‘Freedom Fighter” Mike Wolff says good reporting inspires social change

Michael A. Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and dean of Saint Louis University law school, gave these remarks upon receipt of the GJR’s Freedom Fighter award at last month’s First Amendment Celebration.

by Michael A. Wolff

I am deeply honored by this award. I am impressed by the exaggeration of its title – “freedom fighter” seems an overstatement that my father would have enjoyed and my mother would have believed.

I consider myself a recovering reporter. Here is something I never have disclosed: At one point in my life, nearly five years after graduating from law school and leaving The Minneapolis Star I sent a note to my old managing editor asking if the paper might have an opening for me as a reporter. He did not write back. How soon they forget.

I truly am humbled by receiving this award from an organization whose members have so single-mindedly devoted their lives to telling the truth to the people in our community and nation. I will risk omitting some truly great journalists who are here and honor me by their presence, so I beg your indulgence in advance to single out my friend and occasional co-conspirator Bill Freivogel, Margie Freivogel, Charles Klotzer, whose St. Louis Journalism Review I started reading more than 40 years ago and whose legacy lives on in the Gateway Journalism Review and the able writers and editors who populate it and continue to provide the criticism necessary to keep our media performing their essential role in our society.

Let’s face it – we lawyers and journalism have something in common – if it weren’t for human frailty, greed, avarice, and at times simple incompetence, we would all be out of business.

Great reporting inspires our passion for social change. My friend and SLU colleague Roger Goldman read your reporting in the Post Dispatch 40 years ago about trigger-happy Maplewood officers whose deadly shots did not disqualify one of them for future employment in another municipality. Roger has spent 40 years of his terrific career seeking to hold police accountable through certification and licensing all over the country.

Great reporting builds a sense of community, sets the stage and furthers the progress made in all the areas you have mentioned … education, racial justice, health care, criminal justice. It builds a community of those who, like you who are here, have a shared view of reality and the motivation to do something.

Great reporting can shame our leaders, although shame from time to time seems to go out of fashion.

Put aside shame, for now. These days it seems truth has gone out of fashion, and that feels even more ominous.

But it is so essential that we know basic facts, that we tell basic truths widely to get some agreement on a sensible common course. We cannot be a well functioning democratic republic without shared facts. Correct information is essential to drive out misinformation. I cannot think of a time in my lifetime when great reporting and great editing were more needed.

I thank you for being essential truth sayers. I also am grateful for the comics among us. Satire is alive and well. Unfortunately it sometimes is hard to tell what’s real news and what’s Saturday Night Live. It reminds me of the time decades ago when the satirist Tom Lehrer (younger people, you can Google him) said that satire died the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a lawyer and judge, I sometimes have had the experience you occasionally have when someone questions your motives, your fairness, your judgment. That’s when humor comes in handy. I may be an idiot but I know this because Garrison Keillor told us: You can go your whole life and not need math or physics for a minute, but the ability to tell a joke is always handy.

I have tried to be available, preferably without attribution, to help reporters understand the current events that they are writing about – I remember the feeling of having to write about several different subjects in a single week. I always have had respect for that daunting challenge that reporters and editors have put their talents to. When I was a reporter I sometimes felt like the wreck on the side of the road, hoping that someone would stop and help. I often felt that way as a lawyer.

Also on the side of the road are those who are taking up some cause of social justice in these challenging times. We should stop and help them if we can.

It is easy for us to ignore those who are trying to advance social justice. There are just so many problems. There are many ways that various contending factions define social justice. It is easy to be overwhelmed, and the temptation to do nothing is strong, to leave them on the side of the road.

I leave you with my profound thanks, not on the side of the road, … but without a quick and satisfying answer. Perhaps this will help, a thought from one of Missouri’s most cherished treasures, Mark Twain: “Always do right,” Twain said. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”