Old news comes and goes

By Michael Raffety

3-11-13

The Mountain Democrat will be moving into its new digs on Placerville Drive in April. I won’t say what week because that is always a shifting target. Part of getting ready for the move involves clearing out old stuff. In my case that means thinning out the clip files. I get the job because I’m the last person here who even added anything to the files. They totaled seven four-drawer file cabinets. All the clips were like a time capsule buried in the 1980s. I found only one or two clippings that even had a date of 1990.

A lot of these files were nonsensical — one-off events or obscure persons that will never appear in the news again. A lot were files on people whose obituaries we have already published. Some files I distributed to individuals in the newsroom to help them on their beats.

There was a whole file cabinet of EID clips from the 1970s and 1980s that were controversies of the past and no longer of use. I saved some key EID files for myself, but threw out all the economic interests stories that said the directors owned property such as their own house.

I have a well-organized file of clips that I keep of my coverage of EID for the past five years. Without that reference base I wouldn’t be able to write as knowledgeably about EID. There would be holes in my stories. But after looking at all the old EID stories, I have no doubt that a lot of my stories in 10-15 years will get sent to the round file. In fact, some of them may get pared down by me, such as election stories. After a certain period they are no longer of interest. Eventually even the rate increase stories will become too old to keep.

In the early 1980s there was a lot of outcry, meetings and hearings about PG&E rate increases. You dont’ hear much about that anymore.

The general outcome of going through the old files is that I pared them down from seven to two cabinets, with one cabinet for a special collection that I’m keeping until a certain judge dies. And I’m not talking about the judge that jailed the guy for making yellow snow.

I saved some files that I thought would make interesting columns and that includes my old Belltower columns from the 1980s. I used to do the “Book of Names column once a year. That was when Marshall Hospital sent us birth announcements. I had the features editor save all those names in a computer and then I would tally up the most popular names of the year and add in all the one-shot names in case a couple wanted to look for an uncommon name for their baby. I’m told that a lot of the popular names came from soap operas.

Speaking of judges, I came across this Belltower column from Feb. 2, 1987, that I like so much I thought I would reproduce and sumarize the pertinent part of it. When I wrote Belltower as a weekly column I always began with a quote and it often took me longer to find a good quote than it did to write the column sometimes. The headline was “Sometimes ‘news’ is not news — the difference between facts and opinions.” The introductory quote was“When it is not necessary to make a decision it is necessary not to make a decision. — Lord Falkland

“From time to time we pick up one of the nearby dailies or watch the TV news and find a story about our area that didn’t appear in the Mountain Democrat. Sometimes we just plain got scooped, but sometimes the ‘stories’ appear to have materialized out of thin air.

“One such story woven from threads taken straight from the emperor’s clothes appeared in a Sacramento paper last week alleging sexual prejudice on the part of one of the county’s Superior Court judges.

“The writer used the comments of one Sacramento-based woman attorney about this one judge to paint broad brush strokes across rural courts in general and pour the rest of the paint on the local judge in question. It is noteworthy that although the lawyer did not name the judge, the writer did so on the erroneous assumption that there is only one Superior Court judge in this county. There are three, although one bench is temporarily vacant.

“Whether or not there is any substance to the writer’s allegations, we are confronted with the questions: Do we do a story, calling the judge for a response to the other paper’s story? Do we poll women attorneys practicing in the county, getting quotes pro and con? We have already been informed that a number of women attorneys dispute the sexism charge against the judge.

“Moreover, we don’t have a trail of court transcripts for form a base on which to stack potentially adverse statements. Were we to react to the other paper’s story by doing a story ourselves, and if we talked to a woman attorney who felt unfairly treated by the judge, we would be obliged to ask that person to cite specific cases; then we would have to research each case, read the transcript, call the client, call the opposing attorney …

“Undoubtedly there may be a simpler way for our small staff to put together a balanced and fair story. We haven’t hit upon it, though. The fact remains that the other paper published a story based on very flimsy support. We’re not protecting the judge, but neither will we attack him based on mere rumor or coffee shop gossip. Our primary concern is the integrity of our news. The editing staff here decided that just because some other paper or TV station does a story  doesn’t make it news. If we get scooped on a legitimate news story, we’ll scramble to catch up. But if it’s not news you won’t read it in the Mountain Democrat.”

I don’t even remember what judge was the subject of this whole column. But I do know that we have taken on judges before when their conduct was questionable. And we have done that recently, as has our current publisher in his column. Some judges too easily can get fat-headed about themselves and it doesn’t take long for that to manifest itself. The 1987 sexism charge was not one of those cases. It was simply a red herring.

I always look to my grandfather as an example of how a judge should conduct himself. A justice of the peace in Baker, Ore., for 30 years or more until he lost an election at age of 80 something, he conducted himself at all times as someone who was friendly but honest to a fault, courteous and morally impeccable but not overly self-important. And my mother tells me, if he hadn’t come down with typhoid before she was born he would have been recruited by Major League Baseball. He later joined a semi-pro team, which won the Blue Mountain League Championship in 1910. The pennant hangs in our den.

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