Departing Observer editor: Journalism’s power is being the voice for the voiceless

“Cruelest Cuts,” an Observer series in 2008, told of immigrants abused on the job within the state’s poultry industry.
“Cruelest Cuts,” an Observer series in 2008, told of immigrants abused on the job within the state’s poultry industry. Staff Photographer

On my final day as editor of the Charlotte Observer, it’s worth noting what sold me on a career in journalism. It started with a single phone call I answered nearly 40 years ago.

I was only a few months out of college, a rookie reporter working at my desk at the Fayetteville Observer. An anxious man on the other end of the line wouldn’t identify himself. He said he’d read my stories about the deaths of a number of soldiers whose parachutes had become entangled over drop zones at Fort Bragg.

It bothered him that the Army had explained their deaths as merely an accident. Combat training is dangerous, an Army spokesman had told me for my stories. It’s inevitable that people sometimes are hurt or killed.

Don’t believe it, the anonymous caller said. These soldiers died after a general insisted on the use of a parachute prone to entanglements during mass jumps. What’s more, the plan is to continue using that parachute. More soldiers could die.

How can I confirm this, I asked? You won’t even tell me your name. No, he said, it could cost me my job. But I can tell you what documents you need to prove it.

He was very specific. And so was I when I followed the directions in my media law textbook to file a public records request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. It seemed like a longshot, but off went the request to Fort Bragg.

A few weeks later, a mail clerk sat several boxes on my desk. They were filled with technical documents. Not from Fort Bragg, but from the Pentagon. My anonymous tipster called again, and this time helped me sort through hundreds of pages until I had the story.

My editors stripped it across the top of the front page. Not long after, the command structure that had ignored the warnings of its own safety inspectors was forced to change course, and the Army revised its training manual to prevent such incidents from ever happening again.

The impact of that story astounded me. I knew little about the Army, even less about jumping out of airplanes. But I managed somehow to be the voice for someone desperate to be heard. Together, we very likely saved lives. I was hooked. What more could someone ask for in a career?

As it turned out, a journalist’s work is all that and more. We introduce, explain, facilitate, inform, educate, even entertain. It’s all fascinating and, at times, incredibly exciting in offbeat ways. On Election Night, for example, most ex-journalists would gladly change places with those inside a buzzing newsroom, tracking returns and eating cold pizza.

But now, as I prepare to retire from the Charlotte Observer, I am still most in awe of journalism’s raw power to be that voice for the voiceless. It’s a miraculous form of public service, and I have to think it is exactly what our nation’s founders had in mind when they insisted on a free and independent press. A press that reports to no one but you.

I lift up this ideal now because it’s so easy to overlook in today’s contentious media environment. The public is increasingly skeptical, even cynical, about the motives of anyone who purports to deliver “news,” and for good reason. The fact is that many pseudo-journalists are actually trafficking in spin, propaganda and outright lies. If it’s truth you want, it has never been more important to first establish the credibility of your news sources.

We’re hardly perfect at the Observer, but I count it as an honor to have worked with journalists who set out each day to report as objectively and honestly as possible. Their charge is to bring you the truth. Very often, that begins by talking to someone who needs a voice.

Perhaps at times that’s been you, or at least someone like you. Say, a voter who was handed a mic by a reporter and invited to ask a candidate a question. The Observer pioneered voter-driven coverage in the 1990s. Then, it was controversial. Now, it’s common journalistic practice.

We took the same approach to find solutions to problems facing inner-city neighborhoods. Residents who had long been ignored got the opportunity to tell Charlotte in their own words what was wrong, and what they needed. That led to a ground-breaking, 18-month series called “Taking Back our Neighborhoods.” In response, police shut down drug houses, schools mended broken ties with neighbors, the city improved services and crime rates declined.

Our newsroom staff is smaller now, but we’ve maintained our team of investigative reporters. Nearly always, their stories center on people struggling to be heard:

First-time home buyers misled about the terms of home mortgages (“Sold a Nightmare,” 2007), immigrants abused on the job within the state’s poultry industry (“Cruelest Cuts,” 2008), poor patients struggling to pay bills from nonprofit hospitals (“Prognosis: Profits,” 2012), families in crisis because medical examiners wrongly ruled on a loved one’s cause of death (“Fatally Flawed,” 2014), members of North Carolina’s LGBTQ community harassed and violently attacked (“Permission to Hate,” 2016).

Those were extended projects, but the work goes on daily. As I write, reporter Fred Clasen-Kelly is unraveling how Mecklenburg County’s public health clinics missed notifying nearly 200 women about abnormal Pap smears. Reporter Rick Rothacker is giving voice to residents who saw their yards and neighborhoods ripped up with the installation of Google Fiber.

For whatever reason, the people in many of these stories didn’t get what they needed from authorities. Then they found us, or we found them. That’s how the press came to be called “the court of last resort.” Only, they weren’t really appealing to us. They were appealing to you.

I sincerely thank you for hearing them, and for continuing to support the work of these dedicated journalists. I will sorely miss our times together, but I take great comfort in knowing that, because of you, this court will still be open.

Reach Rick Thames at rthames54@gmail.com, Twitter @rthames.

Also retiring

▪ Karen Garloch, medical reporter. Worked for Observer 30 years, been a journalist 44 years. “I am grateful for the chance to write about health and medicine for this superb newspaper. I’ll miss my colleagues, my sources in the Charlotte health-care community and the many readers who have let me know how much they enjoy my work (or not!).”

▪ David Scott, sports reporter. Worked for Observer 38 years, been a journalist for 39 years. “I’ve done a bit of everything around the newsroom . . . I have covered the Super Bowl, Final Four, the Masters, US Open, women’s World Cup, Daytona 500. . . What I’ve enjoyed most is writing about the people, teams and issues right here in our backyard.”

▪ Mark Washburn, news reporter/columnist. Worked for Observer 18 years, been a journalist for 45 years. “I’ve been sent on adventures from San Francisco to Iraq ... Every morning I couldn’t wait to get on the elevator just to see where I might end up that night. I shall miss it so.”