Jour­nal­ists Are Not Out To Win Pop­u­lar­ity Con­tests

Washington County Enterprise-Leader - - OPINION - Mark Humphrey Sports Editor

Pa­tri­cia “Pat” Ridling Har­ris, for­mer man­ag­ing editor of the En­ter­prise-Leader (April 19, 1943 - Oct. 25, 2018), re­spected jour­nal­ist whose tough love bal­anced her com­pe­tence and tact.

One af­ter­noon when the En­ter­prise-Leader of­fice was lo­cated on South­winds Road in Farmington, Ark., Pat stepped out­side in the al­ley to smoke and found her­self wit­ness­ing a bur­glary in progress. A would-be thief had brazenly dis­con­nected the air con­di­tion­ing unit while it was run­ning and was at­tempt­ing to sin­gle-hand­edly load the unit into the bed of his pickup.

Think­ing quick on her feet, Pat, who knew first­hand the trauma of be­ing held hostage at gun­point, phrased a ques­tion in a non-threat­en­ing tone in­quir­ing if the man was re­pair­ing the unit.

Uti­liz­ing that man­ner of dis­cre­tion ac­com­plished two things: No. 1 it gave the bur­glar an out mak­ing it less likely he would at­tempt to harm a 70-year-old lady; and No. 2 it al­lowed Pat to make a fast exit when he replied, “Yes, I’m fix­ing it.”

“Oh, they didn’t call me about that,” Pat said us­ing an­other feint.

She then said some­thing about check­ing with the main of­fice to get a pur­chase or­der and promptly re­treated into the safety of the build­ing clos­ing the back door be­hind her.

Pat promptly phoned both the po­lice and main of­fice from whence au­tho­riza­tions for work done on the build­ing orig­i­nated, learn­ing what she sus­pected all along — no such work or­der ex­isted. The man was at­tempt­ing a bur­glary in broad day­light.

In the days after that, the news staff checked on the air con­di­tion­ing unit reg­u­larly, but the man never re­turned. Pat chided her­self for not get­ting a li­cense plate of the pickup the man was driv­ing; rea­son­ing, “We’re jour­nal­ists, we’re sup­posed to be bet­ter than that.”

Yet, in the midst of a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion that took her by sur­prise, Pat re­solved the mat­ter in a pro­fes­sional fash­ion pre­serv­ing what was most im­por­tant — her per­sonal safety by dif­fus­ing rather than con­fronting the sit­u­a­tion.

When of­fi­cials with salaries paid by tax­payer dol­lars or­ga­nized what should have been a pub­lic meet­ing with­out giv­ing proper ad­vance no­ti­fi­ca­tion to the press, Pat called them on the car­pet lever­ag­ing Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion laws.

From Pat’s per­spec­tive jour­nal­ists have a job to do. Du­ties of a free press com­bined with the pub­lic’s right to know how their tax­payer dol­lars are be­ing spent fu­eled one of Pat’s news­room lec­tures.

“Jour­nal­ists are not out to win pop­u­lar­ity con­tests,” she stated.

That was a prin­ci­ple she lived by and worked through in her writ­ings even among mod­ern so­ci­ety where vengeance is preva­lent and some pub­lic of­fi­cials choose to only be­lieve in “Free­dom of the Press” when it serves their pur­poses such as crit­i­ciz­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents; but don’t think those same stan­dards should be ap­pli­ca­ble to them and their ac­tions.

Pat had a heart for “spe­cial needs chil­dren.” She cham­pi­oned their cause. When a fam­ily, who was get­ting stone-walled by a school, ap­proached her re­gard­ing an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing one such child, Pat wrote what she de­scribed in her own words as “a blis­ter­ing ed­i­to­rial.” Pat’s skill­ful aware­ness of the power of the press af­fected “pub­lic per­cep­tion” and the com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­enced progress.

Once Pat found her­self salaried as the sole-sur­viv­ing em­ployee of a weekly small-town news­pa­per. She an­swered the phone, replied to recorded mes­sages, re­ceived or­ders for ad­ver­tise­ments, crafted com­mu­nity an­nounce­ments, took and edited photos, wrote sto­ries, head­lines and photo cut­lines, edited news con­tent, plus de­signed pages, all skills she de­vel­oped and re­fined over the course of a nearly 30-year ca­reer.

Hos­pi­tal­ized un­ex­pect­edly with the weekly pub­li­ca­tion dead­line loom­ing, Pat re­quested that her lap­top be brought to her hospi­tal room. A col­league, who worked in an­other di­vi­sion for an­other pub­li­ca­tion owned by the same par­ent com­pany, de­liv­ered the lap­top to Pat in the hospi­tal.

Against her doc­tor’s or­ders, Pat put out the en­tire news­pa­per from a hospi­tal room. The com­mu­nity knew noth­ing of Pat’s hos­pi­tal­iza­tion or her ef­forts to make cer­tain lo­cal news came out on time. To them, it was busi­ness as usual.

Not long af­ter­wards, Pat re­ported on a con­tro­versy in­volv­ing a city coun­cil meet­ing. A char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion cam­paign en­sued shift­ing blame to­wards Pat and the news­pa­per. Pat moved on and soon the news­pa­per was out of busi­ness.

“I learned a valu­able les­son,” Pat said de­scrib­ing the in­ci­dent.

Yet, she stuck by her prin­ci­ples. Temp­ta­tions to com­pro­mise jour­nal­is­tic in­tegrity would tap Pat on the shoul­der more than once in the twi­light of her ca­reer. She never gave in.

Cir­cum­stances seem to vin­di­cate her. A decade later, the com­mu­nity, which shunned “Free­dom of the Press,” is still with­out a news­pa­per. The lo­cal story goes un­doc­u­mented. There are no sports, no grad­u­a­tions, no an­niver­saries, no birth an­nounce­ments, no wed­dings, no en­gage­ments, no obit­u­ar­ies. If this is what the city coun­cil wanted, they’ve got it for the long term.

While I miss Pat, I re­joice know­ing she had a re­la­tion­ship with God and is now bask­ing in the divine pres­ence — free from sick­ness, dis­ease, pain, heartache, worry, trauma or any­thing that trou­bled her dur­ing her life­time on earth.

If I could write one thing on her tomb­stone it would be Psalm 9:4 (Liv­ing Bi­ble), which de­clares, “You have vin­di­cated me; you have en­dorsed my work, declar­ing from your throne that it is good.”

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