Saturday, July 21, 2018

Twenty years ago today, I wrote the column that got me sued for $750 million and ended my newspaper career

It was 20 years ago today that I wrote the column that brought a premature end to my newspaper career.

Though it took another 10 months before Carthage Press Publisher Ralph Bush broke the news to me on a Monday morning that my days with the Press were over, the clock was ticking from the moment my column hit the streets.

My column was a defense of the people of Carthage and Southwest Missouri and aspersions that had been made in a Kansas City Star article that this area was filled with racists. I had no problem arguing with that contention two decades ago.

Now I wonder if my assumptions about the people I dealt with on an everyday basis were totally wrong.

I read comments every day from people who have no problem with slinging slurs at anyone whose skin color is a different shade from their own. I see them cheering on a leader who has made it clear he has no use for anyone who is African American or Hispanic.

Despite the evidence that I see before my eyes, I still refuse to believe that a majority of the people in this area are racist or filled with hate.

In other words, I stand behind what I wrote 20 years ago.

I have told the story before, but since I have a few thousand readers who were not here when I noted this anniversary in the past, I will tell it again.

An event somewhat erroneously named the American Heritage Festival was held the weekend of July 17, 18, and 19, at Red Oak II and the Precious Moments Convention Center in Carthage.

Despite its title, the event consisted mostly of speakers who were anti-government or attempting to sell books and supplies to deal with the upcoming Y2K crisis. One speaker claimed it was the American government that created the AIDS epidemic. Another claimed the CIA was responsible for distributing crack cocaine in inner-city areas in California. Oklahoma State Representative Charles Key accused the federal government of having prior knowledge of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Some booths at the festival sold racist literature, and how-to books on killing.

Most of the people who attended the American Heritage Festival were from the Kansas City/Liberty/Independence area, drawn to Carthage through bulk advertising to people who listened to shortwave radio programs originating from that area. At the time, Carthage native Terry Reed was looking for investors to help in the purchase of Red Oak II from artist Lowell Davis.

These were the people who made up the audience at the festival. Most of the crowd did not come from Joplin and Carthage, and it was not quite the crowd Reed anticipated.

On Saturday, July 18, speaker Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, who later ran as a vice presidential candidate on a ticket with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as the presidential candidate, closed his presentation with a dramatic flourish.

Gritz asked if anyone in the audience had a lighter. When one was brought to him, Gritz set a United Nations flag on fire, saying, "You embrace an unrighteous system, and you're going to end up a crispy critter."

The image of Gritz setting fire to the U. N. flag was captured for posterity by a Kansas City Star photographer who ran it, full color, on page one of the Star's Sunday edition. The article accompanying the photo featured glib commentary from a so-called expert who noted that southwest Missouri was full of racists.

I ran my response to that article on the opinion page of the Tuesday, July 21, Carthage Press, under the headline "Many appear to be excluded from our American heritage." This is what the column said:

A blanket of white descended last weekend over the rainbow quilt that is Carthage.

The American Heritage Festival brought with it many people who had well-considered, thought-provoking ideas. It also brought with it fringe elements who want to teach patriotic Americans the most efficient way to kill and who believe everything that happened in this country from the Oklahoma City bombing to Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series is a result of a government conspiracy.

There were the Nazi sympathizers and other white supremacists. There were people who believe Armageddon is just around the corner.

They were here Friday; they were here Saturday; and the nuts were also sprinkled on our Sunday.

Carthage has its problems, just like any other city its size. Sometimes those problems involve racism.

But this is a community that has welcomed the Vietnamese, including the more than 40,000 who come each year for the annual Marian Days observance.

This is a community that has welcomed a large influx of Hispanics who have come here trying to capture the American dream.

This is a community that has made giant strides in overcoming the problems that have existed between blacks and whites.

When racial incidents have occurred in Carthage, such as the infamous mistaken identity situation last year in which eight Carthage whites beat a Hispanic man they believed had raped a friend of theirs, even though the man believed to be the actual culprit was already in custody- it wasn't just the Hispanic community that was appalled by the overt racism. We were all appalled.

When there is so much to celebrate in Carthage...and in the is hard to understand how an event that calls itself the American Heritage Festival can be so blatantly one-sided in the part of the American Heritage it celebrates.

There are many, many problems with the United States government today, but let's face it, just how many governments allow the freedoms that permit an American Heritage Festival to take place?

We have freedom of speech. The First Amendment protects not only those who have a slight disagreement with our leaders, but those who advocate their violent overthrow. It also protects those who print manuals that give step-by-step instructions on how to maim, dismember, and kill.

This is a country that has always prided itself in allowing diverse viewpoints to be tolerated, heard, and on occasion transformed into movements that have changed the nation.

Thankfully, those ideas that have changed the nation have seldom been based on hate. The Susan B. Anthonys brought women the right to vote. A woman named Rosa Parks, by refusing to be shoved to the back of the bus, helped propel the civil rights movement. A convict named Clarence Gideon helped earn indigent defendants the right to counsel. The history books are filled with name after name of people whose ideas helped move the nation forward.

A number of people who participated in the American Heritage Festival in Carthage over the weekend have good ideas, ideas that could move this nation forward, but it's never going to happen as long as they align themselves with hate-filled profiteers who are willing to fan the flames of our greatest fears just to earn a few bucks.

The Nazi sympathizers and the white supremacists were here, side by side with the survivalists and those who see conspiracies behind every corner.

Those people were in Carthage.

Don't believe for one second that these people are Carthage.

Ten days after that column ran, the festival organizer Terry Reed, a Carthage native who wrote the best seller Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA, in which he wrote about an illegal drug running operation the Clintons were supposedly running out of a small airport in Mena, Arkansas sued me for $750 million and the Press for another $750 million.

We weren't the only ones who were sued. Reed also sued the Kansas City Star, Jasper County Sheriff Bill Pierce, 127th District State Rep. T. Mark Elliott, Recorder of Deeds Edie Swingle Neil, Presiding Commissioner Danny Hensley, Chief Deputy Jerry Neil, Captain Steve Weston of the Jasper County Sheriff's Department, reporters from the Star and KMBZ Radio in Kansas City and "other unnamed defendants."

I was the only one who lost my job. I was also the only one who had a judge toss out the lawsuit because everything I had written was clearly constitutionally-protected opinion, was labeled as such, and ran on the Press opinion page.

You would expect that with a $1.5 billion legal action filed against the Carthage Press that the Press would have contacted a lawyer. You would be wrong. I spoke by telephone two times to Bernie Rhodes, the Kansas City Star's attorney, who kept me advised about the lawsuit. After I received a letter with service papers, I asked Rhodes what my options were. He told me I could either return the documents or wait for Reed to serve me. If that happened, he added, The Press would have to pay a couple of hundred dollars.

I asked Publisher Ralph Bush what I should do. He said he would get back to me. Several days passed and the deadline was rapidly approaching to return the papers. On the last day, I walked into Ralph's office and again asked him what I should do. The Press still had not contacted a lawyer. Ralph told me to return the papers so we would not have to pay the money. That is what I did...and that cost me my job.

Thirty days passed, and the Press, which still had not bothered to contact a lawyer about a $1.5 billion lawsuit, even though Liberty Group Publishing CEO Kenneth Serota was a lawyer, did not file a response to the lawsuit.

At that time, I had no idea what was going on with the lawsuit. Ralph Bush wrote a rate publisher's column supporting me and the way The Press news staff had handled the American Heritage Festival. But something had changed by the next time Ralph called me into his office.

By not filing a response, we had left ourselves open to a summary judgment. Fortunately, it did not work out that way, but the judge in charge of the case gave Ken Serota a stern lecture about the stupidity of not consulting a lawyer. Serota ripped into Ralph Bush, and somehow during that conversation, Ralph never mentioned that he was the one who told me to send in the papers. He couldn't figure out why I had done that.

By hiring the lawyer, Liberty Group Publishing had to pay $10,000, the deductible on our libel insurance policy.

On the exact day the case was dismissed, I was fired.

I had already moved all of my possessions out of the building by that time, knowing it was coming. It didn't make it any easier.

Over the next few months, I was offered managing editor positions at Siloam Springs and Miami, but by that time I had learned that there might be an opportunity to finally use my teaching degree 18 years after I received it and I was hired to teach creative writing at Diamond Middle School.

I have never regretted writing that column though it ended a 22-year newspaper career. It led to 14 years as a classroom teacher, another job I loved (and then I wrote something else that got me in trouble.)

I don't know how well my 1998 column holds up now in the Trump era, but I still have faith in the people of this area. We did not deserve that Kansas City Star stereotype then and we don't deserve it now.


Anonymous said...

I think you were unjustly let go. I see nothing worth being sued over. I think you have been given an award.

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, Terry Reed was not a victim. He was in the Mena mess up to his eyeballs.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong if you think Trump is racists and if you think his followers are racist. I voted Trump and I have white, Hispanic & African American people in my family. So don't be stereotyping Trump voters as racist.

Randy said...

The evidence about Trump would indicate otherwise, but I am not stereotyping Trump voters as racist. However, many of the things Trump has said and done have encouraged people who are racist to make those views more public over the past two years. That has made me wonder if the percentage of racists in this area if far greater than I thought 20 years ago. I understand that there are people who like Trump because he says bad things about people they also dislike (liberals, the media), because they live in an area which is heavily Republican, or because they cannot stand Hillary Clinton. I would not categorize any of these groups of people as being racist.

Unknown said...

You can have Hispanic and black family members and be racist. Case in point: you. You might not be aware of your racism, but it makes it no less real or damaging.

maite said...

Ignorance is the main reason for racism. When learning and witnessing different people and their cultures, it becomes difficult to resent them.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt Trump is racist, as well as many of his supporters, including the white supremacists he supported in Charlottesville. But, there are many in the religious right that support him, that are not racist by definition, that boggles the mind. They understand he is racist, adulterous, mendacious, narcissistic, and has verifiably broken 9 of 10 Commandments, but choose to support him solely for conservative Justices on the Supreme Court and his newfound pro-life position. These people would have voted for Lucifer, had he supported a pro-life position. The GOP wants to defund Planned Parenthood, entitlement programs such as welfare, social security, healthcare, and Medicare/Medicaid and still this little corner of Missouri votes 70% Republican. The GOP claims 47% of the US population is on some sort of government assistance, which means 23% of these people are voting against their own interests. I couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton, but to vote for Trump because they also dislike liberals or the media is ignorant. Men died that we have the right to vote, to waste such on a vendetta against the establishment, liberals, or the media is only slightly less disgusting than Trump the racist-in-chief.

Anonymous said...

You bring up interesting points. I don’t know the statistics and I’m to lazy to research it, but it seems like the number of eligible voters who actually do vote is around half. (nationwide) I would speculate a majority of Republicans that do vote are not receiving any government subsidies with the exception of Medicare. The ones that work and pay taxes (and vote) to subsidize those who don’t work or vote, are sick of it. This has nothing to do with being racist or pro Trump. My point being, the majority of actual GOP voters aren’t shooting themselves in the foot, they would simply like to keep a larger part of their paycheck instead of standing in line at checkout behind someone spending their food stamp money on pop and junk food.

I agree with your point about wasting the sacrifices made by our military on voting for Trump simply to defeat Hillary. I would love to see news and discussions about that. What is it about her that inspired such loathing that people chose to vote for someone they didn’t particularly want?

Anonymous said...

@ 7:22

I think the number of Republicans that vote and receive Social Security and Medicare is greater than you think, which is not in their best interest, when the GOP wants to reduce payments to those programs. I have seen in SW Mo, the people that are blue collar, making just enough to disqualify them from entitlements, that cannot stand the government being in their lives and vote Republican for that reason. The GOP is pushing “Right to Work” laws that keep wages low to attract business because the GOP doesn’t care about these people, they care about big business. Do you recall after the tornado here, when the City of Joplin’s Republican leadership decided that businesses that paid property tax & sales tax could rebuild immediately, but homeowners that paid only property tax, and not sales tax also, had a 60 day moratorium on rebuilding. If you think welfare recipients are all people that don’t work or vote, you are wrong. If you & your wife are working for minimum wage, you will find it difficult to raise a family, pay rent, utilities, vehicle & insurance, food, etc...without some assistance. I do not begrudge these people using my tax dollars to provide their child sustenance. This country spends hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid per year, but not for our own citizens? There will always be grifters that con the system to get all they can, we have one that is currently the racist-in-chief.

Anonymous said...

I am an older than dirt white man. I am not particularly racist but I would not care to go walking in East St. Louis at three in the morning. I am not anti-gay but I do not care to live next door to a gay couple. I determined early in life that religion was fiction and now have over sixty years of perfect non-attendance at Church. I also determined that most of the people who professed to be Christians were self serving using religion for their own personal gain. I have also found that my best employees were Hispanic and that Hispanics were more likely to practice family values than the average white family I have known. Growing up my best friend was a Cherokee Indian and he had more street smarts than anyone else I have ever known. I have no problem with individuals of any race, gender, national culture or political bent but when they become groups, they become quite self serving. A long dead man that I respected but did not like once called the direction of this country "the politics of exclusion" meaning that as a collection of groups, Americans do not tolerate people who are different than them. We have perfected the art of gated communities to promote that exclusion. Are we racist, you damned right we are. Do we acknowledge that everyone has rights and need to be able to exercise those right. Well some of us do. If you think I am wrong just look at every political ad you see where the major point is to build the wall. That is simply an indicator of how racist this country has become.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what it is but you always seem to get caught out and evicted.

Maybe you just ain't as smart as you think you are.

Anonymous said...

I used to prefer the belief that, "Not everyone around here is like that." The thing is, people aren't monolithic anywhere, but we have a ridiculous proportion of racists in SW Mo. Wish it wasn't true, but it is.

dougjoyce said...

Someone needs to define racism? And how and when will it be over?