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When Your Source is Mostly Silent

I talk to dead people on a regular basis for Emmett’s story. Because the convo is mostly one-way, I don’t get a lot of sass back from my interview subjects.

Also, I don’t have to worry about Emmett and his friends not liking what I had to write about them after the piece is published, then b*tching me out — unlike the good old days, when I was a regular newspaper journalist dealing with live people.

Sometimes, seeing your own words quoted in print can be a bit of a shock if you aren’t used to it.

When I was working for The Commercial Dispatch (a newspaper in Columbus, Mississippi) 25 years ago, I remember one man coming to the newspaper office and complaining to one of my editors about a story I wrote in which he was quoted. He said, “I didn’t say that.” He demanded a correction.

I pulled my tape recorder out of my purse, and replied (with tape recorder in hand), “Yes, you did.”

I played the man’s words back to him, with an editor present. The man backed down. “I didn’t realize what I was saying,” he said, a little defensively. “I still want a correction.”

My editor explained to the fellow that people are often surprised at what spoken words look like in print, and no, there would be no correction. The quote was accurate.

When I think about Emmett and his relationship to the press, I’d say it was good at the beginning of his career. He worked hard to cultivate it; but ironically, at the height of his career in 1914, it fell apart, and it never was repaired. After that, Emmett kept mostly quiet, never really giving any kind of statement about the work he was doing for his constituents. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing anything in office; I think he was just burned so badly by an editor he’d trusted, that he didn’t know who in the press he could trust anymore.

Mostly, the press relationship breakdown can be traced back to Emmett’s jackass campaign manager-press agent, Chipley Jones. Remember him?

The thing about Emmett is that he really was ‘green’ in terms of building and maintaining a relationship with the press. Even though he did work hard to build it, from where I sit, 100 years later, it seems rushed. Forced, even. He wanted to make good quickly, and to show everyone that he was successful, he knew the press had a big hand in that. But, he didn’t know how to play the game with the press.

I think if he had more professional experience as a politician, working his way up the system and investing time in building real relationships with the press (instead of hanging out with yes-men like Chipley Jones), he could have handled it.

Notice that his name is misspelled -- not quite 'famous' enough at this point. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October, 1907.

Notice that his name is misspelled — not quite ‘famous’ enough at this point. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October, 1907.

Emmett started building his personal/political PR campaign early and small, which was fine.

Emmett used the “Personal Mention” or “Tersely Told” columns of his hometown newspapers much like we use Facebook today: He’d drop a few lines with the editors about his comings and goings, letting everyone in Pensacola know what he was up to. It was a good way for an obscure but upwardly mobile professional man to promote himself.


Today, anyone with a Facebook account can tell the world that they are going to Vernon, Florida, or having company over from Tallahassee, which isn’t big news anymore.

In Emmett’s day, not just anyone could submit a note about their personal activities to the newspaper, and expect the information to be published: You had to be ‘someone.’

Back then, the newspaper WAS the social media of their day, and, because of Emmett’s pedigree and connections, the papers would gladly run his little blurbs here and there.

Chipley Jones: Campaign Manager, Pompous Ass

Chipley Jones: Campaign Manager, Pompous Ass. Source: The Pensacola Journal.

As I mentioned above, the relationship between Emmett and the press was fine, until July, 1914. That’s when Emmett’s campaign manager Chipley Jones turned completely against him. Jones was a master manipulator of the press: He used to be a reporter before going into the family business, and he was a leader in West Florida democratic politics, so he knew how to play both press and politics.

On the surface, Jones was an ideal campaign manager and press agent — until he felt slighted. He took everything personally. His modus operandi for revenge: Write a scathing letter about said offender and publish it in the newspaper.

Jones wrote a long, insulting letter about Emmett and had it published on the front page of The Pensacola Journal. It wasn’t enough that Emmett didn’t have a patronage position available for poor Chipley Jones (or the other hundreds of constituents who also wanted federal jobs); Jones accused him of being an alcoholic, and implied other inappropriate behavior. Charges like those were the death knell for an up-and-coming politician.

The editor of The Pensacola Journal, Frank Mayes (who had been Emmett’s champion up to this point), was also a buddy of Jones. Unfortunately, Jones convinced Mayes that Emmett was turning into a liability for the progressive Democratic party. The alcoholism charge in the paper was particularly damaging, as Mayes was a known prohibitionist, and he knew Florida legislators were planning to support prohibition. Mayes had to cut his ties to Emmett for the sake of integrity. So, Mayes printed Jones’ entire letter in The Pensacola Journal — all 25 inches of it.

So much for objective journalism.

And Emmett’s response to the personal attacks?

Not a word.

Emmet’s silence to Jones’ article dumbfounded his supporters. Other Florida editors wondered why Emmett did not respond in kind, or at least defend himself.

Was it because Jones’ letter appeared to be (mostly) sour grapes, and Emmett didn’t think it worthy of a response?

Interestingly, there were other criticisms made against Emmett’s work while in Congress, yet Emmett responded to those comments in the press quickly.

Was it because there may have been a bit of truth to some of the charges Jones made against Emmett? Or, was it because Emmett just didn’t care anymore?

Emmett probably didn’t think much of Jones, anyway, and so did not care to answer him in public. But the personal attacks in print were troubling, and the fact that Emmett didn’t explain them gave everyone pause.

I understand that Emmett probably did not want to get into a big argument in the press, for all the world to see. It might have reflected badly on himself or other members of his family.  But I wonder if he realized that his silence on this could be quite telling? Or, certainly, misunderstood? In the end, it didn’t help.

As a writer and former journalist, getting a source to talk can be difficult. Sometimes impossible.

When I was a journalism student back at Mississippi State University, I recall a class where we had a spirited discussion about when a key source refuses to talk. Do we let the story go? Is that one person’s input really necessary in order for the story to be complete? What would we do when faced with this situation?

I actually dug out the notes on this one. Yeah, I saved all my clips plus the notes on the stories. It is a force of habit; sometimes people would come back and ask me, “did I say that?” And I can show them my notes. 🙂  Anyway.

I kept all of my old clips, and old journalism class notes.

I kept all of my old clips, and old journalism class notes.

The year was 1984, the class was Advanced Journalism, the faculty member was my academic adviser and mentor, Professor Don Grierson,

Grierson used say that on occasion, a reporter will be unable to speak directly to a source. The person may be incarcerated, he said. The person may refuse to speak to any press representative, which is his or her privilege, he said. Or (I distinctly remember him chuckling as he said this), the person may be dead.

He added that while that source’s words were important, his or her actions were often more telling — and more truthful. He said:

“Observe their actions, and note their words. Are they consistent? Or, are they largely inconsistent? Words are one thing, but it is the person’s actions that generally are your clue to the person’s character. Sometimes, all you’re going to have are the actions, so, observe them closely and that can give you valid information, too.” (From my journalism class notes, 1984.)

I think it might be interesting to chart out Emmett words and actions during a certain time period, especially where my data may be a little thin at present. I’ll compare what he was actually doing, and what he was saying. I’ll include who was with him, what they were saying, where he was at the time, and if there were other related issues going on (family visiting, legislation up for a vote, and the like).

If anything, the chart will show me where I may need to look for supporting information (other newspapers, like the Tampa Tribune or the Santa Rosa papers, that mention him occasionally). It is about fill-in-the-blank. I’ll share a sample of the chart I come up with next week; you might find it useful for your own research.

Emmett may be largely quiet in my research, but he’s not entirely silent.

Categories: Book Congressman Florida History Interesting & Odd Research Status

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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