In November 2017, the American Journalism Historians Association presented me with its Local Journalist Award, given to one person in the state where the organization holds its annual convention.
A fellow Arkansas journalist and university professor, Donna Stephens, above left, introduced me. Suddenly, all of the tough questions I’d asked university presidents, politicians, and even criminals seemed distant as I stepped onto the stage, my voice slightly trembling and my feet unsteady in the high heels I rarely wear.
I glanced at the audience. There stood the publisher of the newspaper for which I work, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Beside him was president of the company which owns the newspaper and the managing editor.
Still nervous, I knew I wanted to thank them and many others who had played roles in my career, people like my first boss, editor Dorothy Stuck,
Mrs. Stuck gave me my first job as a teenager at the weekly Marked Tree Tribune in northeast Arkansas. She was one of the few editors I’ve ever known who actually did stop the presses. That was on June 6, 1968, the day Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet. Mrs. Stuck quickly typed an editorial. I still remember the headline, “As a Nation Thinketh….”
A few years later, a legendary and often combative Arkansas journalist gave me my first full-time job at The Associated Press in Little Rock. His name was John Robert Starr. And if he were here today, he might take credit for my being an aggressive reporter. I shall not forget the time he called me into his office in the 70s. I was in my 20s, naive and totally unaware of anything remotely amiss in Mr. Starr’s life. He told me I was not being aggressive enough when I questioned newsmakers. I disagreed. He said, “OK, ask me a tough question.” Out of nowhere, I said, “Have you ever had an affair?” He stared at me, was silent a few seconds, and then said I could leave. He never answered my question.
My AP job later took me to Atlanta, Louisville, and Chicago, where I spent most of my adult career. That’s where I interviewed a young Donald Trump when he and other USFL team owners were trying to save the dying league. The most remarkable thing about that interview is that an AP editor even saw fit to send me to cover a USFL meeting. I’m not a sports buff. I mean I get the Cubs and the Bears mixed up. The next most interesting thing is that I forgot about meeting Trump until a sports writer reminded me a few years later.
For some reason, I’ve never been easily intimidated by the rich or the powerful. In the early 80s, I was working the desk at the Little Rock AP on a Friday night. If you know anything about Arkansas, you know that newsrooms are incredibly busy during football season.
Earlier that day, I had called a young Bill Clinton who was trying to regain Arkansans’ favor and return to the governor’s mansion. I was working on a story about him and the death penalty, a topic almost as controversial in Arkansas as prep football. About 9:30 that night, Clinton called me back.
“I can’t talk to you now,” I told him. “It’s prep football night.”
“That’s OK,” he said. “You can call me later.”
“Well, it’s going to be late,” I said. “Maybe 11or 12.”
About midnight, I called him back. He answered the phone and my questions.
Yes, I’ve been around long enough to remember when Clinton sported an Afro hairdo, Hillary wore UFO-style glasses, and Clinton’s first PR man was the only one he could afford then — his younger brother Roger, Arkansas’ version of the late Billy Carter.
When I look back on my decades in journalism, a few events stand out. Among them were my interviews with former President Carter, an incredibly humble man; a bizarre conservation I had with the late Ann Landers when she endorsed masturbation as safe sex; and Michael Jackson’s breaking into a song as he testified during a plagiarism trial in Chicago in the 1980s.
But the story that lingers with me the most was among my first. It happened in 1972 when a young Air Force lieutenant was shot down over North Vietnam. I interviewed his family by phone. For years, Steve Musselman of Texarkana was listed as missing in action. Not long ago I began thinking about the people I’ve written about and sometimes forgotten. So, I did a Google search of Musselman’s name. On July 7, 1981, Hanoi returned his and two other servicemen’s remains, incomplete and packed in separate, small wooden boxes.
So, to you my colleagues, I stress that our stories, no matter how serious, controversial or humorous, are about real people. We may forget many of the people we write about. But they will always matter. And their stories may well go on long after we are done with them.
I also want to thank the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and its readers. Without them, I would have no job. Without good editors, I would have not had the guidance or editing I often needed. I specifically thank Walter Hussman, Nat Lea, David Bailey, Danny Shameer, Steve Goff, and former editor Heidi White. I offer a special thank you to the late Bill Simmons, who more than once put me in my place when I was starting out at the AP and who recommended me for this job.
Finally, I want to thank my family for their support and understanding of the words, “I’m working late. We’ll fend for ourselves tonight.”
(The above is an edited version of the speech I gave to the American Journalism Historians Association in November 2017.)