Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who’d of Thunk It?
A paper reports the news and the people read it.
Spending so much of my time bemoaning the media it was good to read a Buzz Flash piece by Rory O'Connor about a small paper that did some reporting, The Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The people at that paper did something like what the Boston Globe did in breaking and pursuing the clergy sex abuse scandal but it was the Boys Scouts and they went up against the Mormon establishment instead of the Catholics.

Here's what happened: after receiving a tip that a pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had not two victims (as the paper reported at the time) but actually dozens, Post Register reporters went to the courthouse to look for a civil suit filed by victims, only to be told that there was no such case. They later learned that the national Boy Scouts of America and its local Council had hired two of Idaho's best-connected law firms to seal the files -- thus covering up the entire affair.

Or so they thought... But the Post Register went to court and "dragged the case file into the light of day." What reporters found astonished them; scout leaders had been warned about the pedophile years earlier, but hired him (again!) anyway. Lawyers for the Boy Scouts knew about more victims, but never told those boys' parents. Top local and national leaders of the Mormon Church, which sponsors almost all area scout troops, had also been warned.

The Post Register ran a six-day series about the affair. The first story featured a 14-year-old camper -- "the son of a Mormon seminary teacher and a cinch to become an Eagle Scout" -- who forced adult leaders to call the police about the pedophile.

Then the backlash began. Mormon church members were among the first to complain, characterizing the paper's coverage as an attack on their faith. "The drums banged, and we were flooded with calls and e-mails and letters to the editor from readers who told us that holding the Grand Teton Council accountable was Mormon-bashing," Miller recounted.

The backlash came as well from advertisers, and the economic pressure built everyday the paper ran the series. "It's one thing to lose an account when you're an employee," Miller wrote. "It's quite another when you're also a stockholder; 140 employees hold close to 49 percent of the company's stock. For many families, this is their retirement." Nevertheless, he recalled, "Most of what I heard inside our building were words of support." Publisher Roger Plothow was also staunchly unapologetic throughout, "standing up with a stoic and clear-eyed defense... for the values of journalism."

The attacks weren't just financial, but personal as well -- including the outing of a gay staff reporter, Peter Zuckerman, by a local multimillionaire who bought full-page ads devoting several paragraphs to establishing that Zuckerman is gay. "Strangers started ringing Peter's doorbell at midnight,"

The local paper stood up for the right of their readers to be informed over what would seem likely to be a pretty severe punishment, financially and personally for its staff. Like what Bogart did in “The Front Page”.

But unlike in the movies and beyond what you, and the media itself, might expect, the paper that reported the news doesn’t seem to be suffering.

"One of the sweeter moments of our year occurred when we received figures from our circulation audit. While the sales numbers of other U.S. newspapers were in free fall, we were among the nation's faster growing daily papers."

Now that's a surprise ending. A story of a courageous newspaper staff and ownership that doesn't end in bitter-sweet cynicism. Maybe other papers should stop the presses and do a rewrite of their own story.

It's no surprise that people are starving for the truth and will gladly pay a few cents for it.
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