A Matter of Truth | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

A Matter of Truth 

In the war against free speech, our protection is the desire to tell truths that matter

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When I first started freelancing for City Weekly almost 10 years ago, then-editor Ben Fulton pointed out newly installed bulletproof plate glass at the front desk. Apparently it had been put in place because a paint-wielding critic of the paper had decided to make a frightening point with some red acrylic.

The recent horror and tragedy in Paris involving the executions of cartoonists and other staffers at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was a reminder of the vulnerability of media worldwide in the face of extremists who manifest their opposition to freedom of the press with gunfire.

But it also proved a moment of reflection, for me at least, about some of the more subtle forms, pressures and forces that shape the attempts at censorship that journalists face at a community-orientated publication like ours.

Getting death threats has been a rarity at this paper, at least in my years here. After I wrote a cover story on immigration, an outraged reader left a rambling complaint on my voice mail that ended with a threat involving explosives. But his utterances were so shambolic that it was hard to take them seriously.

Another time, I was riding around Colorado City with a former member of the FLDS Church who wanted to visit her mother's grave. A truck, the driver's face hidden by a cap and sunglasses, appeared on a hillcrest, then came barreling toward us and forced us off the road. Somehow, though, that seemed less menacing than the member of the pro-FLDS police force who badgered us at the graveside.

I imagine that most journalists at some time hear something along the lines of the whispered threat of one angry developer who muttered, "You want to dance with me?" I took it as a bizarrely coded promise of legal payback if I ventured down an alley of investigation he didn't like. But unless you get your facts wrong—thank God for court documents and audio—such threats typically vanish as soon as they are uttered.

More insidious and perhaps easier to become used to, or even ignore, are the day-to-day realities of reporting in a city and a state where one religious faith and one political party dominates. Such a power base can lead to a form of censorship, as institutions decline to recognize our right to ask questions.

In my more naïve days at this paper many years ago, I tried to cultivate a mid-level-management source at the LDS Church's downtown headquarters, only to be told with a sympathetic shrug that the folk in the upper echelons wouldn't touch our paper with an 18-foot pole.

Censorship can also come in the form of unreasonable GRAMA fees—thousands upon thousands of dollars—charged by public institutions such as the Utah Attorney General's Office, tired of responding to my colleague Eric Peterson's endless digging for the truth.

The most obvious obstruction to a reporter is the former journalist turned public-relations professional. While some do their best to meet our needs, others are all too aware of their role as gatekeeper. "I know what you're looking for, I know what you want," I recall being told by one journalist-turned-PR, the implication being that I would not get it. And I didn't.

Jails typically do not recognize journalists as having professional standing in the same way attorneys do. If you wish to interview someone in jail, if you're lucky, you'll get to talk to them through glass. If you're unlucky, you'll often find yourself having to deal with TV monitors that show a picture of the inmate so small she appears to be on the moon, her voice almost inaudible.

A reporter told me the other day that criminals always lie, but perhaps I'm drawn back to reporting on the prison because in that stripped-down world, sometimes all you have is the truth to defend you. That was certainly the case with our recent cover story on the suicide of inmate Ryan Allison.

I've always believed that telling the truth as I understand it is the greatest antidote to bullying and threats, but it doesn't stop bullets. Charlie Hebdo's first cover after the killings was a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed holding up a "Je Suis Charlie" sign and shedding a tear, under the title "All is forgiven."

The work goes on, regardless of how discouraging, disturbing or even violent the reception.

What happened in Paris is ultimately about why weeklies like Charlie Hebdo and City Weekly matter. We stand for a difference of opinion, for caring enough to take risks and go the extra mile for a truth we don't see reflected or represented elsewhere.

Years ago, I did a story about a victim of child abuse whom no one believed. I later heard from the victim's mother that at a deposition, an attorney for the LDS Church had asked her daughter why she had gone to City Weekly, of all media in Utah, to tell her story.

Her response is something I try to keep in mind when yet another story goes out into the world of deafening silences: "They tell the truth."

In the war against free speech, our final protection isn't a bulletproof vest or a gun. It's the desire to, no matter what, tell truths that matter and shine light on things others don't want us to see.

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