By Jim Hagarty
Punn Ditt Inc.
I spent many years as a reporter and editor at small town newspapers. I was in the business of journalism, a profession (some claim it’s a trade) that is currently under fire by the new U.S. president and his administration.
You might say, “Well, Jim, you weren’t really a journalist, out taking photos of Santa Claus parades and ribbon cuttings at new factories.” Fair point. But a mechanic is a mechanic, whether he’s working on your ’95 Chevy in a little shop on a back street or the next major craft to head into outer space. The principles define an occupation, not the size of the project those principles are applied to.
So here is one example of my doing something other than Santa photos.
In the town where I was editor of the small weekly newspaper, the local police force was an ungodly mess. The police chief was battling on a near daily basis with the members of the local town council. They thought they were his boss, he thought they weren’t. I won’t take you through all the ridiculous ways this epic fight played out, but here is one example. To punish the chief, town council stopped giving him money. So when he went to renew the licence sticker on one of the town’s two cruisers, he could not get the funds to do it. So, he instructed one of his police officers to drive down the street outside the town hall in the cruiser on the day after the licence expired, and when the officer did, the chief followed him in the other cruiser and pulled him over. He gave his own officer a ticket for having an out-of-date licence plate. The fine (and the new sticker fee) went to council, the members of which lost their minds.
There are a bunch of other examples of tricks the chief played to get at his overseers and the punishments town council levelled on him to bring him into line, none of which worked very well. Eventually, he was not allowed to drive the cruiser at all and a bylaw was passed, detailing his specific duties. He was, by law, to patrol, on foot, a one-block area of the downtown all day. And in so doing, he was not to go into restaurants or coffee shops and engage in “idle chatter or gossip.” How he was supposed to get downtown without the use of a cruiser was not spelled out.
I was kind of in the middle of all this and truth be told, my sympathies were more with the police department than the town council. I tried to be fair in my coverage but it was not easy.
Eventually, I got wind of the possibility that the province of Ontario was going to send in special inspectors to try to sort all this out. I forget how I got this idea but I think one of the friendly cops on the force let me know about it.
One day, I was sitting in a restaurant when I saw a local cop take a phone call on a public pay phone at the back. When he was done, and gone from the place, I went back to the phone and saw a pad of paper there, on which the officer had written something. He tore off the top sheet before he left. I ripped off the page that had been under that top page, took it back to the office and shaded it in with a pencil. The imprint left there after the shading was, “Police Commission” followed by a phone number.
I phoned the number. A clerk took my number and soon my phone was ringing with a very angry provincial police inspector on the line. He wanted to know how I got his number. I wouldn’t say.
He set up a meeting with me in another local restaurant for the next day. When I showed up, there were two inspectors. I asked them why they were coming to the town and what they planned to do there. They went ballistic. They yelled and screamed at me and threatened me with all the things that were going to happen to me if I didn’t drop this snooping. I am not exactly Mr. Courageous at the best of times, but I knew my journalistic principles and I stood my ground. I asked them their names, as a way of reminding them that I would be holding THEM to account. They got nervous but wouldn’t even tell me who they were. They wouldn’t answer any questions I had about why they were coming to town or about any of the fighting between the town council and the police. They were only concerned about how I had found out about this inspection. They wanted to punish whoever it was had let me know about it, and punish me.
Soon, the bigger media in the area got involved. TV stations, daily newspapers and even large provincial and national entities. It became, for the larger outlets, a sort of “oddities in the news” story. My phone started ringing. Other journalists were pumping me for information but I didn’t cooperate. They wanted to make me a part of the story. I told them to get the story on their own, the way I had. And they did. Most seemed to take the side of the police chief over the town council. It seemed to them (as it did to me) to be an open and shut case of small town vindictiveness at work.
Eventually, the bigger media lost interest and went away. The police inspectors held their hearings. I forget the ins and outs – it was a long time ago. But the bottom line was the chief was retired and the whole system of law enforcement in the town was re-organized.
My point, you ask. Surely to God there is a point. I hope there is.
A journalist’s job, and he might be very clumsy at it, is to get at the truth of any situation which affects the public. The more authorities try to stop a journalist from getting to that truth, the harder he will fight to uncover it. To a journalist, attempts by those in power to intimidate him are just points of evidence that there is something, and maybe a lot of things, to hide. So most journalists will double their efforts to get to the bottom of things, given all the limitations they face.
But it often seems that elected officials and permanent bureaucrats see it as their job to keep the public in the dark about matters, even issues that don’t need to be kept secret. To my mind, in fact, they often seem particularly stupid about it all.
On the first day of journalism school, every student is taught this one, immovable fact. Public officials are public “servants”, not there as overlords but as employees of the public. A journalist who absorbs that lesson well, will not be corrupted and stray too far from his mission.
And ironically, elected officials who also recognize their real place in the scheme of things also fare pretty well in the long run and operate open and transparent administrations.
In most cases, attempting to hustle something dirty past a journalist’s nose is like trying to sneak the dawn past a rooster.
Good luck with that, Sean Spicer. You and Donald Trump will lose. You are poking a bees’ nest. If I were you, I would start running.