A proud member of the Fourth Estate

by Keith Barber

Erskine Bowles wiped away tears after being named North Carolinian of the Year during the NC Press Association’s Winter Institute last week at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill. Bowles was clearly touched by the honor and he shared his thoughts and emotions with the scores of journalists in attendance. As Bowles, the former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, spoke I scribbled a few notes. It struck me that this year I will celebrate 10 years as a professional journalist and I still haven’t developed my own personal shorthand. That might explain why I only managed to get six of Bowles’ 10 life tenets.

Give back to your community, carve out time for your family, work hard, encourage creativity among your colleagues, don’t overpromise and take time out each day for reflection, Bowles said. The last of Bowles’ suggestions struck a chord with me. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that free time has become more and more scarce. Reflection and meditation has always been a priority, but lately, the pressures of work, outside projects and a renewed emphasis on physical fitness has made it nearly impossible to collect my thoughts during the day. Reflection time has been coming late at night after I’ve crawled into bed, but in the form of repetitive thoughts. Rather than feeling peaceful, I’ve been feeling restless.

But as I sat in the Smith Center that night along with my YES! Weekly colleagues Brian Clarey and Ryan Snyder, I finally got a chance to catch my breath and reflect on why I work in the field of journalism. Granted, journalism is not my first career, nor my first love. I majored in radio, TV and motion pictures at UNC-Chapel Hill and spent the first 10 years of my career working in that field. But after I left my life in LA to return home, I found the movie industry in North Carolina had packed up and moved north of the border — Canada, to be exact. With a dearth of film jobs in the state, I relied on my one other marketable talent — writing.

I started out as a freelance stringer for the Wilmington Star-News. I’ll never forget my first assignment, covering the North Carolina Spot Festival in Hampstead. And the next day, I saw my words in print in a daily newspaper for the very first time. It was quite a rush — not quite as exciting as working on the set of The Last of the Mohicans, but a great thrill nonetheless.

Years later, I vividly remember my former boss at The Mount Airy News approaching me in the parking lot with a huge grin on his face. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed. “You won first prize for sports columns!” Since winning my first NCPA award, I have made it a personal goal each year to return to the annual awards ceremony. I’ve been fortunate enough to win 10 awards since my journalism career began in 2000. But as I listened to Bowles speak, I was reminded that being a journalist is not about winning accolades, but serving one’s community.

Bowles spoke of the great PBS newsman Jim Lehrer and his professional ethos. Don’t do anything you cannot defend; cover the story as if it was being written about you; always assume there is another side to every story; do not use anonymous quotes; and assume the reader is just as intelligent as you are.

Bowles also shared advice from former UNC system president Bill Friday. When you make a mistake, admit it, correct it and move on; keep photos of your children in your office as a constant reminder of what matters most; be open, honest and transparent; and leave an organization better than you found it.

The point Bill Friday made about admitting our mistakes, correcting them and moving on held special resonance for me. Last September, I found myself embroiled in a controversy over one word in an article. It was the first time in my career I had ever misquoted a source. When I realized my mistake, I called my editor and immediately and offered to resign. I felt it was unfair that my oversight would bring harm to the newspaper’s reputation. Much to Brian’s credit, he handled the situation the way Bill Friday would have, and I kept my job. At that moment, I finally realized the great responsibility that comes along being a journalist.

Lives can be deeply impacted by every single story, sentence or word in print. The pen is truly mightier than the sword and with that power comes great responsibility.

As Brian, Ryan and I walked down the bleacher stairs to the Smith Center court to receive YES! Weekly’s five awards — the newspaper’s best take ever — we received the warm applause of our colleagues from the Fourth Estate. It was then that I felt the same emotion Bowles displayed. I realized that I’m not alone. All the people in that arena had shared my experiences, both good and bad. Despite the obstacles and struggles, they kept on fighting the good fight to keep their readers informed and enlightened, and to make the world a better place.