During my second stint as editor of The Newton County News, sometime early in 1982, I decided to write about the serious drug problems in Granby and in the East Newton R-6 School District.
I took a poll of parents, students, teachers, and district patrons asking how serious they thought the problem was. I expected the results would be shocking. They were even more shocking than I had anticipated.
People told me of drug dealers working the streets of Granby in broad daylight. When it came to East Newton students, the near consensus had it that nearly 60 percent had tried marijuana, the drug of choice at that time. Those taking the poll estimated that more than 90 percent had tried alcohol.
When my poll and the editorial that went with it hit the streets, it set off a firestorm. Apparently, the Granby Police began putting the heat on the dealers and they didn't like it a bit.
One night as I returned from covering a Granby City Council meeting, four young men were waiting in the alley by the Newton County News building. Two of them had baseball bats. One had a knife. The other one may have had a weapon, but I never saw it.
They let me know in no uncertain terms that they were not thrilled with what I had written (though it appeared none of them had actually read it). They were being hassled and they wanted it to stop. One of them said, "We're going to teach you a lesson." They were vicious, but they weren't very original.
Before they could begin supplying me with an education, I began talking quickly. The pressure wouldn't last for long, I said. The police were just putting on a show for the benefit of the public. I told them if the heat didn't die down in a few days, come on back down and they could beat me up.
As hard to believe as I find it now, looking back on that not so fond memory, they bought it and let me go. Sure enough, the pressure on the dealers didn't last long and it was business as usual on the streets of Granby within about two weeks.
My problems were far from over, however. When I made my rounds at East Newton High School the next week, I was told to leave. I wasn't welcome any more because I "was out to get the school." That wasn't true, of course. I had used considerable news space covering the positive things that went on in all three district school buildings.
The ban didn't last more than a few days, but my job didn't last much longer. The next week, high school officials took their own poll which indicated that only one percent of the students had ever used marijuana, while not more than 10 percent had ever even touched a drop of alcohol.
At the time, I had a cartoonist at the Newton County News named Scott White. His next (and final) cartoon showed two angelic-looking high school students (complete with halos over their heads) carrying ballots to a ballot box marked "drug poll." His caption read, "First Annual East Newton Naivity Pageant." Within two weeks, I was unemployed, though it was more because I wasn't very good at selling advertising (another part of the job) than because of my controversial writings.
As I discovered in later years, it didn't take a full-scale drug scandal to get on the wrong side of school officials. When I was at The Carthage Press, I made my rounds at an area school one Monday and discovered I was persona non grata. I had just completed running a series based on the school district reports cards that each district has to release by Dec. 1 each year. The articles had no commentary. I merely released just the basic information that each school had released.
One particular school had put its report card in its school calendar, a novel approach. I used just the information in the calendar. When I arrived at the high school, believe it or not, I was called into the principal's office (a place I was very familiar with from my days attending East Newton High School). The principal and the school newspaper advisor immediately began criticizing my lack of journalistic ethics. How could I write these stories, which mentioned the high school's low test scores without checking with them for a response?
I pointed out I was just using the information they had supplied. If they had put more information in the calendar I would have put it in my articles. Why didn't you do that, I asked.
"Nobody reads those things," the principal said. "Everybody sees it when it's in the paper." I probably should have been flattered.
Public officials like to have control over what information goes to the public. That's only natural. In this day and age, when new forms of media are starting all the time, it is harder and harder for these control freaks to limit the message that gets out to what they want it to say.
Web logs like this one and public message boards like www.neoshoforums.com and www.lamarmo.com, to name just two, offer the public new sources of information that have never been available before. The days of the public receiving only the information public officials and their carefully cultivated media friends supply are long since over.
I was reminded of that over the weekend when I read an item on Neosho Forums about their new site, www.neoshoschools.com It was mentioned that Neosho Superintendent Mark Mitchell will probably do his best to stop the site. That may be right. Any time you allow the public to have its say, some of them are going to say something that's going to hit you the wrong way. If a negative situation develops, you can't hide it by just keeping it away from the television stations and the daily newspaper as you could in the past.
Diamond R-4 Superintendent Mark Mayo tried that last year with Diamond Forums, claiming he never read what was posted on the site, while all the while he was threatening lawsuits and complaining about the content of the posts.
When Diamond Forums vanished, Mayo still had to contend with my Diamond school website, www.wildcatcentral.com , regular mentions on Neosho Forums and the oldest and still most potent of information sources...the community grapevine.
Mayo has tried to combat sources which don't agree with his company line by decrying them, threatening them (it is no secret that he attempted last year to have me fired from South, claiming with not one shred of evidence that I had to be shirking my duty toward the Joplin R-8 School District, because I kept publishing new information on Wildcat Central.), and using his own website, www.diamondwildcats.org to spread his carefully-tailored self-serving propaganda.
It is good that Mayo has this outlet. Maybe Mark Mitchell will develop a similar one at Neosho. The public should be able to receive information from a number of sources and be able to weigh the validity of those sources.
Thankfully, the day of small-town school, city, county officials and others totally manipulating the media to serve their own purposes is over. They may be able to do it with the traditional media (and most of the time do), but the public has access to other sources of information...and the willingness to use them.