By Joey Kennedy
The movie Spotlight focuses on an investigative reporter team from The Boston Globe that exposed the Catholic Church’s priests who preyed on young children, boys and girls, throughout the early 1980s and 1990s. The team from The Globe published their findings in 2002. Many priests in Boston had sexually abused hundreds of children. The movie is amazing and nostalgic. This is what we, journalists, are all about, I thought, as I watched the big screen; this is what we used to do. What we used to be. Before today. Before now. Before money, not stories, got in the way.
The Boston Globe team uncovered a scandal in the Catholic Church that may never have seen light if not for these brave reporters’ work. Journalism on that level is a hard day. If you’re in Boston going after the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a hard day. The investigative team that focused on the Church had to use devices we use all the time in good journalism. They threatened. They became personally involved.
A year ago this month, I was fired after more than 33 years at The Birmingham News (now Alabama Media Group).
What has happened to journalism? In Birmingham, at least, what has happened is that journalism is dead. It died when Alabama Media Group took over. There are no real journalists in charge there anymore. And my firing, last Feb. 20, underscores that.
I was fired for “threatening” my sources and for becoming “too personally involved” with my stories. That’s nothing new. I always “threatened” my sources, throughout my 40-plus years as a journalist. If you were working on a story and a source wouldn’t respond, you’d always tell him that the story was going to be written, with or without his response. That’s a “threat.” Or maybe, as in my case, you had a source who was going to put out a different and inaccurate view of a subject on social media, and you might “threaten” to tell the real story if she did so.
As far as being “too personally involved,” that’s what we do. As an advocacy journalist, one who writes what he believes as a matter of course, yes, we become “too personally involved,” because that’s what a story calls for.
We are not robots. We are people. People who care, people who live in the communities we cover. People who know they are alive and living in a real place. Objective journalism? It does not exist, no matter what someone tries to tell you.
The problem for me at the News was that management was divorced from journalism and what that means. I am not objective and have never pretended to be so. I am personally involved in the issues I write about. And I will “threaten” a source with what I know, if that source is not going to cooperate with my journalism. In days past, that was good journalism. In today’s world, it’s a reason to fire an exemplary employee who is doing his job in an exemplary way.
When did the rules change? I think they changed when companies like Alabama Media Group needed to cut salaries. When AMG, for whatever reason, felt it needed to destroy journalism in Birmingham. It started by laying off 60 percent of the journalists at the News in 2012. These were the best journalists in Alabama. And AMG continued, year after year, by laying off (“firing”) journalists. And then pretended they were doing it for “better journalism.” What hogwash.
I had some awful, dark days after I was fired by AMG. I mean: Really. Dark. Days. I wasn’t given a sweetheart package to tide me over. I was initially fired without any severance. I protested and was given a paltry severance. I quickly got my personal home defense weapon (gun) out of our house. I went into a deep depression and into therapy. My identity, though I didn’t want it to be, revolved around the News. I was devastated. The great portion of my professional career was tied to the News. The paper promised to take care of me if I did my job. Then broke that promise when I’d already dedicated my life to the paper.
Frankly, I was scammed, as was my wife (laid off—fired—after 27 years). Friends, including Joe O’Donnell, the publisher of this magazine, surrounded me with encouragement and support. I wanted to be dead, but they saved my life.
I know now that The Birmingham News, what it has become, is not my identity. I am my identity. I am free. That the newspaper, after it fired me, used me to sell subscriptions in an unscrupulous manner, or that the newspaper republished my team’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series without credit a week after it fired me, or that the company’s magazine wanted to use my material for its own benefit later, was just an indication of how the “new” journalism works. Or, better, doesn’t work.
It’s cruel. And unforgiving. And stupid.
My best memories from my long career are from The Birmingham News. My worst memories are from my two years with Alabama Media Group. Those two years were horrible, mixed daily with wondering who was going to be fired next. Eventually, it gets to you. And it did. And it will. For “threatening” sources, and for becoming “too personally involved” in your stories. For whatever reason they can trump up. Mostly, for not enough “clicks.” Unlike the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe that spent months—hell, more than a year—tracking down a story that remains important to this day.
I came close to tears as I watched Spotlight. This is what we used to do, what we used to be, I thought. This is what journalism is about. This is how the News editorial board won a Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for two more.
Today, as I watch what’s not being covered by the print (and online) media in Birmingham, I mourn. There is a vacuum. It can’t be filled. As much as Weld and BirminghamWatch and others try to do it, it can’t be filled. The brand for Birmingham was The Birmingham News. That brand, sadly, is dead.
Ask your neighbors if they think Alabama Media Group is doing good journalism. You’ll get the same answer I get: No! Nobody I’ve talked to outside Alabama Media Group believes that what it’s doing is good for journalism in the city. Nobody. Not one person. There’s no spotlight there, but there should be.
I was fired a year ago this month. Because I “threatened” sources and I was “too personally involved” with my stories. But that’s how real journalism works. You threaten. You care.
And I’m not going to apologize for that. Ever.