Newsom, Joyner excel at ‘afflicting the comfortable’

Published 12:30 am Sunday, July 11, 2010

About 100 years ago, nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Finley Peter Dunne was hitting his stride.

Dunne used a false name. He wrote as Mr. Dooley, a first-generation Irish-American who, as a newcomer, was granted a lot of latitude to speak his mind about things he observed and experienced in America.

Dooley described the work of journalists thusly: “Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

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The role of comforting the afflicted is being performed well by many writers in Mississippi today. When it comes to afflicting the comfortable, two standouts come to mind.

One is Michael Newsom, who works for The Sun Herald on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At the end of 2008, Newsom spent months obtaining and then poring over travel records of members of the Mississippi Highway Commission. It should have been instructive — at least to those who read newspapers — that taxpayers spent about $80,000 over four years helping the commission’s executive director learn more about his job in places such as Walt Disney World, Cape Cod, Key West, San Francisco and Branson, Mo., in the United States and in Brussels, Budapest and Vienna in Europe.

Newsom’s series was printed early in 2009 and I wrote in praise of the effort. Nothing changed as a result. Every commissioner is still a commissioner. The director, Butch Brown, is still the director, reconfirmed by the Mississippi Senate. But at least people know, if they care to know.

This year it has been Chris Joyner of The Clarion-Ledger who gathered records and told readers what they contained. To do this is to step away from daily events and offer longer-term information in perspective.

It’s not such a well-kept secret that Mississippi’s capital city has had management issues. There’s the story of the vehicles and equipment listed in the inventory, but no one could find. There’s the story of city-issued credit cards buying thousands upon thousands of gallons of fuel for cars and trucks other than those owned by the city.

Joyner’s reporting was along those lines. As did Newsom, he requested travel records. They revealed veteran Ward 3 Kenneth Stokes as the top spender, claiming about $9,000 in reimbursements during the past year.

As might be expected of a responsible journalist, Joyner wanted to ask Stokes what he learned or brought back from his travels that had proved informative to other council members or useful in city management. Instead, Joyner got a fax from City Hall on official Stokes’ letterhead inviting him to kiss the same anatomical area on Stokes that President Barack Obama intends to kick on somebody yet-to-be-named (as the presidential response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

As anyone who follows Jackson’s city council knows, Stokes is by far the most prideful and bombastic member with the least to be prideful and bombastic about. Apparently somebody told Stokes, who says he doesn’t read the newspaper, that Joyner’s coverage said Stokes claimed payment for trips he didn’t take. The stories didn’t say that, but that didn’t stop Stokes. He made a motion for the council to investigate or sue the newspaper. When that didn’t fly, he indicated he will be suing his fellow council members (and perhaps himself?) because his motion failed.

As many have pointed out, none of this will matter, either. Stokes is that type of politician — and they come in all colors — for whom being a victim is an asset. Never fear, he’ll tell his constituents, he’ll be their champion against the forces of evil — and they’ll believe him and elect him as long as he wants to “serve.”

There has been one reaction. The Jackson council says it will revisit travel policies and, perhaps, tighten up. Otherwise, Stokes and his antics are laughed off.

At times I’ve read about reporters becoming frustrated or even giving up after they shine the light on activities ranging from foolish to criminal and the public’s reaction is a collective sigh. The consensus is that something serious ought to happen when there’s a blockbuster discovery of mis- or malfeasance. But for a long, long time it’s been the journalist’s job to, among other things, champion those who have no voice and, when appropriate, be the small voice from the sidelines that points out the emperor has no clothes. The rest of governance is up to citizens. And they do make changes once they’ve had enough.

In the interim, Newsom, Joyner and those who undertake such efforts will have to be satisfied knowing they’re practicing journalism at its best.

Mr. Dooley would be proud.