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Knowing the consequences

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February 25, 2006

Amanda, a long-time reader from Tampa, wants to know if I consider the consequences of what I write before publishing such stories.

“It appears you enjoy stirring the pot,” she wrote in an email. “Don’t you ever worry about how what you write affects people?”

Oh yeah Amanda. More than you know.

I started in journalism more than 40 years ago and began writing my first opinion column while working for The Roanoke Times in Virginia in 1967. I continued writing a column after moving to The Alton Telegraph in 1969 and wrote two a week until I left the paper at the end of February in 1981. Controversy swirled about the columns at both papers.

But I learned the truth can get you into a world of hurt long before becoming a journalist. I was a second grader at Floyd Elementary School in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia when my mother, determined to be a modern woman, told me the truth about Santa Claus. So I went to school the next day and told my classmates Santa Claus didn’t exist and several started crying. Thelma Houchins, my second-grade teacher, dispatched me to the principal’s office where my honesty earned three days detention.

A few years later, our family moved to Farmville, VA, and shortly after we arrived the Prince Edward County School board refused a federal court order to integrate the public schools, choosing instead to open an all-white private school that anyone who wasn’t black could attend.

The Ku Klux Klan operated in Prince Edward County in those days although county officials and local law swore the Klan didn’t exist. One night, when I was 12, a friend and I crawled through the woods to a field to witness a Klan rally five miles outside of Farmville. I snapped pictures of the event on my YashicaMat twin-lens reflex camera and took the film to Ben Bowers, then city editor of The Farmville Herald.

Bowers asked me to take him to the spot where I shot the photos. He saw the trampled grass from those attending the meeting, smelled the kerosene from the burning cross and looked at the singed grass.

“Good lord son,” he said. “You’ve got one hell of a scoop here.”

The Herald published the photo and paid me $25 for it. The next day four kids at school, all sons of Klansmen, cornered me in the playground and gave me a beating I still remember. Once again, I learned the truth can hurt.

In Roanoke, I often looked for stores away from the mainstream articles the Times liked to publish. In 1967, I interviewed a teenage girl who sought out an abortion (illegal at the time). She talked about her experiences in graphic detail and I put those details in the story which sparked a heated debate among editors at the paper. Howard Eanes, the assistant managing editor, did not want to publish it.

“This is a family newspaper,” he argued. “We don’t print sensationalist material like this.” Eanes also said he doubted the story was true.

Woody Middleton, the managing editor, agreed with Eanes so I took the story to executive editor Barton Morris who read it, liked it, and overruled Eanes and Middleton. The story ran on the front of the local news section on a Sunday and sparked widespread community uproar along with a visit from the Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney who wanted to slap me in jail for daring to write a story about a young woman who, at the time, committed a felony by having an abortion.

I refused to cooperate, the paper backed me, and the furor died down. Three months later, the Virginia Press Association honored the story with a first prize in the annual state news writing competition.  I was right but my relationship with both my managing editor and his assistant went downhill from there.

In Alton, I wrote about crooked politicians, cops on the take and what I saw as the injustice of racism. As politicians went to jail, and new awards adorned the wall over my desk, my reputation as a muckraker increased and I began to understand, and too sometimes abuse, the power of the press to sway public opinion. My ego, never small, grew to monumental proportions.

People with stories to tell sought me out at local bars and restaurants or called me at work and home. One night, a kid from the Madison County jail called to say he had been a prisoner for more than a year without being convicted of a crime.  He said county prosecutor Robert Trone wouldn’t offer a deal because he was poor and black.

It sounded like my kind of story so I started checking it out and found the kid, Larry Brown, had in fact been in jail for 15 months on an armed robbery charge after a mistrial and a hung jury. At the same time, two white kids about the same age, both from prominent families in Alton, pulled an arm robbery but didn’t spend a single night in jail because a judge released them on their own recognizance and their family brought forward a parade of “character witnesses” that included the town mayor, two local priests and several prominent businessmen. The same judge gave both kids suspended sentences.

So I wrote the story and turned it into a classic case of white vs. black, rich vs. poor and the double standard of justice in the local court system. Trone, now an embarrassed prosecutor, offered Brown the same deal as the two rich white kids and a judge quickly released him.

For the next few days, I reveled in my power to jump start the wheels of justice – the recipient of free drinks in most town bars and congratulations from people on the streets.

Two weeks later, Brown walked into a local pharmacy with a gun and demanded drugs and money from the pharmacist, an elderly man in his 60s. When the man didn’t move fast enough, Brown pumped several slugs into his chest and fled. The pharmacist died before paramedics arrived but police ID’d Brown from a video surveillance camera and arrested him that night.

When I heard the news I went to a bar and crawled into a bottle. I resigned from the paper and walked away from journalism.  It would be more than 20 years before I climbed out of that bottle and returned to the profession I loved.

So anyone who thinks I don’t carefully consider the consequences of every word that I write doesn’t know a damn thing about me or my life. I’ve been there, done that and lived the pain.