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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Editor's Gamble

How many honest words have suffered corruption since Chaucer's days!
Thomas Middleton (1580-1627)

It’s a pity when a juicy scandal doesn’t pan out. As a fellow journalist, I feel the pain of your Cape Cod Times editor, Cliff Schectman.

In a March 13, 2005 editorial titled, “Government Secrecy Affects Every Citizen” (good grab!), writing a leetle pompous but that’s the style now, he began by quoting Jemmy Madison - "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both." His beginning indicated the tone - “Public access to government documents is your birthright, one that's critical to safeguarding everyone - particularly those who can't protect themselves.”

He went on to talk about ‘Sunshine Sunday’, the beginning of a week when journalists drag out old chestnuts about how we of the Fourth Estate are actually just protecting you by following Prince Harry about in a vain attempt to snap a compromising photo. Lots of trenchant criticism of your government for using the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorism to hide “information about dangers to your health, threats to your safety, or misuse of your hard-earned tax payments to the government should be yours simply because you're an American citizen.” Sound stuff.

He then proceeded to make a strange comparison – he compared the refusal of OSHA to release injury records, the refusal of the EPA to list chemicals spills, the refusal of the government to release safety records on airplanes, and so on, with his own personal crusade to make Sheriff James Cumming release the names of the 292 people who joined his Deputy Sheriff Association which raises money for charitable purposes like the youth camp. He ended his March 13 editorial with the words, “But not all the news is bad. A few rays of sunshine have broken through the clouds. In fact, you may have seen a recent bright spot: Just last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Barnstable County sheriff to release the names of about 200 people who had been sworn in as reserve deputies. The sheriff wanted to keep their names secret. Imagine that.”

Actually, the Sheriff asked if he was required to disclose the names of a private organization, but in Schectman’s eyes, that was the same as keeping them secret. So he went to court, spent several thousand dollars, and by late March he had the names.

Well do I remember the furtive meeting in the tavern, where you casually slide over a few silvers, and the ‘stranger’ opposite casually slides over a small packet of information to you – and when you hustle away with it, cut the strings and read – you are sick with disappointment. So I truly feel Schectman’s pain.

By late April, some were joking that freedom of information meant information for the Times, as there had been such a long delay in publishing this ‘treasure trove’, but I understand why there was such a delay.

What a bust.

A former state Representative, a doughnut king and a burger burgher. No real high profile names and few recognizable ones. I’m sure that a squad of reporters tried their hardest to find culpability, dirt, or misconduct on the part of every member of the list – I know that’s what I would have done. The truest insult to the Times is that over 100 additional people paid to join the association after the hard-hitting investigation began, confirming that the list had little potential for scandal. At the end of the day, they weren’t even able to find significant political donations, just an average of $100. Out of the 292 on the list, 170 were donors – but would they have paid the dues to join the association if they didn’t support the Sheriff? All but a few of the Sheriff’s larger donors weren’t even on the list, or were appointed to the Deputy Association by Cummings’ predecessor, Jack DeMello. The only real surprise is that they weren’t ALL donors.

Oh, he tried. Schectman had his high profile story made of nothing. He got other county Sheriffs to say that they had no such organization, or had disbanded them. He got Rob O’Leary, the tousle-headed Senator to say that it was "a net work of political friends," and "a bit of a throwback…My instinct has always been that it's a way for the sheriff to reward his political supporters. I don't see it as sinister. But there's a potential for it." The same could be said of the Senator and the Mass. Teachers Association, but that’s entirely different – because their hearts are pure.

My condolences, Mr. Schectman. Not every political scandal works out, especially in this modern day with its reliance on facts. You’ve just learnt a valuable lesson – railing against the secret brotherhood was a far better story than the pedestrian unveiling.

Maybe there’s a nice, juicy pension scandal you could work up?

Regards from a fellow scrivener, Yr. Obedient Servant,
Peter Porcupine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, Peter, Peter, nothing is as it seems.

The Editor's motive was not to take down the Sheriff. But rather to submit another piece of "hard hitting" journalism to a board of uninformed reviewers in order to procure yet another recognition of mediocrity. aka The regional Pulitzer for investigative reporting, small to medium size newspaper category, or some such junior varsity award.

Every wonder why the Cape Cod Times gets so many citations? They submit everything to the trophy committee.

Thank you for defending the fourth estate from the hugger-muggery of the first estate. And Cliff, thanks for playing.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Porcupine said...

They give PRIZES for this? Gad, I had trouble getting properly PAID!

How far we inky wretches have come!

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