Ruth Bass: What's going on? Americans need to read as well as watch

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RICHMOND — The school/home classroom. Homeless people in Springside Park. Brown water in Housatonic. Taconic mascot. Deaths. Museum paintings. Rehab of Bousquet Ski Area. Local coronavirus report.

These are a few of my favorite things about reading a local newspaper. It's better than gossip at the post office or talk with a friend. And none of the stories listed above made national television, where millions of Americans get news. Looking for photos and stories about us, a small staff of reporters roam the Berkshires and get to know people in every town, gathering comments from both sides — or several sides — if the subject is controversial. They get to know people, we get to know them, and for the most part, they deliver the facts and facets of the stories.

In a way, it's silly to be writing this here, since anyone reading this already gets or logs on to The Eagle. And longtime readers know which columns they like best, which letter writers make them bristle, which reporters provide clarity without rambling. But being a reader may not be the same as being a great reader. A few decades ago, asked to "teach newspapers" for an Elder Hostel group in Pittsfield, I was stunned to discover that most of the 25 Americans from various parts of the country had no idea where fact and opinion lived in the paper. After that first class, we went through page by page explaining exactly what was what — where they could accept the piece as fact and where they needed to think about someone else's view.

Newspapers still maintain a pretty tough line between those two things, while television news has tended toward a blend, with reporters sometimes putting in a personal view. News reporters also have minds and personalities that influence what they see in a given story and it's their job to recognize other facets. Good editors police that.

The internet provides a way for any reader to get a big picture. It was fascinating to read, for instance, the Milwaukee Journal's take on protests in Kenosha, Wis. Instead of dwelling on the actions of vigilantes and looters, many of whom roared in from other cities and states, the story told the why of the protest and citizen thoughts on what could be done in the way of greater justice. As author Tom Nichols said in his recent webinar with Eagle executive editor Kevin Moran, Americans would do well to set aside time each day to read a reputable newspaper. Sometimes more than one.

One of the major controversies, especially in the past three years, has been the constant harping about anonymous sources. Two things: First, the reporter and editor know who these "anonymous" people are; second, one anonymous source is never enough. On a major investigative series I edited, the reporter confirmed everything with three people, just as Atlantic magazine had several sources for its recent piece on military "losers and suckers." Going beyond the prestige of the Atlantic, the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and others found sources to confirm the story before using it. Years ago, some 200 stories from anonymous sources broke the Nixon Watergate scandal.

Anonymous sources are a reporter's last resort. But Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg says they are essential when "the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate." Anonymous sources do have names, and their information has pulled the nefarious, the scandalous and the just plain bad into the light.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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