I've long regarded social media with disdain. While there are some good things that have come from social media platforms — keeping in touch with old friends and family — much of the social media world has become a swamp of misinformation, disinformation and distortions.

Such was the case last week when some took to social media to blast this newspaper about a headline on a story about the death of Franklin County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Garner.

That headline read: "Whistleblower Garner killed in Sunday night wreck"

One person posted that they thought our uses of the word "whistleblower" didn't respect Garner. Pretty soon, other people piled on with their own comments, many of whom had obviously never even read the story or knew what it was about.

It didn't take long for the social media frenzy to distort the entire thing as an anti-cop conspiracy by this newspaper.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

•••

The simple explanation for using the word "whistleblower" in the headline was to identify who the story was about. I wrote that headline and used the word "whistleblower" to identify Garner to our readers and to give context for why we were running the story.

Here's why:

This newspaper's main news story focus is to cover what happens in Jackson County. While we sometimes tie in regional and state events if they have a local impact (and we write opinion articles on state and national issues), our main news coverage focus is Jackson County.

At the time of his death, Deputy Garner was not working in Jackson County; he was a sheriff's deputy in Franklin County.

Garner did not live in Jackson County; he lived in Bethlehem in Barrow County.

The wreck in which Garner died didn't happen in Jackson County; it happened in Franklin County when he stopped to help another motorist.

So why did we cover Deputy Garner's death if it wasn't related to Jackson County? And why was it the top story on the front page July 22?

Because Garner at one time did work in Jackson County and was part of one of the county's biggest news stories.

If we had said "Deputy Garner killed in Sunday night wreck," very few of our readers would have known who we were talking about; moreover, it would have implied that a Jackson County deputy had been killed in a wreck, which wasn't the situation.

But a lot of people remember the "whistleblower" controversy in Pendergrass and related news articles and television coverage. The term "whistleblower" was used dozens, maybe hundreds, of times and became shorthand for a complex set of events.

Identifying Garner with that attribution was an attempt to provide context about who had been killed and why it was important in Jackson County.

It was not, as some have claimed on social media, a slam at Bill Garner, or at law enforcement officers in general.

It was, in fact, a recognition of his key role in fighting against what he and others saw as small town corruption.

•••

I suspect some of the backlash on social media posted last week against me and this newspaper comes from the tone of our times.

Law enforcement is under an intense national microscope following the George Floyd protests. Some radical left-wing groups are calling to defund police departments.

The nation is a hothouse right now with protests and clashes with law enforcement officials. All of that has polarized and politicized issues surrounding law enforcement, especially in larger American cities.

All of that has created a hyper-sensitivity among some in law enforcement. Legitimate discussion over police training are seen as an attack on all law enforcement. The overall atmosphere has become an "us vs. them" mentality.

Still, it was a huge stretch for anyone to read our headline as being anti-cop. There was no negative implication in the headline or news story itself.

I'm also amazed — stunned, really — that so many thought the term "whistleblower" has a negative connotation.

Is that because of all the controversy over various "whistleblowers" who have appeared before Congress in recent years?

"Whistleblower" has always referred to someone who called out corruption, especially public corruption. Since when is being a "whistleblower" something bad or negative?

The truth is, I owe Garner a long-standing debt of gratitude and would have never written anything meant to disrespect his memory. Quite the opposite.

•••

To fully understand the context of the larger Garner story, you have to understand exactly what he, and others, did that was so important in Jackson County.

In 2009, Garner and several other employees of the City of Pendergrass blew the lid off the small town, alleging corruption and misuse of public resources. When internal complaints didn't work, Garner and his colleagues hired a lawyer, who set up an hours-long meeting with myself and television reporter Randy Travis. We were given hundreds of documents, copies of internal city files that seemed to bolster the claims being made by the group of "whistleblowers."

When we broke the stories and the allegations went public, a huge outcry ensued. Four city employees were fired. A recall was attempted. The story went viral.

Through all of that, Garner remained in the saddle as a policeman in Pendergrass.

Here's part of a 2009 news story that gives you a sense of what Garner endured:

"Pendergrass whistleblower Bill Garner is the only one of the three (whistleblowers) who continues to work for Pendergrass, but he says it’s obvious the city wants him to quit. Policeman Garner was not fired last month when Mayor Monk Tolbert ousted four others, two of whom, along with Garner, had complained about corruption in the town.

"But Garner said this week that the city is attempting to make his job difficult by locking him out of city hall and by having him work out of the old police department building which now has no air conditioning or telephone...

"Garner also alleges that misuse of city property continues in the town. One city vehicle is missing, he said, and he believes a city employee is using it for personal driving..."

That's just a small part of what was happening at that time in Pendergrass. There were a lot more allegations and issues during the controversy.

No criminal charges were ever filed against city officials over the whistleblower allegations. But Garner and one other whistleblower did pursue wrongful termination lawsuits, a court fight that Garner and his colleague eventually won and which is currently on appeal.

•••

So Bill Garner, as a whistleblower, was trying to do what he thought was right.

His action, and that of his fellow whistleblowers, unmasked the underbelly of small town politics and exposed a lot of questionable actions by city officials. He stood up to fight and refused to back down, even when that would have made sense for him to do.

He didn't have to take on city hall.

He didn't have to get involved in the controversy.

He didn't have to stick with the lawsuit for over a decade in a bid to clear his name and prove that he was wrongfully targeted and forced to resign.

In doing all of that, Garner and the other whistleblowers sent a warning to every other public agency in Jackson County and the state. Their example let other public officials know that when they stray from the public trust, there will always be employees who are willing to call them out, to blow the whistle and question their conduct.

I cannot say that I was close to Bill Garner during all of that. But I did cover him and the Pendergrass story for the past 11 years. I met with him and the other whistleblowers several times. I saw him at various court hearings. I listened to hours of tape recordings he did with city officials (Garner wore a wire for a while to record city officials during the controversy.) I spoke with him a number of times.

Based on all of that, I think Bill Garner tried to do the right thing when he worked in Pendergrass. I came to admire him and the others who dared to challenge authority.

•••

So to all those on social media who criticized our use of "whistleblower" in the headline about Bill's untimely death, you're wrong. It was not a pejorative. It was not meant to dishonor his memory. It was not anti-law enforcement.  It was simply a way to give context to who the story was about for Jackson County readers, nothing more.

I do wish that at the time the story was written we'd had information about the plans for his funeral. But he died on Sunday night and the story for the newspaper was written less than 24-hours later, before those details were known.

To his family, Bill was more than just a deputy; he was someone they loved and cared about.

To his fellow law enforcement officers, he was a colleague, a soulmate in Blue who shared the same fears and dangers that they do.

But in Jackson County, he was more than just a family man. He was more than just a badge.

He was a man who fought for what was right; a man who endured a large amount of professional abuse because he confronted those in power; and a man who set an example for all who care about public trust and integrity. He shined a bright light into some dark corners.

Bill Garner will be remembered in Jackson County not for how he died, but rather for how he lived and what he stood for.

His legacy lives on.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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