Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
I don’t think I’ve told you that I nailed down my first real newspaper job by stealing. The story helps me make the point that journalism today is much straighter, reflective and responsible, but not as much fun or as personally rewarding.
I call what I learned participatory journalism, when my contemporaries and I took pleasure in righting wrongs.
I walked into the city room of The Houston Chronicle, the leading afternoon daily at 7:30 AM on Monday, March 6, 1953, and the city editor, Allison Sanders, a Victorian kind of gentleman in his fifties with a bushy white mustache, told me to sit. Mr. Sanders wore suspenders, smoked a corncob pipe and kept a Chinese back scratcher handy.
He had offered me a job a few days earlier and I didn’t know what to expect, so I sat. And waited. It was not quite nine when he gave me an assignment: “Find me a water pistol.”
Not certain that I heard him correctly I went out into the downtown morning rush, wondering (1) why does he want a water pistol? and (2) where can I find one as this hour? I had been living in Houston for only a few months.
Long story short: At the Woolworth’s on Main Street, the food counters were open for morning coffee, but the merchandise areas were closed and covered with sheets. I stayed low and peeked under the sheets until I came to the toy section.
I found a water pistol and tried to leave enough money to pay for it, but all I had was a five dollar bill my wife had given me for my lunch and not enough change. But I left what change I had, hid the pistol in my pocket and stole out of the store certain I’d be caught for shoplifting.
Back at the city room, still unsure that I had what Mr. Sanders wanted, I gave him the pistol. I later learned it was to be used as a prop for a pretty, busty woman to pose with. The purpose was to illustrate a hyped story about how women, with a water pistol filled with a lye solution, could defend themselves against some nut who was accosting them at bus stops, feeling their breasts and fleeing.
Anyway, when the first deadline had passed, Mr. Sanders asked me where I got the pistol. I told him the truth. He grunted something that sounded like approval and sent me to the police station as the number 3 police reporter at $50 a week.
The photo of my pistol made page one. I had begun my love affair with journalism, but I quickly learned that stealing that pistol was not as challenging as, say, getting a photo of an accident or murder victim for the paper. Didn’t you ever wonder how the papers and TV people get such pictures?
These days that task goes to some flunky, copy person or a very junior producer. In my early days it was the reporter’s responsibility to wheedle a photo from the bereaved family. The great Chicago reporter Ben Hecht (who co-wrote the classic, Front Page), told the hilarious story in Child of the Century of when he was assigned to get a photo of a murdered mobster.
He went to the wake and found the only picture of the deceased hanging on the wall over the casket, which was placed on a couple of sawhorses. As I recall, Hecht climbed on the saw horses and casket to get the photo and leave before any of the wake celebrants caught wise.
Well, when I was a junior police reporter, The Front Page came alive every day. One of my jobs was talking the sobbing, nearly hysterical or angry bereaved wife, mother or father into looking around the house to find a suitable photo.
On more than one occasion, I posed as one of the hearse drivers from the funeral home who had come to take the deceased away. I nearly dropped my end of the stretcher once going down a steep flight of stairs, but got the picture. But it forced me to spend time with and listen to suffering people.
I remember vividly the time I made conversation at the murder scene with a 90-year-old woman who had shot her 92-year-old husband between the eyes with the ancient .45 Colt revolver during an argument over whose side of the family would get the pistol when they died. She gave me the picture of her once-handsome husband as the police took the body away. “I did love him, you know,” she told me.
“So why did you shoot him?” I asked.
“Because I loved him,” she said.
These were rough and tumble times in Texas newspapering, and we police and court reporters were aggressive; we had to be. Houston boasted three hotly competing newspapers, the afternoon Chronicle, which was locally owned and went head-to-head against the Scripps-Howard Houston Press as well as the morning Post, owned by the then Health and Welfare Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby, the daughter of a former governor.
There are few cities left with competing newspapers. But competition, however crazy and funny at times, served me and my contemporaries well. It taught us some values that have lasted.
Just about all of us on the police and courthouse beats went as strongly after the cops and courts, when they did wrong, as well as the thieves and killers. I learned to get into the heads of the bad guys while mourning for the victims. A couple of hours in the county hospital emergency room on a Saturday night can teach you a great deal about the human condition and it has no relationship to today’s television dramas.
When I learned that a man named Jasper Self, an old-fashioned, real Texas outlaw if there was one, had been shot by a Texas Ranger while trying to escape, I spent most of a weekend tracking down the story. I don’t know why it interested me. Years before, Self had shot and killed a ranger for which he had spent time in prison. He was warned by the rangers, at the time he went to prison, that he would not live long in freedom. He was killed soon after he was released and it was clear to me it was a case of ranger revenge.
My wife was with me that Saturday as we drove around the state from Houston to a little town near Austin to examine Self’s body at the funeral home. He had been shot in the back of the head while kneeling, the mortician showed me, with pencils in the bullet holes.
Then we drove to the Self family farm to interview and get a photo from his elderly father who greeted me with anger and a shotgun until we calmed him down. And he told me how a couple of rangers came and got his son.
Finally, after dark we drove to Wharton, about an hour out of Houston, where we got the ranger out of a house party to confront him with what I had found. My wife kept watch as he angrily denied murdering Self. But we had the goods on him and a fine story that raised a bit of hell. I don’t recall what happened to the ranger.
My competition covering the courts was a dynamo named Maggie Davis, of the Houston Press. She was near 60, a chain-smoker and so high strung she couldn’t sit still at times. She would relieve her tension sometimes by banging her head on a wall. But she beat the hell out of most reporters who tried to compete with her. I feared her, but found out how she knew so much.
She never had lunch in the courthouse cafeteria. She brought her sandwich to the chamber of the senior criminal court judge who lunched every day with the other jurists and exchanged juicy bits of courthouse gossip and real news. So I joined them.
Not only did it prevent some Maggie exclusives, I got an education in criminal law from the judges. And my stories had the meat of my new expertise. I didn’t need to quote a source; I was able to explain from my own knowledge. That’s something I’ve been doing ever since.
Maggie, who remained my friend, taught me how to dictate a clean story from notes while covering a trial, with fresh leads and inserts as the trial went on. That experience and the pressure of deadline and competition helped, in the days before computers, when I reported from India on its 1971 war with Pakistan and Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Indeed, from time to time, working stories like those or writing my column, I reflect on what she and those early days taught me. In a word, it was good, basic journalism.
Maggie never learned how I was able to scoop her at last on the jury verdict, which came in just before our deadlines in the trial of a poor, dumb kid from the wrong side of town who was convicted in the drive-by shooting of a rich boy, the son of a prominent business man, in the affluent River Oaks section of Houston. The trial had been moved to the town of Halletsville, in south Texas.
When the inevitable verdict – “guilty with the punishment death” – was announced in mid-afternoon, Maggie had trouble getting her call through to her Houston office from the small town. That’s because I had paid a couple of young men to tie up the few long distance lines but hold mine open until our deadlines were gone.
As I said, Maggie never found out, but she would have forgiven me.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Olga Hebert: To My Mom