Reporter's Notebook: Growing comfortable in a thick skin

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Of all the things I collected at The Forecaster, my favorite is a letter in which attorney F. Lee Bailey essentially calls me a liar.

Bailey, of course, is a pretty big deal. For a time, one local newspaper had taken to writing “internationally famous” before his name, as if celebrity that crosses oceans is a metric for higher credibility (somewhere, probably in Germany, David Hasselhoff nods in agreement).

As some readers know, Bailey was decidedly less exalted in The Forecaster. His pet project, the expansion of Oxford Aviation at Brunswick Naval Air Station, saw significant scrutiny in these pages.

In February, after more than a dozen reports on Oxford, Bailey and the company abandoned the project. Oxford retreated quietly and eventually fired half its workforce in a dispute with Oxford County.

Bailey went scorched earth. He wrote a letter to the agency redeveloping BNAS, blaming the aborted deal on two town councilors who had the audacity to publicly question the proposal. He specifically identified me, the councilors’ “willing chronicler,” for printing their “truculent offensive” statements in a “deliberately negative” article.

Contrary to what I’d written, Bailey claimed I never called him for comment.

Bailey didn’t send me the letter – just like he didn’t return phone calls – but I eventually obtained a copy and hung it in my cubicle.

The letter stands as a reminder, a teachable moment – although probably not the lesson of capitulation Bailey intended.

It wasn’t the first time I’d faced a subject who tried to throw his weight around. In 2000, I had a run-in with a Major League Baseball player during spring training.

I was stringing for a paper in Florida, which wanted a profile about Rick Ankiel, a local kid who was pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ankiel’s talents were indisputable, but he had control problems. During a locker room interview at the club’s training facility in Jupiter, Fla., I nervously asked Ankiel if his occasional wildness made him reluctant to pitch inside to hitters.

Ankiel, annoyed by the entire interview, seethed.

“What did you just (expletive) ask me?” he asked, rising from his seat.

I started to repeat the question, but stopped halfway. Ankiel looked like he was going to rip my arms off.

“You think I’m afraid to (expletive) pitch inside?” Ankiel scanned the locker room for reinforcements. He found Darryl Kile, pitcher, elder statesman.

“Kile, did you just hear this (expletive) say he thinks I’m afraid to pitch inside?”

“(Expletive) reporters,” Kile spat. “They don’t know (expletive).”

Later, in the 2000 playoffs, Ankiel’s pitching career unraveled. He threw five wild pitches and four walks in a single inning. He was never the same. After several failed comeback attempts, he was converted to an outfielder.

I used to brag about my Ankiel encounter. Fearless reporter dismantles alpha-male athlete, or so the story went.

But truthfully, I was scared, and not just because Ankiel could have pummeled me while Kile sat there eating a sandwich.

It can be a difficult, lonely business questioning powerful people. For many reporters, upsetting even marginally influential people is terrifying.

I was no different.

But at some point came the realization that deference to power means exchanging deepened servitude for the mirage of access.

Readers don’t benefit. Neither does integrity.

Since joining The Forecaster in 2004, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that some people are going to dislike what I write.

During the Oxford Aviation saga, people would often joke that Bailey had dispatched mustard-stained private investigators to follow me.

I laughed – but made sure to check the rear-view mirror.

Maintaining skepticism often feels like tight-roping over the black hole of cynicism; at times, I’ve slipped.

I can also be suspicious of compliments. Staying on high alert for motive means keeping would-be friends at a distance.

But the payoff is usually worth the sacrifice. It’s incredibly gratifying when readers say they trust and value your work.

I thought of all this last week, while cleaning out my desk at The Forecaster. I’ve taken a position covering the Statehouse for the Sun Journal in Lewiston.

While considering the job, I thought of a scene from the movie “L.A. Confidential,” when a young cop angling for a detective position is instead advised by a veteran to climb the management ladder.

“You have an eye for human weakness, but not the stomach,” the veteran says.

There are few better arenas to witness human folly than politics. I have an eye for it. We’ll see about the stomach.

As for The Forecaster, I’m grateful that I had a chance work here. So grateful, that I left the Bailey letter hanging in my Falmouth cubicle.

But I made copies.

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Steve Mistler’s last day at The Forecaster was Aug. 26. He can be reached at [email protected].