Last week, I covered the Chris Collins protest as an assignment for Keith McShea’s journalism class. This was my first “official” reporting experience, where I went to an event with the explicit purpose of observing without participating, and sharing unbiased details of the demonstration. I have interviewed people before (one time, for my Creative Nonfiction Writing Class last semester, if we’re being exact), and it was intimidating even though it was someone I already knew. I interviewed my old math professor, who had grown up in communist Romania, and was a wise, take-no-shit kind of person. I was nervous to interview him. I didn’t want to pry or ask things that were too personal, and I wasn’t sure if the memories and experiences from the Romanian revolution would be hard for him to discuss. I also didn’t want to seem ignorant, or like I was in some way ostracizing him, which were both likely to happen as my educational background (in American, adamantly pro-capitalist school systems) gave me no context in which to view a communist regime except that of a kind of estranged horror, like watching a lion eat a baby. It seems like such a strange concept I can’t imagine it really happened, and if you tell me it did happen part of me won’t believe you and the other part will be completely baffled and horrified by the notion. But the interview was easy. He was willing to share information, and he talked openly about his life. I barely had to do anything.
The idea of interviewing complete strangers on Tuesday seemed even more daunting than my previous experience. I didn’t know what to say, what to ask. I took a deep breath and went to the first guy I saw who wasn’t standing in a big cluster of people. He was wearing a U.S. Airforce hat, which I thought would give me something to ask about, as well as provide a good descriptive detail about the composition of the protesters – a veteran would definitely give their demonstration some weight. So I went up, told him I was a student reporter from the University at Buffalo, and asked if he would tell me his name, occupation and why he came to demonstrate today. He started by telling me that he didn’t want to tell me his name, his occupation was retired (when I asked for former occupation he reluctantly said “uuuuuuhhh, let’s say sales,” which I didn’t think was terribly convincing), and finally said that he was there because Collins had been blindly supporting Trump, giving him free reign, which is wrong because no one is perfect except for God.
So I took a break, wandered around for awhile, took pictures and listened. I decided to really take the time to feel people out before I approached them, because that guy seemed to be under the impression I was some kind of spy lurking around to incriminate him.
Then I heard a woman loudly talking into a video camera about how she had contacted Collins many times. Most recently, she had asked about whether anyone in his office had made use of the Affordable Care Act as part of their own health coverage and was told “in no uncertain terms it was none of my business.” I told her that I had overheard her story, and was wondering if she could tell me more about her experiences talking to staffers and attempting to get through to Representative Collins. It turned out that she was a Child Services worker, and had many long-term grievances with Collins over his lack of concern over the needs of the Child Protection Services department for more workers and resources in general. She was more than happy to share her story, telling me that I should have been around in the sixties – “that’s when all the real protests were happening.”
I liked her story, and she had a lot of personal interactions with Collins, but I ended up not using her at all in my piece because I felt that hers was a side conversation, that didn’t encapsulate the concerns of the entirety of the event. The event in essence was a complaint that people felt powerless, that their voices were not being heard, that they weren’t getting properly-generated explanations for why they were being ignored. They were told that their voices didn’t matter because it was simply a difference in policy opinion. But the point of being a representative is being able to at the very least defend your stances directly to the faces of constituents who are unhappy with your decisions.
People at the protest felt that they were not being represented in any way – not that their representative simply disagrees with them over certain things, which we all consent to by nature of a representative democracy, but that somehow their entire district had morphed into a winner-take-all state of being, where the representative can claim that listening to people who disagree is a waste of time, or counterproductive, and still be treated with validity. A pluralistic state works in theory when representatives hear out all sides of the argument, weigh the validity of each, and make a decision that will best satisfy the needs of all constituents. Admittedly, this sometimes involves taking a tough-love kind of stance. There are occasions where policy must be created that not everyone agrees with, when there is solid evidence indicating that such a policy will end up benefitting even those who don’t believe in its validity. No one expects a representative to be able to please everyone. But in order for people to submit to a representative form of government, they have to rightfully feel that their representative truly hears them and their concerns, and has taken that into account when making decisions over their heads.
Some of the Pro-Trump counter-protestors complained that the people who showed up were not really against Chris Collins and his lack of communication, but rather making a broad statement of opposition towards the republican party and the president himself (implicit in the protest because Chris Collins has been very supportive of Trump’s policies). If this was the case, the demonstration would be counterproductive as it would be unnecessarily obstinate obstruction, coupled with a complete refusal to admit that republicans won the election and now they deserve to get to try their hand at fixing our problems.
I didn’t report on the story of the man who thought that Collins was too supportive of Trump, nor did I report on the woman who was angry because Collins had not donated enough resources to the Child Protection Services department. After surveying different people throughout the crowd, assessing the mood, and listening to those who spoke, I decided that neither of those was the story that hit the core of the meaning behind the protest. From what I saw, I believed that what the people were asking for was a town hall meeting where they were heard, where they were acknowledged, and where they felt they had been treated respectably and responsibly, the way that our government promises.
I also did not use a quote that I heard from a pro-Trump counter-protester discussing the people who were protesting Collins: “Them people need to get educated.” The irony was not lost on me, and my friend cited it as one of the more memorable moments of the rally, but I decided I did not want to invalidate the counter-protester’s arguments on the basis of a passing comment, just as I did not want to invalidate the protester’s points about the responsibilities of representatives by focusing on passing comments of dissatisfaction with Trump’s cabinet appointees.
I fear, however, that I am susceptible to many dimensions of distortion, as I am coming into the protest with my individual biases – I disagree with the current President’s policies, which of course means that I am going to be both consciously and subconsciously inclined to support the protest against Chris Collins for the extraneous reasons that Trump supporters feared. I tried to present the protest without skewing it that way by including the most valid complaints of the counter-protesters to make sure that people got both sides of the story. But perhaps I overreached by emphasizing the focus on democratic processes as much as I did, because that lends strong validity to the argument by making it largely nonpartisan. I don’t believe I have done so unjustly, because many of the people who had organized the event expressed that directly, saying that the only real goal of the demonstration was to make sure people can be heard, and to force the Representative to meet with his people. But clearly the enthusiasm people had for making sure they were heard was also fueled by partisan interests.
I did my best to report honestly what happened and what the core, essence, and tenor of the event was, but that is a very complex process and it is difficult to trace and identify all the ways in which I might have skewed the story. It is frighteningly easy to insert a narrative that I support into the story, which is really the fundamental problem of journalism that people have spent their lives trying to avoid or counteract. This was just my first endeavor into the attempt, and I can see quite clearly some of the difficulties that arise, even to those with the best of intentions.