A young reporter figures out how to write the truth

That night, they rounded up 
an estimated $800,000 in drugs!

How does a 22-year-old reporter report on a story that he knows isn't being reported truthfully? Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down", talks about the time he was invited on a police raid:
I showed up in the parking lot of the police headquarters at about three in the morning, and here were all these Anne Arundel County detectives in civilian clothes drinking beer. They had cases of beer, wandering off to the bushes to urinate, having a good old time. And I thought, “I wonder if this is the way police always do drug raids?” But, you know, I was new to this, so I took notes.

So then we left, and we pulled up in front of the housing project outside of Annapolis. And I thought, “This is odd. Why would the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County be living in the projects? Don’t they make any money dealing drugs?” That night, I watched as they banged on doors and they dragged people out in their pajamas and their underwear, and they rounded everybody up, and made a big commotion. The following morning, like seven o’clock in the morning, they had this very dramatic press conference in Annapolis, where they had invited all of the reporters from the newspapers in Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, and TV and radio—it was a big deal. And laid out on tables in front so they could all get pictures were all the drugs they had seized from the housing projects the night before. Now, as I said, I was 22 years old. I was probably the youngest reporter in the room. This was around 1975. So I can say without a doubt that I had more experience with the recreational drug culture than any of the other reporters in the room, and what I was looking at was a paltry collection of drugs.

The Anne Arundel County police in the press conference announced that these drugs were worth $800,000 in street value, and they’d rounded up all these major drug dealers, which was of course ridiculous. Nevertheless, every news agency in Baltimore and Annapolis and Washington was going to report the story that way. The lede on their stories was “Anne Arundel County police last night raided all the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County and rounded up an estimated $800,000 in drugs.” Seized them.

So how was I going to write that story? I knew that that wasn’t true, and yet, to write the story the way the newspaper wanted me to write stories, and be truthful, would have meant writing “Anne Arundel County police perpetrated an enormous fraud on the public last night. They rounded up a bunch of unfortunates from the housing projects and took their petty drug stashes and then claimed it was worth about $800.000.”
For his solution, read: Mark Bowden on discovering narrative and the value of beginner’s mind: “only if you are truly ignorant can you ask the truly ignorant question”, Nieman Storyboard>>

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