Making Enemies

Doni Chamberlain, Source: The Guardian

For decades, journalists have made enemies as they report on corrupt politicians, companies that behave illegally and criminals infuriated by coverage of their misdeeds. Nowadays, however, some reporters have become the target of right-wing zealots who, in some places at least, seem to be on the ascent in the seemingly never-ending, stunningly vile Trump era.

Consider the case of Doni Chamberlain, a 66-year-old small-town journalist in northern California. The Guardian profiled the challenges she is facing in publishing a news site, A News Cafe, that has covered the rise of a motley bunch of conservatives in Shasta County, the home of about 250,000 people some 250 miles north of San Francisco.

As the outlet reports, Chamberlain has seen a nasty turn in the atmosphere over her nearly 30 years reporting on the area. Some critics have called her a communist who doesn’t deserve to live and a radio host suggested she should be hanged. “Her writing has made her a public enemy of the conservative crowd intent on remaking the county,” The Guardian account says. “Far-right leaders have confronted her at rallies and public meetings, mocking and berating her. At a militia-organized protest in 2021, the crowd screamed insults.”

As a result, Chamberlain has to watch over her shoulder. “No meeting sources in public,” the outlet reports. “She livestreams rowdy events where the crowd is less than friendly and doesn’t walk to her car without scanning the street. Sometimes, restraining orders can be necessary tools.”

With her critical coverage, Chamberlain has earned the enmity of a new majority that has arisen in a county that was long red but in recent times has tilted into the Twilight Zone. The group, The Guardian reports, is “backed by militia members, anti-vaxxers, election deniers and residents who have long felt forgotten by governments in Sacramento and Washington.” This group has “fired the county health officer and done away with the region’s voting system. Politically moderate public officials have faced bullying, intimidation and threats of violence. County meetings have turned into hours-long shouting matches.”

Her battle with the new right has commanded the attention of news outlets elsewhere. The Los Angeles Times in a 2021 profile called her a “one-woman watchdog” and explained how she had reported for and then wrote a column for a local newspaper, Redding’s Record Searchlight, until she and an editor in 2007 split on the direction her writing should take. She was so popular back then that 100 supporters picketed the paper in protest of her departure. Soon, she started the blog that grew into A News Cafe.

To be sure, as an opinion-writer (someone once quaintly called a columnist), Chamberlain has been vocally unhappy with the changes she has seen in Shasta County. She has documented the turn away from civility in an era where a president made it acceptable to insult critics and the media in what once were intolerably coarse terms. “As the shit storm of civil unrest piles up, the North State has become a tinderbox at the ready, on the verge of ignition,” she wrote she wrote in August 2020. “Slogans and memes are the kindling. Calls to action, aggression and civil war are often found on the same Facebook pages as family photos, holiday greetings and birthday wishes.”

Mike Lindell, Source: Denver Post

More recently, she wrote critically about a local district supervisor, Kevin Crye, who, she said, “has racked up a host of stunningly destructive decisions at breakneck speed. He gallivanted to Minnesota on the county’s tab to visit MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for hand-counted-ballot advice. (Although the public paid for his jaunt, Crye has still not disclosed exactly that happened on that trip.) Following his Lindell visit, in short order Crye introduced to Shasta County a number of election-machine-denying Lindell pals, such as Alexander Haberbush and Clint Curtis, each of whom were graciously granted by Chair Jones permission to speak well over the public’s 3-minute allotments.”

There’s no question that Chamberlain has little use for election-deniers and the rest, much as they have no use for her. So, perhaps, she should not be surprised by the hostility she runs into. Still, as with any good journalist, her work is fact-based, something even that district supervisor would be hard pressed to deny. And the question then arises: why would reporting such facts be objectionable to right wingers, so unsettling that some would call for her to be hanged?

Whether the material it uses is opinionated or a matter of straightforward reporting, the press shines a light on news developments and trends that may make some blanch. It illuminates hypocrisy and nonsense. It uncovers abuses and misuses of public money. That, it seems, is enough to earn the hostility – perhaps the unprecedented venom — of some who apparently cannot abide the glare.

Local news, of course, has been under assault by economic forces, as well as political ones, for a long time now. The answer in many places has been the creation of online outlets that have spread far and wide across the country (Nebraska, for instance, has Flatwater Free Press and the Nebraska Examiner. Colorado has outfits including The Colorado Sun and, more locally, the Boulder Reporting Lab).

One must hope that outlets like those and A News Café can long brave the storms and that journalists such as Chamberlain can endure.