School board warns reporter after he violates civility policy

Winston-Salem Journal reporter Travis Fain was sent a warning letter by the local board of education after he violated its civility policy by using the word “dick” after an unpleasant exchange with a board member. (“I’ve always had a smart mouth, and my filter just shut down that afternoon,” he tells Romenesko readers in an email below.)

The Journal explains what happened:

Fain asked school board member Buddy Collins on Tuesday for comment on his proposed changes to the board’s policy on whether students can opt out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Collins told Fain he does not comment to the Journal, and when Fain asked why, he repeated that he doesn’t talk to the Journal and left the room. Fain said to himself, but within hearing distance of several board members and staff, “Why are you such a d—? How’s that for a question?”

Fain later apologized for that.

He tells Romenesko readers:

Thirteen years busting it as a reporter and now this, at least for a while, is what some people know me for. There’s a lesson in that for anyone, especially these days, when your dumb moments live on through Google and the Internet.

It’s also something to remember as you deal with sources – a way to understand things from their end. Like it or not, we amplify things some things more than others.

I’ve no one to blame but myself in this matter. I’ve apologized to Mr. Collins, to those who heard the comment, to the board chairman and to my editors. My wife had twins a month ago. We don’t get much sleep, I’ve always had a smart mouth, and my filter just shut down that afternoon. It only takes a second.

I was wrong, I’m sorry and I’m embarrassed. There’s no reason to call people names. It cheapens discourse, and I’ve given people who distrust me, my paper or “the media” something to point to as an indication of bias.

And it’s going to be on Romenesko, where no doubt many of the people I’ve worked with over the years and scores of potential future editors will see it. That is the kind of control you cede when you do something stupid.

I doubt he’s the only reporter to do something like that. Share your story in the comments section. (And congratulations, Travis, on the birth of your twins.)

* School board warns Winston-Salem Journal reporter about his language



  1. Boy, I sure hope the News-Journal’s response to this was more nuanced than just groveling to the school board. Somebody there needs to have a talk about facilitating the role of the media, how many parents of students get their information on the board from the paper, and so on. If the News-Journal took this super-seriously, I’m disappointed.
    I dunno if I am conforming to rknil’s expectations. Sure hope so.

  2. Dan said:

    I’ll take the “tough guy” reporter over the weenie Internet commenter any day.

  3. Brian O'Connor said:

    As a reporter, you do have to take the high road, and remain open to people, even those who choose to be difficult or worse.

    In the reporters defense, though, the guy does sound like kind of a dick.

  4. I agree, he shouldn’t have called him a “dick.” He should have used the correct anatomical phrase.

  5. Brian O'Connor said:

    make that, “reporter’s”

  6. Ed Murrieta said:

    I answered the phone at the college newspaper. “Hello.” Silence. “Hello.” Silence. “Fuck you,” I said into the void. The dean of humanities called the college newspaper adviser to complain.

  7. Jake said:

    FOIA his correspondence with the Board. Dig into his finances and his political contributions. Make a detailed examination of his votes on the Board. Look up every public record on the guy.

    Odds are, he has a skeleton somewhere… find it and give him a reason for hating your paper.

  8. Monica Roland said:

    A very classy apology from Mr. Fain. We’ve all been there. The school board member has no class.

  9. Back in the day before caller ID, I had talked to my wife (we were newlyweds) on the phone during my lunch hour and she said she’s call right back. The phone rang, and I answered, “Hello, gorgeous!”

    “Well Ted, I don’t know what to say,” said a quite surprised superintendent of schools.

    Thankfully, she had a sense of humor. Me? I was red as a beet for the rest of the week.

  10. Harvey Unger said:

    Guess the schools system is not pro-Fain.

  11. Arthur said:

    He should have apologized the same way Paul Newman did in “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” when his character called a couple women whores:
    “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.”

  12. Dan said:

    You seem to want to argue with (or just insult) someone who has made an argument that nobody is making, or seems likely to make. The Internet is filled with people who like to get into pointless, inane arguments – do you really have to conjure them up? In any case, I think you can rest assured that you didn’t scare anyone off of saying what they wanted to say.

  13. Nancy Imperiale said:

    You know what they say: A moment on the lips, a lifetime in the clips, er, Interbits.

    You know what I say: Too fucking bad.

    Nice apology, Fain. You had me at “busting it.” Give ’em heck.

  14. R Thomas Berner said:

    I’m surprised the board didn’t send a letter to the reporter’s mother.

  15. Dan said:

    Oh! It’s Robert Knilands! I didn’t realize, but it all comes clear now. Jim: keep an eye on this dude, rknil, and his IP address. He’s been booted from a whole bunch of different journalism sites for jackass behavior. He’s always trying to start pissing matches with strangers, for some reason.

  16. Jim said:

    Thanks, Dan. I’d like to keep this site civil.

  17. Mike said:

    rknil is a dick

  18. Marianne said:

    A temporary lapse of judgment, but First Amendment rights were still in place, regardless of “civility” policies