“All of us journalists have had to put up with invective arriving via phone calls, letters, emails and online comments,” wrote Newsom to me via email. Newsom, who now works at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute (and for whom I do contract work there) continued:
But what she (and other African American journalists) has been hit with for years is exponentially crueler and meaner and more hateful. It can be so racist that it is eye-opening to white people who just don’t hear that nasty side of humanity all that often.
But Flono has handled it graciously, Newsom confirmed.
“Watching how she has dealt with that anger taught me much,” Newsom wrote. “By staying calm and not allowing herself to be drawn in to the nasty sniping, I think she has been a wonderful example of how a journalist can exemplify grace and equanimity.”
Flono pushes back gently when I suggest that she is a “discourse leader” in her community.
“I’m not inclined to use that label myself,” she wrote in an email after our interview. But news organizations across the country pick up her column, and she gets correspondence from a wide array of people—those who share her views and those who don’t. Flono continued:
I am most encouraged by those who write to simply say I’ve prodded them to think deeper or differently about an issue. If I were to describe myself, though, I would say I was a convener of conversation. I have opinions, loads of them, but I really want people to think, think, think.
My perch at the paper provides a platform to get public consideration of ideas, and ways of thinking about issues they may not have considered. I also see my role as helping people bridge gaps in understanding, and finding a way to reach consensus and finding a way to be less myopic and having a broader lens about which to discuss issues and make decisions.
Flono’s columns get picked up in other McClatchy newspapers and run at the national McClatchy website, of course, but also run in other North Carolina papers like the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greensboro News & Record, and the Burlington Times-News.
Her frequently liberal stances have, not surprisingly, drawn fire from conservative bloggers in the state. Typical of those “lefties,” concluded a blogger for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, of a 2011 Flono column (no longer available online) on public school funding and how, per Flono, the “return on investment [in students] can’t be extracted easily or quickly.” To the conservative blog, The Pundit House, a March Flono column on race and crime was the “wishful thinking of the politically correct crowd.”
So as Flono sits in one of the centers of political debate in 2012, what tips does she have for other journalists?
“On campaign coverage, unfortunately, I feel the media (all of us) fail to provide the depth of coverage about what goes on, what the truth is about issues or a politician’s stand, and what the implications are of what they propose. We do too much stenographic, ‘he said, she said,’ coverage, thinking that’s a proxy for fairness, without being very discerning about what is being fed to us.”
What’s being done well in campaign reporting?
She likes sites that check facts and wishes traditional media outlets would do more of it. “Our newspaper used to routinely ‘truth-squad’ what politicians said, but we only do it sporadically now,” she said.
What issues need more scrutiny?
“On several issues—rising poverty and income inequality, immigration reform, education, tax reform—I’d like to see the media be more aggressive in informing the public about how public policy decisions at the state level and national level are affecting those issues.”
The issue of income inequality, Flono observed hopefully in a February column, was actually—for a moment earlier this year—on the minds and lips of some of the presidential candidates. Wrote Flono:
Concern about income inequality and the huge and growing wealth gap in this country has found new energy in our political discourse of late.