Patricia "Pat" Ridling Harris, former managing editor of the Enterprise-Leader (April 19, 1943 - Oct. 25, 2018), respected journalist whose tough love balanced her competence and tact.
One afternoon when the Enterprise-Leader office was located on Southwinds Road in Farmington, Ark., Pat stepped outside in the alley to smoke and found herself witnessing a burglary in progress. A would-be thief had brazenly disconnected the air conditioning unit while it was running and was attempting to single-handedly load the unit into the bed of his pickup.
Thinking quick on her feet, Pat, who knew firsthand the trauma of being held hostage at gunpoint, phrased a question in a non-threatening tone inquiring if the man was repairing the unit.
Utilizing that manner of discretion accomplished two things: No. 1 it gave the burglar an out making it less likely he would attempt to harm a 70-year-old lady; and No. 2 it allowed Pat to make a fast exit when he replied, "Yes, I'm fixing it."
"Oh, they didn't call me about that," Pat said using another feint.
She then said something about checking with the main office to get a purchase order and promptly retreated into the safety of the building closing the back door behind her.
Pat promptly phoned both the police and company main office from whence authorizations for work done on the building originated, learning what she suspected all along - no such work order existed. The man was attempting a burglary in broad daylight.
In the days after that, the news staff checked on the air conditioning unit regularly, but the man never returned. Pat chided herself for not getting a license plate of the pickup the man was driving; reasoning, "We're journalists, we're supposed to be better than that."
Yet, in the midst of a potentially dangerous situation that took her by surprise, Pat resolved the matter in a professional fashion preserving what was most important -- her personal safety by diffusing rather than confronting the situation.
When officials with salaries paid by taxpayer dollars organized what should have been a public meeting without giving proper advance notification to the press, Pat called them on the carpet leveraging Freedom of Information laws.
From Pat's perspective journalists have a job to do. Duties of a free press combined with the public's right to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent fueled one of Pat's newsroom lectures.
"Journalists are not out to win popularity contests," she stated.
That was a principle she lived by and worked through in her writings even among modern society where vengeance is prevalent and some public officials choose to only believe in "Freedom of the Press" when it serves their purposes such as criticizing political opponents; but don't think those same standards should be applicable to them and their actions.
Pat had a heart for "special needs children." She championed their cause. When a family, who was getting stone-walled by a school, approached her regarding an incident involving one such child, Pat wrote what she described in her own words as "a blistering editorial." Pat's skillful awareness of the power of the press affected "public perception" and the community experienced progress.
Once Pat found herself salaried as the sole-surviving employee of a weekly small-town newspaper. She answered the phone, replied to recorded messages, received orders for advertisements, crafted community announcements, took and edited photos, wrote stories, headlines and photo cutlines, edited news content, plus designed pages, all skills she developed and refined over the course of a nearly 30-year career.
Hospitalized unexpectedly with the weekly publication deadline looming, Pat requested that her laptop be brought to her hospital room. A colleague, who worked in another division for another publication owned by the same parent company, delivered the laptop to Pat in the hospital.
Against her doctor's orders, Pat put out the entire newspaper from a hospital room. The community knew nothing of Pat's hospitalization or her efforts to make certain local news came out on time. To them, it was business as usual.
Not long afterwards, Pat reported on a controversy involving a city council meeting. A character assassination campaign ensued shifting blame towards Pat and the newspaper. Pat moved on and soon the newspaper was out of business.
"I learned a valuable lesson," Pat said describing the incident.
Yet, she stuck by her principles. Temptations to compromise journalistic integrity would tap Pat on the shoulder more than once in the twilight of her career. She never gave in.
Circumstances seem to vindicate her. A decade later, the community, which shunned "Freedom of the Press," is still without a newspaper. The local story goes undocumented. There are no sports, no graduations, no anniversaries, no birth announcements, no weddings, no engagements, no obituaries. If this is what the city council wanted, they've got it for the long term.
While I miss Pat, I rejoice knowing she had a relationship with God and is now basking in the divine presence -- free from sickness, disease, pain, heartache, worry, trauma or anything that troubled her during her lifetime on earth.
If I could write one thing on her tombstone it would be Psalm 9:4a (Living Bible), which declares, "You have vindicated me; you have endorsed my work, declaring from your throne that it is good."
MARK HUMPHREY IS A REPORTER FOR THE WASHINGTON COUNTY ENTERPRISE-LEADER. THE OPINIONS ARE HIS OWN.Editorial on 11/07/2018
Print Headline: Journalists Are Not Out To Win Popularity Contests