CARLTON FLETCHER: When it comes to the news, we’re not taking sides

OPINION: Telling readers what to think is not journalism

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right … Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

— Stealers Wheel

One of my favorite album titles from the era when albums ruled the music world was Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” … kind of a hipper version of “Don’t kill the messenger.”

I thought about Sir Elton’s album this week in the wake of a barrage of emails and phone calls referencing the stories published in The Herald about the homeless people living in a wooded area off 16th Avenue in north Albany. Many offered praise for bringing attention to an issue that they felt had long been warranted.

“We have no way of knowing what kind of criminal past some of these people might have, and there’s no way the city should ignore them no matter how many people say, ‘But they’re not bothering anybody.’ The waste and garbage they leave in those woods is ‘bothering’ people, the people who have to deal with the pests that are attracted to their garbage and the smell of their filth,” one wrote.

Another, however, accused the newspaper — well, really, me, since I wrote the stories, but I love to share the wealth with my colleagues — of “cruelty” for bringing attention to people who were “down on their luck and finally found a place that allowed them to live without being a burden on society.”

“You should have to pay for finding these people somewhere to live since you’re the one who complained about their living arrangements. What harm were they doing you?” an irate caller said.

As I pondered these messages — all of which I appreciated and considered in the spirit in which they were sent, by the way — I have to admit I was a touch perplexed. In fact, that’s why “Don’t Shoot Me” came to mind.

See, I went back and re-read both of the articles about the homeless encampments in the woods. And I did not find any reference in the articles to the “right” or “wrong” of the situation. I did not find even a hint that indicated I championed the plight of the homeless or urged the city to force them to leave the woods.

In fact, here’s a synopsis: Several citizens and local government agencies indicated there was a population of homeless people living in woods located within the city limit. The Herald, with the backup of people wearing guns, went in to investigate. Several tents and shelters were discovered, a few of which showed evidence of occupancy. There was human waste in the immediate vicinity, and piles of garbage throughout. Representatives of one government entity or local agency said this. Representatives of another government entity or local agency said that.

That’s pretty much it.

That some readers mistook The Herald’s attempts to tell the community about the encampments as an effort to influence action — or inaction, for that matter — by local policymakers and agencies is just misguided. We were, simply, the messenger.

Please, don’t get me wrong. All of the people who work for this publication — yes, even me — are human beings. As such, we definitely have our opinions about the stories that we cover. But unless we’re writing an editorial piece in which we’re expected to state that opinion, we are bound to keep those thoughts in check.

Yes, we often fail. But know that we’re trying. Really hard.

Today, when wildly popular trash TV shows like “TMZ” and “Inside Edition” and other such fare are considered “journalism” by the general public, it’s easy to see how that same public would grow to expect some kind of slanted agenda on the stories that news-gathering agencies cover. Thankfully, though, that’s a line this publication’s hierarchy tries to prevent from being crossed.

We’re the messengers. That’s what we try to do. Heed the advice of Sir Elton: “Don’t shoot us, we’re only the piano players.” But know that, in our hearts, we’re “playing” for you.