It’s no secret to those who know me that I am not a fan of the local paper.
While I’m no longer in journalism, my passion for the craft and belief in its importance still continue. Consequently, I’m appalled by its consistent mockery of the sacred Freedom of Information Act through using it to acquire scandalous, gossipy and overall useless information that most of the time doesn’t belong outside the homes of persons and families it targets to sell newspapers and win goofy awards.
Yes, it seems every week is a different National Enquirer-type witch hunt by the paper. When a small local college decided to clean house in the leadership department, the entire newsroom was apparently dispatched to find something that pointed to fraudulence – and after more than a month straight of the flashy headlines, it never actually did. When a city councilman was arrested for driving while intoxicated, the paper fought with the highway patrol for a copy of the dashboard camera footage to post on its website (because it had so much news value and all). And when a teacher was allegedly fired because of something posted on his or her facebook page, the paper went to work with the FOIAs, stopping at nothing to try to publish what was on the social networking site. Between these gems are “special reports” that tend to paraphrase juicy crime stories from a year earlier, getting the same quotes from the same sources in an effort that puts selling papers before reporting actual news.
More recently – and perhaps most disturbingly – was a witch hunt concerning an elderly small town mayor submitting 68,000 (or something like that) miles for reimbursement from the town over a three-year period. The newspaper – in its infinite wisdom – headlined the Easter Sunday paper with news it had contacted some of the destinations the mayor reported he visited and none confirmed he made the trips. It was the latest of dozens of stories printed about the issue since it “broke.”
That same Easter Sunday, authorities found the mayor – who was a husband, father and grandfather – dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Sometimes people are shocked to hear I’m not writing for newspapers anymore. Sometimes I am, too. But then I remember why I stopped enjoying the job: newspapers like this one, which oftentimes serve as the foundation upon which national news is built.
Why isn’t there an agency policing journalism? Some of these places do not know what they are doing.
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, it looked, sounded and smelled like this mayor was guilty of stealing from the town. Yes, I view that as a bad thing. But if a newspaper is going to tell a story, it should always do its best to tell the entire story.
The mayor allegedly stole probably less than $7 per taxpayer each year.
(I came up with this number by multiplying his claimed mileage by the average reimbursement according to the IRS, dividing it by three and dividing that by the number of residents minus half the number of women and total number of children. A closer estimate would be available if I could find the exact number of taxpayers in his town, but I’m too lazy to look. Regardless, it’s less than $10 each.)
While I see what the paper was going for, what it got was something much more final: the death of a man who was obviously respected, reliable and loved.
A good newspaperman or newspaperwoman would have seen this as a potential outcome and ultimately decided the story was not worth the amount of print it got. We are in the South, where a man’s reputation in a small town is his legacy. A man’s legacy is everything no matter where you go.
Again, some may argue he was stealing and the paper was doing its job by bringing it to light. I agree. Where the paper gaffed terribly, though, was in news judgment when determining how much coverage it got. Authorities were already investigating this man, so there was really no reason to print much more than the original story and final outcome, with perhaps periodic updates on a trial had it gone to court.
The paper is based in the county with the nation’s highest increase in poverty according to the latest census, yet there’s money for goofy street signs, useless distress phones and frilly flower festivals. If the paper is looking for stories that hold officials accountable, roughly 1 million could come from that – but it would require actual newspaper work instead of phone calls and internet searches. However, that is the kind of topic journalism is supposed to cover like a blanket of fact, emotion and integrity.
If it weren’t for Fox News, I wouldn’t believe there’s any integrity left in journalism.