Civil Discourse Now

Where the far left and far right overlap for fun and enlightenment

   I was born in Kokomo. My parents’ farm was a mile from West Middleton, where civilization existed in the form of Chapman’s gas station and its soda pop (can’t write "coke" without the ®) machine and Spike Crail’s garage with an ancient soda pop dispenser that consisted of a well of cold water from which the necks of bottles of soft drinks stuck up. We paid with money we had made baling hay, our arms still on the mend from scratches and punctures. The ride on my three-speed Murray (read: knock-off of a Schwinn Stingray®) passed fields of corn or soybeans. Red-winged blackbirds perched, here and there, on the wire fences. In August the temperature was 90, the humidity about 200 (scientifically impossible but it felt that way), and the air heavy with the pollen of the corn.

   We also rode our bikes past Malfalfa Park, several miles the other direction from West Middleton. The park was closed, its fences posted with "no trespassing signs." There were legends of Indian ceremonies once held there. Kids snuck in and recovered arrow heads and other souvenirs. 

   Our Sunday paper was The Kokomo Tribune (pronounced TRIBune). At the top of the front page of the Sunday funnies, a banner proudly proclaimed the paper had the #1 market penetration of any newspaper in the country. (Two subtle matters: Kokomo touts itself as "The City of Firsts," and so the #1; and there’s the phallic imagery to the number and the word "penetration.") An afternoon paper the rest of the week, its owners enjoyed a near-monopoly (as one could infer from the banner on the front page of the Sunday funnies) on dissemination of local news. A local AM station, WIOU, broadcast some news, some music, and sports (basketball sectionals the centerpiece each spring, of course). The Kokomo Morning Times briefly was a competitor, but went bankrupt and its publisher imprisoned. I looked forward each afternoon to my trip down our driveway (about a quarter-mile long) to grab the Tribune and read front-page stories of international, national, state, and local events; then flip to the pages after for such things as whom amongst our neighbors had been nailed for speeding. (A stretch of Alto Road was a speed trap, a fact unknown to those drivers ticketed who did not take the paper.)

   I moved away to college at DePauw, was hired on staff at Purdue, and later in Chicago on staff at Northwestern. By the mid-1980s I came to Indy to attend law school. During those years, on occasion someone would mail a copy of the Tribune to me. The paper was sold by its long-time owners to a conglomerate; adapted the times and became a morning paper.

   Shortly after I discovered the internet, I also discovered the Tribune had an on-line edition. Every few days I checked local news (as well as the obits; I am of the age when one does that). A couple of years ago I noticed a link to something called "The Peter Heck Show." The graphic was of an old-fashioned microphone with a background of red, white, and blue. My curiosity was piqued.

   Peter Heck is an evangelical whose views are extreme. I have no problem with extreme views per se, but a number, amongst which are some propounded by Mr. Heck, do trouble me. In a March 14, 2010, column titled "The South Is Rising Again," he advanced the view that the secession of southern states from the Union in 1861 was not over the issue of slavery, but over States’ rights. Actually, the resolutions of secession passed by the States that made up the Confederacy reveal only one States’ "right" was at the center of secession—the "right" to keep slavery as an institution. Mr. Heck believes homosexuality does not exist. His virulent opposition to a woman’s right to choice is such that he has posted photographs of purported piles of dead fetuses on his website.

   Twice I was a guest on Mr. Heck’s show. He was pleasant and not at all combative. The subjects we discussed were related to interpretation of law in an academic context.   

   For several years, Mr. Heck has been a regular columnist for the Tribune. His columns have appeared with the tagline: "Peter Heck teaches history at Eastern High School and hosts a talk show on WIOU-AM 1350." Recently the ties between the newspaper and Mr. Heck were severed. In a September 28, 2011, column titled "Kovaleski: The trouble with Heck’s column tag," Tribune managing editor Jeff Kovaleski announced: "Essayist ends association with Tribune." The reason:

"I insist on tagging [Heck’s] essays with the sentence, ‘Peter Heck teaches history at Eastern High School and hosts a talk show on WIOU-AM 1350.’ His superiors at Eastern object to the school’s mention. Because I won’t compromise, Heck won’t submit another op-ed for publication.

Heck’s columns on occasion have troubled a few of Eastern’s patrons. Some have said the tagline implies Heck’s opinions represent those of Eastern Howard Schools.I reject that argument. Readers recognize Heck’s opinions are his alone."

   I faced a similar situation in 1976. I obtained equal time to respond to an editorial on Channel 10 in Terre Haute about drugs. I argued (as I still believe) that all drugs should be legalized. The station prefaced my spot with the statement that I was Student Body President of DePauw University. Several students objected to my appearance and equal time statement. I pointed out: (1) I had not forfeited my First Amendment right to free speech when I was elected SBP; (2) the television station had a journalistic responsibility to its readers to identify who I was; and (3) the station had not stated I was speaking in my official capacity. As to the last part, it was the mid-1970s. A few weeks after my equal time spot, my debate partner and I won campus debates at both DePauw and Wabash (with Wabash students voting) on "Resolved: That all drugs should be legalized." Sentiment was high amongst my constituents for the position I had taken. 

   In Mr. Heck’s situation, why now? It is my understanding that in the early years, Mr. Heck’s column did not carry the tagline referenced by Mr. Kovaleski. Since I began reading the column, the tagline has appeared. But let’s look at the main elements of Mr. Kovaleski’s statement.

   1) Mr. Kovaleski will not compromise on identification of Mr. Heck. Mr. Heck’s superiors at the high school object to the school’s mention. The importance of identification of Mr. Heck’s position does not appear to be that he teaches at a specific school. Mr. Kovaleski gives a hint of his own thoughts at the end of his column. After quoting Mr. Heck’s stand against what Mr. Heck characterizes as youth being "bombarded with the false message of tolerance from schools to pop culture," Mr. Kovaleski writes:

                          "The false message of tolerance. See why I believe his employer is relevant to readers?

Heck rails against the spending habits of government, yet his salary and health care benefits are paid by taxpayers. He sees little value in public-sector unions, yet his primary income is negotiated by the very institution he deplores.

Peter Heck’s essays won’t continue to be published in the Kokomo Tribune, but they’ll be broadcast on WIOU and appear in other newspapers around the state.

                        And he still teaches at Eastern High School."

   2) I would suggest the tagline be changed to drop reference to a specific school. There need be no mention of Eastern High School at all. The tagline that Mr. Heck "teaches history at a Howard County public high school" would serve the purpose of identification of what Mr. Heck does for a living. It probably would assuage his superiors at the high school. That is not a compromise that forfeits any values that I perceive.

   3) I was born and raised in Howard County. Like any place else, there are good people there. There also are people easily swayed by extreme opinions that not always are good. In his 1964 My Indiana, Irving Leibowitz, a reporter for The Indianapolis Times, wrote, of a particularly bad period in Indiana:

"D.C. Stephenson promoted himself to Grand Dragon of the Klan in Indiana the next year. To celebrate, he arranged at Kokomo’s Malfalfa Park on July 4, 1923 the greatest gathering of the Klan ever held in the state. By his own estimate, 200,000 Knights had assembled for the konklave.  Stephenson, always spectacular, swooped down from the sky in a gilded airplane, stepped from it clad in resplendent robes and pledged his undying devotion and unfaltering leadership. Before he majestically departed, the hysterical crowd threw coins and jewelry at his feet." (p. 57.)

Howard County has been home to views others see as extreme and negative. My high school gained the attention of the world for its ostracism of Ryan White. Around 1970 a lot of people were outraged when Lee Weiner, one of the Chicago Seven (it began as the Chicago Eight, but that is another story) was scheduled to speak at Indiana University-Kokomo. People were opposed to the man having opportunity to speak. I do not say Mr. Heck is a member of the Klan. His views are extreme. My point is that the people of Howard County, historically, have not been averse to reactionary views.

   Newspapers have lost readers as people have been drawn, first, to television and, later, to the internet for their news. I disagree with a great many things Mr. Heck writes and says. It appears to me that the managing editor of the Tribune used the matter of Mr. Heck’s employment as pretext ro force Mr. Heck to stop cease writing for the paper. On the specific issues I agree with Mr. Kovaleski. Those points could be made by identifying Mr. Heck as a public high school teacher in Howard County. As Mr. Kovaleski notes: "Heck is a prominent public figure in Howard County and, arguably, more recognizable outside the Kokomo area than Mayor Greg Goodnight." Controversy sells papers. The paper has the right to its editorial policies. Mr. Heck has the right to free expression. A lot of people in Howard County share Mr. Heck’s views. A lot of people in Howard County do not share Mr. Heck’s views. If Mr. Kovaleski wanted to stop running Mr. Heck’s columns, Mr. Kovaleski should have had the balls to do so outright. "We don’t want your column in our paper." Instead the managing editor of the paper seeks refuge behind Mr. Heck’s superiors at the high school. He seems to serve us chicken salad when in fact the styrofoam bowl holds—you get the picture (okay: chickenshit. I do not want to be accused of the same quality I criticize in Mr. Kovaleski.) 

   I still disagree with Mr. Heck on many issues. I wish he would convert to rationality and abandon the positions he has taken. If a paper no longer tolerates the writings of a columnist, then the paper should fire the columnist. At least that would be honest intellectually. 

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