Back when I was a reporter working the streets, one of my regular beats was cops and courts. I began my mornings by routine stops at the Oregon State Police, the city police, and the Sheriff’s Department. I would read through the phone logs for the previous 24 hours and make note of anything out of the ordinary. Most of these calls concerned things like dogs barking, neighbors arguing, unsightly trash, etc. But there would always be the random stabbing, the DUI by a local official, a body floating in the river, or the 53-year old man and a 14-year old having sex on the beach.
These later things would always require a follow-up story. So, I would write down all the contact information and talk with whatever police official I could find at the time. Then when I got back to the office, I would call the 53-year old or the parents of the 14-year old, and write a story on deadline from whatever information I could glean in the few hours I had available. These stories almost always ended up in the courtroom, so there would be a slew of follow-up stories from there.
Every six months or so there would be a murder, a shooting, a fire, or some other major crime that needed closer attention. I developed a kindly reputation among law enforcement, the courts, and the citizenry as being the reporter who was diligent about getting the facts and writing the story accurately.
That isn’t bragging. That’s just noting that I always tried to do a good job. So did most all the reporters I worked with, although there were always exceptions to that rule – lazy reporters who didn’t want to make the follow-up calls, who didn’t want to “work the story”, as we say in the business. I had the benefit of having some really great mentors who taught me the ropes when it came to learning how to conduct an investigation. All of that mentorship paid off when I wrote the story of Karly Sheehan. (Thank you, Les Z. of The Oregonian).
The law enforcement folks weren’t always thrilled that I was good at what I did, especially when it meant I uncovered something they were trying to keep a lid on for reasons of their own. Only once in my career did I not report a story because law enforcement asked me to hold off for 24 hours. There had been a terrible wreck on Interstate 84 that led to a 52-car pile-up on both sides of the freeway. There were multiple fatalities. I was the only reporter allowed on the scene. Our newspaper photographer just happened to have been on the road so he was at the scene as well. And he was the one who discovered duffel bags full of marijuana. State police asked us to not run the story until the next day because they needed time to track down where the bags came from. This was a huge haul of illegal drugs at that time with a street value in thousands. Because we had plenty of other news to report, given the wreck and the fatalities, I consulted with our editors and we held the story for 24 hours and ran with it when the police were able to identify the suspects.
There were plenty of other times when people outright begged me not to run a story. There was a certain city official who was cited with a DUI. “Think of my mother,” he said, begging us not to run the story.
There was the school counselor, a married father, who had sex with the 14-year old. “Think of what this will do to my wife,” he cried.
You should have thought of that yourself, I answered.
There was the principal who denied that gay bashing went on at his high school, despite tons of proof to the contrary. When the story ran, he called an emergency faculty meeting to point out all the “lies” in my story, but failed to mention that I had met with him and had given him plenty of opportunity to speak to the allegations. (He was later brought up on ethics charges for doctoring his own son’s academic record.)
There was the county commissioner who was using his office’s credit card to rack up air miles that he then copped for personal use. His travel budget exceeded that of the other commissioners by four times the amount. His name is on buildings all over the county. The Ethics Commission gave him a reprimand but were undecided about whether he had actually violated policy, albeit, the ethic commission folks admitted that they really liked this fellow and that made it more difficult for them to find him guilty. He considered me a “friend” – his words not mine – until I investigated his financials. What this commissioner could never figure out was who alerted me to his cheating ways. Turns out it was his own secretary but I never told anyone that until just this minute.
You see, that’s what people who act unethically never count on – that there will be somebody with ethics working alongside them.
People who are rigging the system for their own benefit always want to blame the media when their cheating ways are unearthed.
How do you think that adage “Don’t shoot the messenger” came about?
People often ask me how do you handle all the criticism that comes with writing? I just reply that I’ve had years and years of experience of people not liking me.
Take the former county Sheriff for instance. He loved to call me up and “feed me” a story. He was a charmer, that one. Thought of himself as good-looking. By the way, nearly every man in power that I ever had to work alongside, thought of himself as irresistible to women. I’ve been invited to join them for drinks, for dinner, for out-of-town trips, for one-night stands, and one prominent businessman even asked me to join him for a shower. (That last one? Our families attended the same church.)
When the Sheriff was seeking to raise funds for a new jail, I wrote stories about the deplorable conditions of the county jail. I knew how deplorable they were because I offered to be booked and locked up for a night. They booked me under the false pretense of a DUI, gave me an orange jumpsuit and a pair of slippers and allowed me to mingle with the other inmates in the “Day Room”. The jail really was awfully run down, so it wasn’t a difficult piece to write.
The county ended up with a brand spanking state-of-the-art facility that they could ill-afford or maintain. Many of the beds remained empty. The Sheriff wrote letters to the president of Mexico, insisting that Mexico pay for all the incarcerated illegals in the county. It made national news. The Sheriff loved the attention. There was no one he liked to hear talk better than himself.
His employees didn’t all feel the same way about him, however.
I was at a party one night when a deputy approached me and alerted me to a problem at the new facility. The Sheriff had put out an internal memo stating that deputies were to turn their heads to any meth labs they came across. The memo said that they just didn’t have the funds available to clean up any more meth places, as these clean up could be quite costly. Rumor had it that the Sheriff had already instituted a program whereby certain deputies were dumping homemade meth labs on a piece of property the Sheriff owned. This would be in direct violation of state environmental laws if it were true.
What we did report was the memo that Sheriff issued. I had a copy of that. The Sheriff wrongly assumed that I had a copy of it because I’d gone snooping around his office. In truth, one of his deputies gave me the copy. Honest people almost always call out dishonesty when they encounter it. This deputy had.
After I obtained the memo, I went directly to the Sheriff to ask him about it. He refused to answer any questions, but he called my office and left me a voicemail. A threatening voicemail. He said if our newspaper printed the memo we would no longer have access to any information out of his office. I would not be allowed to read the logs in the morning. He would never again work with me. (This is in direct violation of Oregon open access laws).
The newspaper ran the story.
The Sheriff, like the principal before him, blew up.
Months later when his entire 9-1-1 staff quit on the same day -in protest of an affair he was maintaining with one of their co-workers (he was married, she was not) – and I sat down to talk with him about that situation, he kept his promise to never speak to me again.
Years later, after I had moved on to writing books and left the newsroom behind, I received a call from a high-flautin city attorney who was representing several women in a lawsuit for sexual harassment against the Sheriff. I assume they settled out of court since I never heard any more about that.
The county voters, however, continued to elect this Sheriff despite his well-documented and well-reported offenses.
I never could understand that. Why voters would continue to elect a man who had gone on the record as not following the law as their chief law enforcement officer in the county.
I thought of all that when I read the following tweet by Donald Trump:
Liked 33,666 times
If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%
Donald Trump calls anyone who disagrees with him names.
It’s the MO of a bully to resort to name-calling. The county commissioner who was taking advantage of voters thought of me as a “friend” and as “honest’ and a “good Christian” until I reported on his ethical violations. Then I became “dishonest” and “a liberal” and a “terrible reporter.”
The Sheriff considered me a terrific reporter when I was writing the kind of public relations articles that helped position him to get more funding. He would call me nearly weekly with some suggested news story that would put him in good light and keep him as the face of good law enforcement in the county.
The minute, however, that the investigation turned to his own illegal behavior and questionable morality, then I became the most despised reporter in the newsroom.
You have to develop a thick skin to be able to stand up to power.
A reporter cannot worry about whether everyone likes them or not. The job of a reporter isn’t the same as a public relations person. First of all, the PR person gets paid a helluva lot more money than a reporter does.
Trump has made media bashing a national sport. Several media outlets have reported on how he will call out reporters by name at his rallies and encourage the crowds to jeer on any reporters.
Dishonest media, Trump calls it.
Pathetic media, he says.
The losing New York Times. (Washington Post, CNN, etc.)
He has banned so many newspapers from covering his events that I think all the others should just follow suit out of solidarity and refuse to cover his events.
The thing I keep wondering is do voters really understand what is happening to the First Amendment here?
Do people really understand what it means to live in a country where a free press does not exist?
Do voters who are backing Trump really want to live in a nation where the press is barred by the government from investigating any wrongdoing and only reporting “the good things they do”?
Why is it voters who are so intent on the Second Amendment Rights, care so little for their First Amendment Rights?
If our county Sheriff had had his way, the meth labs would have continued to grow unchecked, deputies would have been required to dispose of meth labs illegally in a manner that put them at risk for physical harm, and a 9-1-1 clerk would have been fired for no other reason than the Sheriff’s wife found out about the affair and demanded her husband get rid of the single mom. And that lawsuit brought by several women against the county Sheriff for sexual harassment would have never have seen the light of day.
Consider for a moment, would you, a nation without a free press? Then fill in the blanks:
Without a free press, ____________________ would ________________________.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Karly Sheehan: The True Crime Story behind Karly’s Law.