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Terry Woster: The good old days of journalism

Early in my career as a news reporter, I covered stories with a pocket-sized notebook and a couple of ballpoint pens.

I covered state government, the Legislature and breaking news events such as the Rapid City flood in 1972, the Wounded Knee takeover in 1973, the shootings of two FBI agents near Oglala in 1975 and the national convention that resulted in the nomination of Jimmy Carter as the Democrats’ candidate for president in the summer of 1976. Big stories, small stories, didn’t matter. I watched events, interviewed people, scrawled notes on the lined pages of my notebook and wrote stories based on those notes. That’s just how I learned from school and the older reporters.

Somewhere in an old photo album I have a black-and-white snapshot of me and another reporter talking with a White House guy at Frank Fools Crow’s place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That would have been late May of 1973. After the Wounded Knee takeover ended, President Nixon sent a delegation headed by Bradley Patterson to South Dakota to gather facts and talk about the events and actions that led to the takeover.

I worked for The Associated Press. The other reporter pictured, Jim Quinn from Omaha, worked for United Press International. We both held notebooks and ballpoint pens, and we scribbled away as Patterson described what his team was doing in South Dakota and summarized what he and Fools Crow had just discussed.

I look back on times like that as the good old days — of my reporting career and of news reporting in general. They were good days for my career because huge events happened here in South Dakota. Nearly everything I covered was new, fresh and unexpected. They were good old days for news reporting, in my thinking, because a reporter could use a notebook and ballpoint pen and generally expect that if he did his job properly, people would read his stories and believe they were factual, whether they liked the stories or not.

Transpose me, Quinn and Bradley Patterson to today’s world. Instead of being out there pretty much alone at Fools Crow’s place, we’d have been surrounded by a cadre of smartphone-carrying folks, both from the White House and the group with Fools Crow. Before we’d even talked with Patterson and written our stories, dozens of tweets and posts and photos and videos would have been filed, and numerous people would have praised and panned the meeting, the motives of everyone involved and the bias of the reporters assigned to cover the event.

Nobody, or at least few people and nobody who ever told me so to my face, saw my byline and automatically thought I was a Democrat or Republican, a stooge for the American Indian Movement or a front for the federal government. People who read my stuff may have come to any of those conclusions, I suppose. Generally, though, I always figured they gave me the benefit of the doubt until they’d read what I’d written and considered it.

I made mistakes. I’m human. But think of this: When someone would approach me and say they’d been misquoted, I’d pull out my notebook and show them the quote I’d written. Nearly always, back then, they’d nod and shift their argument to something like, “That isn’t what I meant to say.’’ What a simple world it was when I could show somebody what I’d written in my notebook and they would accept it as fact.

We’re a much less trusting world, I guess. Part of that, I know, has to do with changes in the news business itself. We’ve become way too edgy, again in my opinion. We’re less dispassionate, and that’s seen as being less impartial.

Part of it, though, is that people read and watch news in a different way, if they read and watch it at all. Many people know what they know, read what they already believe and aggressively ascribe bad motives to anything that challenges what they believe.

I liked the days when a couple of reporters could take notes on the open prairie and never doubt readers would expect the stories to be factual and objective.

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