Most reporters aspire to superlatives like “dogged,” “tenacious,” and “persistent.” In Calumet City, Illinois, such traits are seen by some as a liability. In fact, they can you ticketed. That’s what happened recently to Daily Southtown reporter Hank Sanders, who was cited for “interference/hampering of city employees” after sending 14 emails over a nine-day span to a handful of city officials seeking comment about flooding in the small town.
Sanders had previously reported that outside consultants told Calumet City officials that their stormwater infrastructure was in poor condition prior to historic flooding that occurred in September. Subsequently, Sanders continued his efforts to get to the bottom of the story – which apparently did not sit well with city officials like Mayor Thaddeus Jones, who was listed as a complainant on Sanders’ citation.
Likewise, Sanders’ persecution at the hands of smalltown city officials didn’t sit well with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune (which shares a parent company with the Daily Southtown). In an editorial, they called the city’s behavior “clownish.” Executive editor Mitch Pugh went a bit further:
“[Calumet City’s actions] represent a continued assault on journalists who, like Hank, are guilty of nothing more than engaging in the practice of journalism. From places like Alabama to Kansas to Illinois, it appears public officials have become emboldened to take actions that our society once viewed as un-American. Unfortunately, in our current political climate, uneducated buffoonery has become a virtue, not a liability, but the Tribune will vigorously stand up for Hank’s right to do his job.”
There is no room to be dismissive of this event. It is yet another recent example in a worrying trend in small-town America where power-drunk officials attempt to punish reporters for committing the act of journalism.
One instance to which Pugh refers we recently wrote about: a small town publisher and reporter were arrested in Alabama for reporting on a grand jury leak about the alleged mishandling of COVID relief funds in a local school district. The other we wrote about in August – police in Kansas raided the Marion County Record in an effort to track down an informant who revealed information about a local restauranteur’s DUI.
In that instance, the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner died a day after her home was raided.
The Calumet City controversy has a happier ending. On Nov. 6, the city attorney – who seems roundly embarrassed by the whole ordeal – sent a letter to Tribune lawyers dropping the citation. And the Tribune itself seems to be enjoying a deserved bout of schadenfreude over the city’s capitulation. The trend line, however, is declining respect for the First Amendment and a free press. Reporters must feel free to pursue stories of public interest without fear of reprisal.
Sanders himself perhaps put it best: “I will continue to be reaching out to the correct department or employee for comment when I want a comment from that department or employee. To do otherwise is unethical.”