Years ago in the bowels of the federal courthouse in Houston was situated a press room; manned by a number of press agencies: the Houston dailies (Chronicle and Post), United Press International (UPI), Associated Press (AP), radio stations, KPRC and KTRH, and whatever television station needing the space. A place to make calls, collect data, to conduct interviews. A few years prior to exiting the practice I happened upon the press room. Appearing abandoned, no longer manned. UPI no longer remained the same organization. The Houston Post ceased operations in 1995, after it was purchased by the Houston Chronicle. KPRC and KTRH still existed, in different forms, more talk less reporting. The current press landscape is exhibit 1 on the effect of new technologies and the changes in the media landscape – cell phone, internet, corporate consolidations and buyouts, bankruptcies and the formation of new, less substantial entities.
I was watching television recently when the question was asked of one of the participants, “have you ever been bullied.” The person the question was posed seemed slightly embarrassed before answering, “Yes.” My pause was shorter than his, answering before he did. I too answered yes.
One definition of bullying is the “use of superior strength or influence to intimidate, typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” If you are willing to accept this expansive definition of the word, I submit that most, if not all of us, have been bullied at one point in time in our lives. If you have not – been bullied – you are a fortunate soul. If you have, you start slightly more ahead in understanding the observations I make.
When in middle school and high school, I never worried about the physical form of bullying. I existed in a quasi-protective custodial world. No, I wasn’t incapable of fighting, had plenty in elementary school, did not shy down from fights, and like most kids spent most of my time trying to make sense of the world, wondering what the future would bring. I just didn’t have to fight. Johnny Brown and Leon Dennis served as the protectorates. Well-defined man-child(s), stronger than most, patrolling, protecting, never picking on others, making clear they were willing to fight if challenged, that the bullies had to go through them if they wanted to get to me.
I only saw one person challenge. He – the bully – flew – actually took flight, flew – flying in one direction. I walked away to take a shower – in the other direction – marveling at his, Robert’s, ability to fly. Johnny took a seat, placed his thumb in his mouth, and removed his clothes, never bothering to worry whether Robert – he who defied gravity – would land, return or attempt to challenge him on his statement, “You have to go through me.”
Both Leon and Johnny skipped a step in puberty; moving from childhood to man-child status overnight, growing faster than most, obtaining their man’s weight and height in middle school, appearing out of place, but not.
Johnny was 6’0” – 6’1” man child, weighing 265, who was more than comfortable playing sports barefooted, sprinting, making a tackle, retreating to the sideline, resuming his thumb sucking. No one dare teased. No one dare teased. No one dare teased.
Leon, 5’10” – 5”11”, 180/190 pounds, well-defined shoulders, expansive chest, flat-broad feet. Strangely, Leon was defined more by his smile and laughter than is brawn. He however still possessed the same aura of invisibility; warning off all comers, smiling while he did so, never ever having to lift a finger.
Johnny and Leon existed in the pre-steroid, supplement era, the era which only a few were man-sized. Prior to the food manufacturers injecting cattle with growth-hormones, before McDonald’s became the dominate force over the American landscape, prior to the use of amphetamines, to a far greater extent in our food chain, than in our hospitals. They existed in a period when the average height of an American man was 5’8”. The United States Food and Drug Administration’s website is instructive:
Since the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions. These drugs increase the animals’ growth rate and the efficiency by which they convert the feed they eat into meat.
But I digress.
Bullying can also take on forms other than physical intimidation; psychological and intellectual bullying are just two examples. This type of bullying is somewhat akin to a chameleon, changing colors, adapting, persisting; oft-time more destructive than physical bullying. Acts designed to provide false data, littering the landscape with words of belittlement, causing others to view one as less worthy, unwelcomed.
I have always viewed the press, for the most part, in the same light as I have viewed Leon Dennis and Johnny Brown. Initially, I was introduced to press room by the UPI reporter, Olive Talley; bringing light to cases, sharing with the public, making the courthouse less hostile. Serving as a tattle-tale, reporting on matters others ignored. On most occasions I never fully agreed with the tattle-tales, never fully disagreed. Walking, running away, meeting deadlines; printing, broadcasting, telling, telling, telling was their roles. No one ever fully likes a tattle-tale.
If you have a difficulty in following me, let me try it this way. In most families, there is a hollow place reserved for the tattle-tale. A role which can be filled by any of the family group members – the youngest, oldest or the middle children – doesn’t matter. He/she is the person who reports back to the head of the family, telling of wrongdoing, faults, doing what we weren’t supposed to be doing. This is my view of the press; they are our constitutionally protected tattle-tales. You ask, what does this have to do with bullying?
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports the attacks on journalist and the press is at an all-time high. Information from the Committee’s website: Nigeria threatens journalist for not revealing sources; Thailand pressures two broadcast journalist off the air; Bangladesh journalist could face 14 years in prison for refuting rumor; Egyptian press advocates faces life in prison, Indian journalist, magazine face criminal complaint for investigative report; Iranian journalist Issa Saharkhiz sentenced to three years in jail. I think you get the point. The Committee also reports that since 1992, 1208 journalists have been killed doing their jobs, 27 killed in 2016; 199 were imprisoned in 2015; 456 exiled since 2008.
The unfortunate part of any review of events around the world is to assume we are immune from the analysis. In this country the recent attacks on journalist is just as disturbing. Political candidates jeering at the press, pulling press passes, putting the press in press pens – acts designed to control the tattle-tale’s right to tell – on them, on us.
Ignoring the importance of the First Amendment, viewing journalists’ questions as being bothersome, blaming their faults on the press, refusing to answer the question, never calling press conferences, telling reporters to “shut up.”
So that you are clear, I have not always agreed with everything the press has written, the conduct of some reporters, or the conduct of certain entities. My beliefs have been formed as being both a beneficiary of good reporting and from finding myself on the other side of the story. Once disagreeing when quoted in the paper (an accurate quote), because the reporter agreed the comments were off-the-record. Vehemently sickened when sitting in chambers and witnessing the federal judge tell a Houston Chronicle reporter what he was going to do in a case just beginning, before jury selection; shouting, bragging that a famed lawyer had met his match (the lawyer Joseph Jamail). Leaving chambers and witnessing the same judge make good on his threats. Not able to keep my mouth shut, telling Jamail, ultimately telling a Fifth Circuit investigator. His Honor’s promise never made it to the paper.
Watching the worm turn, witnessing the same federal judge hold press conferences; placing stories in the local papers, for five years, expressing his disdain for a different lawyer (myself); seeking to destroy, destroying, waiting for public fight, using the press as his tool. His Honor’s conduct again never made it to the paper, enabling abusive conduct, threatening the checks and balances necessary, ignoring all of us can be subjected to tyrannical conduct when the press fails its entrusted role.
I say all this to say, no, I have not agreed with everything the press has written about me. I am far from a press enabler. That is my point and the reason I muse. It is not my role, the role of politicians, or any of us to suppress the guardians of the First Amendment. The press with all its faults serves an important role of protecting us from them, us from ourselves, telling the story.
The press has a fundamental (read fundamental as meaning constitutional) right to report and should. You, I, them (read them to mean, politicians) have a fundamental right to remain quiet, not talk, move off the stage, if we don’t want to talk. Injecting “no comment”, refusing to return the call, invoking the Fifth is our right. You, I, they (read they to mean again politicians), do not have a right to silence, intimidate and attempt to bully the press. To do so lessens our rights and privileges, our constitutional reason for existing, threatening the fourth leg of the foundation of our society.
Oh, how I wish the press drop the objective part in writing, speaking, reporting for a moment. Oh, how I wish they take the politicians up on the threats and embargo all their stories for a week, and reach a collective agreement to engage in a conspiracy of silence. Ignore their the tweets, emails, and scoops – right and left – throw a hissy fit and refuse to show up and report. Assign the reporters to human interest story instead, hold seminars on the First Amendment, informing the rest of us why reporting protects us from our stepping over the line, becoming a totalitarian society.
Call it Press Week if you may; take a break, to make a point. Not showing, not reporting, leaving the pits empty, killing the electronic feed, mailing back all press passes with a simple, direct statement, “attacks against one of us, is an attack on the rest of us.” Expecting to hear complaints, inquiries – why? Directing the callers, emailers, tweeters, texters, and press secretaries to a diverse group of organizations (by way of example: the Committee to Protect Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Freedom Forum). Surely, it will take more than one group to handle the anticipated fight for attention. It takes a village doesn’t it?
Oh how I wish, the tattle-tales push away from the same-old-same-old, in order to underscore the importance of the right of a free press. And after the collective boycott, the press should remain mindful; there will no apologies issued for past conduct. There will however suddenly be a desire to hold press conferences. The press pens will disappear, as will references to the dishonest press. Press passes will be readily reissued, with no reference to being told to shut up, be quiet and write what we want you to write – at least for a year – until the next Annual Press Week.
Absolutely I recognize my wish is an impossibility, wistful thinking. Tattle-tales are, because of their genetic makeup, incapable of participating in the conspiracy of silence. They never do, always running to tell momma, daddy, telling on the rest of us, not able to keep their mouths shut, telling, telling, telling, getting the rest of us in trouble, as they should!
So I muse…