I’ve been trying to write about what it was like to be at the helm of a bankrupting community newspaper, but I can’t. Not yet. Too bad I can’t file for disability benefits thanks to PTND (Post-Traumatic Newspaper Disorder).
Almost all journalists have some outlandish stories to tell, and there are enough of us on OS who are unemployed (or underemployed) that I think we should share some of our best newspaper stories (like Boanerges has). Hell, it beats writing about being unemployed.
In my case, I’m just going to list descriptions of some fictional characters who remind me of some elected officials in a town whose news I used to cover. If this wasn’t fiction, I could probably get my ass sued off. Ha ha! Really! None of this is true!
This fictional (it bears repeating) cast of characters would include a Newspaper Editor who has no formal training or education in journalism who buys a dirt cheap community newspaper. Our heroine knows nothing about design, layout, selling advertising, computers, cameras, bookkeeping, dealing with periodical permits, how to make change, speaking in public without rank panic attacks, or much of anything else. The only thing NE happens to have is an easily-triggered sense of justice.
She has no idea how much trouble this is going to get her into.
The cast also includes a four-term Mayor, a wealthy woman shrunken into a tiny mummy from emphysema and cancer, who runs council meetings hooked up to an oxygen tank (or via a speakerphone that rests front of her usual chair on the council table during meetings). Mayor refuses to give up her part-time post due to her numerous illnesses because she says she needs the health insurance, but the real reason is that nothing but death can pry her greedy, racist, faux-Christian skeletal fingers from the grip she has on the town. Mayor pushes through underhanded deals that benefit her pocketbook (she’s a realtor) and is well-known for suddenly changing polices, keeping vital information from the rest of the council and city staff, and cruelly punishing people she doesn’t like. The shock of her physical appearance mixed with her aw-shucks I'm-just-a-little-old-lady charm makes it very difficult indeed for anyone to deal with her lying and manipulative behavior.
Newspaper Editor soon gets into a dustup with Mayor about council meeting recordings when it becomes plain that the town clerk’s tapes of the meetings are being cut off long before meetings are adjourned, something the editor strongly suspects is happening at Mayor’s request given the Mayor's obvious love of controlling information. Mayor blames the “errors” on a faulty tape recorder and the long-suffering town clerk, and then decides the town doesn’t have enough money to buy a new recorder and that they will officially cease recording meetings. The NE is encouraged by one of the state’s open government experts to sue the town over this, and even is offered under-the-table assistance from said expert, but NE glumly realizes that the newspaper readers have started to view her not as an icon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but as a big bully torturing a poor sick elderly woman.
The Round-Eyed Innocent (Councilmember #1). The mother of two convicted felons. One of her adult children (previously arrested ten times for everything from assualt to attempted murder) nearly bleeds to death after being stabbed in broad daylight by a rival gang member. Her other son gains notoriety by forting up in his SUV after nearly running down a town cop (who manages to shoot said kid in the arm while the kid was trying to drive over him). Cops must bring in ballistic shielding from a nearby federal nuclear facility in order to extract said armed kid from his vehicle. The Round-Eyed Innocent then sues the town’s police department—the very department she’s overseeing as councilwoman—for discrimination against her blameless babies.
The editor loves running mugshots of the SUV-son on the front page (and has the opportunity, thanks to this story, to do on several occasions) since SUV-son shaves little naked slashes in his eyebrows to mark his gang loyalty and he therefore looks like the crazy little bastard he really is. The Round-Eyed Innocent calls the newspaper editor to complain—not about the mugshots, but about the story regarding the son who’d been stabbed. Innocent claims the editor made it sound like the police had been able to get some details from her stabbed son about his assailants, and she really doesn’t want—wait for it—anyone thinking her son is a tattletale.
Goldilocks (Councilmember #2). The white knight of the community, the local fire department secretary and EMT administrator who performs daily lifesaving miracles--including pulling Round Eyed Innocent's offspring and their assorted and sundry gunshot victims back from the brink. Goldilocks sometimes comes drunk to council meetings and also goes out on ambulance calls intoxicated. Glocks is arrested for domestic violence shortly after she passes out behind the fire hall right after a very memorable council meeting.
The DV arrest is artfully covered up by the city police department (remember, this is the same department Goldilocks makes financial decisions about as councilwoman) but the town clerk, who hates Goldilocks as much as she hates Mayor, lets the information about Glock's arrest slip in a whispered phone call to NE.
Strangely enough, the arrest record filed at the county jail shows Glocks has been arrested for littering, not domestic violence, so NE can't get information from the county on the arrest and promptly starts to descend into an overcaffeinated, conspiracy-induced, on-deadline psychosis. NE calls the town police chief, who too-quickly says he "knows nothing about what happened over the weekend" and she manages to strongarm him into providing a copy of Glock's arrest record. Which she didn't know you could even ask for until the sheriff's office became interested in why the arrest of the councilwoman had been wrongly coded in their system. And which the chief refuses to fax NE for "security reasons," even the NE runs the newspaper basically out of her laundry room while she's folding socks, and which now means he's doomed the NE to a 60-mile round-trip drive to retrieve the copies. (Which the police chief well knows.)
Chief puts NE's arrest record copies in a manila envelope and leaves it on the clerk's desk for NE to pick up....unremarkable, except for the 20 yards of mailing tape that he's used to seal the envelope and the fact he's signed his name over the tape in permanent marker...a snarky move obviously designed to let the clerk know that he knew exactly who had ratted on Glocks. The clerk whispers to NE when she arrives that the city’s attorney had tried recently to talk to Goldilocks about the last time she came drunk to a meeting, and that Goldilocks had blamed her “giddiness” on having “got some” for the first time after a "long dry spell," a newsy tidbit (as Brenda Starr would say) that causes the NE to have a very unprofessional and slightly-hysterically-nervous giggling fit and which makes the whole drive worthwhile.
Mayor soon announces new city policy is that future meetings will be adjourned immediately if any elected official is suspected of drinking, a piece of news which NE prominmently headlines in the next issue...to the now-predictable overwhelming silence of the entire community.
Newspaper Editor calls each of the fire department commissioners after Goldilocks attends her third council meeting drunk, and is told that since Goldilocks was off-duty at the time, it doesn’t concern the fire department. “Only uptown Mormons don’t drink,” one of the commissioners says. "Why won't you just leave her alone?" Goldilocks finds out the editor talked to the commissioners and threatens one of the editor's relatives, who works under Glocks as a volunteer EMT. Glocks tells the relative that she’s angry at NE for “disrespecting” her “high office”—and NE groans when she hears the unintentional pun and also because she recognizes the volatilty of purely unleashed narcissim--and because she's ready to draw blood regarding the poor relative. NE reports Glock’s threat to the county police (because she knows the yards-of-mailing-tape and "mistakenly-entered-arrest-information" town cops will do absolutely nothing). The county police also laugh at her. The relative fortunately has a chance to move away, and does so.
The Token (Councilmember #3). The owner of a local Mexican restaurant who can barely read or write, and who is appointed by Mayor when a vacancy opens up even though two other more qualified people apply. After NE insists on obtaining a copy of Token's “written statement” that all council candidates are required to submit (knowing that Token has never written one because she knows from patronizing Token's restaurant that Token is pretty much unlettered), she receives a copy of the “application letter” which is more like an "application sentence" written in the Mayor’s handwriting and shakily signed underneath by Token.
The Pederast (Councilmember #4). Fired from his counseling job at the local school district for getting too close to students. A yearlong “investigation” by the state’s office of public instruction “proves” nothing happened. Again, the city police department covers this up, telling NE that the pageout to the school she'd noticed listed on the police log was for "no big deal." The school district releases a letter from the superintendent indicating parents found the councilman in their offspring’s bedrooms holding children on his lap, and texting their kids hundreds of times a day. Pederast tries to resign as councilman when this news shows up in the paper (along with a helpful photo of him taking the oath of office that the editor hopes will warn families). Mayor talks him out of resigning. Pederast suddenly starts attending meetings in skintight and wildy-colored bicycle-riding garb that somehow manages to make NE nauseated, sad, and terrified--all at the same time.
Pigpen (Councilmember #5): a foulmouthed heavy equipment mechanic whose main function is to tell dirty jokes at meetings and drink unknown substances out of a filthy plastic container. Also comes to council meetings intoxicated, sometimes at the same time as Goldilocks.
The Stalker (Councilmember #6). The Stalker gets drunk and sends NE (whom he labels The Writer of the Purple Sage in his Outlook address book) sloppy emails every weekend about how smart and beautiful she is. These compliments (which sometimes, regrettably, make NE's day) alternate with mean-spirited jabs making fun of NE’s (sometimes numerous) typos in the newspaper that week. The Stalker’s wife frequently beats him up, which requires--suprise!--nocturnal visits from the local police department.
NE once makes the mistake of mentioning to the police chief that she’s heard the cops had been at the Stalker’s house over the weekend (a brand of sympathetic and specific schmoozing designed to induce cooperation from the notoriously reticent chief about his job dealing with criminal elected officials and their relatives). The chief immediately pounces on NE and angrily demands she turn over all the emails from Stalker to him because he believes Stalker is behaving "inappropriately." NE, heart hammering with adrenaline after realizing her gaffe, politely laughs off the chief's request, and then kicks herself black & blue about giving the emails away. Stalker often acts as an informant about what the Mayor is doing, and it's suddenly very obvious she's not the only one who gets emails.
The single note of sweetness and truth in our fiction today happens to come not from our intrepid NE but from the town clerk. The clerk, who had been on the job 15 years, taught herself complicated government coding software and upon whom everyone has visited shitloads of abuse, shoves her keys in the mail slot at city hall one day with a note that explains she’s not coming back and that everyone can just bugger off. The mayor insists at public meetings for weeks that the clerk is “just on vacation" (and says it with a convincing little chuckle in order to showcase the fact things are just great and dandy at city hall).
NE tries everything short of kidnapping to get the former clerk to go on record about quitting, but the clerk quietly refuses. “She lies,” the clerk says. “NE, you know it, I know it, everyone in town knows it. It doesn’t have to be in the newspaper. That's why I quit."
What she really meant, of course, is that her quitting was going to do a lot more to wake people up than any headline in NE's newspaper. And NE knew she was right.
So! This ought to give you some idea why journalists qualify for PTND. As the wonderful fictional journalist Spider Jerusalem says, “Paranoids are just people with all the facts.” I would so like to post an image of Spider--a great character Warren Ellis modeled on the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson...but guess you'll have to make do with this link.