Salem has to find a way to restore civility, to turn aside the meanness

Volunteers work to remove graffiti on a monument at the Capitol on Sunday, May 31. Protesters tagged the monuments and several locations at the Capitol during a demonstration in Salem on Saturday, May 30. (Joel Zack/Special to Salem Reporter)

Salem is in turmoil, a community under strain.

Protests, a pandemic and political fights dominate.

In all my years in this town, I can’t recall a more troubling time.

I’m usually pretty confident in my ability as a journalist. Navigating difficult stories to provide facts and fairness has been my duty for nearly 50 years.

But nothing – no story, no era – has been as challenging as what we’re facing now.

And so, I’m turning to you for help.

At Salem Reporter, our small team of reporters is stretched. They endure the same strains as you in their personal lives. And then they spend their work day reporting on the same topics. We have limited hours and a catalog of developments.

Consider what’s happening in Salem.

Protests have become a usual, rather than rare, occurrence. You can sense that those whose voices have been stifled or unheard are remaining politely quiet no more. Demonstrators are acting on behalf of Blacks and Latinos who face discrimination.

Some who demand action do so in furious, unrelenting tones. They are unbottling what has been corked for too long in town.

So, fault lines long not visible in Salem are coming into view.

As they do, we are watching extraordinary times at the Salem City Council and the Salem-Keizer School District. The divisions between progressives and conservatives seem stark. That perception is amplified by social media’s no-holds-barred approach to commentary. People let loose with abuse they might never have the courage to voice to the faces of their targets.

But what’s extraordinary is the increased participation by citizens. Hundreds of people are filing comments for city councilors and school board members to consider.

Take a look at the issue of school resource officers, police assigned to work in area schools. Suddenly, the pressure is building to dump the program. Strong opinions hold on both sides.

Meantime, police officers in Salem and surrounding agencies find themselves deeply on the defensive. The video death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked withering criticism of just about every cop on duty. Officers in Salem who pledge to protect their citizens are viewed by some as no better than thugs – a wildly faulty judgment.

Two other elements add to this community turmoil.

The pandemic stirs fear, suspicion and bitterness. Facts about the pandemic shift by the day, and now wearing a mask is no longer a simple medical imperative. Instead, it has become a political marker, to be argued over in angry and demeaning tones. Heeding doctors has given way to heeding politicians.

And the uncertainty about what comes next with Covid rocks our economy. Businesses opened back up, sure. But for how long and with what level of profitability? Too many of our neighbors are out of work, paychecks shut off that keep other employers going.

Every day seemingly brings a new crisis, a new twist that makes our heads spin.

And that’s where I need your counsel.

Each morning, our team considers where to put our reporting time. How do we chronicle what’s happening in Salem? What story comes first of the 20 screaming for attention? How do we tell the truth without creating a sense of hopelessness?

We have many conversations about our role. We feel deeply – deeply – that we now have to help you and others thread these tumultuous times. We want to give you the facts, but we don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers and charts and news alerts.

We want to help the community navigate through what will continue to be stressful times. That means reporting in a way that is hopeful. That means reporting in a way that encourages both civility and candor. That means helping people understand that listening to another viewpoint isn’t surrendering to that viewpoint.

Nothing in my decades of journalism has prepared me to manage so many crosscurrents at once. I feel like I’m in a row boat trying to cross the Columbia River bar in a raging gale.

With your help and together, we’ll find a way to safe harbor. We have to.

Unless we find a way to do so, Salem is in for even rougher times. Together, let’s find a way to arrest the meanness and anger. Let’s find a way to work together to repair our community – its government, its schools, its businesses and the health of its people.

Share with me your worries about where Salem is headed. Share with me who should be leading right now. Share with me what information Salem Reporter can provide to help you be of service to our community.

None of us can give up. None of us can retreat. None of us can afford to stay sidelined.

Salem, let’s stop the behavior tearing us apart and work, instead, to find shared values and solutions. At Salem Reporter, we’re ready to be your partner.

Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter and can be reached by email at [email protected].

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