Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Newspapermen versus "sources"

Richard Justice, sports columnist for the Houston daily, notes in his latest column that Texans General Manager Charley Casserly no longer speaks to him.

It's a hazard of the news business, but unless someone eventually gets ticked off at you, you're probably not doing your job, if you're a newspaperman.

Justice knows this. His mentioning of Casserly's childish slight is his way of getting Charley to get his mind right, and also of embarrassing the football executive.

All of which leads me to yet another trip down Memory Lane.

(Excuse me if I've made note of this before; This seems to be happening a lot in recent years, but I have no desire to do a search of this Weblog to make sure I'm not repeating myself.)

During my first stop in the newspaper business, I found myself covering the Wichita County Courthouse in Wichita Falls, Texas.

I didn't know a lot about a lot of things, and I didn't even know that at the time.

One of the daily checks I made was with a justice of the peace, whose office was in the basement of the courthouse.

He was an affable fellow. He played the fiddle and was known around those parts for his musicianship, before the electorate saw fit to elect him to the bench.

I had been stopping by his office Monday through Friday for a good while, checking to see who'd been charged with what. More often than not, there was no story there worthy of putting onto newsprint.

But one day, I noticed the janitor standing out in the hallway, and he looked perturbed.

The justice of the peace, as part of his duties, performed marriage ceremonies, and the janitor, an African American, let me know that the judge just moments ago had refused to perform a marriage ceremony because the wanting-to-be betrothed was a black man and a white woman.

This was in the latter half of the '70s, but the janitor felt an injustice had been done.

Even though I didn't know a lot about a lot of things, I think I still had pretty good news judgment and this sounded like a story.

Finally! Controversy!

So I went in and talked to the judge about what just occurred.

Right off the bat, he started sputtering and his faced turned red, but he 'fessed up and admitted, yeah, he refused to marry the mixed-race couple. He just didn't think it was right. I didn't argue with him. I just asked questions and wrote down the answers. And the more I asked the more he answered until finally, he took a small container of pills out of his desk and popped one into his mouth.

He was taking a nitroglycerine tablet! Holy shit! He might keel over any minute!!

He didn't.

But he wasn't happy about the story in the next day's paper (positioned on Page 2, no more than 9 or 10 inches long, as it turned out.)

I can't remember how long it took him to start talking to me again. Just a couple days or so, as I recall. We hashed it out and I just told him I didn't write the story to make him look bad and that I was sorry if he was pissed at me. (OK, I lied, I wasn't that sorry; I was just a little uncomfortable with his pissed offness.)

To soften the blow, before I wrote the story, I checked across the hall with the other justice of the peace, who said he too refused to perform interracial marriage ceremonies. When I asked him why, he said it was against his religion, which, of course, led to me to ask what religion he was, to which he said, "Episcopalian."

Which I naturally put in the story. I think it was the last line of the piece. It made for a good "kicker" in my judgment.

A couple days later I got a letter from the local Episcopalian minister who wrote that he got a good laugh out of the second JP's comment to me, and assured me there was no such prohbition in the church against interracial marriages. I told him I didn't think there was, as I was raised a "Whiskeypalian" and had even served as an acolyte in my youth.

The day after the story ran, an older, more experienced reporter on my paper's sister publication, which was published in the afternoons (back when afternoon papers still existed), caught me as I was coming into the office and he was leaving for home.

"Hell of a story. Hell of a story," he said.

That cemented it in my young newspaperman's mind. Sometimes it's definitely worth pissing off the powers-that-be to get a good story.

And, like I said, the first JP, as well as the second, got over it in due time and it wasn't long before we were all back on speaking terms.

That's how Charley Casserly should handle his problem with Justice. If he doesn't, Justice will just keep twisting the knife. It's just the way things work in a country with a free press.


Leigh said...

Hell of a story, Banjo! Hell of a story.

Anonymous said...

Casserly is a freakin' tool!

Kevin said...

His mentioning of Casserly's childish slight is his way of getting Charley to get his mind right, and also of embarrassing the football executive.

Eh, it could also be that Richard is just a bit unstable.

He's been EVERYWHERE in his thinking of Casserly, right down to changing an old blog post long after he wrote something critical to make it less critical.

Indeed, who was the main journalist lapping it up and repeating it when Casserly was whining to reporters that this debacle of a season was all the fault of the coaches, he was just the guy who did what they wanted and got contracts done?

Yep, one Richard Justice.

And now he's criticizing it? All because Casserly cut him off for some reason?

Yeah, I'm going with the "unstable" explanation.

Your story was a darn good read, though. As usual. :)

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Justice and Casserley had lunch together yesterday. This is according to RJ.

Banjo Jones said...

Strappin' on the feedbag always facilitates reconciliations. I wonder who picked up the tab. Cause if Charley grabbed the check, I'm afraid Justice will have to be reported to the Journalism Ethics Police, which travels throughout the US interstate highway system in an unmarked, mid-80s Econoline van, waiting to be dispatched to the latest hotspot. Tell us more when you know, Mr. Anonymous.

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