Courage, ethics beyond the gator skinners

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Published: May 15,2011

Tags: MBJ Columns, Ted Carter

I can’t sufficiently express the degree of my respect for reporters who toil in places like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and — closer to home —  Mexico. They are laying it down, folks, so we will have a better idea of what is occurring and why in their strife-torn parts of the globe.

I laid it down once as a rookie reporter — but not in the same way these heroes and heroines have. And three decades later I’m still wrestling with whether I’d do the same thing again.

Yeah, given the same kind of coercion, I’m pretty sure I would.

Picture the northern fringe of interior southern Florida’s untamed frontier, or at least what seemed like the frontier in 1979. Reporting on pot planes landing on makeshift strips deep in the cane fields and enjoying dollar beers at the local gun & knife club pretty much summed up my professional and social life.

I’ve got to believe the most excitement I had during that year as a journalist on the edge of the Everglades came vicariously. One day a couple fishermen on Lake Okeechobee pulled in what was either a drowned space alien or a seriously waylaid astronaut suit.

I really really wanted that story but the editor kept it for himself (it turned out the strange finding indeed was a NASA space suit that had traveled from the Atlantic into the Caloosahatchee Waterway near West Palm Beach and hundred miles or so into Lake Okeechobee. NASA said they could tell us how it got there but then they’d have to kill us).

So what did I lay down?

My pen.

I’ve always prided myself on my survival skills. And in this instance they beat out whatever misgivings I had about not standing up for the First Amendment, Mom, Hotdogs, Chevrolet and Pie Alamode.

The coercion came from a group of cane cutters, gator skinners and, I must assume, razor toters. They were, of course, the town’s elected council and the guys who made the decisions about the town’s electric co-op.

The co-op and everything about it was radioactive in the tiny Glades County town on the northern banks of the Okeechobee. I’d just seen the big ‘ol boy they employed as the co-op plant manager chase a terrified ratepayer out of the town hall at full throttle. That would teach him not to approach the council with questions of a probing nature.

Moments later the honorable gentlemen looked at me, and one gave the order: “Put the pencil down, boy.”

I did just that but was preoccupied thinking about the chances of bolting for the exit ahead of the enforcer doubling as a power plant manager. Not liking my odds, I stayed put.

I sat staring at my feet and listening real closely to the co-op discussion. Even though I left with a story, I concede I left a little of my professional pride behind that night.

A week later at the county fair I turned down a drunken carney’s offer of $25 to write a story about the “Envy of Elvis” chrome-studded Harley he had encased behind a trailer wall. That made me feel a bit better about myself, but then I turned around and talked him into a free look at this “Beast of a Bike” he claimed had been drawing crowds from Pahokee to Palmdale.

I’ve kept my ethical standards largely intact in the three decades since. I credit much of that to the examples set by the publishers and media companies for which I’ve worked.

At the risk of a community backlash and boycott, a publisher at a weekly newspaper stop  of mine in Southwest Virginia stood up to censorship crusaders who sought to purge best sellers from the public library that they deemed “pornographic.”

In Miami, the publisher of the weekly business newspaper I edited stood firm as the power establishment pulled advertising over our chronicling of questionable leasing of public lands for private purposes.

In Savannah, the publisher of a family-owned business newspaper I edited grimaced when she lost a sizeable ad contract from the main hospital over a story detailing its re-use of surgical instruments (a practice the other large hospital in town deemed too unsafe for its operating rooms).  Though I could see the pain of the lost contract on her face, the publisher said not a word against my decision to run the story.

The Mississippi Business Journal is cut from the same cloth. It’s here to tell the story of Mississippi business and on occasion has borne the cost of aggressive but fair and thorough reporting.

The gator-skinners on the town council down in the ’Glades took something from me that night. The places I’ve worked since then have returned it.

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