Teri Orr: Anonymous will be protected
Of all the relationships in my life — being a journalist has lasted the longest. I know about protecting a source and printing a controversial piece and when not to exploit a situation for the sake of a quick headline. This week, all the news about the news reminded me about the choices every journalist has to choose between.
It started with a single class in my freshman year of college. I was 19 and engaged to be married in June to my high school sweetheart — who was also attending the same college. I can’t remember the exact name of the journalism class but the professor had recently arrived after being the editor of Reader’s Digest. The year was 1970. Our assignment had something to do with tying a current work of literature or film to a news story. I chose the film “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” and I tied it to the Vietnam War. The professor more than gave me an A — he chose me and my work to attend a competition. I was over the moon. My fiance — not so much. He told me the professor had a crush on me. He had read my paper and it really wasn’t very good, it was in fact, rather unAmerican. He forbid me to attend. I wanted very much to please my almost husband and though I was very, very sad to not be representing the university, I backed out.
Years later when I left the abusive marriage and was a single parent, I moved here to start over. I had a retail background and a desire to write. So I folded sweaters in a ski shop and I submitted a version of this column to the eight-page newspaper. They agreed to pay me — $10 a month. I was hooked. I became a reporter and photographer and after about eight years, the editor. Back then lots of us came to journalism in circuitous routes. There wasn’t always formal training. But I learned early on there were some unbreakable rules. You spoke truth to power and you never revealed a confidential source. In fact, you were willing to go to jail for protecting a source. Which I nearly did. Twice.
There was also something else we did here when tabloid journalism was getting legs, especially in ski towns like Aspen. We left the wildlife alone. If you were any kind of celebrity and you came to Park City to have “down time” we did not ask to interview you and we did not take your picture. If you were here for a PGA golf tournament or a Celebrity Ski Classic — you were fair game during the events — that came with your job to help a charity. If you came to Main Street for dinner — like Robert Redford did often — then we left you alone. So that night I came upon Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields having dinner at the DownUnder of the Claimjumper, I didn’t run to my car and grab my camera. I went the bar and had a drink with a friend who was oblivious to the romantic dinner taking place behind us.
In the mid ’80s I covered a high-profile drug/murder case for the Salt Lake Tribune. It involved international drug dealing and distribution that took place in Park City for five states in the Intermountain West and California and Florida. There was one murder that triggered the case but at least two more possibly tied to it. The murderer/dealer was a young man about my age — very smart and handsome, as criminals can be. After his trial in Coalville and before his transfer to Point of the Mountain prison I was granted an interview with him, locked is his cell, along with my tape recorder. No, it wasn’t smart — he had nothing to lose and it didn’t occur to me until the police chief pointed it out to me later — he could have taken me hostage. I was smitten by the access and the story — which he gave to me with certain caveats about other cases that were not for publication only edification. I wrote a three-part series and won some awards.
A few years later he was granted a retrial on a technicality. The prosecution demanded I turn my tapes over to them. I refused. They threatened to jail me to get them. I went to a trusted friend who was willing to take the tapes to his home in the Bahamas. He challenged me on my motives. Do you have a moral dilemma or an ethical one? I confessed I wasn’t certain the difference. He said the ethical dilemma would be about revealing my information because I had promised my source (albeit a murderer) I would not. The moral dilemma would be — did I have information that could lead to a conviction of other murders and bring relief to those families. He didn’t care personally, mind you. He was going to take my tapes, He wanted me to consider it all. I had a dark night of the soul and came to the conclusion I only had an ethical dilemma — so I kept the tapes in a safety deposit box where they still live. The drug dealer is living in prison in Texas now for life.
When I was editor of this paper in the ’90s a city employee came to me in confidence to report collusion and the possibility a historic structure being taken down illegally in the dark of the night. That employee(s) wanted to draft a letter to the editor and wanted us to publish it anonymously. We spent weeks researching their story before we took the bold step of printing the letter. City officials demanded to know the identity or identities of the writer. I never divulged them to my publisher or anyone else. A case was brought forth, the city manager was read his rights and then the case became one of errors. No one was ever prosecuted. I have never revealed the writer(s) of that letter. Nor would I.
And that’s the thing about the unwritten code in journalism — you never reveal your source. You are willing to go to jail to protect it. But you have never taken any oath to do that. There is no ceremony where you swear allegiance to protect and serve and go to jail. We all just agree to do that. So will we learn the identity of this week’s letter writer from the White House? Probably, in time, as we did with Deep Throat from the Watergate era — but only if the player chooses to confess. The New York Times certainly won’t. They have both an ethical and moral duty in this case to protect their source.
Underpaid, under appreciated, under resourced, working journalists since the time of Hamilton have been protected by the First Amendment — Freedom of the Press. And sometimes being “in the room where it happens” means you can never talk about it. Not ever. Not even on a Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“I’ve been writing in this space for over 30 years now, and in all that time, there has never been occasion to write these words: He was beaten senseless by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk.”