In the 2013 film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a group of investors takes over Life magazine and systematically begin dismantling it in a cold, visionless, and culturally bankrupt cost cutting campaign.
They feel good about themselves. They are ending careers, but saving money and might even increase the profit margin when they are done. They do not know the first thing about magazines, or the importance of Life magazine in particular.
In the end, it falls to Walter Mitty(Ben Stiller) to give the big speech that puts them in their place and explains why Life magazine is more than a magazine, and presumably makes the suits feel sad, until they get right back to work.
I imagine that somewhere inside Alden Global Capital, the new owners of the Hartford Courant, someone in the cost cutting department felt the same smug feeling of accomplishment when they received word that Jon Lender had accepted the latest buyout offer from the paper’s new owner. What they don’t understand, or more accurately don’t care about, is that they just removed the engine from a very expensive car to save money on gas.
Jon Lender is no Walter Mitty, but like the character in the movie, he devoted his professional career to journalism and specifically the journalism of the Hartford Courant. He has been one of the top producers of meaningful reporting at the paper for several decades. His political investigations helped end the career of a popular governor, but perhaps more importantly, killed the careers of many people in public service and politics before they had a chance to be governor, or senator, or mayor. And that’s one of the reasons he did the work. He recognized early in his coverage of politics that you have to keep your eye on the mayor’s driver, because he might become the mayor. You have to keep your eye on the lawyer for Senator Jones, because he might become a judge. And what would we be in for if either of those two things happened?
So it’s not what Lender had a role in ending that is most important, it’s what he prevented from happening in the first place.
During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Lender was a part of a Tinker, to Evers, to Chance pattern the Courant employed often to keep wayward politicians in check. First came the Lender by-lined story “raising questions” about a politician’s behavior, followed by a Bob Englehart cartoon mocking the subject, and then the editorial board would deliver the final blow with a call for the target of the story to “come clean.” Often the series would conclude with a resignation or a reversal of policy. The pressure was too much for most elected and appointed officials to endure.
For many years Lender also served as a player-coach at the Courant mentoring other reporters like Lisa Marie Pane, Lisa Chedekel and Carrie Budoff Brown. His impact was not limited to his own work.
I have known Jon since the early 1980s. I first met him covering a news conference by Governor O’Neill at the American Thread factory building in Willimantic. I have also been a subject and source for some of his work. We are friends, even though he – at times – made my life miserable. But he always told me that, “in the end, when you look at my work, I think you will conclude I was fair.” And that’s true. And that’s how a journalist and someone he covers can have a good relationship despite the sometimes bitter give and take.
I am sure Jon has mixed emotions about leaving the Courant, but I am also certain he’s sure it’s the right decision. Maybe Chris Powell is right. Maybe no one cares about local news. But I don’t look forward to a world in which politicians don’t have people like Jon Lender to kick them around anymore.