Newspapers are the 'court of last resort' for citizens who've run out of options | Opinion

Tonya Bell, 61, stands in front of her former Germantown home. She discovered one day that a con artist had declared her dead in a deed and taken ownership of her property; it was later flipped for $300,000.

When the Inquirer’s longtime executive editor Gene Roberts reflected on the importance of public service journalism, he often referred to the newspaper as “the court of last resort” – a place where people could air their grievances, the kind that were ignored, rationalized away or simply unknown to the public officials whose job it was to address them.

In that era, Roberts was referring to people like Robert “Reds” Wilkinson, who was coerced by homicide detectives into falsely confessing to a horrendous firebombing that killed five people in Feltonville or the homeless people who in the 1980s were just beginning to populate the sidewalks and back alleys of Center City. Wilkinson ended up convicted of murder and spent 18 months in prison before The Inquirer’s stories and the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s investigation led to his freedom.

These days, the subjects of our stories are often people like Tonya Bell, a Germantown woman, who is very much alive but was declared dead by an unknown miscreant and ended up losing the home, which she had painstakingly refurbished, through a series of bureaucratic bungles and negligence. Or an 87-year-old Korean War veteran, Donald Bustard, who enlisted the help of columnist Ronnie Polaneczky to solve the mystery of where to find the gravestone of an Army buddy, whose death in Pusan, Korea in 1951, had haunted him for decades. Or the courageous librarians of the McPherson Square Library  whose heroic interventions with Narcan — chronicled by columnist Mike Newall — saved the lives of heroin addicts camped out on the spacious ground of their workplace and galvanized city officials to finally take action.

In recent days, a confluence of events has reinforced the importance of Roberts’ words and why journalism – whether it’s intensively local community journalism or broad national and foreign coverage offered by news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post – matters so much in a democratic society. The core purpose of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press (along with other rights), is to ensure that citizens have the unfettered right to express their opinions about the qualifications of candidates for elected office and their performance once they’re in office.

From listening to President Trump at his rallies and reading his tweets, his antipathy toward news organizations – other than Fox News and a handful of other outlets that report uncritically on his words and actions – is unrelenting and personal. Early in his administration, he described the press as “the enemy of the people,” a phrase that evoked memories of Soviet Union leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, who exiled dissenters to the gulags of Siberia or had them executed. More recently, Trump has refined his description to label CNN, The Times, The Post and others who publish blunt assessments of the president’s misstatements and blatant lies as purveyors of “fake news.”

Which brings us to the events of June 28: A man who lost a libel suit and held a grudge against the Annapolis Capital and Gazette in Maryland, stormed into their newsroom with a pump-action shotgun, and killed five staffers. One of the dead was Rob Hiaasen, an editor and columnist whom I had worked with at The Baltimore Sun – a superb storyteller, a generous mentor to younger staffers and the kind of colleague whose presence enriched the lives of everyone around him. The Capital was the kind of news organization that focuses its attention on the issues that matter most to the lives of people who live and work in Annapolis, a town of 39,000, which is Maryland’s capital. In recent weeks, their website featured stories on discussions about safety in Anne Arundel County middle schools, homelessness in Annapolis and women’s club scholarships for local high school students.

Two days after the killings at The Capital, the Inquirer’s front page featured the richly detailed story by Craig McCoy, recounting the plight of Ms. Bell, whose home on Greene Street in Germantown was literally stolen from her after she was falsely declared dead. Ms. Bell had contacted four public agencies to enlist their help: the City Records Department, the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Police Department. In each case, as she told me last week, she was rebuffed. McCoy, she said, “was the only one who really helped me … We have a long history with the Inquirer. We believe in newspapers.”

Whether Tonya Bell will ever be reimbursed for the $75,000 she invested in rehabilitating her Greene Street home is still uncertain. She’s considering hiring an attorney to determine if she has a viable case. But one thing is certain: When Ms. Bell appealed to the “court of last resort,” an experienced journalist listened carefully and wrote a story, which was thorough, factual and fair. Most importantly, it alerted Philadelphia’s public officials about glaring gaps in how they perform their jobs for the citizens like Ms. Bell, who pay their salaries.

William K. Marimow, who received two Pulitzer Prizes as a staff writer at the Inquirer, is the vice president of strategic development for the Inquirer’s parent company, Philadelphia Media Network.