The other day in the courthouse a woman asked me if I was "semiretired." I must have given her a blank look because then she said, "I mean, you don't get paid for writing The Dade Planet, do you?"
Retirement! It brings up two sensitive subjects: my age and my income. Why, I wondered, didn't she cover all the bases and ask me how much I weighed, and why I had no close friends? She must have realized she'd put her foot in it because she began talking rapidly about her own situation. "Personally, I keep working for the health insurance," she said.
Which of course is one of those statements that sets me off every time. It is beyond me why people don't riot in the streets at the way they've been literally enslaved by America's broken and corrupt health care system. I've known two people now who were killed by it. But instead of going into a spit-spraying rant--I simply ached to, but she didn't want to hear all that and neither do you--I realized my outrage had, anyway, provided me an explanation of The Planet to give her:
"I'm in it for the social justice."
That's a grandiose explanation for why anybody would run an independent newspaper that hasn't got a prayer of breaking even. I maintain, though, it's not quite as silly as a mission statement made by a financial adviser speaking at a local luncheon not that long ago: "I just like to help people. We require a minimum investment of $150,000."
I mean, liking to help people is simply not the same as liking to help people with a minimum of $150,000. But that's the way it is: Too much of everything is all about money. And that's precisely the issue that had gotten my social justice gland erect that day in the courthouse.
I hadn't gone there for social justice but for plain old news: A man who last Christmas was charged with murder was on the schedule for arraignment. But he couldn't be arraigned because he'd hired the law firm of Bobby Lee Cook, the legendary trial lawyer, to defend him, and Cook's daughter, Kristina Cook Connelly Graham, was the circuit judge on the bench that day. Also, Cook's grandson, C. Sutton Connelly, was listed as Street's attorney. "I can't hear this," said C. Sutton's mama from the bench. "He's my baby boy."
Pfft! There went my story. But having wasted the morning in any case I decided to sit there and see what else was on the docket. I like to observe our justice system at work from time to time. It always reminds me of a science fiction show.
The lawyers all dolled up in their suits with their educated voices seem like a different species from the blue-jeaned, T-shirted, bad-hair-day clients they represent or are prosecuting, much less the wretched orange-jumpsuited perps shuffling in from the jail in their ankle chains to cast themselves on the mercy of (species 3) the almighty judge. Then you've got (species 4) the enforcer race, the cops standing guard with weapons and electronics attached all over them like the Borg.
It is a fairly weird way to deliver justice, and that day it became clear: it doesn't. Toward the end of the session the judge heard the case of one of the orange jumpsuiters who'd been in jail since March for parole violation. He'd originally been arrested for less than an ounce of marijuana, but when police found a pistol in his vehicle they added the charge of possession of firearm while committing a crime. He pled guilty, got probation, and went home to his parents' house to serve it out.
His daddy was a gun nut, apparently, who had rifles dangling off the walls and pistols stacked in the hallway. Probation officials told the family all firearms had to be removed from common areas of the home. Accordingly our feller helped schlepp Daddy's guns to secure locations.
Then, during a house check, probation officials noticed a bullet on a dresser in the bedroom the probationer slept in. That triggered a more thorough search, and under beds they found two rifles and a shotgun. They were all unloaded and none of them matched the bullet on the dresser. But the probation people said they made our feller a felon in possession of firearms and they hauled him to the clink, where he's been ever since.
At the hearing last week, our defendant explained to the judge that he hadn't known any guns were under the bed, that it was his sister's old bedroom and still so clogged with her stuff and her children's toys he could barely get from the door to the bed. The public defender pointed out our feller had already been in jail for eight months--I counted nine--and begged the judge for mercy. The prosecutor argued, though, that the man had not only gone into the home knowing there were guns, he'd admitted touching them in order to move them. So the judge told our guy sternly, "You can't be around guns. You just can't," and sent him back to jail for three to four more months.
That, mind you, was the judge whose prestigious family firm was keeping the guy accused of murder out of jail, hell, out of Dade County courts, over a year after the victim had died, and I saw in court papers that any silly old restrictions on his probabation, like electronic monitoring or house arrest, had been removed in June.
Also please remember our felon in possession of firearms hadn't really been arrested for any crime related to firearms. What busted him was less than an ounce of a substance now being legalized in other states. Then what got him arrested for probation violation was not having the money to move out of his parents' house, and what will now end up keeping him in jail a whole year was not having the money to hire clever lawyers like the judge's family.
What is my point here? You need The Planet to tell you stuff like this.
I know! I know! I know I just reported the court story last week, I know I probably hit you over the head with it hard enough then, and I know righteous indignation makes me spit when I talk.
And I know a lot of what The Planet does is not social justice but Methodist Men's Luncheon stuff, cheerleading for local community events and reporting local government meetings boring enough to kill elephants. But I maintain that community events are important too, they're what makes us us; that locally is where we live life; that local goverment is the only kind we really get to participate in; and that boredom is a vital building block of democracy. I think you need The Planet to tell you about local institutions and local government, too.
And I know on top of that that you've got other news sources to cover those things for you. You could say, really, that Dade is eat up with local news outlets these days: not one but two print newspapers and another online newspaper attached to the radio and TV station in town.
Last year I would have argued that The Planet does a lot of things those other outlets don't do: News for one thing: I was covering water board when nobody else would get up early enough in the morning, for example, and nobody else covers IDA even now (probably because it's so hard to stay awake). I never see any of the other outlets in the courtroom for that matter.
And does anybody but The Planet give you feature stories? Investigative reporting?
Cooking columns? Gardening advice? Perspective on the local issues?
(You could argue The Planet is a mite generous on that one. But it's sometimes impossible to keep one's editorial voice from booming impatiently through when the local gummint is doing something particularly nutso--seriously, anything related to the alcohol question makes those boys act like they're the ones drinking--or when, as above, the justice system deals out injustice. )
(I would maintain, too, that readers do need some guidance to make sense of the news. Sometimes if you say the emperor wore no shirt, the emperor didn't have pants on, and the emperor was markedly sparing in the underwear department, you worry the reader will miss the overall point about the emperor's gallopin' nekkidity. So if The Planet sometimes seems to scream LOOK AT THE EMPEROR'S (BLEEP) HANGING OUT I apologize if it's ham-handed but I feel it's better than providing no perspective at all.)
This year, though, I won't make any of those arguments. I've reconciled myself that The Planet will probably be subsumed soon. One thing the other outlets all do better than I do is: make money. What I explained to the lady who asked if I got paid for writing The Planet was that I did sell ads, just--like the Saturday Night Live cat that could drive--not very well.
The Planet, anyway, has never been one of those things that are too much about money! At one point I hoped it would pay for itself but as the field has become more crowded even that seems like a pipe dream. So this past year I stopped actively trying to sell ads, though I still (gratefully!) accept advertising that walks in the door by itself.
What I've noticed is that I'm not much poorer this way--it would be hard to get much poorer than I was to begin with--but I have a little more time to write. And that, I've concluded, is what it's all about. I don't publish The Planet to make money. I enjoy saying, "I'm in it for social justice," but it's not just that, either. No one is claiming to be Mother Teresa here! I do it because I like doing it. I enjoy pointing out the emperor's dangling participle and screaming J'ACCUSE! at the courts. I can't help being interested in local politics. I love being the Local Press and have not managed to convince anybody else to pay me to do it, so I keep on being The Planet.
Again, it doesn't pay, the competition's stiff and I probably can't keep it up indefinitely, but I also can't sit out the coming local election year without self-combusting. So I have committed to keep reporting at least until the primaries in May. Would anybody like to help me? Well! There are Paypal buttons all over this rag!
I hate asking for money--this is my problem selling advertising BTW--but I need gas, beer and internet hosting fees like anybody else, so once a year I pull out the begging bowl. If you like what The Planet does, if you agree with me it is providing valuable information, I hope you will help me keep it in orbit. You can send a check to P.O. Box 173, Trenton, GA 30752, or click one of the Paypal buttons to donate by credit or debit card.
After tonight, I won't be publishing much until after the New Year. That, though, is not connected to this plea for cash, like a hoochy-coochy dancer refusing to strip until she gets enough money in her garters (enjoy that grisly image, Dear Reader, through the cold winter nights!). I just need a few days at the end of the year to reassess and recharge. I'll see you in January!
Until then, thanks for reading and merry Christmas from The Dade Planet!
--Robin Ford Wallace