This is a story about not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance… and it has little to do with atheism.
Last week, Tom Casey, a reporter for the Hudson (NY) Register-Star, attended a city council meeting and wrote up a report on what happened. Lots of budget stuff. Nothing most of us outside of Hudson (and probably many inside of Hudson) really care about.
After Casey submitted his report, his editor inserted two paragraphs into the end of the article. Casey didn’t want them in there because they contained what he felt was irrelevant information. His editor thought otherwise and put them in anyway:
At the start of the meeting some in the audience were upset over Third Ward Alderman John Friedman’s decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance. While Hudson City Code does not require council members to stand for the pledge, Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Donahue, who had complained about the matter at a previous meeting and asked Friedman why he did not stand, was visibly upset.
No comment could be reached from either party concerning the matter, and it did not interfere with the meeting.
Basically, someone didn’t stand for the Pledge. Someone else grimaced at that gesture. And then they went on with the meeting. As much as I want to make a bigger deal of that story, Casey’s journalism instinct took over and he didn’t think it was particularly newsworthy, considering all the other things that happened and considering that the Pledge wasn’t the focus of further conversation at that meeting. It’s a reporter’s job to distill an otherwise-dull city council meeting down to the stuff people need to know. If the Pledge kerfuffle was just an insignificant sidebar and not the main event, then I don’t blame Casey for thinking it wasn’t worth covering in a recap of the meeting.
After his editor inserted the paragraphs into the article — supposedly to lay the groundwork for a future editorial on the subject — Casey asked that his name be removed from the byline. He didn’t want to be associated with an article that included paragraphs he didn’t think were worth including.
Then he was fired.
That led to a chain reaction of epic proportions. Three colleagues have resigned in support of Casey. Other editors and colleagues wrote a letter of protest to the publisher and executive editor requesting that Casey get his job back. The publisher and executive editor responded with their own statement that just makes things worse for them:
Still another reason given as to why this wasn’t news was because the initial exchange only took a few seconds. So does murder.
Let’s take the pledge out of this. What if a council member stood the entire time the meeting was conducted or if they were late to every meeting? Or if they held a sign up during the meeting that read “ask me about my grandkids”? What if every meeting for decades started with singing “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”? If one, some or all officials suddenly stopped that tradition, surely that would warrant the asking of “why?”
Now, back to the refusal to say the pledge. While there are those who disagree with the stance — including the Common Council member who first asked why and those who were in the audience at the following meeting (according to the reporter’s own observations) — we imagine that there are also those that agree. Why shouldn’t they know that an elected official holds forth the same beliefs?
We just don’t understand why a reporter would want to hide this, seemingly protect a public official or censor the news. And to be frank, that is exactly what happened here.
As someone who writes a lot of stories about city council invocations and religion in government, I’ll be the first to admit that not every instance of someone breaking tradition and not saying the Pledge is of utmost importance. If it leads to further discussion on the Pledge’s irrelevance or an attempt to get rid of it altogether, ok, great, let’s talk about it. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Casey is a reporter who didn’t find that exchange meaningful, so he left it out of his article. If he didn’t think it was important, then I have no problem with the fact that he didn’t cover it.
That said, I’m not a city journalist. I’m an atheist blogger and I’m fascinated with the details of what happened at this meeting. Yesterday, I contacted Alderman Friedman to find out his position on the Pledge, if there are invocations at the meetings (and if he stands for those), why any of it is said before meetings, and whether it might be stopped.
Here’s what he told me (via email):
… I don’t refuse to stand for the pledge. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I simply don’t like the government telling me when and where to say it. I’m not really sure what an invocation means in this context [but] if you are asking if I’m an atheist all I can say is I believe we live in a random universe so I guess there could be a (or several) supreme beings — I just don’t believe that a supreme being would take attendance… Finally, the decision as to how to open a council meeting is, I think, the bailiwick of the presiding officer limited by the Constitution… While that officer can decide that he or she wishes to begin the meeting with the pledge he or she can’t force anyone else to participate. Likewise a rule banning recitation of the pledge would be unconstitutional.
Now, can the newspaper please hire back Tom Casey?