I moved to Rio Blanco County to start over.
Not to hide.
Since letters to the editor in this week’s paper accuse me of, among other things, “unfair reporting,” a “negative prejudice toward people who have a good reputation and a good name to lose,” as well airing other people’s dirty laundry, I figured it was time to air my own.
Like all of us, I have a past. Though mine, admittedly, is more scandalous than most.
I am a convicted felon.
It is a label of which I am neither proud nor ashamed.
The professional and personal free fall that occurred in my life seven years ago wasn’t the result of a one-time impulsive decision, but rather a series of careless and reckless compromises — some subtle, some not so subtle — that put me on the path of a downward spiral from which there seemed no way to recover.
Except to start over.
Which is how I ended up here.
In September 2003, I was asked to resign from the position I held at the time, which was executive director of the Kansas Press Association. Here’s a quick summary of the gory details, taken from an Internet blog:
“Jeff Burkhead, who once held famed rural editor William Allen White’s old job at the Emporia Gazette, has been charged with theft after being forced to resign as executive director of the Kansas Press Association and is being sued by the KPA for recovery of missing funds, reports The Associated Press.”
I had misused the association’s money. Simply put, I charged items on the company credit card for personal use. A banner headline in the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal referred to me as the “Press association thief …”
I had been involved in journalism for a long time, so I knew there are always many sides to a story, but that reality never became more apparent until I read newspaper accounts about my own situation.
It would serve no purpose here to go into what those “other sides to the story” were in my own case, other than to say I believe there’s a cause and effect for every situation we find ourselves in, and in my own experience as the “press association thief,” it gave me a new appreciation — and empathy — for people who find themselves on the bad side of a story.
I know what it’s like to be the subject of “bad press,” to have your mistakes publicly exposed on the front page of the hometown newspaper, for everyone to see, including my four children. This went on for three years. It reminds me of a line from the movie “The Natural,” where Robert Redford says, “I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for.” That’s what it felt like. That’s what it still feels like.
That being said, I make no excuses for my own behavior or for any past mistakes or bad decisions I’ve made. Nor do I blame those in the media, many of whom used to be my friends. I had only myself to blame. Not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but as a former newspaper friend told me once in no uncertain terms, “You f….. up.”
Yes, I did.
And I suffered the consequences.
My world came crashing down. My nearly 25-year career in journalism was over. My marriage of 26 years ended.
I was alone, I couldn’t get a job — being a convicted felon can have that effect — and, for all practical purposes, I was destitute.
I ended up moving in with my parents. My parents, God bless ’em, would do anything for me and I will always be grateful for their generosity when I needed it the most, but, believe me, living with your parents when you’re 47 or 48 years old, now that’s depressing.
There was a settlement agreement including restitution in my civil lawsuit, which I believed meant the end to my legal problems and I could finally get on with my life. But then the district attorney filed criminal charges, which I had not expected.
So, three years to the month after resigning my position as head of the Kansas Press Association, I was sentenced to five years of probation in September 2006.
As far as my journalism career, I had been pretty hot stuff — so I thought, at least in Kansas newspaper circles. But those days were over. I couldn’t get a job in journalism. Not in Kansas. Not anywhere. Professionally speaking, I was an outcast.
During those three years while waiting for the legal process to play out in the courts, my life was essentially on hold. If not for my best friend from high school, who owns his own business, giving me work when he could, I would have been virtually unemployable.
When you fall from grace like I did, and in such a public, high-profile manner, you find out who your real friends are. I could count them on one hand.
Mitch Bettis and I had worked together in the 1990s at a newspaper in Liberal, Kan. Not only did we hit it off as colleagues, but we became best friends. After we both left Liberal, our careers took us in different directions, but we remained close. Then, when I crashed and burned, Mitch was one of the few people who stuck beside me.
Another friend who didn’t desert me was Kurt Gaston, who also worked with me and Mitch in Liberal, Kan., and whose father gave me my start in the newspaper business. You don’t know Kurt, but you see his handiwork every week in the paper. Even though he doesn’t live in Colorado, it’s as if he is working side by side with us in the Herald Times office at the Hugus Building. Thanks to the wonders of technology, Kurt designs the news pages for us from his home in Missouri.
Mitch, who also lives in Missouri now and has owned the paper since 2001, brought both Kurt and I on board. I got a call from Mitch in the spring of 2008. I was living with my parents, working for my best friend from high school — when there was work — and barely eking out an existence. I still remember where I was when I got the call from Mitch, telling me he may have a job opening coming up and asking if I would be interested.
For the first time in a long time, my life had promise.
Mitch and I had always talked about working together again someday. That day finally came, though the circumstances leading up to it were not what either one of us would have ever expected.
So, that’s how I ended up in Rio Blanco County.
I was prepared to write this column my first day on the job, but it didn’t seem necessary at the time.
Now it does.
A letter to the editor in this week’s paper makes a not-so-veiled reference to my past legal problems. Figuring that would only raise questions in readers’ minds, which I’m surmising was the writer’s intent, I told Mitch Bettis, who is not only my boss, but my confidant, that I thought now was the right time to write “the column.”
As far as the allegations of “publicly dumping mud and sliming a family’s name,” made by the writer of the letter to the editor, I have no interest in trading jabs and it would serve no useful purpose. If those of us who do this for a living know one thing, it’s that people are entitled to their opinions. And we’ll print those opinions in the paper, even when the writer is taking us to task.
The one allegation I will respond to is that I practice “selective reporting.” You bet I do, and so does every newspaper in the country. Every week, I select what stories to report on. I select what information to include in those stories. I select what photos will run in the paper. I select what stories and photos will go on the front page. Every decision that is made in the step-by-step process of publishing the paper every week involves being selective. There is, after all, only so much space and so much time. We have to pick and choose.
Being a one-man newsroom — at least the only full-time person — it is physically impossible for me to be at every event or cover everything that goes on in either Meeker or Rangely. But I can promise you this, there has not been one major event or story that has happened in Rio Blanco County — at least that I know about — that the paper has not covered.
People, especially of late, have asked me what qualifies something as news. The best — and simplest — definition I know of is this: If people are talking about it, it’s news.
And, I know this, if people are talking about it, they expect to read about it in the newspaper.
Let me also say, if an incident involves a situation where charges are filed and there was a 15-year-old girl who could have died from drinking a potentially lethal level of alcohol, then that is a story, by any definition.
Contrary to what some people may think, the newspaper is not “out to get” anybody. We take no pleasure in reporting “negative” news. But in the natural course of doing our jobs and covering community events and happenings, there will always be news that gets reported that some people like … and other people don’t like.
Journalism is not an exact science. I agonize over it when I make a mistake in the handling of a story. I obsess about it when I get a fact wrong. Every week I sweat the details to try to get the stories as right as I can, to the best of my ability. But in this line of work, mistakes are bound to happen. And when I do make a mistake, I will apologize and correct it in print. But I will not apologize for doing my job, even when, on a personal level, it hurts me to report about the bad things that happen in people’s lives.
As a friend told me recently, “There is no shame in the truth. Only if you deny it, ignore it or act like it’s not happening.”
I can attest to that from my own personal experience.
Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.