May 3, 2016 by Tony Scott
Hero worship and community journalism
Being a journalist at a big city, metro daily newspaper must come with incredible challenges, no doubt about it. For years – decades, really – big city papers covering national and metro news have had to compete with the Internet and, eventually, social media, not to mention the 24-hour cable news cycle. But being a community journalist at a newspaper in a smaller city or small town comes with its own challenges, its own ethical dilemmas.
I’ve lived in the Kendall County, Ill. area since 1992 and I covered politics and local government (among a myriad of other things) as a full-time newspaper reporter there from the spring of 2000 until last summer, when the newspaper group I worked for was sold to another company. Between 1996 and 2000 I was an intern at the same newspaper group. I’ve since been freelancing as a journalist for a variety of publications, still covering the area.
I started my journalism career as Dennis Hastert ascended into one of the most powerful political positions in the United States, as Speaker of the House. I interviewed him several times, either in formal sit-down interviews or while covering events, and for the most part I found him to be friendly and willing to chat with a reporter from his local newspaper.
Denny was a hometown hero in Yorkville, first as a coach – Midwestern towns love their winning coaches – and then later as a politician. Even when he reached his political zenith, Denny could be found at the local grocery store or post office, a congressman with immense power making himself available to the people. I have to admit, as a journalist it was a source of pride knowing that the Speaker of the House would occasionally bound his way up the stairs at our small newspaper office in Yorkville to chat with the publisher, sometimes with a Secret Service agent following closely.
I also admit that dealing with someone as powerful as Hastert could be intimidating for someone who didn’t have much experience interviewing nationally known politicians. I clearly recall a moment in the late summer of 2006, getting a call from my contact at Hastert’s office, saying the Speaker was angry at me for a column I had written months earlier. The column wasn’t anything pointed or personal – just your average bitching-about-Congress rant – but something in the column pissed him off. This was inconvenient for me because at the time I was trying to secure an interview with Hastert on some issue, which I can’t recall right now. Anyway, after a bit of back and forth, he agreed to the interview and showed up to the office. He was ushered into the conference room and after I sat down across from him, he just glared at me above the rims of his glasses – he was a big, imposing guy and I could see how a younger person, a teenager, could be intimidated by him, especially a version of him that was 30 or 40 years younger. Then, after I turned the recorder on and asked my first question, he turned on his folksy charm and his “aw, shucks” persona.
But that’s just a peek of how small town politics works – you’re only allowed to challenge so much, only allowed to ask certain questions. Every once in a while, if you do cross that threshold, the glaze cracks and you see the broken facade. And like small town politics, small town Midwestern athletics are just as cliquish. The more I read about the allegations against (and now admissions of) Hastert, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he was able to get away with such horrible things.
Denny was an athletics coach, a winning athletics coach, in a town – like most Midwestern towns – where athletics are king. Later, he became a conservative Republican politician in an area where conservative Republican politics are religion. But before then, he was just a coach, but a coach who knew the local cops, the local prosecutors, and other people of authority. Not that any of those people would have ignored such horrible allegations, but if you were a teenage victim at the time, how comfortable would you be coming forward with such horrific allegations against someone so powerful, so beloved in your community? That is a question one must ask themselves when they question why the victims took so long to come forward.
Scott Cross, who showed incredible bravery and strength by telling his story in a federal courtroom during Hastert’s sentencing, kept that accusation to himself for decades while he watched his politically active brother Tom – who did not know of Scott’s abuse – be mentored by his abuser. According to reports, when Jolene Burdge’s late brother Steve Reinbolt told her about being abused at the hands of Hastert, she recalled asking her brother why he never told anyone. “And he just turned around and kind of looked at me and said, ‘Who is ever going to believe me?’”
Supposedly, Burdge approached several national media outlets about Hastert’s abuse 10 years ago following the Mark Foley scandal, and those outlets never followed up with her. Personally, I had never heard of Burdge until the ABC News story (that was linked above) came out in June of last year. I would like to think I would have followed up on such an accusation. Then again, it’s a serious charge against someone who was then the Speaker of the House and a powerful local politician, and if Burdge was unwilling to go on the record (which some reports indicate) and the abuse victim was deceased, it would have been a tough story to follow up on.
After all of this rambling, to take a line from the Coen Brothers’ film “Burn After Reading,” what did we learn? Well, at the very least, that it’s damned hard to be a community journalist when you can’t tell the heroes from the monsters. But you have to keep trying. It’s the least you can do.