Stillwater: Speak the Truth to Power--And They Will Kick Your Ass Off the Paper
A year ago, I printed a column in the Stillwater Gazette that got me fired from Minnesota’s oldest daily newspaper.
That column was a satirical piece about an upcoming school board election here in Stillwater. It was a very important election, as it turned out. The School District is now facing the fact that they have to beg the public for a $15 million tax levy just to keep operating.
In that piece, I dropped the following “bombshells”:
One: That there was a four-three voting split on the School Board, and that the majority of four was a conservative block. A fictional character in my satirical piece identified the conservatives on the board as Thole, Junker, Kunze and Hoffman.
Two: That there was a rumor going around town that school board members Choc Junker and Nancy Hoffman might retire from the board after the election was over—and, if this was done in clever manner, it would allow the conservative majority on the school board to appoint conservative successors to Junker and Hoffman: local voters would not be consulted. This strategy would allow conservative members of the school board to maintain the four-three split.
There was a mild uproar because I printed these two rumors in a satirical piece. Some people were outraged that I had identified them as “conservatives” on a supposedly non-partisan, small town school board. School board member Hoffman wrote in to the paper denying that she had any intention of retiring. Another school board member came down to the Gazette in person to deny the retirement rumor. My editor got pressure from the paper’s publisher, from members of the School Board, and from various local political types—fire Bill Prendergast.
And, I am sorry to say, the editor caved and fired me only days after the piece appeared. Despite the fact that she had herself approved the column in advance of printing. The only reason she gave to me in writing for my termination was that she felt that readers were not interested in my satire any more. On the contrary—I believe the reason that she fired me was that too many readers were interested in what I was writing about the school board.
There was a mild public outcry for a couple of weeks about the decision to drop me, and also a little “dancing on my journalistic grave” from people who should know better.
And now it is a year later. What about those two theories, the ones I was fired for printing?
One: It was admitted last week that the non-partisan school board is not non-partisan at all. School Board Chairman George Thole announced (at a public meeting on the levy) that four of the seven school board members were indeed “Republicans.” I submit that many readers first learned about that from me, a year ago, and not from Thole, this year.
Two: What about the rumor that Junker and Hoffman would retire after the election? (Which was, by the way, identified as nothing more than a rumor in the column.) A couple of weeks ago, I learned that school board member David “Choc” Junker had had a heart attack. He may be suffering from other serious health problems, too. We have no way of knowing because when I put questions about his health to his colleagues on the School Board and to a member of his family who is also in public life—they simply refused to answer. I think the fact that they will not make information about Junker’s health public is very damning, but we can all draw our own conclusions. Junker has not yet retired and questions about his health remain.
And I have just learned that school board member Nancy Hoffman has indeed retired from the School Board, before her term is up.
There was another theory in my column: that the successors to Hoffman and Junker on the School Board would be appointed, not elected by the voters. We shall see.
So what is the lesson here? Print the articles about cute kittens or what you did at school last week on the editorial page, and you may enjoy a long and happy career as a Gazette columnist.
Print your best guesses on what’s going to happen in local politics--and the Gazette may shit-can you under pressure from local power junkies. Even if the editor signed off on your column and approved it prior to publication!
Speak the truth to power--and you will get your ass kicked, if your editor and publisher are not willing to stand up to the people they are supposed to be covering.
This is especially true if the predictions for which you were fired begin to come true, almost a year to the day later.