There is no such thing as a bad question. But how you ask it, well, that's another matter. A question becomes an accusation if, by asking it, you force people to defend themselves for something you have no evidence they did -- more so, when a reporter repeats the question again and again.
Did you poop and pee on the bank? Did you? Did you?
That's what makes a recent video of two reporters, Kelly May and Betsy Lambert, tearing their way through the Occupy Humboldt encampment in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse so compelling.
The video is now viral. That's a term for something on the Internet that people feel compelled to pass along to every friend, family member and co-worker. For those of you out in the hills without broadband, here is the recap: In early November, Eureka police reported that someone defecated and urinated at the entrance of the Fifth Street branch of US Bank in Eureka. In response, the two Chanel 3 reporters stomped through the Occupy Humboldt encampment and asked that question over and over. They went up to one person after another, and even stuck a microphone through tent flaps to force answers out of sleeping occupants.
Some of the occupiers turned the question around. They argued that it is the banks that poop on us each day. The exchange is so entertaining it elicited commentary on web blogs from as far as San Antonio and inspired the North Coast Journal's Andrew Goff to record an "Ode to Betsy Lambert," set to the tune of "The Times They Are a Changin.'"
Humboldt County YouTube viewers are now so caught up in what's become known as Poopgate that we forget what preceded the video. Someone did in fact urinate and defecate on a bank. Shouldn't reporters try to get to the bottom of that? Don't we complain that news organizations these days are too timid, and they won't spend the time necessary for investigative stories?
What makes the video so compelling for me is the gulf it represents between journalism's promise and its reality. We so need reporters to be tenacious. Too often news organizations seem cowardly. Important questions go unanswered and reporters fail to ask follow up questions to official statements that say nothing.
If only, I thought, we could Photoshop out the unnamed Humboldt occupiers with the faces of the chairmen of each bank that has financially defecated on this nation over the last few years: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and let's throw in US Bank as well. Get two reporters out there and ask the bankers this: Did you poop and pee on the American economy? That's an accusation you can back up with evidence: Sub-prime mortgages, foreclosures, bankruptcies, credit card usury. What the financial industry has done to this country and the world is enough to make me want to drop my pants and unload on my local branch.
Stick that microphone out and wedge open those closed doors behind which politicians and business people make decisions that affect our bank accounts, our jobs, our education and our health and safety. Repeat the questions again and again until those responsible answer: Why credit card interest rates that top 25 percent? Why did Bank of America think it could charge customers $5 a month for the debit cards that give them access to their own money? (Disclaimer here: I bank at Bank of America.) Why won't you restructure mortgages of people you are about to foreclose on to rates that would allow them to keep paying you money, instead of letting homes sit empty in a collapsed housing market? Who are you that you care more about raking in excessive profits than in the overall health of our national economy?
Perhaps if local reporters across the country poked microphones into the faces of their local bank directors, those questions would work their way up the chain through the force of irritation and perplexity to the top where literally the bucks stop.
The video represents the big problem in journalism today, and particularly television journalism or what is left of it: TV people point their cameras and microphones and accusations at the wrong people. We live in a nation of predominantly lazy, complacent people. For thousands of them to camp outside courthouses and financial and government buildings as the temperature dips well below comfort level, forsaking video games and episodes of Modern Family, well, someone clearly must have pooped on them.
Still, the fact remains that someone defecated on a local bank branch and that is a crime. But why look to Occupy Humboldt for suspects? On the video, the occupiers look like poor schlubs who haven't had a paycheck to stick in a bank for ages. Want a better suspect? Look to someone recently foreclosed on or forced into bankruptcy. Two come to mind. Eureka-based Security National, run by our own Rob Arkley, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a Delaware court. Bank of America filed a breach of contract suit against the company last year, to get back $50 million it said Security National owed. And multiple banks recently forced out Dean Singleton, former owner of MediaNews Corp., which owns many local newspapers in California. Arkley and Singleton both have good reasons to poop on a bank. Maybe that's why the story fell to the local TV news people to do. The Times-Standard wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot scooper. The banks own the paper. Then again, poop is one of the only things that still make newsprint competitive with the Internet. Underneath a puppy or at the bottom of a birdcage, it is perfect for pooping on.
Marcy Burstiner is associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She doesn't condone pooping on banks since that is so last millennium. Instead, take out your iPhone or Android, snap a shot of your poop and email it to the bank. It is against the law to biologically poop on the bank. But e-poop? The First Amendment protects that defecation proclamation.