Keeping my arrogance in check

To be SPJ’s president is to agree to have your e-mail inbox pummeled every day.

I try to stay on top of the deluge, but tonight, I got side-tracked by a simple and poignant request from David Hughey of San Angelo, Texas, father of Iraq War deserter Brandon Hughey.

Some passages from David Hughey’s message:

Dear Ms. Tatum,

I read your recent column about open government and a reformed FOIA and decided to write to you. I hope you do not mind, and I hope you do not hit the delete key. I occasionally write to people whose names I find in newspaper articles, etc.

I am not a lawyer or a politician, and you will note, if you read any of my essays, that I am just the father of a kid who decided to leave the military rather than go to Iraq, and in a futile gesture, I have requested that my great government assign his contract to me.

I research and write about our Constitution and justice and I send these essays to anyone who might be interested in reading them. Anyone receiving anything I write is then free to pass it on if they see fit.

My son went to Canada rather than go to Iraq and is listed as a deserter from the United States Army. Not being a brilliant man, obviously, since I probably influenced his decision to join the Army, all I could see to do at the time my son deserted was to write a series of essays with unimaginative titles …

I take a liberty and attach the first three essays in the hopes that you might read them, and I will send the remaining essays next week. I am not a professional journalist, and even though I did major in journalism, I have not been able to master the art of “tight writing,” you might say.

If I was a professional journalist, I would be interested in the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government as I do not quite understand why a democratic institution such as ours must be run in secrecy.

I realize that asking a professional journalist to read an essay written by an amateur is, indeed, asking a lot, and I do not know if you would have any interest in commenting on my son’s predicament, but it does not cost me anything to send an e-mail. If you do read anything I have written, any comments would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your valuable time.

Sincerely,

David Hughey Father of Private Brandon Hughey, U.S. Army Deserter

I’m not going to comment on Brandon Hughey’s decisions or his legal battle (which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is headed to the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal).

But I do want to comment on David Hughey’s request for my “valuable time” because his message is a potent reminder of how arrogant and dismissive journalists can be (and that most certainly goes for me, too).

I know. I know. You don’t have to be SPJ’s prez to be inundated with e-mail. And phone calls. And snail mail. And faxes. And cocktail conversation. Our job is to be out and about and to cut through spin and noise.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of that spin and noise tiring — and annoying — some days. Over the years, I have become good friends with delete keys and trash cans. Much of what I have pitched has been utter drivel. But over the years, I am sure I have failed to pursue important stories because of my impatience with folks such as David Hughey, who, indeed, has not mastered the “art of tight writing.”

Shame on me.

Had I not spent some time with David Hughey’s voluminous writing tonight, I would have missed important perspective on the Iraq War from a man who anguishes over having signed the papers that allowed his son to join the U.S. Army at 17. I would have missed the perspective of a staunch Republican from Texas who believes the Iraq War has been a huge mistake.

And I would have missed reasoning backed by historical and philosophical references you won’t find in just about any publication or broadcast.

David Hughey clearly has spent days examining his beliefs about this war. In just one essay, he mentions Sir Winston Churchill, Newsweek, Leon Festinger (who introduced the “communication theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957″), the U.S. Constitution, coverage of a Senate debate in the Congressional Record, the Federalist Papers, the anti-Federalist Papers, the Uniform Code of Military Jutice, at least two speeches delivered by Abraham Lincoln, Swiss philosopher Emerich de Vattel and his Law of Nations, the Bible, John Jay (the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), Mikail Gorbachev, Daniel Webster and passages taken from son Brandon’s high school history book.

Let’s just say it’s hard to fault David Hughey for failing to provide context — the kind of context far too many news organizations have failed miserably at providing in their coverage of the Iraq War. We journalists should give more historical perspective. We should present more than the typical blue vs. red, liberal vs. conservative, fight vs. flight rundowns of the battles being waged.

Quickly dismissing the need to tie current events to the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers — or even the Uniform Code of Military Justice (“But that stuff isn’t the news!” you might say.) is foolish — and arrogant.

David Hughey has convinced me that I have some reading to do.

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