When I recently purchased a gift in downtown Ft. Pierce, the salesperson asked how Sunrise Ford was doing. I replied that everything was fine and she said that she expected business to get even better if “they would just get out of the way and leave Donald Trump alone.” I knew the “they” to which she was referring was the press. Trump had just blasted the media, calling it the “enemy of the American people.”
Even though I am a former journalist, I decided not to press the issue. But as I left the store, I wondered how the media came to be so despised by so many people. In the past, most enjoyed their local newspaper, watched the nightly news and had no strong feelings one way or another about journalists.
When I began my journalism career, the Watergate hearings were in full swing, being broadcast live on the networks and making headlines in local papers and national magazines. Even though Richard Nixon had his “enemies list” and refused to answer questions from some members of the media, there was no massive outcry against the press and demands that those behind the news leaks be fired or prosecuted.
In fact, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post reporters who tracked down who was behind the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate building, were considered heroes. “All the President’s Men”, the 1976 movie about how a government official nicknamed “Deep Throat” helped the reporters link the burglary to the White House, was a big hit and won several Oscars.
I also used anonymous sources – and sometimes suffered the ramifications. My first job was at Today newspaper, based in Cocoa. I covered the city of Melbourne, including the police department. At one point rumors were swirling that the police chief was under investigation for mishandling public funds. A grand jury was called to investigate the chief and I was able to get someone involved with the panel to confirm exactly what was being investigated. I wrote the story and was promptly summoned by the prosecutor and a circuit court judge to appear in court and reveal my source.
I went to court but refused to name my source. Subsequently, I was found in contempt of court and was told I was going to spend the rest of the day in jail. Fortunately, my lawyer was able to convince the judge to release me until the Fourth District Court of Appeals heard the case. I also was lucky to have the support of my editors, the Gannett Organization,(which coughed up the $3,000 bail I needed) and journalists throughout the state.
The police chief was upset about his pending indictment, but showed no hard feelings toward me. “Just doing your job,” he said. The chief ended up getting off on a technicality. My case was eventually dismissed by the court of appeals because even if I would reveal the source, that grand jury was no longer in session to hear who leaked the information. The police chief kept his job and we got along until I left to attend grad school.
I eventually ended up back in Fort Pierce in the late 1970s, reporting on the city, county, and courts for the Palm Beach Post. Back then there were three very competitive newspapers covering the Treasure Coast. The “hot story” was the construction boom on Hutchinson Island with a string of high rise condominiums being approved by the county commission on beachfront property north of the Martin County line. Environmentalists were outraged. Martin County officials, fearful of the impact of the additional traffic on AIA, were also angry.
Eddie Enns, the only Republican on the St. Lucie County Commission, who was a strong proponent of the construction, especially felt the wrath. The newspapers were tough on him, with critical editorials about his votes, but he only complained to me once about the coverage. I was moderating a Saturday morning debate broadcast on a local radio station between Enns and then Martin County Commissioner, Maggy Hurchalla, an ardent environmentalist and a formidable opponent. The debate was contentious and often testy. When it was over, Enns said it was bad enough to have one woman beat up on him, but having two gang up on him was just too much. Then he suggested we get a Bloody Mary before heading home. He was able to shrug it off and we got along just fine until he died 11 years ago.
In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Fort Pierce bureau for the Miami Herald and drug smuggling was rampant. I got a tip that there were some questionable drug smuggler plea deals being arranged by then State Attorney Bob Stone, a Vero Beach criminal defense attorney, and the Indian River Sheriff’s Department. The Herald sent a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter to help me with the story. We spent weeks talking to many anonymous sources—lawyers, judges, an investigator and an attorney in the defense attorney’s office and deputies.
We wrote a series of stories about the arrangement we dubbed “Checkbook Justice” and Stone was not happy at all. But several weeks later one of his investigators arranged for Stone and myself to have lunch. It was cordial enough and I continued to have a good relationship with his office. Not much later he resigned and went into private practice. We recently served on a committee together and he couldn’t have been more friendly. I was glad to see, at the age of 80, Stone is well and still practicing law.
I quit my reporting job in the late 1980s when I had a daughter and began working at Sunrise Ford. The news business has changed radically since then, but the press still has the same basic job—being a government watchdog and holding public officials accountable. I am lucky that the officials I covered all those years ago realized that I had a job to do and they had thick skin. No one called me a “public enemy,” or threw me out of his or her office.
I was sad to hear Trump refuses to attend the White House Correspondence dinner. As I once learned, sometimes having a meal, or a Bloody Mary, can help smooth over some of those hard feelings. Perhaps someone at the White House should suggest to Trump to quit talking about “fake news” and “disgusting” reporters and get to the business at hand. The press is here to stay, and no matter how much badgering and name calling Trump continues to do, that will never change.