PAT NEAL: Free speech isn’t free

Pat Neal, left, and former Peninsula Daily News editor and publisher John Brewer. (Pat Neal)

Pat Neal, left, and former Peninsula Daily News editor and publisher John Brewer. (Pat Neal)

There were giants in the land. We lost one last week.

John Brewer died on a fishing trip on the Bitteroot River north of Darby, Mont., last Friday. According to the Ravalli County Sheriff’s office, John’s raft hit a logjam and flipped over. Two other men in the raft made it to shore. John did not.

John was the longtime editor and publisher of the Peninsula Daily News. He piloted the paper into the digital age while dealing with changes in ownership. All the while supporting community nonprofit corporations like “The Home Fund.” This provided a safety net in emergency situations for Olympic Peninsula residents who had nowhere else to turn.

It was no wonder that after 50 years as a coast-to-coast AP journalist, he just wanted to retire and go fishing.

According to a PDN article, John had discussed his preferred way of passing from this life. He wanted to go fly fishing. It all sort of makes sense.

Fishing is a spiritual activity where we offer a gift to something unseen in hopes of being rewarded with the unknown. It could be the fish of a lifetime or an empty garbage sack. Which can put up quite a fight in a fast current with light tackle. All of which makes us hope for the best and have faith in every cast.

It’s only natural for older people to consider their last day on Earth. It’s not a question of if but when. We all have a shelf life.

One of the perks of the Golden Years is watching your friends die. Which can make you consider your own mortality and preferred cause of death.

Over the years of guiding on the rivers, I must have heard them all. One dude said he wanted to get shot by a jealous husband. I would like to die in my sleep, while rowing the Hell-Roaring Rapids in the Hoh River. Then I could rest in peace. Unlike the poor people in the front of the boat.

As a journalist, John was a champion of the First Amendment and free speech. Even speech he disagreed with. All of which put him in the center of conflicts in which he had no involvement other than printing diverging opinions. For this, journalists are called “the enemy of the people,” and “fake news” by people who disagree with free speech.

Some think free speech means free newspapers. If I had a dollar for every time someone complained about having to pay to read the newspaper, I wouldn’t have to work. People don’t understand journalists might object to showing up every day to work for free.

Free speech isn’t free. Journalists are held accountable in the court of public opinion for everything they think, do or say. I found out the hard way when I asked John Brewer for a job as a columnist critical of the salmon restoration industry in general and of their dangerous program of putting engineered log jams in our navigable rivers in particular.

At the time, I had been kicked out of so many newspapers there was a permanent stain on my trousers for being a misanthropic malcontent spewing vituperative invective in a crude attempt at humor. John hired me anyway.

Critics blamed John for the stuff I wrote. John took the heat and printed it anyway.

Despite disagreements, we were fishing buddies. That’s the new endangered species in this country, friends that disagree. Without them life is boring. Then John died in a logjam and I have no words.

Free speech isn’t free.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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