Morality and the Freep

Two weeks ago, the Detroit Free Press published two long, front-page stories that graphically destroyed the career of — and probably immensely damaged the life of — Melvin Butch Hollowell, a man who is not an elected official or on the public payroll, and who has been convicted of nothing.

He has, in fact, been charged with only a low-grade misdemeanor. But they ran these stories, with large headlines (“Hollowell accused of picking up hooker” and “Police report: Woman says Hollowell paid her $60 for sex”) because they involved a prominent person and gave them an excuse to write what amounted to soft porn disguised as journalism.

The newspaper described the supposed sex act in especially graphic detail in its earlier outstate editions, basing the account on what the “known prostitute,” also identified as a heroin addict, told police. (Hollowell denied doing anything except stopping to help a woman he thought was in trouble.)

Naturally, this was extremely responsible behavior on the part of the newspaper. Who could be more credible, after all, than an addict who would likely say anything to avoid being locked up? Any reporter who has worked the police beat ought to know she would have said that Hollowell made her a watercress sandwich, if she thought that’s what the cops wanted her to say.

No wonder journalists rank lower than politicians in public esteem.

What all this means is that whatever happens, Butch Hollowell, a man who has accomplished a lot and who has two teenage children, will forever be identified in the public mind as the man who gave “three folded $20 bills” to a cheap blond prostitute working in front of a dimly lit donut shop.

That’s how the media culture works, and that will be the case, even if he is exonerated. Even if it somehow turns out, say, that Hollowell is telling the truth, the vast majority of people who heard about the story will still remember him as the man who had oral sex with a cheap hooker.

“Here ruining people is considered sport.” That’s what Vincent Foster, a close friend of the Clinton family, wrote before killing himself in July 1993, after suffering a series of savage attacks on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Either the Free Press editors feel the same way — or with the smug sanctimony of all righteous idiots, imagine they are doing “a public service.” They may even feel they are showing virtue by destroying a man whose wife is a prominent columnist for their newspaper. (It has also been suggested that the editor, Carole Leigh Hutton, is overcompensating for her controversial decision killing a review that criticized best boy Mitch Albom’s latest bad book.)

Let’s look at the background. Had Butch Hollowell been the Democratic nominee for governor, the Free Press crucifixion might have been justified.

But even before this incident, he was a man whose political career was pretty much over. Ten years ago, he gave John Conyers a fairly stiff primary challenge. Smart, polished, a highly educated and compelling speaker, he was marked as a person destined for great things, though some worried that his ambition was running ahead of his record of accomplishment.

Two years ago, he ran for secretary of state, and openly hoped to become the first black governor. But he ran a poor campaign and was walloped by Terri Lynn Land, who heavily outspent him. Jennifer Granholm then attempted to make Hollowell party chairman, but was too politically weak to overcome labor’s desire to keep their boy, Mark Brewer, in the job.

Democrats tried, as a compromise, to have two party chairmen, with Butch very clearly second among equals. (Brewer got paid; Hollowell didn’t.) The situation was impossible, and neither man distinguished himself in the role.

Frankly, most Democrats I know thought Hollowell seemed more petty. Just before the hooker incident, Hollowell was pushed into resigning and becoming an unpaid legal adviser to the Kerry presidential campaign.

He also got a seat on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Most politicos figured his career as a candidate for elective office was essentially over.

Now that is certainly true. Naturally, the Detroit Free Press made sure that it surrounded its public lynching with the usual legally correct weasel words, mainly “alleged.” They even wrote an editorial further stomping on him, which began with the pompous words “The legal system will have to decide whether Melvin Butch Hollowell broke the law ...”

What nonsense. He’s already been convicted in print. If he is convicted in court, do you know what will happen to him? The electric chair? Alcatraz? Not quite. He may have to pay $500, probably less.

When you cover news, the first thing you learn is that you don’t have space and time for everything. It all comes down to priorities.

Those of the Free Press are clear. On the day all the lurid details were published, the newspaper buried these far-less-important items inside the paper in its local news briefs column: The largest currency smuggling arrest in Detroit history; two Christian missionaries, one from Michigan, were murdered in California, and a dead man was found at a local recycling station.

Most murdered children get far less attention in the Free Press than the minor misdemeanor of Butch Hollowell. What he did was stupid at best — even if he is telling the truth — and newsworthy to some degree; he is a political figure.

Had it been my newspaper, I would have put a story on the front of the metro section when he was arrested, and had another story when the case was resolved in court. Politically, this would have had the same effect.

You might say that wouldn’t sell papers. Here’s a fact: Twenty years ago, the Free Press sold 630,000 copies every day. They sell barely 340,000 now. Not so many people seem to love them anymore. I can’t imagine why.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]