When a journalist succumbed to bullies

4 Dec

To Neal Justin, then a young regional reporter in Illinois 25 years ago who had been tipped off about a local judge who, because of an alleged addiction to alcohol, usually slept through court sessions only to later hand down “irrational” judgements, getting to the bottom of the matter was a no-brainer.

However, Justin, 23 at the time, came up against disapproving top officials who asked him to drop the matter or be ‘blacklisted’, a threat he yielded to but now recalls with regret.

“Shortly after I started asking some questions I got called into the District Attorney’s office,” recalls Justin of that fateful meeting in 1992 at which the Chief Circuit Judge, who oversaw all the courtrooms in that part of Illinois, was also present. “I was told that the judge in question was having some problems, that he was dealing with them and that he would be retiring very soon… They…said that if I continued to ask questions about this judge’s behaviour, nobody in the courthouse would talk to me anymore, then I would be blackballed. They tried to intimidate me and it worked.”

Alone and new to the area of his beat, Justin, who has since risen through the ranks to become media critic at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said his capitulation was also down to

inexperience on the job. And given the said judge was already on leave and due to retire in a few months, Justin reckoned “no further harm would take place”.

As it turned out the judge did not retire, staying on for another year adjudicating cases in the same manner of sleeping through arguments and submissions and giving “erratic” judgments, according to Justin.

“I regret that decision now and learned a lot from it, that is, not to take promises like that, not to be intimidated no matter what kind of threats are laid upon you,” Justin says. “You can certainly be sympathetic but this was a judge who was making decisions on some people’s lives and livelihoods and I didn’t propel my mission to tell the truth. So that was an ethical decision I think I fell short.”

Justin’s story, sadly, is not an isolated one. Investigative journalists, young and old, asking hard-hitting questions to obtain answers to issues affecting people come up against stonewalling, lying, or even threatening, public officials wishing to cover up corrupt activities which, should they come to light, will be a bombshell. But bombshells are precisely what rookie reporters should be snooping into. Coming out with a big story after painstaking investigations catapults a previously unknown reporter to prominence while earning experienced ones more clout and a higher rating and all the perks that come with it.

By giving in to the demands of those senior public officers, a young Justin helped preserve whatever interests that cabal profited from the out-of-left-field verdicts the apparently boozy judge handed down.

And obviously lives were affected, as judgements tend to have on those closely connected to court cases. Probably some innocent persons were convicted of offences for which they would have been acquitted had the judge been sober and attentive, or, chillingly, a felon may have been pronounced not guilty and let loose back onto the street. Both possibilities are likely and the reporter should have looked at the greater social good his investigation would have brought about and not have cowed to the threats of a selfish and corrupt few at the helm.

By failing to pursue the story, Justin also missed out on an opportunity for judicial reform in America at the time, as the fallout from his work could have led to similar situations in other parts of the country coming to light to provoke a fresh look at justice delivery.

“Looking back, maybe I should have continued to look at that [story],” Justin adds ruefully. “I made a judgement that things will take care of themselves and I shouldn’t be in that position where I am making judgemental calls.”

This is so true for journalists. A reporter’s job is to simply report the truth, what happened, and leave readers to decide, a lesson Justin says he has learned since the incident.

A good way for reporters to deal with an ethical dilemma like what Justin faced is to run it by other reporters who have encountered a similar situation previously. These could be colleagues in the same newsroom or professional society. Young journalists could fall on more experienced colleagues when they come face to face with official or other intimidation on a beat. Usually, the tips they offer are vital, ranging from urging one to remain steadfast in the face of threats and/or how to outwit perceived obstacles to arrive at the truth. And as Justin aptly sums it, consulting the opinions of colleagues never stops however long one has been at the job. “We like to think we know it all but we don’t, I still don’t,” he says. “I still lean on people who’ve been there and gone through experiences and get feedback from them.”

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