There's a phrase that gets bandied about a lot, sometimes in relation to journalism: Speaking truth to power. It describes the remarkable courage that one person -- maybe armed with little more than a notebook and a laptop -- can show in taking on a massive and often corrupt institution. But there's one thing that gets overlooked quite often, which is that despite the nobility of speaking truth to power, at the end of the day, power is still...power. That's especially true in Philadelphia, where a corrupt and contented system of political authority typically sits as judge and jury of its own official misconduct.
You can guess how that usually turns out.
Consider the case here in Philadelphia of young journalist Shannon McDonald (at top). Last year, McDonald was a student journalist at Temple University, working with the school's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab. Students in this program do what reporters for the city's larger news organizations aren't able to do as much as they used to -- thanks largely to the elimination of so many media jobs and other factors -- which is to hit the streets of some of the city's worst neighborhoods.
In McDonald's case, she wanted to report on crime in a difficult area not far from the Temple campus, and she pushed to ride the streets with a Philadelphia police officer. When she did that, McDonald was surprised at some of the statements that the young officer, William Thrasher, made -- especially when, according to her reporting, he described what happens in the neighborhood as "TNS," for "typical n----- s---." Her article caused an outcry -- it eventually filtered into the mainstream media and up to the top police brass, and Thrasher was fired from his job a year ago.
What happened next was all too predictable. The officer appealed his firing to an arbitrator. As described over the weekend in an Inquirer article, the arbitration case didn't center so much on the issue at hand -- the alleged misconduct by Thrasher -- as it became an assault by Thrasher's union-paid lawyer on the integrity on the integrity of the young journalist. McDonald was maligned by the arbitrator who made much of her decision not to turn over her notes -- something that no journalist would do unless forced to (which she was not). The officer is now reinstated.
The tragedy here is that anyone who lives or works in Philadelphia and has seen the rampant corruption that exists here in its civic institutions knows that we need an entire army of Shannon McDonalds -- but when one comes actually comes along, we allow the powerful to try to squash them like bugs...and few people even bother to make any kind of fuss about it.
Personally, I've never seen anywhere in the country where the establisment rallies around corrupt pols and law-enforcement types in Philadelphia -- including a govenor and former mayor in Ed Rendell who on several occasions has even taken to the witness stand to gush his support for officials charged with corruption, most recently for ex-state senator and multiple felon Vince Fumo. The bottom line is that politicians or police who abuse their authority in Philadelphia are rarely charged, when they are accused they are rarely punished, and in the few cases where a true insider like Fumo is actually convicted (in a federal court, outside of the local political machine) he will get a lighter sentence than is called for.
Yet amazingly, in spite of that, there are still people willing to speak truth to power in this town. You have certainly heard about the more high-profile case of two Daily News reporters, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, who took to the streets of a rugged neighborhood and reported allegations of wrongdoing in an elite narcotics unit. In their case, they won journalism's highest award, the Pulitizer Prize. Yet despite the accolades, it will not shock me if some or maybe all of the cops they wrote about get off scot-free, even officers whose alleged misdeeds were caught on videotape. That's the way things happen in Philadelphia.
And meanwhile there are also some professional journalists who are still afraid or unwilling to touch certain stories -- especially when the topic is police corruption. You may have seen the story this weekend about the Seattle officer who used an ethnic slur and kicked a young Latino detainee who, it turned out, had done nothing wrong. What you may not know is that a local Seattle TV station where the cameraman worked on a per diem basically actually refused to air the footage, and it finally saw the light of day elsewhere.
This all can make you very cynical, very fast, but the good news out of the latest developments is that Shannon McDonald is not giving up -- far from it. Instead, she is in her home community of Northeast Philadelphia working on a small journalism start-up venture called NEastPhilly.com, which aims to offer ground level reporting from a swath of the city that sometimes gets overlooked. There is a lot of anxiety -- for understandable reasons -- about the future of local journalism, not just in Philadelphia but in large cities from coast-to-coast; no one know what the solution is, but when it comes, it will come from dedicated young journalists reporting on own neighborhoods, like Shannon McDonald.
That's why it's critical that we pay no attention to those men behind the curtain of corruption.
Shannon McDonald wrote the truth as she saw it, and the verdict here is that she's a hero.