Friday, February 13, 2015

David Carr on the Importance of the Little People to Journalists Seeking Truth

New York Times journalist David Carr, who died yesterday, talks about his first big break as a young journalist investigating police brutality against African-American residents of Minneapolis: Carr notes, 

These people who are, you know, gatekeepers or secretaries or clerks or stuck in some record room, they're very important people to a journalist. If you think a story is true, you should be able to make it true. And if you have a feeling that things went down a certain way, they probably went down a certain way.

I'm struck by Carr's insistence that, if you want to get at the truth of what has happened in an organization that tightly seals information from the public, you need to befriend the little people. Who aren't so little after all, when it comes to opening the channels through which information can leak out of their tightly controlled organization to the public . . . . 

I can attest to the validity of Carr's statements. The last boss I had when I did full-time academic work was fired after she ran the university she led into the ground. In her career as a university president, she presided over two colleges. Both ended up on the censure list of the American Association of University Professors due to her violations of the academic freedom of faculty. 

Both United Methodist colleges at which she was president eventually fired her. But both have refused to divulge that information to the public. The boards of both schools, on which UMC bishops and pastors sit along with powerful businessmen and businesswomen, have stonewalled the public when people have sought information about the circumstances under which this disastrous president of two UMC institutions has left those institutions in disarray.

How have I learned of her firing at both schools? I've done so because "little people" who had access to the documentation have been willing to tell me the truth. In the case of the second school at which this person was fired, a secretary who sat in the board meeting at which the firing took place immediately called Steve and me following the board meeting to tell us what had happened, and to summarize for us the damning statements made about the president and her unethical and illegal treatment of employees in a whistle-blowing letter that finally tipped the scales for the board of trustees of the UMC university.

People we dismiss as little may often not be so little after all.

For a damning look at an institution adamantly determined to stonewall its constituents, see Sharon Otterman's report in today's New York Times about how the archdiocese of New York has treated requests — requests mandated by Catholic canon law — of parishioners for information about why the archdiocese has chosen to close their parishes.

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