Frank Scandale

Editor, The Record

Woodland Park, N.J.

[NJ-E 0201]

Early on at The Daily Journal in Elizabeth (N.J.), I was covering a town – little town. They gave the new guys the easier towns. It wasn’t cutthroat politics yet, you know it was mostly –- [towns run by] guys who had day jobs and for a dollar a year they’d run the town.

But – so I was covering this one town. And I had a source on the team. It turned out he took a liking to me and it turns out he was an ex-journalist who now had a PR company. And he was a good source of mine. He was a police commissioner as well – so everybody had their little things. So he would give me the wink when he would come out for his bathroom break, and I’d have to go in the bathroom, and he would be in one stall and he would feed me what’s going, so I would have some insight. So I was writing some pretty good stories, you know, and this was great and I’m wondering, well – how is he getting this information?

So, I’m seeing some really – seeing how journalism works – sources and all that. And one day [he] calls me up and he says, “Hey, I have a client that I wanted you to meet – I think it’s a good story. You might want to meet him.” So I says,” Well, OK. What’s so special about him?” And he says,” He’s running this restaurant now in this town, and he was a German immigrant – he came over and had nothing – he’s got a good story” I said, “All right.” He says, “Meet me down at his restaurant.”

So I go down there – again this is my good source – so I go down there and I meet him. I meet the guy and he’s nothing. He’s nothing special. So, I can tell the story of about just anybody, but I couldn’t get any[thing] out of this guy – I couldn’t figure out what was interesting about them – why he’s unique. Why I’d write about him.

And then we had to fight – so he left – my guy was fighting about the bill. And I said, “No, you can’t pay – And I’ m pretty sure you can’t pay.” And he says, “No, no – don’t worry about it.” And I’m 22 [or] 23.

So I go back I got this great dilemma and I said, “Well, what do I do with this?’ I said, “I got this guy is feeding me all these stories who’s now put me in position to write about his client. So, he’s kinda’ set me up on this and if I don’t write about his client – he’s going to cut me off. And you’re only as good as [your] sources.”

And I’m getting a little bit of information from some editors, some help. But back then the ethics were still a little – people forget that in the ‘70s and ‘80s in New Jersey there was a lot of deals being made between the press and politicians. I mean there was liquor coming in at Christmas time. There were rate cards for political columnists, you know. Five dollars to write a good thing in a mention – $10 to write a bad thing about your opponent – still, this was going on. So I was really fretting, and I didn’t know.

At the end of day one of my editors said, “Well, it won’t hurt anybody if you wrote it, right? Just do a soft puff piece.” “Yeah,” I said, “I know. But I don’t feel right about it.”

So I didn’t do it. I said, “No, I can’t do – I’m sorry this just doesn’t seem interesting.” And he said, “OK.” And that was it, and he still is my source. And I’m like, oh – it’s not a black-and-white thing – it’s a negotiation along the way.

What it taught me was this is my compass, and these are the rules of the road, so that I’m not compromised and I’m not making deals with people. And I don’t owe anybody anything, and I think that’s what I try to bring to a lot of people.

In fact, the class I teach at Rutgers is ethics. And I try to explain that it’s – it’s not black and white. It’s like, it’s always changing. So I asked the class, “Well, what do you think about this?” And they all say, “Oh no – I would definitely do it.” Because I use that story [in class.] “Oh, definitely. Why not? You get a free meal and on and on.”

“OK,” I said, “What if then the next time he wanted me to write another story about somebody else and it’s a little bit dicier?” And they say, “What do you mean?” “Suppose the stakes are higher – because the stakes weren’t high here? But now the strakes are higher, but there’s still – the decision is: Well, are you selling yourself for this?” I mean, where do you – if he keeps crossing the line back – at what point? And they said like, “Oh.”

So, I think that’s an “Ah-ha” moment for me, and it happened early on. And I was happy it happened because – if I still tell that story 30 years later – it sounds like a great lesson that anybody can use.