An Iowa State Trooper killed in the line of duty, a school shooting and another Black man killed by a cop in Minneapolis? These are the days I don’t miss journalism.

Many days I miss being a journalist. The job could be great fun. And the people, oh the characters, I met. There are so many stories I don’t dare share publicly that still make me laugh. I also worked alongside some of the most entertaining humans one will ever know.

This proves less and less so every day, especially as our nation seems to rack up tragedies as senselessly and randomly as the point system on ESPN’s Around the Horn.

Friday, a man shot and killed 27-year veteran Iowa State Trooper Jim Smith after an incident in Grundy Center.

A Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop. The Brooklyn Center chief said he believes the shooting was accidental.

Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis, where a year ago George Floyd, also a Black man, died after a Minneapolis cop leaned on Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes. That former officer, Derek Chauvin, stands trial for Floyd’s murder less than 20 minutes by car away from where Wright died.

A Knoxville, Tennessee, student shot and wounded a police officer at a magnet school. The student died when police returned fire. As the pandemic wanes, so raises the sadly familiar fear of our schools as targets for spree killers rather than institutions for learning.

Some of my best work and fondest memories came on the night police beat for the local Gannett Outlet Store. The beat also drained me of my humanity.

Trooper Smith died in the line of duty. The reporters from the wire services, the newspapers, radio stations and TV stations dig in. They want details about Smith’s life. Family. Children. Hobbies.

Many times, reporters find themselves at the door of someone who has suffered a terrible tragedy: the loss of a loved one by violence. This always churned my guts. I couldn’t help but think the last thing in the world I would want was some stranger on my front stoop knocking on my door and asking me to tell them all my secrets.

If I were still practicing the trade, I might have had to knock on that door.

I chocked down my distaste for this work with the advice of Tom Alex, the Register’s longtime day police reporter. He always said it was better to have someone call you a son of a bitch and slam the door in your face before you wrote the story than write the story and then have somebody call and call you a son of a bitch because you got it wrong and didn’t even try to talk the victim’s family.

But near the end of my career this was not enough. The digital age demanded push alerts and real-time updates to website stories. We sometimes wrote from notoriously inaccurate scanner traffic. We clawed for every piece of information and pushed it out.

Reporters were given less and less time to work with police officers and develop sources. There was a time when cops and reporters got to know each other as people. Now reporters demand things and cops fear reporters are pushing a political agenda with each question.

It’s a stalemate that is detrimental not only to news reports but the trust in both institutions, neither of which can afford to lose more ground with an increasingly distrustful and divided public.

That same stalemate occurs in reporting on the racial implications of the trial of Chauvin and the truth of Wright’s death at the hands of police in the same metro area.

Passions burn. Attempts to find the truth that contradict our preconceived notions about what and why caused these deaths. The pick-your-confirmation bias media force us to parrot the angry talking points that agree with what we agree with what we’ve already determined are the facts.

Most you’re-with-us-or-against-us narratives are false, but the public has no patience for non-binary ideas. Somebody is a good guy. Somebody is a bad guy. Pick which one and scream on social media.

Half of journalism jobs disappeared between 1990 and 2020. The anemic reporting staff that remains is ill-equipped and poorly experienced to vet the issues of the day let alone foster meaningful and healing discussion.

They try, but most outlets are owned by greedy corporate hustlers and hedge funds whose only point is to turn $1 into $2 as fast as possible in order to make a handful of rich white men fractionally richer.

Today’s journalists are forced to beg for subscribers in their social media feeds and use metrics — what people clicked on yesterday — to decide what to cover the next day. Sometimes this means news outlets make fools out of themselves trying to get too many bites out of a one-hit feature story like Fruit Loops pizza. Other times, it means worthy projects are abandoned because the online audience has lost interest.

This is not a one-to-one. News outlets, even the ones I make fun of, do try to keep the public informed.

But the public does not want to be informed. It wants to be affirmed.

The problem, of course, is we are all merely human and, by definition, flawed and prone to mistakes.

Our only hope is to recognize is that our flaws unite us and the correction can only be found in a collective offering of grace.

Many days I miss the newsroom, but mostly I miss the people and the memories. When I think of the task before them, the challenges they face and they pain and suffering they witness, those are the days I’m glad to be a civilian, knowing the phone won’t ring with an editor asking me to go ask strangers to tell me their secrets.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
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How I pissed off a bunch of my old friends by writing about racism in the small Iowa town I grew up in

I pissed off a lot of people — old friends from Winterset, mostly — the last time I wrote in this space. I’ve been stuck as to what to say since.

The intent was not to upset people or settle 30-year-old grudges. There was a time in my life when I would have enjoyed that, but I hope I’ve outgrown the need to provoke simply for reaction’s sake.

In reality, it was another childish ideal that caused me to write about racism I witnessed — and was regretfully party to — while I grew up in Winterset: I keep trying to get people to think about things from a different point of view.

One of the many reasons I became a journalist is because things my family endured — and feared — while I grew up in Winterset. My family went broke refurbishing a red-brick mansion about 4 miles west of Winterset. We were so broke that we didn’t have enough money to cover the big windows at the front of the house.

So, we hung sheets for privacy, probably unnecessarily because visitors whizzed by at 55 mph or more and the house was a good quarter mile away from the road.

People made fun of us for our window coverings. Well, I don’t know if they did or didn’t. My dad worried that they did. He was ashamed of his financial status and, real or imagine, he worried the community would judge him for not having enough money for expensive drapery.

After my dad died, my mom and I lived in a small house by the high school. My mother struggled with addiction to opioids — stuff that isn’t even legal to prescribe anymore — and probably a series of undiagnosed mental illnesses. For reasons unclear to me, she decided to pay a service to mow our lawn instead of buying a lawnmower and letting me do it.

The dye was cast. That doughy Finney boy was so lazy he wouldn’t even mow the lawn at his own house for his poor, elderly mother.

This perception of me was so ironclad that it was thrown in my face multiple times, sometimes by teachers. No amount of my attempts to correct this rumor with the fact that my mother, while crazy, was still the adult in the house and the idea not to buy a lawnmower was hers, not mine.

I took to journalism in part because I thought I could set the record straight with facts and supporting information. I believed a well-reasoned argument should be at least be considered.

Small towns can be wonderful. They can also be vicious, especially on the matter of rumormongering.

The last time I wrote, I tried to ask my classmates from the small town I’m so found of to think differently about the things we said and did as they related to one of our classmates of Asian descent after the deaths of Asian-Americans in shootings at Atlanta salons.

Not everyone bullied the classmate in question, nor did everyone use racial epithets that I described, but a lot of us did. I did. And I admitted I was ashamed and had changed as an adult.

The discussion started off nicely enough. Some people apologized. The person I was writing about thanked me for the piece.

This changed.

The subject of the column started calling people out for things done more than 30 years ago. By name. And those folks weren’t too keen on being associated with racist acts. And other people remembered events differently than she did.

I received text messages from the subject of the column with screen shots of the arguments and the caption “I’m having so much fun!”

The arguments heated up. Some people came to me directly and asked me to moderate comments. I appealed twice in comments for everyone to settle down and just think about what we were talking about from a different perspective.

That was a failure.

Then the subject of the column turned on me. She asked me to take it down. I declined. The rhetoric intensified. I banned her from the page and deleted the comments.

I know one or two people put some thought into what I wrote about last week. But many didn’t.

What a waste of time and energy.

I still love my friends from Winterset. I would not be who I am today without them. It still hurts a little that I wasn’t able to graduate with my class, but that worked out OK, too.

But this small-scale incident is one of the large-scale reasons why I don’t know if I could ever be a journalist again.

Almost nobody wants to think. People are quick to yell. The facts are elusive and made irrelevant by the stubbornness in all our minds to see things in a way that supports our existing conclusions.

Nobody likes to be challenged. Journalism is the act of challenging.

Or it was.

Today it’s about Fruit Loops pizza.

I digress.

The whole affair reminds me of a story about the poet and author Charles Bukowski. A reporter rode with Bukowski on an airplane sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Bukowski wrote strange screeds for the alternative newspapers in California.

Bukowski was drunk. He clawed at the flight attendants and made a boorish fool of himself.

Some weeks later, the reporter saw Bukowski’s byline in one of those alternative papers. He told the story on the plane, except in Bukowski’s version it was the reporter who was a lout and Bukowski who looked with embarrassment.

The reporter ran into Bukowski sometime later and asked him why he said that.

“Hey,” Bukowski said, “I’m the hero of my shit.”

I think we’re all a little bit like Bukowski. We all want to be the hero of our own shit. And we’re willing to lie to ourselves hard enough that we actually believe it.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Recognizing the anti-Asian racism of my Iowa youth

A childhood friend texted recently. She was angry about the gunman who attacked a series of Atlanta spas, killing eight people including six of Asian descent. She worried about the attacks on elder Asians in San Francisco.

My friend is of Chinese descent. Her father was an Iowa farmer who fought in the Vietnam war. He met and married a Chinese woman. They settled in Winterset. They opened a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town.

My friend struggled growing up. She was the only minority face in our class and among a very small number of minorities in Winterset. This is typical of most small towns in Iowa.

But until recently, until the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last summer, I never bothered to look at the world from my friend’s perspective.

She was the only person who looked like her. We grew up in the 1980s and anti-Asian talk was common. Parents remembered Vietnam. Grandparents remembered World War II.

People still gave cold stares to anyone who bought a Japanese car.

People used regularly the racial slur “chink.” My friends did. I am ashamed to admit, I did, too.

We referred to her, our classmate and peer, like that in casual conversation. I remember it clearly and it turns my stomach.

I offer no defense. There isn’t one. I spoke in ignorance. I thought only of myself and trying to be cool or thought of as the funniest guy around.

Not everybody behaved that way. She named classmates who were kind, who were friends she treasured.

I apologized to my friend for the words I used, my immaturity and my ignorance. She said I was never the problem and she didn’t remember being angry with me. It was small comfort.

My friend endured a lot. The anxiety she suffered from daily bullying and racial insults gave her an eating disorder in high school. She lost her hair. Can you imagine being a teenage girl and losing your hair?

I had moved away by this time to finish school in Des Moines. The story goes that one day my friend wore her wig and another classmate, also a friend, pulled it off her head and ran down the hallway as she chased him.

My friend took her grievances to the school counselors. She complained of the bullying and racial epithets. One counselor, she said, just stared at her without blinking. Another told her she would need to toughen up.

The counselor told her parents – in front of her – that she would never succeed in college.

They were wrong. We were all wrong. She graduated from Iowa State. She went on to become a famous hairdresser in Chicago. She worked “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Jenny Jones.” She moved to Florida and began competing in Iron Man competitions around the world.

She’s married now and lives in California.

She told me a sweet story about her daughter coming home from second grade one recent day. The private, Christian school her daughter attends celebrated multi-cultural week.

Her daughter learned that her friend was from Africa. The child was so excited to have a friend from Africa and wanted to know more. My friend spent time with her kids looking up facts about where the child grew up.

“I wish I had grown up with this kind of inclusiveness and I loved that my own daughter saw things as they should be,” my friend said.

I spent most of my life rolling my eyes at things like multi-cultural week. I never bothered to understand the violence inherent in my words as a child and too far into my present.

In mind, I didn’t understand hatred toward Asians. From the perspective of a white man, they seemed to acclimate so well. Many own businesses. Their children were high achievers in school.

The fault in that thinking, of course, is that it’s from a white guy. I haven’t lived in world where I have to bite my tongue every time someone uses derogatory words at or near me.

I didn’t have to suppress my culture – reading comics and playing video games – because it was the dominate culture. I missed out on learning about my friend’s experience because of white privilege.

White privilege gets mocked in the conservative community. I see white privilege as having the freedom to ignore the struggles of others, especially Black and brown people and the LGBTQ communities, because the culture doesn’t force them to see it.

My friend could never ignore or rise above racism because it was always there, in her face, every damn day.

She’s doing well. She’s happy.

Then some asshole in Atlanta shoots eight people to death at massage parlors. More assholes beat old men in San Francisco.

And my friendship with my classmate helps me see those events better, understand the sinister underpinnings of racial hatred that had always been present in my life – all the way back to grade school.

I ignored it because I was allowed to. Now I understand a fraction better. All it took was the suffering of a fellow human being and classmate to finally shake me awake.

What, I wonder, will it take for me and the rest of us to do something about it?

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.