What If She'd Gone to the Papers?/Undercover Reporting/Peaceniks | Media | Chicago Reader

What If She'd Gone to the Papers?/Undercover Reporting/Peaceniks 

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What If She'd Gone to the Papers?

Beverly Heard says she never meant it to go this far. She only wanted to get Mel Reynolds off her back, not send him to the slammer. But Heard took her troubles to the police, and the next thing she knew she had the congressman drooling over a phone line while a tape recorder whirled.

What if she'd simply gone to the papers? Newspapers accuse, expose, and humiliate; but they don't tap phones, and they don't indict. And if a reporter dutifully chasing the other side of the story had asked Reynolds whether it was true he'd been boffing a 16-year-old, there wouldn't have been a tape. With no tape there wouldn't have been a trial.

But chances are that if Beverly Heard had talked only to the papers about her Mel Reynolds problem you'd never have read a word about it. "It took two months to get this thing in the papers when they knew she'd gone to the state's attorney," an investigative reporter at one of the dailies told me. "It got in the paper then mainly because Mel had a press conference." Reynolds called the conference to denounce the investigation already under way.

"I would have told her to do exactly what she did--go to the proper authorities," Vernon Jarrett told me. Jarrett's the former Sun-Times columnist who excoriated Reynolds when he was the darling of the downtown media. "I couldn't see any publication taking a chance on that sort of innuendo. It would have to be supported by some kind of reportage on legal action."

"The papers would be really uncomfortable hanging out there by themselves," said the investigative reporter quoted above.

Chicago's papers like corruption, but they don't like sex. Fourteen years ago the Sun-Times ran a series of articles that called into question the integrity of the late John Cardinal Cody by exposing financial favors granted to a lifelong friend named Helen Wilson. She served, I wrote then in the Reader, "as a surrogate for a career of dubious conduct that didn't happen to fall beyond the law." The "unspoken subtext" was sexual, yet the paper "didn't acknowledge that it had even raised the subject of romantic conduct." The Sun-Times sat on the Cody series for months and went to press when it could obscure its own two years of digging by playing up a federal grand jury investigation.

Like Cody, Mel Reynolds was in a daunting position. The papers had championed him as the black candidate voters would choose if they knew what was good for them. Now he was a congressman. "Reynolds had been the sort of favorite of the media," said Jarrett. Said the investigative reporter, "Mel was the fair-haired guy. No one wanted to believe anything bad about Mel."

In short, if Heard had gone to the press last year with her seamy stories about the Oxford knight who'd driven Gus Savage from public life, she'd have run into serious institutional reluctance to take them seriously.

"Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody kind of lies," a reporter told me. "You'd want backup for what she was saying." Another reporter said, "One reason you don't see many of the sexual-type stories is you don't have documentation. . . . If tapes were available--pictures, letters, something in writing--then maybe the press would do something with it."

But until the police turned on their tape recorder there was no documentation. "Mel's real good at figuring out the weaknesses of whatever story you're writing," said the reporter who observed that everyone lies. "[Heard's] not a perfect witness. If she comes to you and you go to Mel, he'll tell you she's a troubled teenager, a Satan worshiper. He'll say, 'She told me she's seen babies being sacrificed.'"

"The first question I'd ask as a reporter is, 'How do I verify this?' He has rights too," said yet another reporter. "The first question I'd ask her is, "Why haven't you gone to the police?' On the other hand, maybe she's gone to the law, the police, and she says, 'They don't take me seriously. They say I'm just this lesbian gold digger.'"

If that had happened this particular reporter probably would have done some digging. "I hear everybody out. I will check this person to determine her credibility. But someone who preys on those who are not credible knows they're not credible. Ultimately I would probably--after checking as much as I could--talk to the prosecutors. I'd say, 'Look, do you have a report? So-and-so says she talked to you.' And maybe they say, 'We can't drag a person through the mud unless we have a good case.'"

But all that's hypothetical. Heard did go to the law. And she was taken seriously. The law decided that if it didn't have a good case it would build one.

Don't overestimate the press's appetite for juicy tales. If Heard had knocked on the door the press probably would have responded--whether out of fecklessness, sloth, professionalism, or common sense--by sending her to another door.

Undercover Reporting

In Saginaw Township, Michigan, postal inspectors posed as reporters for a fictitious magazine called Small Business Quarterly. They interviewed a postal-service employee who ran a crafts shop at the same time she was collecting compensation for injuries that supposedly made it impossible for her to work.

The furious reaction to this deception was described in detail in a recent Editor & Publisher. Reginald Stuart, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote Postmaster General Marvin Runyon calling the inspectors' tactics "indefensible." Stuart told Runyon, "We place a high premium on truth and honesty and do not condone reporters posing as anything other than reporters. It violates a public trust to do otherwise. We hope you feel the same way about postal workers."

Say what? Maybe I've lived too long in Chicago, the town that made subterfuge an art. Anyway, the undercover reporting Stuart says SPJ won't condone hasn't cost me a minute's sleep.

But it's never too late to raise one's consciousness. I called SPJ's national headquarters in Washington and asked if the uncondonable was, in fact, now holy writ. If so, I wanted to study the sacred text.

It's not writ, but it will be. The SPJ's code of ethics is scheduled for revision at the national convention in October. And the proposed new language meets the truth-and-honesty issue head-on: "To gather information using undercover or other deceptive techniques always requires special circumstances and compelling reasons; to tell the truth never does."

This splendid gibberish changes nothing. Good thing. I turned the page of my Editor & Publisher and read up on a debate at Vanderbilt University over a series of articles on conditions at a Nashville housing project. Two reporters had lived there for a month posing as ordinary tenants.

The Tennessean reporters made a huge mistake by not telling other tenants who they really were before publishing the tenants' names and pictures. Aside from that, the paper insisted it had reported an important story the best way possible. Apparently not all the "journalism educators" present agreed, but Editor & Publisher didn't mention any who had a better idea of how to do it.

Peaceniks

"Do you think you'd have dropped the bomb?" asked Hillary.

"That's not a fair question," he said. "I wasn't there. If you're asking would I have dropped the bomb, you're asking would I have dropped the bomb if I'd been there."

"And you weren't there," Hillary agreed.

"No, I wasn't there," he said. "Since I wasn't there it would be hindsight speaking. The bomb may have saved thousands of American lives. Or maybe it didn't. But dropping the bomb obviously seemed like the right thing to do at the time to the people who were there at the time. Since I wasn't there at the time I can't say what I would have done if I had been."

"I bet you'd have dropped it."

"I probably would. I'd have let the chips fall where they may."

"But Truman was a product of the 30s and 40s," said Hillary. "You and I are products of the 60s."

"That's exactly right. And if there's anything the 60s generation had in common, it was that none of us was there in the 40s. We couldn't say what we'd have done in the 40s, because we weren't there. What we could say was what a mess the men who were there in the 40s made of the 60s." He paused to let his words ring. They sounded just right. "And we said that loud and clear."

"Unfortunately, that was 30 years ago," said Hillary. "No one who was there then is here now."

"Nobody is," he agreed. "And if they are they're lying low, pretending they weren't."

"Everybody pretends not to remember what everyone was saying back in the 60s," Hillary reminisced. "What we were saying is that one way or another the United States of America got itself involved in more wars than any nation on earth."

He agreed. "The old men said go to war, and the kids did. They went to 'Nam and Korea and the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and Cuba and to the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli. And no one ever asked why. But apparently it had something to do with the fact that we were a peace-loving people that wanted to be left alone."

"And finally a generation of kids got together and yelled stop," Hillary said.

"But you had to be there," he mused darkly.

"The trouble is," Hillary said, "we're not there anymore. We're here."

"There are a hundred good reasons to send the army into Bosnia," he brooded. "I hear new ones every day."

She nodded. "You're held up to constant ridicule as the biggest coward who ever sat in the Oval Office."

He stared out over the Rose Garden. "I want to bind the wounds. It's the only thing I've ever really wanted to do since '68. Bind the wounds. I don't want to be another one of those old men who say, go to war."

"Well, the wounds are anything but bound," Hillary said.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," he said. "Everyone was supposed to like peace."

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