Drowning story deep sixed under pressure of advertiser and newspaper manager’s neighbor…


A couple of days or so now since posting the following I have come to realize the post probably deals more with small-town journalism than what its original headline (about Mormons running for president) suggested. With that in mind I have re-posted and revised it, hoping that those interested in how things work in journalism, or at least small-town journalism, might read it. It’s what happens when the non-news people take over and only not offending anyone, especially an advertiser, is the main concern, besides being profitable.


One of my first big bosses at a newspaper, his title being “general manager”, was a Mormon (he’s a dead one now — may he be at peace in Mormon heaven). He was not a newsman in the least, but on most (not all) of the newspapers I worked on the non-news people ran the show and pretended to admire we news types, at least to our face, and probably wondered to themselves how we could be so foolish as to work for so little money at something so trivial as reporting news rather than selling ad space. He was vain as vain could be. But who could blame him? He was a tall silver-haired (or maybe just gray at the temples then; I forget) middle-aged man and quite handsome to a woman’s eye I am sure. As he strode through the office women would all but gasp and look admiringly upon their leader. He was always polite and good natured and cordial in public, with a friendly word for everyone. But sometimes the whispers would go around that in high-level staff meetings, behind the closed door of his office, he became furious. But that fury was respected because he was the tall, handsome leader. If a lower-level staffer were to become angry it would be called a tempter tantrum.

I have mentioned this once in another context too. But Mr. Big personally killed a story about the drowning of a boy and the failure of the ambulance driver/deputy coroner to take him directly to the hospital where he might have been resuscitated in time and saved (might have). The boy was in fact brought back to life by a hospital intern, but died days later. The ambulance driver, who, as I noted, was also the deputy coroner, had stopped to interview witnesses and make his report before taking the boy to a hospital. That ambulance driver was also a real-estate salesman and advertised heavily in our newspaper. He also threatened to sue if anything mentioning him was written (I know; I took the original call).

Mr. Big asked me what he had said. I told him. Mr. Big assured me that no one was going to tell the newspaper what it could publish and what not, keeping in mind to stay away from actual libel. (My personal note here: simple truth is usually a good defense against libel, but one might want to consult a lawyer in that field on that one).

But Mr. Big, I found out years later, lived next door to a big wig in the Sheriff’s Department, which was also implicated in possible (possible) negligence. That big wig unwittingly told me that he had prevailed upon Mr. Big to kill that story. Now this individual who told me that was a self-promoting blow hard of sorts, but knowing what I know, I think Mr. Big wilted under pressure. (That was my story he killed.)

To be fair, it could be that there was little to no actual negligence involved in that incident if all the facts were gone through — I mean it was conjectured the poor boy was probably already beyond saving, except to possibly be brought back to life with severe brain damage.

(To my memory we did print at least one brief story saying that the boy had drowned, but that was it  — no details).

But in a small town, Mr. Big killed all chances of the truth getting out, at least for wide dissemination and in a credible manner (see below).

Since I am revising this post I will add here: I think the story may have first broke in a kind of quirky local newspaper to the south of us run by an eccentric older lady who had inherited it from her father. She pretty much just printed anything she felt like. The paper was known for printing divorce filings as soon as they were made. Sometimes husbands or wives got their first word of a divorce not from their spouse but from the newspaper. Because the family of the drowned boy had some connections in her community her paper jumped all over that story and immediately printed everything they could gather on it, such as the gossip that I eventually heard too that the ambulance driver/coroner/real estate salesman had actually stopped on his way to the hospital not only to gather information from witnesses or possible witnesses but to discuss real estate (no real proof of this). My editor derided this kind of reporting but also realized I am sure that we were running behind on the story. He set me to work telling me basically to do a kind of at least mini investigation (no overtime authorized, as I recall). I made several phone calls and I did some personal interviews. As I recall (this was more than 30 years ago), I went out to the site and talked to at least one resident in a nearby house. I filed a story based on the interviews of local citizens, sheriff department officials, oh, and yes, the parents (who were in the process of filing a civil suit for wrongful death and/or negligence). I don’t recall that the story came down on anyone (even the parents could have had some blame; the poor child had wandered away from them — as a parent I know how that could be/happen). It just contained the facts as best they were known at the time. I was subsequently told by my editor that he had to get an okay from Mr. Big before we could run this. To my knowledge this was the first time this had ever happened. But I do understand that Mr. Big had to be concerned about being sued for libel by the ambulance driver/coroner/real estate guy. Oh, and I should have mentioned, the ambulance driver/so on and so on, refused interviews.

But to successfully sue a publication for libel the bar is fairly high, as I understand it. There must be proof of intent and malice (my interpretation, not a strictly legal one). Certainly there was none here, even though I have to admit that getting that threatening phone call from the ambulance driver/coroner, so on and so on, kind of soured me on him — but I can rise above those things.

We waited for days and maybe a month or more for an okay from Mr. Big. Meanwhile, the quirky paper to the south kept publishing stories (to include gossip — but often gossip can be fairly accurate I have found). The story finally got cold. I subsequently left the newspaper. I was told later that the paper never ran any story but at some point ran an editorial claiming that it had done an exhaustive investigation on the drowning incident and had found nothing untoward (I can’t even say I did an “exhaustive” investigation, and to my knowledge no one else did).

Local newspapers often do not have the resources for long or extensive investigations. But that is not always called for. A simple reporting of a story could have sufficed in this incident, but that was prevented.


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