Pushing through the clutter of Web comments is often like slogging in a bog full of sphagnum moss and peat.
It’s often ugly, dirty and smelly. But those who really know about bogs know they are an essential part of the ecosystem. We learn how the world works when we enter them.
So I’m always knee-deep in the stuff. And last week was no exception when I wrote two columns on the resignation of former Vancouver State Rep. Jim Jacks.
About a month ago, the Democrat suddenly resigned. And notwithstanding a brief comment saying he was resigning for personal reasons, he just vanished.
Then last week Jacks returned a phone call I made to him. That call resulted in my writing about Jacks’ saying he was an alcoholic, he was out of rehab, he is doing better and enjoying being sober.
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A few days before my discussion with Jacks I asked an attorney friend of mine — outside of Vancouver — if there was any way to locate a paper trail on Jacks. Unlike most public agencies, the state Legislature conveniently shuts its doors on some public records. He said it wasn’t likely.
During that conversation, a philosophical discussion broke out after I said Jacks likely had an alcohol abuse problem.
“Well, if that’s all you can confirm, would you still do a story on it?” he asked.
To me the answer was simple. We would. But his asking the question confirmed what we already knew: Some readers would object.
In other words, if we can’t find something improper or illegal, let him be.
I respectfully disagree. A public official’s life is public and even when he resigns to become a private citizen, that person is still a public figure. And — my view — he has an obligation to speak to the community that elected him.
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Part of my conversation with Jacks spoke to this issue of his “obligation.” And it’s important to note that Jacks also agreed he needed to speak to the public. Sure, he had many folks advising him against it. But to his credit, he did the right thing. He spoke.
But when we reported it, the roof sort of came off.
“This column (on Jacks) is about as low as you’ve sunk in some time Lou.”
“Lou, two thumbs down, what a disappointment.”
Still, we had supporters:
“Words fail me. But then, I’m not a writer. You, on the other hand, could have a future as a writer. Your column was unique, heartbreaking and poignant. Way to go.”
Then there were those — despite our bringing this news to light — who felt we didn’t do enough:
“The whitewash of Jim Jacks is on.”
But mostly our community reached out to Jacks for being brave enough to go public:
“I cannot help but think (The Columbian) has done a service for the community by helping us understand the forces behind Jacks’ resignation. I believe they’ve helped Mr. Jacks by providing him a forum … to bring closure to the public aspect of his struggle.”
But one of my favorite comments came from a former Columbian news staffer who left a few years ago after a very rocky road here.
“I’m guessing you are surprised to hear from me but I just wanted to let you know that the past two columns you’ve written on Rep. Jacks were amazing.
“I know that addictions can be very disruptive and what he is doing takes tremendous courage.”
So don’t be afraid of the bog. Newspapers — and those who comment on what we do — can both bring you news and bring a community together. I’m hoping we did both in this case.
Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.