Why journalism matters – for the little guy who has nowhere else to turn

By Lee Coppola

His bib overalls were stained with oil, as were his fingers. His breath, at 11 o’clock in the morning, had a hint of alcohol.

He was an over-the-road truck driver and he had just returned home to learn his son was in a coma and near death and that his ex-wife was ready to pull the plug on his life.

His teenaged son had been caught burglarizing a store. Taken to the Erie County Holding Center, he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. He was rushed to then Columbus Hospital in a coma, where he was under guard by a sheriff’s deputy.

The truck driver rushed to the hospital but his ex-wife, who had complete discretion from Family Court over visitation, refused to let him near their son. The deputy on guard suggested he go to Family Court to have the order amended. So he did, but the judge who heard the case was at a conference at the State University of Buffalo and the judge on duty, without expressing any compassion, declined to get involved.

That’s when he turned for help to a television station, certainly not the first person to seek help, retribution, even justice from a journalistic entity.

The reporter and a cameraman accompanied him to Family Court, where the secretary of the judge at the UB conference contacted him, and the reporter explained the situation. “I’ll be right there,” the judge said, and 20 minutes later he arrived with an escort from UB security.

As he walked to his office he barked orders: Call the hospital and tell them I’ll need a conference room; get me a courtroom stenographer; call the mother’s attorney and tell him to meet us at the hospital; find me an attorney to represent the father.

An hour later court was convened in the hospital conference room. The judge heard brief statements from both attorneys, then took 30 seconds to amend the order to give the father 20 minutes alone with his son for every hour he lived.

It was an emotional scene when the father walked into his son’s room, sat next to his bed and took the hand of his comatose son. The next morning, the reporter involved got a telephone call from the father. “My son died at 10 o’clock last night,” the father said. “Thank you.”

Why does this story need telling? In these days of media assault, it’s critical to recognize that journalism matters.

It matters for the little guy who has nowhere else to turn. It matters for all of us who live in a democracy that relies on knowledge to make decisions that impact our lives and the lives of others.

And sometimes, it’s the small matters that matter most.

Lee Coppola, a former dean of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University, also worked as a newspaper reporter, a TV investigative reporter ansd an Assistant U.S. attorney.

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