07 February, 2011

[Except] The Muckraker's Chronicle: The Gauntlet

 I drove one town over to talk to Sam at the newspaper office. The office for The Arliss Star Advocate was actually a large garage that had been converted into a print shop, and later a newspaper. It was a squat, dirty looking building nestled in behind his house the way a shy child nestles against it's mother in the presence of strangers. Sam inherited the business from his father, along with all the petty territory wars and grudges that have always been a part of small town journalism. He was, I think, nearing the end of his tether. While he wasn't an old man by any stretch of the imagination – he had 20 years on me, but that's far from old in this day and age – it was a hard 20 years, the last 10 of which he'd spent as publisher, pot stirrer, and lightening rod for the voice of progress in a part of the country that fears change as much as it fears a dry growing season.

His version of progress wasn't the same as mine; although he never came out and said, so, I suspected that he was a closet Libertarian and a strict constructionist in his interpretation of the Constitution. This meant that we agreed on some basic tenants: the drug war, like most foreign wars, was completely unnecessary. Taxation should be minimal and fair. Mostly we shared a staunch independent streak. The only difference is that Sam still believed in Democracy and I believed I had been born to watch my civilization fall into decline.

I walked in and rang the bell on the counter, announcing myself. The only other person in the office at the time was Virgil, Sam's son. Virgil had no interest in journalism; he was hiding from out from the economy, working for his dad and living at home. He'd been living in a Chicago suburb when the bottom fell out.

“Hi Jay.” He was the only person who ever called me Jay. I'd always gotten the sense that Virgil didn't like me, though I was unsure why. Before I started writing for the paper, I sat through an interview with him during which he seemed incredibly uncomfortable. I know I make people uncomfortable sometimes; I thought maybe I wasn't urbane enough, or that he expected someone different when he read me on paper. Interacting with Virgil wasn't the first time that it occurred to me that I wasn't civilized enough to do the kind of work I was doing. Not refined enough. People assume that once you've reached a certain level of education that refinement is inevitable. That being literate and having an above average vocabulary means that nothing gets to you. Mostly I've found that what most people mistake for intelligence or gentility is rampant dishonesty. Be polite, but not kind. That sort of bullshit spreads like a disease. And in spite of the fact that I interviewed well and that my credentials were solid, Virgil didn't call me back and I had to hound Sam to get a chance at writing for the paper.

“Can I help you?” He's always so guarded and oh so polite. I wasn't sure what he did before he moved back home, but I was sure it was customer service related.

“I'm here to see Sam.”

“Oh.” Was that disappointment? Or masked annoyance? “He's in the back.”

Of course he was. “Thanks, Virgil.”

Sam's office was a large windowless closet in the back corner of the building, just big enough for a desk, a file cabinet, a small computer table (one of the cheap roll away kind) and a couch that had probably been salvaged from somebody's garbage once upon a time. The few times I'd actually visited Sam in his office, it was always in a state of total disorganization; the desk was littered with piles of papers that didn't appear to be organized, and he was almost always on the phone, trying to get a new advertiser or wrangling money owed from one he already had. This time was no exception. He was on the phone when walked back and stood in the doorway; when he saw me, he waved and motioned me towards the couch.

I sat down and waited for him to finish. The couch sunk down and it felt like I was almost sitting on the floor. When he was finished he hung up and turned to me.

“Thanks for coming down,” he said.

“Not a problem. I was wanting to get out of the house anyway.”

“Do you have anything going this week?”

“A few stories I'm trying to tie the loose ends on. It's been a pretty quiet week.”

“Have you talked to Don Parton lately?”

Ah I thought. Here's the reason. “Don Parton?” I paused and pretended to think about it. “Nope. Don't think so. Why?”

“He called me last week.”


“He called to talk about you.”

“Nice to know he cares.”

“He cares enough that he's threatening to sue you.”

“He threatens everybody.”

“He threatened to sue the paper, too.”


“You remember that article you wrote about people trying to get a concealed weapon law on the books?”

“Yup.” I'd about a group of citizens that had been meeting with the intention of petitioning the state to make “fundamental changes inherent and necessary to the free American Spirit outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” The group, calling itself the Arliss County Auxiliary, was a mixture of social conservatives, gun nuts, and anti-government paramilitary paranoids – among them, Don Parton. I attended a meeting, interviews Parton and several others, and wrote it up as it happened. The ACA's first objective was to get a concealed carry law passed in Illinois like the one that passed in Arizona – all that John Wayne / armed against the criminals rhetoric that the NRA used to bandy so effectively until Charlton Heston started loosing his marbles.

“Apparently he thought your coverage was less than objective.”


“And...” Sam stopped and shook his head. “Look, he called and screamed at me for about 45 minutes.”

“What'd you tell him?”

“I told him he should write a Letter to the Editor.”

“Sounds good.”

“He said he had no intention of being the butt of a public joke.”

“He's already an ass most of the time. How would it be any different?” That made Sam smile a little. Parton's pro-gun stance was not all that interesting, nor was it surprising. But when he launched into his litany of things he saw that “required a 2nd Amendment Remedy” – including everything from the current administration to the county health department to gay marriage to the “problems that fester in Niggertown” – some people's name for Chicago – apparently he felt I was too specific in my depiction of him as a raving dumb ass. Go figure. “So what's he wanting?”

“A recant.”

“Based on what?”

“And he wants me to fire you.”

“Did you tell him I'm freelance?”


“He said he didn't care what your job title is.”

“So ARE you going to fire me?”

“Were you disingenuous in your article?”

“You mean, did I make up any of the shit they said?”


“No. They don't need me to make them look stupid. They do just fine on their own.”

“I know.” He sighed. “Look. I think I can appease him with an editorial response.”


“I know you do good work,” he said. “But we can't afford a lawsuit. And a guy like Parton would keep it going just to make a point.”

“I know. You're not firing me; right?”

He shook his head. “No. I just wanted to make sure you were aware.”

“Okay. No problem.” I knew where this was going. Sam knew I was right, but I was going to get thrown under the bus. He'd write an amicable editorial response proclaiming the paper's support of all our Constitutional rights, and throw in some of Parton's propaganda bullshit to make it all feel balanced. The fact is that Don Parton, other than being one of the biggest land owners in the county, was also known as one litigious son of a bitch by everyone who knew him. I'd heard that was how he acquired the last 25 acres of his property; he sued somebody over an easement issue and kept it going so long that eventually the other person went broke, gave up, and sold him the property at a massive loss. The American Dream in action.

“Alright, then.” His mood lightened somewhat and we talked some more about nothing particularly important. Maude would be relieved that I didn't lose my job; but she'd probably freak out over the possibility of being sued. I was debating about whether I should mention it to her when I left, drove back to Mount Arliss, and headed straight for the Moose Head.