Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Courtesy has its place; so does curiosity

The following piece was written by Spokane, Wash.-based reporter Scott Yates. — Gary

Capital Press Staff Writer

SPOKANE — I lived in Canada for two years 20 years ago, but it was only recently that I made the connection between farmers and Canadians and why I like both groups so much.

They’re polite — painfully and perhaps excessively polite.

All things being equal, I prefer too much courtesy to too little. Still, I wonder whether it’s possible to take the notion too far. Are there times when Canadians — or farmers — should step up and shout when whispering won’t be heard?

I began thinking of these questions after a presentation at the Spokane Farm Forum by the undersecretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thomas Dorr is part of a crew of USDA figures the secretary of Agriculture is sending out to farm meetings around the country to sell his farm bill proposal.

I imagine all these individuals are supplied with the same PowerPoint presentation Dorr brought with him. Prepared by public relations specialists within the USDA, it laid out the secretary’s proposal succinctly and clearly.

The undersecretary went through all 10 titles of the farm bill, spending more time on some sections than others. He whizzed through one portion that included comments from growers who spoke at some of the 52 farm bill forums held around the country in 2006. After all, none of the farmers quoted were from the Northwest.

He did a good job as far as he went, explaining how the secretary’s proposal differed from the 2002 Farm Bill and where it was similar. He didn’t, however, talk much about specific commodities and for wheat growers, that’s where the rubber hits the road.

Talk to anyone in a leadership position of the National Association of Wheat Growers and they’ll tell you Mike Johanns’ proposal stinks. OK, they’re more polite. They say they’re disappointed. They tell you it contains nothing to get excited about. From a Northwest perspective, the proposal may be even worse because soft white wheat growers have taken it on the chin price-wise more than others during the 2002 Farm Bill.

At the close of the undersecretary’s presentation, however, there wasn’t a whisper of wheat grower unhappiness. Folks clapped politely and threw the white-haired Dorr a few softballs.
As a reporter, I believe it’s my job to ask questions farmers are too polite to ask, the sort of questions that put speakers on the spot, make them tug at their collars, force them to search for words that haven’t been carefully scripted. I don’t do it out of any notion of self-aggrandizement. I do it because I’m genuinely curious, not just about the answer but about the answer in the context of a roomful of people.

I was cautioned at the undersecretary’s speech, however, not to ask questions. This is the time for front-line farmers, not grandstanding reporters, one of the farm forum volunteers said.
I’ve been accused of many things, but grandstanding is a new one. As a person who makes his living as an observer, my nature tends to be more reserved than gregarious. In fact, truth be told, even after years of reporting, I still get nervous asking questions in front of a crowd. I do it because it’s my job.

Which is why, despite the caution I received, I posed my question anyway, describing for the undersecretary the wheat industry’s concerns and asking for his response. Bottom line, he felt wheaties were overreacting and that the proposed revenue-based countercyclical payment would work to protect them from crop failures as well as price declines.

But he also said, “We are under no illusion we have everything figured out perfectly,” leaving the farm forum audience with the unspoken but clear impression if they don’t like what they’re hearing to do something about it.

Over the years, many farmers have come up to me after meetings, expressing their thanks for my asking the tough questions that they won’t. This occasion was not an exception and their support is always uplifting.

Still, the volunteer’s insinuation I wasn’t on the front line stuck in my craw. After 20 years of reporting on Northwest agriculture, I’m not sure how much more front-line a person can get.
Certainly, courtesy and deference have their place and farmers and Canadians make the world more civilized by their behavior. But there’s a reason Thomas Jefferson said that given the choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he’d prefer the latter. I guarantee his sentiment didn’t spring from the fact that reporters are polite.

Scott Yates is based in Spokane. His e-mail address is syates@capitalpress.com.

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