Rep. Gibson’s quest for truth reflects misunderstanding
State Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, has his toga in a knot because a Delta newspaper publisher offered his opinion — opinion — that Gipson, who chairs House Judiciary B, went too far in mixing religion and public policy.
On a Facebook page (Mississippi Responsible Journalism Initiative) he launched earlier this month, Gipson says the column by Ray Mosby of Rolling Fork’s Deer Creek Pilot, pushed him into action. Gipson said he will spearhead a quest enlisting citizens to expose journalists who fail to verify facts before publishing.
Last week, Gipson said 28,000 people, similarly fed up, had signed on. (Note: This figure is being repeated without verification.)
The back story is this:
As a committee chairman, Gipson sat on and thus killed legislation in February to add domestic abuse to grounds upon which a divorce decree could be issued.
It was the well-considered opinion of Gipson, an attorney, that sufficient provisions already exist in state law for couples to escape matrimony in abusive situations.
But he added something else:
“We need to have policies that strengthen marriage,” Gipson was quoted as saying. “If a person is abusive, they (sic) need to have a change in behavior and a change of heart.”
That, said Mosby, crossed the line between Gipson’s legislative duty to protect citizens and his other job, pastor of Gum Springs Baptist Church in Braxton.
“No woman who signs her name on a marriage license and then says, ‘I do,’ is factoring ice packs, stitches, broken bones and periodic fear for her life into that would-be eternal union of which Gibson is apparently so desirous,” wrote Mosby, one of the state’s most-awarded writers. He went on to describe spousal abuse as a pathology more than a choice, and while respecting Gipson’s view of marriage as sacred, said an abused spouse merits a legal escape should counseling fail.
As things turned out, the Legislature did adopt wording more sharply defining existing “cruel and inhuman” provisions in existing law. Too, the state’s largest newspaper, which had printed the column, provided space for Gipson to respond.
That wasn’t enough.
Gipson conceded a couple of journalists are OK, but the rest are reckless purveyors of lies and misinformation.
It reminded me of calls from angry readers when I was an editor. A frequent statement was, “Y’all ought to know all the facts before printing anything.” It was tempting, but not once was my response, “Friend, look at your newspaper. See those obituaries? Not one member of our staff has been to the funeral home to take the pulse of any of those people.”
The gist: Reporting news is not perfection. There are times journalists multi-source information, and there are times we parrot. For example, every media outlet everywhere reported President Trump’s statement that Trump Tower was bugged by President Obama and followed up with Obama’s denial. Do we know the truth? Absolutely not. We know the president said it happened and the former president said it didn’t.
Yet in his first citation of “fake news” in Mississippi, Gipson said journalists are lazy stinking liars because they failed to verify a statement by state Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, that federal inspectors had closed more than 100 state bridges as unsafe. The statement, as with Trump’s, was reported accurately. Later, it was reported that the feds said the actual number was 72 that should be completely or partially closed. (Gipson is reporting 57.)
Two points need to be made here. The first is that Gipson and his faithful need to appreciate and understand that news evolves day by day, hour by hour. Under Gipson’s prescription for the media, we would have waited until World War II was over before revealing that it was taking place.
Journalists seek truth, but often tell the best available version. To spout off that this state’s media is irresponsible and/or intentionally misleads readers or viewers reflects a basic misunderstanding. For one thing, the public’s trust that we will seek truth and provide it is the only thing that keeps us in business.
Second, Mosby’s opinion and Gipson’s opinion are 100 percent protected by the First Amendment. To trigger a crusade about factual reporting due to a difference of opinion is, well, shallow.
There are lots of quotes from Thomas Jefferson about the media. Look them up. They show that as a person, he, like Gipson, believed reporters were malingerers and/or incompetents. But as a founder he believed this: You either have a free press, with all its foibles, or you don’t have a democracy.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.