As a news reporter working in Wisconsin, I liked to fight for the underdog. One week, I profiled a bureaucrat named Bill, under fire for his rigid zoning policies. I showed he was not a jerk, not a proponent of Big Government, just a duty-bound civil servant, constricted by his character to always follow the letter of the law. I don’t know if I changed any hearts and minds, but Bill was pleased as punch with the profile.
Friday after the story broke, I went to my favorite watering hole, The Dry Gulch, for their weekly fish fry. Bill was sitting by himself at the bar, pounding beers. We made small talk, he boozily thanked me for the story, and I went and had my meal.
After dinner, when I asked for the check, the barkeep told me my tab had been picked up. She pointed to Bill who nodded and hoisted his beer in the air. I got very upset and refused the gift. The barkeep shot me an arch look and said, “It’s too late. He already paid.”
Man! So much for professional objectivity. It had been drilled into my head all through journalism school that free stuff was never acceptable and would leave a blemish on my career and my entire profession. This wouldn’t be the last story I would write on Bill, and now my ethical purity was besmirched.
Flash forward- if I could be such a white knight four years ago, outraged over $25 in fish and beer, what has changed now? Why have I grown comfortable eating my weight in free food? To be continued…