Va. Columnist Survives Protest Campaign

By: Barbara Bedway

In his two years as a columnist for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., Rick Mercier has gotten some spirited feedback for his take on a variety of subjects, including race, the death penalty, and U.S. foreign policy. But a recent column criticizing conservative columnists for attempting to discredit the antiwar movement “definitely has generated the most heat,” said Mercier.

Early this month, one local reader, John Goolrick — who works as an aide to U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va. — attempted to initiate an e-mail and phone campaign to get the columnist fired. Goolrick’s Feb. 6 e-mail message referred to Mercier’s “anti-American” columns and current position as editor of the Sunday “Viewpoints” section. He suggested recipients contact Josiah P. Rowe III, the paper’s publisher, and Paul E. Akers, its editorial-page editor. Goolrick said he was also sending his plea to all veterans’ organizations in the area.

Akers, however, told E&P that Mercier’s job is safe. “If anything, his job here is more secure than it was before,” he said pointedly. “If you’re a newspaperman, you sure don’t want to bow to outside pressure. Rick and I frequently disagree on things, but he brings in a variety of points of view — and that makes for stimulating reading.” He added that the “campaign” against Mercier never caught fire: “The main reaction I’ve gotten has been in defense of Rick’s right to do his job as he sees fit.”

Goolrick told E&P in an e-mail message last week that he did not want to comment further on the matter: “Mr. Mercier has a right to print whatever he wants even though I disagree with it. And incidentally whatever I said about Mercier was my opinion and had no connection with any person or group [with which] I might be otherwise affiliated.”

“I do believe Goolrick is speaking as a private citizen,” said Mercier, who was recently named a World Affairs Journalism Fellow by the International Center for Journalists. “But if private citizen Ari Fleischer started a campaign to get a columnist fired from The Washington Post, it would be newsworthy precisely because of his job.”

Ironically, this month the newspaper published a column Goolrick wrote in the “Viewpoints” section — which Mercier edits.

Mercier said he believes that “journalists need to remember you’ve got to say what you think. The reason we do this is to raise questions that need to be raised in a democratic society. The risk is you’re going to be really unpopular for speaking your mind, but that’s the responsibility of a reporter — especially in times like these.”

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