Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum

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I don’t know who first used the word “crickets” to describe human silence — especially the kind that speaks volumes — but newspaper reporters and editors know that sound well.

Reach out to a landlord accused of renter mistreatment. Crickets. Leave a voicemail with a company quietly leaving town after getting special tax incentives and promising to bring in 1,000 new jobs. Crickets. Try to get an interview with the local performer who suddenly made it big and now has an entourage. Crickets. Phone a public official accused of criminal wrongdoing. Locusts.

The Herald Journal newsroom has seen some epic examples of interview avoidance over the years.

Former reporter Kevin Opsahl emailed and called a USU professor at least a dozen times in 2018 after sexual-harassment allegations against him from former students prompted an investigation and public outcry. Met with only silence, Kevin finally went straight to the professor’s home, where people could be heard inside but no one would answer the door.

Kevin’s persistence wasn’t meant to harass the man; it was intended to bring balance to the newspaper’s reporting. Without talking to the accused party, The Herald Journal was at risk of coming off as unfair and one-sided. But also, this individual was put on sabbatical about the time the allegations first surfaced, which seemed like an intentional lay-low tactic by both him and his department. We didn’t want to be stymied so easily.

In another situation, I personally made five or six calls to a local business after one of its managers was convicted of stalking a former female intern and her college roommates. Try as I might, I could not get transferred to the owners on the phone or have my messages returned, but I’ll admit this wasn’t just an effort to get their side of the story but to also determine if the manager (a member of the owners’ family) was still in charge of interns.

The stalking victims made a special visit to the newspaper to express concern that other young women could be in danger, and we felt an obligation to follow up. It would have been easier to get a Russian oligarch on the phone.

Funny thing is, these same people reached out to the newspaper themselves some time later wanting coverage for a feel-good story involving their business. I have to be honest here and say my first inclination was to spike that story. Instead, I let someone else in the newsroom make the decision, and I believe the business got the positive “ink” they were looking for.

A trick every reporter learns after repeated failures like Kevin’s and mine is to be as casual as possible with the first person who answers the phone in any office. Don’t blurt out you are with the news media or you’ll set off alarm bells.

“Hello, is Gary in?”

“Sure, I’ll put you through to his office.”

Simple, right? But you can only pull that one off occasionally. Most public officials, power-brokers and assorted other dukes, duchesses and viscounts have diligent call screeners who are impossible to catch off guard. They simply must know who you are and what you are calling about before putting you through.

There’s another reporter trick for getting calls answered that I learned from an old-school editor years ago while working at the Wyoming Eagle newspaper in Cheyenne. I’ve never used it though. It’s too deceptive.

Stan Wyman started his career in the 1950s as a “copy boy” at a New York newspaper, where getting the scoop was a sometimes ruthless business. Though Stan crossed the line occasionally, he was a great mentor for me and other young reporters in Cheyenne, and we were all amazed one night that he managed to get the local police chief on the phone after our crime reporter was told the chief was unreachable.

It all started when we heard on the emergency scanner that a sexual assault had occurred on the grounds of the Wyoming State Capitol Building. This sounded pretty newsworthy, so a reporter called police dispatch for the details. Nothing doing. He was told there would be no statement from police, no officers were available to talk about it and the police chief was out of town.

“Give me that phone,” I remember Stan barking at the reporter, then snatching the receiver from his hand.

“Please answer one question,” he said to the dispatcher. “Can you confirm or deny that the assault involved the governor’s wife?”

Stan was put on hold, and a short time later he had the “unreachable” police chief on the other end of the line. No, the governor’s wife was not the victim of an assault at the Capitol, and there was never any reason to believe she was. Stan was just pulling a fast one — not telling a lie, exactly, but not playing it straight either.

Why the police didn’t want to talk initially, I have no idea. Some public officials routinely fend off all media inquiries whether there is anything to hide or not, whether the heat is on or not.

I phoned one local official last month to get some information and solicit an opinion related to coronavirus. I got a call back but not from the official. It was a public information officer. The PIO had the information I needed, but I wanted our readers to hear from the person in charge, not his people.

Next time maybe I’ll have my people get with his people. But wait, I don’t have any people.

Former USU President Stan Albrecht always made The Herald Journal go through his people on any matters related to the university, and that’s where the process both started and stopped. He simply would not speak directly with our reporters at all. A cricket replay loop.

Albrecht’s successor is much more accessible. I bet I could get Noelle Cockett on the phone with little trouble. You might be able to, too.

We’ve all heard the democratic axiom that nobody, not even the president, is above the law. Well I believe no public official or VIP should be above answering the phone.

Charlie McCollum is the managing editor of The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cmccollum@hjnews.com or 435-792-7220.

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