I’ve been cataloging dialogue lately. I find it fascinating. With what we say and how we say it and just our word choices in general it’s relatively easy to understand a conversation— we get such a publicly intimate glimpse into the lives of strangers. I never interact. I don’t seek these overheard conversations out, they’re purely circumstantial. I just sit there at the table nearby, stand in the aisle as I’m shopping, and listen. I admit there are things about people I don’t know and I’m not going to claim or assume that I do. But today I interacted. Today I said something. And it was terrifying, and worth it.
I sat at a shaded table outside a cafe today in downtown KC. Tables lined the sidewalk and were maybe a foot apart. I sat next to a table already occupied by four professionals: two men and two women. I sipped my coffee and read my book, but I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation so close behind me, no matter how much I tried to distract myself.
“I said ‘what can I do to improve this?’ And you said ‘Say a prayer and a kumbaya,’ which is your normal use of deflection,” a man said to his co-worker. It was so matter-of-fact. So harsh and blunt, each word articulated.
“I guess I like a challenge, so you could make the script more interesting,” his co-worker said.
“I mean you’re witty enough in the mornings, you could come up with something wittier,” said the first man. “I only bring it up because I care.”
They continued on like this. All four of them participating. They revealed they were anchors and producers of a local morning show. And as I sat there, so obviously a stranger next to them, they continued to bad-mouth their co-workers and each other, tacking on half-hearted compliments to soften the blows. They were fed up (well they used other words) with this, and that. They named co-workers and their flaws sandwiched between small talk of quitting smoking or their favorite brunch spots. One woman recounted a time she had to “threaten” another woman because the first woman had violated a HIPPA law and she also had a conflict of interest. “I made it a bigger deal than it was,” she said. But she had to make it a big deal to the woman so that she wouldn’t talk. “My husband even went to her and said ‘this is really important. you can’t talk to anyone about this. If you do she could lose her job’,” the woman said.
(Before I go on, let me note: it is perfectly legal for me to publish this. “It is unlawful to record an ”oral communication,“ which is defined as ”any communication uttered by a person exhibiting an expectation that such communication is not subject to interception under circumstances justifying such expectation.“ Mo. Ann. Stat. § 542.400. Thus, a journalist does not need consent to record conversations in public where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. – See more at: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-recording-guide/state-state-guide/missouri#sthash.iDIailzq.dpuf”
I think it is fair to say that outside on the public sidewalk of a restaurant is a public place where there is no expectation of privacy. Furthermore, I am not including the reporters’ names or the company for which they work because doing so could get me accused of libel. And I have no malicious intentions so I did not record anything.)
During their whole conversation I was texting my friend who works at a TV station in Arkansas giving him a play by play. “What the heck did I just stumble upon?” I texted him in all caps. My blood was boiling. This was wrong. This whole conversation is wrong.
I’ve worked in the newsroom for three years. I’ve been through ten jobs and a few of them had frustrating circumstances. And I am just as guilty of having heated complaining sessions about co-workers. But never, good god never, in public. I understand stressful circumstances. I understand lazy, uncooperative, inept coworkers. I value communication and honesty in the workpace. I think venting is cathartic. But there is a time and place for it. And it is not in public, where others can hear you defaming another’s character who is not available to defend themselves.
My blood was boiling. My stomach was turning. I could feel that lump in my throat.
“Part of me wants to say to these people that they’re public figures who shouldn’t have this kind of conversation in public. That I’m studying journalism and as leaders they’re not impressing me but dissuading me. That would be SO ballsy,” I texted my friend.
These are public figures. They are well known people in the local community. They could easily be recognized (I’ve only been here 5 weeks and I recognized them) and here they are acting extrememly unprofessional. If I didn’t love journalism, if I didn’t have newsroom experience and know how rough it is, I would be even moreso unimpressed by them. As a viewer, I would stop watching. How could I trust a newssource that gets off on rumors? That has no regard for the gravity of their public image?
I was so disturbed by this conversation. I didn’t want to tell people what I’ve heard and not have a response when they say “what did you do?” I guess most people wouldn’t say anything. But I thought, you know you just published a story about saying something, so say something.
I heard the screech of metal chairs on the pavement as they got out of their seats to leave. Two of them walked off, but as I turned, got up and walked toward the other two I caught the eye of the man who I first heard talking.
“Well hi, how are you?” he said.
“Hi,” I said quite shyly. I held out my hand for a shake and he took it. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. You work for a newsroom correct?”
He said yes, and which one.
“My name is Madelynne,” I said. “I’m studying journalism at the University of Arkansas and I, I found your conversation quite interesting.”
Now I was so nervous and full of adreneline that I cannot recite back to you every word that was exchanged, but I will do my best to report all that I remember as accurately as I can.
I told them him I respect their work and I understand the trials and rigors of the newsroom, but I don’t think a public place outside on the street is a good place to have that kind of conversation. I told them I heard the way that they were talking about some of their coworkers and I didn’t think it was very professional.
He crossed his arms and pursed his lips—understandably so since I’m so young person quite openly critiquing his actions to his face the same way he was critiquing others.
Where do you suggest we have this kind of conversation? he asked.
“I think you should have it in a private place, away from viewers ears.” (I put my hands in my pockets because they were slightly shaking, but I kept eye contact.)
He said a public place is the kind of place to have it. “Do you know if we’ve had these conversations before?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” I said,“and it’s possible you could have, but—”
He cut in. “And we have had these conversations, many times before,” he said.
“I’m sure you have,” I said, “But as someone just sitting nearby there’s no way I could know that. All I would know is what I’ve heard and it would dissuade me from watching your show.”
“We’re having these conversations to make our show better,” he said.
“I know and I understand that,” I said. “And I understand the rigors of the newsroom, but I know in my newsroom if we have issues about others we don’t talk about them in public but in private, and in the hallway or out of reach of others. I just, I think journalism is about being the eyes and ears of the public and I wanted to let you know and be your eyes and ears so you can know.”
“By having taking this conversation outside we are being the eyes and ears,” he said.
The woman beside him spoke up now. “You know we tried to have this conversation in a private place with our co-worker but he didn’t like the stuffiness of the room and he wanted to go outside. And I appreciate that you do understand what it’s like to be in a newsroom because it can be frustrating.”
At that point the conversation dissolved. That was really all that could be said. They were justifying their actions, and I had obviously said my piece without crying out of intimidation.
“Well I,” I stammered, “I just wanted you to know. And I wish you the best of luck and this won’t dissuade me from watching your show, because I do understand where you’re coming from. I just wanted you to be aware of how a viewer might feel… I just felt I had to tell you.”
“Well thank you and best of luck in your career as well,” they said.
We nodded and I turned back to my seat and sat down. They gathered their things for about 5 seconds, but it felt like 5 minutes. I could feel my eyes getting wet. I looked at my book, opened on the table. Please just go before I cry out of shock that I just did that, I thought. They walked down the street without a backward glance.
And I immediately called my best friend (who will someday be writing for the NYTimes, I’m sure of it).
So let this report be a lesson to us all: you are accountable, whether you like it or not. Your words carry weight. A heavier weight than they ever have. We are living in an age of incredible accountability. We live in the digital age, where words can be recorded, where your words are only a tweet or post away from eternal publication, accessible by millions in one simple click or share. With that great power comes the great responsiblity of your words, especially if you are a public figure.
And furthermore, to those of us who are Christians, we cannot escape this:
Ephesians 4:29 (ESV)
29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.