When Newspaper Editors Make Things Worse For No Good Reason
Downtown Billings has had a parallel struggle with Missoula regarding chronic homelessness, addiction and mental illness. There was a summit recently which led to committees examining different approaches, like building a ‘sobering center’.
It turns out Billings also has a newspaper editor by the name of Darrell Ehrlick who appears to be of the same caliber as his Missoulian counterpart. In a December post at Last Best News, Ed Kemmick offers A different take on downtown Billings, taking Ehrlick to task for his ignorant, counter-productive column. Here is the opening of Kemmick’s piece:
A week ago today, Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick opened his Sunday column with the words, “This is one of those thing that hurts to write.”
If it’s any consolation, Darrell, it was also painful to read.
He went on to paint a lurid picture of downtown Billings, all derived from what he described as a four-block round-trip lunch outing from his office at North Broadway at Fourth Avenue North.
He wrote of encountering “four groups of semi-sober folks,” some of whom were yelling, and about how pedestrians were forced to suffer the indignity of walking into the street to avoid a “huddled group” of transients at one corner. He also mentioned seeing, on that same walk, “a half-washed pile of puke” and smelling the “unmistakable scent of fermenting urine.”
What made the column remarkable is that it seemed to have been written from the perspective of a man who had not been reading the Billings Gazette at all in the past few months.
It was written as if Ehrlick had just made the discovery—not yet noticed by anyone else—that certain aspects of downtown Billings were less than uniformly pleasant. For some mysterious reason, he seemed to be saying, his once agreeable lunch outing had suddenly become a Dickensian tour of the slums of old London.
Like Missoula, Billings has lots of people working on improving their community. According to Kemmick, the Billings Gazette has done a good job reporting on those efforts. So why did Ehrlick write a column reasserting what most people already know—chronic homelessness is a problem? Kemmick continues:
There were passing references to the work being done by “many groups” to address the problems downtown, but almost no specifics, certainly nothing as specific as his description of fermenting urine.
It was as if the Gazette had not, in recent months, devoted hundreds of column inches, in its news and opinion pages, to coverage of and commentary on all that is underway to solve some of these longstanding problems.
Anybody who has been reading the Gazette’s admirable coverage of these efforts would realize that the work being done by businesses, individuals, city officials, cops, service agencies and charitable groups is more serious and determined than any similar efforts in the history of this city.
This is not to say that there isn’t a mountain of work yet to be done, but the commitment and will shown have been impressive, and results are already being seen.
Just four days after Ehrlick’s column appeared, the Gazette reported that the Montana Rescue Mission and Harvest Church opened a new drop-in center for transients and homeless people. A church member told KTVQ that that center is aimed directly at the 74 “chronically homeless” people identified by the city as part of the recent Community Innovations Summit. In other words, this center was a quick, direct result of that summit, held just two months ago in hopes of galvanizing efforts to do something about the downtown’s problems.
It sounds like the Billings Gazette has done some good reporting on the work being done to improve conditions in downtown Billings. What is the role of an editor again? Is it to report on what’s happening in the community, or is it to scare people into staying inside their homes and reading scare-mongering columns from ignorant editors? Kemmick continues:
This failure to acknowledge the good work being done, though, was not the worst thing about Ehrlick’s column. The worst thing was that it played on every fear of the downtown that so many people have been working for years to erase.
After delivering the “hard truth” that downtown Billings “has a problem,” Ehrlick asked, “Would I bring my kids with me to do a little leisurely shopping?” He doesn’t answer his own question, but I guess we know what it would have been. He also wondered whether a “young female” would feel comfortable shopping downtown, which he referred to as “the province of stumbling drunks.”
Ehrlick must know that there are many, many people in Billings and surrounding communities who are predisposed to shy away from the downtown and who would find in his column confirmation of all their fears.
Those of us who live and work downtown are always trying to persuade people that the minor annoyances are far outweighed by all the good things downtown has to offer. I would argue that we have more to fear from heedless drivers—dare we say West Enders and Heightians unused to seeing pedestrians?—than we do from transients.
Right on, Ed.
By allowing its editor to play on the fears people have of the chronically homeless, the Billings Gazette is exacerbating the problem. Is it worth unnecessarily stirring up controversy for a few more online clicks? Maybe for struggling newspapers it is. But in the long-run, communities are not well-served by this kind of short-sighted editorial leadership.