Opinion: Honesty is our job, even when the truth is painful

12:00 p.m Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Opinion
Steve Schaefer
Passengers wait in a darkened terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Sunday, Dec. 17, after a power failure shut down the world’s busiest airport. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

When the e-mail arrived early last week, I knew right away the sender wasn’t happy.

The subject line said “Shame on AJC for irresponsible reporting.”

So I steeled myself, and opened it.

The writer was incensed by our coverage of the fire, power failure and ensuing mess at Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

“So ATL has a power outage. No one was hurt. No one was killed. A lot of people didn’t get where they wanted to get when they wanted to get there — that’s called an inconvenience,” the e-mail said.

“The AJC … took it upon itself to totally slam the reputation of our beautiful city,” it went on. “It positioned our airport and our city leaders as being stupid, incompetent and totally out of control of the situation. The AJC went out of its way to present this situation negatively.”

We saw ourselves as doing a crucial job for our readers: covering an event that affected thousands of lives. The writer saw our journalism as damaging and harmful.

“Atlanta is competing with 250-plus cities for the honor and privilege of winning a bid for Amazon’s ‘HQ2.’ This would mean lots of high paying jobs and other benefits.”

“After reading the reporting of the power outage, we deserve to have Amazon throw our bid down the commode.”

The writer concluded with a strong recommendation:

“Shame on the AJC. They should be tarred and feathered.”

As the leader of a newsroom full of journalists who had devoted enormous energy to coverage of one of the biggest stories in the world — involving our home and affecting thousands of travelers — those words stung me.

So does the person who sent that e-mail have a point?

Let’s start at the beginning. When we sprang into action on Sunday afternoon after getting word of the loss of power at the airport, it was unclear how big a story this would become.

I confess that my first reaction was: “Let’s check it out. But power will be back soon, I bet.” After all, it’s the world’s busiest airport. Surely our leaders planned for this kind of thing.

But it just kept getting worse.

So we kept on the story with regular alerts, e-mails and updates to our web sites. We had reporters on the scene, and others tracking down public officials. We pursued explanations from Georgia Power.

As our story said:

“By nightfall, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was still dark, forcing airlines to cancel more than 1,100 flights and creating a logistical nightmare during the already-busy holiday travel season.

“Though no injuries were reported, the lack of information during the first few hours led to a chaotic scene both inside and outside the airport.”

We shared the plight of passengers, including people from Atlanta trapped on planes and unable to get home.

Among them was Rick Crotts, an AJC editor, who was aboard a flight that arrived at the airport at 1:31 p.m. But he and the other passengers sat on the plane more than two hours until someone brought portable stairs. Crotts was told he’d have to retrieve his luggage later.

Michelle Andrews, from Covington, waited in a wheelchair for hours in the darkened Concourse C. She had just buried her father in Michigan over the weekend and had flown back home to metro Atlanta.

“I just want to go home,” she said.

We also told stories of kind acts amid the chaos.

From one of our stories: “TSA workers lugged more than 100 people up the non-working escalators. They worked in shifts to stay fresh.”

Of all the things we do, it’s hard to imagine anything more important than covering the stories that affect the lives of our subscribers. We see those stories — the ones that show what’s really going on — as what you pay us for when that bill for your subscription arrives.

Our job, as we see it, is to hold people accountable to you in situations like this.

And so we turned our efforts toward asking how this could have happened.

Our front-page story under the headline “Zero communication” pointed out that officials waited for hours to communicate basic information to stranded passengers until they could be certain about the cause of the power failure and prospects for getting power back on.

Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged that communication could have been better and apologized for that, but he defended his decision to hold back information.

“What some people mistook as us not communicating had to do with us making critical decisions about what we could share and what we could not,” he said Monday afternoon.

We also dealt directly with the question of the Amazon bid, in another story:

“The airport outage also comes as the region vies for one of the biggest economic development prizes in recent memory — the second headquarters for e-commerce giant Amazon.”

“The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to several business recruitment professionals who said, long term, the power outage that disrupted air service across the country and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded shouldn’t dent Atlanta’s reputation.”

As journalists at the AJC, we straddle a demanding line. We are citizens of this community, affected by its economy, opportunities and reputation. And we also affect those things when exposing metro Atlanta’s flaws.

We have skin in the game, and it motivates us.

Examining mistakes makes a difference. Remember the ice storm of 2014, when thousands of motorists were stranded on roads overnight? So do public officials, who were criticized in our coverage. They have improved the government response in every major weather event since. Had the newspaper been ho-hum about the crisis, I don’t believe the region’s officials would have responded as forcefully and successfully.

Before I could craft a reply to the reader’s complaining e-mail, Senior Editorial Director Bert Roughton responded. He’s worked at the AJC for nearly four decades, and lived almost all his life in Atlanta.

“A newspaper has a unique responsibility when important moments come to its city. In 1990, Atlanta was awarded the Olympic Games. I was the reporter who wrote the story that was under the famous ‘It’s Atlanta’ headline,” he wrote. “But you need to know that this wondrous moment came after years of the newspaper’s challenging, questioning and even criticizing Atlanta’s bid. On more than one occasion, I was accused of intentionally working to kill the bid. In fact, I was working as hard as I could to make sure that Atlanta knew exactly what it was in for by undertaking to stage the 1996 Olympics.”

“It was my job — the newspaper’s job — to tell the truth even if it seemed unflattering. In my view, the newspaper expresses its love for a community by being honest — even when that honesty proves painful.”

So if someone from Amazon is reading this: Know that if you come to Atlanta, you’ll be around a lot of people who love this place. And a newspaper that works to keep it strong by asking questions when things go wrong.

Check out the latest photos from Hartsfield-Jackson airport as it bounces back from the devastating blackout that occurred sunday.