughts from a writer in your position, it gives me a whole other aspect to watching the news, a whole other point of view... which in short sums up my right eye from my left.

Bravo.
Well written again...

SSBenjamins said...

Amazing!! Thanks for posting such honesty. I think we as American's have the right to know what is going on at the border~ It is nerve wracking that you were pulled for telling the truth, I believe they just didn't want other's to hear it. Good for you for standing up for what you believe...

Anonymous said...

I never think of going to Canada for a visit or a life for that matter without the up most respect for Canadians and pride for being allowed the opportunities, like America, they always DO have opportunities and they always defend us as their own... (hint hint)
What can I say to my kids about terrorists, who qualifies as a terrorist? Is it the obvious car bomber that you realize just a little to late? Is it just a 3rd world country and their people? I think not. Do my kids even need to worry about terrorists or do I just alert them of stranger danger acts all the way around? A no fenced area doesn't concern me, but, putting your life at risk to tell me about it, DOES. Just a few moments of shear terror has devistating life lasting effects. How close would you had gotten yourself to the World Trade Center that day, 9/11 if you'd had been reporting there, then? Maybe that's being a reporter and not a gatekeeper? Containing a terrorist situation is probably best for everyone?!`

That's what I'm thinking

Shel

Todd & Jessica Unsicker said...

Yet another amazing story from my favorite reporter.

Todd & Jessica Unsicker said...

Yet another amazing story from my favorite reporter.

Tone said...

I wonder how big the gatekeepers have become now that you are a reporter in Utah? I bet they are HUGE.