D.R. Bahlman: As a wise editor once advised, pick your battles
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D.R. Bahlman: As a wise editor once advised, pick your battles

Jun 04, 2023

Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

WILLIAMSTOWN — In the summer of 1980, I’d been working as a reporter for the (Troy, N.Y.) Times-Record for just shy of three years. I’d recently been promoted to the “court beat,” which took me to all four Capital District counties but centered on Rensselaer County; the courthouse in downtown Troy was my base of operations. The pay was lower than a duck’s undercarriage, but the work was fascinating, and I considered myself lucky to be ensconced in what many of my colleagues at the paper considered to be the catbird seat of journalism.

One Friday afternoon in August, I got a call at my desk from the big boss. Joseph A. Cooley had been the newspaper’s editor for longer than I’d been on the planet. His glassed-in office gave him a panoramic view of the newsroom. To this day, I haven’t the foggiest notion of precisely how he kept tabs on the staff, but I know how he didn’t: He almost never called a reporter into his office.

The closest I’d come to being summoned previously was after a judge, outraged by Cooley’s editorial suggestion that the judge had begun a criminal trial in purposeful defiance of an order from the state’s Office of Court Administration that he report for temporary duty in another county, departed the newspaper in a blustering huff. He’d been gone about 10 minutes when Cooley telephoned me. “You saw [the judge], I imagine,” he said. I replied that I had and wondered aloud if something I’d said or done had lit his honor’s fuse. “Oh no,” said Cooley. “It was my editorial about the trial he started. I told him I’d known him too long not to know what he was up to and he got even madder.”

Ever the diplomat, Cooley provided no additional details. I thanked him for the call. On my next near-daily visit to the judge’s chambers, he gave me an account of his meeting with Cooley. When he finished, I asked how the encounter ended.

“Well, I have known Joe for a long time,” he said. “He wasn’t entirely wrong, but he wouldn’t back down and I respect that. As I was leaving, he told me that if I didn’t like his editorials, I should write a letter. Or buy my own newspaper.”

As I hung up the phone on that August Friday some months later, I silently prayed that I hadn’t crossed Joe Cooley, whom I’d come to deeply admire and respect. Minutes later, Cooley was offering me a seat in his office. I took it and braced for impact.

“I’m taking two weeks’ vacation starting Monday,” he said. “Would you like to fill in for me and write the editorials?”

Following a “hum-a-nah, hum-a-nah” stammer a la Jackie Gleason, I accepted the offer, which included the use of the editor’s office and access to his Rolodex plus all other rights, titles, honors and privileges except for hiring and firing. The temporary job came with a word of advice: “Pick your battles,” Joe Cooley said.

The next two weeks passed blissfully. On his return, Cooley noted with approval the absence of torch-bearing mobs in the parking lot and a “barely noticeable and easily fixed” subtle, left-leaning adjustment of the paper’s generally conservative editorial stance.

Joe Cooley’s advice came to mind the other day when an online feature story popped up. With a mildly disparaging overtone, the article listed a dozen or so “myths” that members of the baby boom generation are believed to (foolishly) hold dear. They included Richard Nixon’s impeachment (he wasn’t impeached; he resigned the presidency) and George Washington’s “wooden” teeth (they actually were a combination of human and animal teeth, ivory and metal).

The article, and many others like it, serve to “frame the antagonism currently being directed to older adults,” writes therapist Lawrence R. Samuel, author of “Age Friendly: Ending Ageism in America” (2021). Instead of yielding to the temptation of fighting fire with fire, Samuel argues that older adults should heed their generation’s own history and “learn much from more successful equal rights movements to address age-based discrimination” and deepen mutual understanding.

That’s not just picking a “battle”; it could cancel one. Better yet.

D.R. “Dusty” Bahlman may be reached at [email protected] or 413-441-4278.