Fault Lines
21 June 2017

Thinking Of The Children, And The Journalists

Apr. 13, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Two things stop modern Americans from taking Hilde Kate Lysiak seriously as a journalist. Both reflect badly on America, not Ms. Lysiak.

The first is her age. Hilde Lysiak is nine.  That’s why she’s an international story.  Ms. Lysiak, the inquisitive and mature daughter of a journalist, writes a newspaper covering issues of mostly local interest in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.  She relies on her parents for advice and her older sister for photos and videos.  She was the first journalist to report on a murder investigation in her neighborhood.  Ms. Lysiak got a tip about the investigation from a source she had met through prior reporting, went to the scene a few blocks from her home, took pictures, asked questions of law enforcement, interviewed neighbors, and told her readers what she learned.  During this same period, my nine-year-old was watching Minecraft videos.[1]

But this is America, home of the brave.  Naturally, though many applauded Ms. Lysiak’s initiative and professionalism, others told her that she ought to be playing with dolls or holding tea parties, and opined that being exposed to crime, let alone reporting on it, is unsuitable for a child.  Many were ready with the officious, unsolicited think-of-the-children pearl-clutching familiar to any parent:

ken1

This attitude is the first impediment to Americans treating Hilde Lysiak like a journalist: we think that there is Childhood, and there is Real Life, and they ought to be separated. We believe our children are in nearly constant danger, and that we must isolate them from the world in which it lurks.  Never mind that by every objective measure, today’s kids are much safer than we were at the same age.  Never mind that incident after incident shows that we’re making unapologetic paranoia about our kids into a sort of twisted civic virtue.  We are supremely indulgent in our fear, even self-satisfied about it.  We’ve stuffed ourselves into sweatpants, flopped on the couch with a party-size bag of chips, and settled in for the weekend to binge-watch our own anxieties.  It’s okay, we tell ourselves – doing it for the children means never having to say we’re sorry.

The implications are grim. It’s not just that we’re depriving our kids of the childhood freedoms we had, which helped make us the adults we are.  It’s not just that some young people are demonstrating a completely predictable inability to handle adversity or unpleasantness.

ken2

No, the implications are also grim because uncritical fear is a habit of thinking, and the deeper we get into the habit, the more we apply it to adult situations. We already see it on college campuses, where the inane spirit of “think of the children!” runs rampant.  We see it in a law enforcement narrative that treats adult citizens like children:  we know what’s best, we’re doing this for your own good.  It’s not the way that free people ought to think – it’s not a way that people can think if they want to remain free.

This leads us to the second impediment to Hilde Lysiak joining the mainstream of American journalism. Hilde thinks like a nine-year-old.  Nine-year-olds are vexing.  Nine-year-olds question authority.  If you tell them to do something, they’ll ask but why. They’ll continue to ask why the second and third time you tell them to do it.  If they find your explanation for your diktat unpersuasive or unjust, they’ll say so.

So does Ms. Lysiak.

The police didn’t want the media to report on the murder investigation in her neighborhood. Some of her detractors argue she ought to obey.  She politely disagrees.

I have since found out that the police had asked the media not to run the story. I may be nine, but I have learned that my job as a reporter is to get the truth to the people. I work for them, not the police.

Surely most journalists would agree they don’t work for the police. But do they act like it?

The media is complicit in law enforcement’s long-term project, which is to scare the hell out of us relentlessly so that we give them more deference. That’s why our kids are twice as safe as we were but we’re twice as frightened on their behalf.  The media says it is independent from law enforcement, but accepts favors from the police in the form of leaks and tips — that’s where we get those delicious perp walk videos.  It’s rare for the media to examine the motives of leakers and tipsters, or to question whether they are being used as an illegitimate tool — or as propagandists.  Instead, uncritical quoting of law enforcement is the norm.  That leads to embarrassing results and an inadequately informed public primed to do what the police want.

We don’t need to ask why Hilde Lysiak isn’t more like a grown-up journalist. We need to ask why grown-up journalists aren’t more like her.  Why aren’t more journalists questioning the steady drumbeat of danger and fear echoed by Ms. Lysiak’s detractors?  Why don’t more journalists announce – every day if necessary – that they don’t work for the police, they don’t have to do what the police say, and they don’t automatically credit what the police tell them?  Why don’t more journalists question convention?

Maybe holding tea parties is less scary.

Ken White is a criminal defense attorney and civil litigator at Brown White & Osborn LLP in Los Angeles.  He blogs at Popehat.com.

[1] OK.  To be fair, my nine-year-old was also learning Mandarin.  Please don’t kill me in my sleep, dear.

5 Comments on this post.

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  • Overturn Child Labor Laws! | Popehat
    13 April 2016 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    […] have a post up today at Fault Lines about how we need more nine-year-old journalists. LOCHNER […]

  • Scott Jacobs
    13 April 2016 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Remind me, is this the one that has previously been dubbed the Destroyer of Worlds?

    If so, I fear your plea for mercy may already be too late.

  • The Standard in Aiken? Give Cop Rape A Break | Simple Justice
    14 April 2016 at 6:16 am - Reply

    […] Since you’re all about facts, unlike that silly Washington Post blog that “rooted in opinion” (based on facts), “we” are not in the middle of pending litigation. You are a newspaper. You are not being sued. You are distinct from the police, from the government of Aiken. Even a 9-year-old journalist has figured out that one. […]

  • Richard G. Kopf
    15 April 2016 at 10:08 am - Reply

    Ken,

    Whatever her parents are doing, one hopes that other parents would learn the trick. Teaching Mandarin to your young child as you do or nurturing Hilde’s interest in newspapers as her parent do is to prepare the child to embrace the endless possibilities of life and, equally important, the infinite spectrum of the human condition.

    As for the complaint about exposing a child to violence, try telling that to the parents of millions of kids who grew up on a farm or ranch learning how to slaughter farm animals. Children, even young children, are not delicate. They are fully capable of distinguishing between good and evil when parents take the time to teach them the difference.

    All the best.

    RGK

    PS Petra,our nearly 7-year-old granddaughter orders slippery noodles in Mandarin for her family in Shenzen, China when they visit the tiny restaurant near their apartment. She sees very little difference between the “‘Nese” and the “‘Mericans.”

  • Kareem Alleyne: Convicted by the Media, Acquitted in the Courtroom
    28 February 2017 at 8:20 am - Reply

    […] our media acquired the ethical accountability of a nine year old girl, we’re going to need more verdicts like this one. If police are going to buy the media, they […]