Young Reporter Elizabeth Mack Didn't Deserve Humiliation
Around the State
The founding generation of the once-classy Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee must have been spinning in their graves Wednesday, hearing Steve Birtman warm up the crowd for luncheon speaker Steve Southerland.
The nonpartisan political-junkie club was founded during the Reubin Askew administration in 1971. Its officers have included men and women of wit and wisdom like Phil Ashler, Hendrix Chandler, Richard McFarlin, and those fabulous Hinkle women, Lee and, later, Janet. When they took the Tiger Bay microphone, you knew what was about to come out of their mouths would be spirited -- but never mean-spirited.
I happened to catch a replay of the performance on WFSU, as I was driving back from South Florida on Friday. As close as I remember, Birtman was winding up, looking for a "joke" to segue over to reporter Bill Cotterell who would introduce Congressman Southerland. He referred to a new Girl About Town (the name of Mack's column in the Democrat), then said something like, "The Hotel Duval has a new drink they've named the Mack Attack."
I heard few people in the background laugh, and no wonder. It wasn't funny. In fact, for a couple of reasons I can think of, it grated like a rusty gate hinge:
If any snark was called for on this subject, it would have been more properly directed at the Tallahassee Democrat, which found it necessary to publish a half-baked “Democrat staff report” about the arrest, together with the young woman’s heartbreaking mugshot. The editor didn't think his own reporter deserved something more than a fact-less report from the police blotter that asked more questions than it answered?
Margaret Leonard, a retired reporter who distinguished herself at The Palm Beach Post and later at the Democrat was the first to post a comment to the story. She made the point before I did. “If a reporter saw [the alleged misdemeanors], the story needs a byline. Otherwise, I assume the information came from the police report, and it should be attributed. The police account should not be reported as fact," Leonard wrote.
The first story, maybe the newspaper is up against a deadline. But there's always the next cycle. Why was there never a follow-up -- a real story? What happened here?
In 1976, when the late legend of journalism, Eugene Patterson -- former editor, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times -- was charged with DUI, his Times readers didn't have to rely on rumor and speculation about what the facts were. Patterson’s “one phone call” went to his city desk with instructions that they follow “the policy of our paper … merely to tell the truth.”
He told his staff to put the story on the front page. That way he could tell anyone "I put myself on Page 1, so you can't ask me not to put you there."
Patterson's actions on that occasion not only became journalism lore, they set the gold standard for ethics in newsrooms across the country -- honesty, transparency and fair play between a newsroom and a reporter, between a newspaper and its readers.
I expect the ghost of Gene Patterson, observing the Tallahassee Democrat and the Mack "story" aftermath -- is a little restless about now.
Following publication of the mugshot and the un-bylined story, the young reporter, who had occupied a high-profile position on the Democrat’s staff, was disappeared without a word of explanation to readers. Apparently she has not been forgotten by the tasteless, witless "leaders" at 21st century Tiger Bay.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.