The Perils of Journalism

Bob Litton in office at Monahans News in 1980

The author in his office at the Monahans News in the early 1980s. He believed it was always advantageous to look severe–or serious at least–when visitors intruded on his daily cogitations.

© 2014 Photos and Text By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Most of the folks who have read my blog posts over the past two years are aware that my only “professional” jobs were as a journalist and sometime school teacher. (I’m not sure whether Food Stamps and AFDC eligibility caseworker for the State of Texas fits into the professional category, since only two years of college, with any major, were required for that position.) And as for carpet sales, I put too many years into that; it was always a stop-gap measure while I tried to figure out what I really was capable of doing.  Anyway, I have always considered journalism as my true calling, despite its hazards.

Yes, life in the newsgathering world can be risky: Just recall the numerous reporters and photojournalists who have been imprisoned or killed in the Middle East, in Mexico, in China and in North Korea. But we have a dangerous situation here in the United States, too, although not as extensively nor as intensively, yet, as in other nations.

Years ago, I was very subtly threatened by a county sheriff. Oh, that was an adventure! The sheriff had been caught by the feds using funds designated for prisoners’ meals for his own benefit; he was placed on probation and was allowed a much smaller pay check, I suppose until he restituted the funds he had pilfered. All that occurred before I took up the job of reporter for the small daily in that West Texas town. However, while I was working there, the county attorney took me aside one day and informed me that the sheriff was regularly soliciting contributions of five bucks each from county employees. I didn’t know what the county attorney expected me to do about the situation; it looked to me like a job more appropriate for his office.

Then one day, I got a telephone invitation from the sheriff’s secretary inviting me to a little get-together over at the courthouse. I went. Inside, I was directed to an average sized meeting room where a bunch of the deputies and the secretary were sitting around looking at a birthday cake; it just happened to be the sheriff’s birthday. Although not especially small, that room, filled with all those people, looked cramped. I couldn’t believe I had been summoned away from my desk for a birthday party! I suddenly felt trapped; it reminded me of that scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood where Robin (Erroll Flynn) “crashes” a Norman feast, toting a dead deer over his shoulders, and engages King John in a bout of threats and insults before he is attacked by a roomful of the sheriff’s henchmen. I was not as bold as Robin, but I managed to sit through the rigmarole, which included a speech by the sheriff in which, at one point, he subtly threatened me in a manner that could be defended as jocosity. I can’t remember the exact words but it was something about finding me out on a dirt road.

That incident did not happen in Monahans, but in Pecos. However, I faced a few threats in Monahans as well. In most cases they were not threats of physical harm, and one, in fact, did not appear to be directed toward me individually but against the newspaper building or City Hall, which was right across the street. I had been out gathering news one afternoon, and, on my return, another staff member told me that a small explosion had occurred out in the street. The concussion had broken the pane of one of the newspaper’s plate glass windows; City Hall had no windows facing the street there. However, a young woman walking down the sidewalk had been frightened nearly out of her wits.  I wrote a column for the next edition castigating the anonymous prankster — if in fact it had been only a prank. Borrowing the term from a Marlon Brando film (One-eyed Jacks), I called him a “gob of spit” and invited him to sue me for libel. The next day, I was getting my haircut, when our local barber opined to one of his other customers waiting in a chair, “I don’t think anybody is going to take Bob up on that invitation to sue.”

On another occasion, the threat was more direct.  One young man whom I had listed in the “Police Report” as being charged with DWI came to my office and asked me why I had put him in the report. I explained to him that I reported all arrests for any offense from public intoxication on up. He left, but the next day I noticed him across the street, lurking in an alleyway and half hidden by the corner wall of City Hall. He was gazing at the newspaper building. I called the police station and asked the sergeant who answered to go out the back entrance and come up the alleyway behind my presumed potential assailant. Before he could do that, however, the suspect came across the street and into the newspaper office. The sergeant followed him and stood in my office, against the window, while my visitor voiced his negative opinion about me and “Police Report”, then left. A few months later, I heard that the visitor had shot a Border Patrol agent to death in El Paso, where he had reportedly moved. My informant told me that he had been acquitted of murder, manslaughter or whatever.

Backing up a bit in time, one day during the first month of my term in Monahans, the citizens were shocked by two deadly motor accidents in a single day. The first collision occurred on the Kermit highway just a few miles north of Monahans. Two pickup trucks collided head on, while the morning sky was clear. Two men in the southbound truck were killed; as was the driver, alone, in the northbound truck. I drove out to the site to photograph the scene and get a report from the investigating officers. One of my photos — remarkably evocative in the narrative and the artistic senses — revealed the single driver’s leg in front of the seat, twisted abnormally and protruding through the open door of his truck. One of the investigating officers told me that a letter found in the latter truck led him to believe the driver had been reading while driving.

I had the issue before me of whether to publish that photo: to do so would bring it home to the public that vehicles are not the only things damaged in a collision, but their occupants as well; to not publish it would spare the deceased’s family the additional pain of viewing their relative’s painfully unpleasant last moment spread on the front page. I decided not to publish, although I have pondered that event since then several times and have concluded that I should have done so; it might have caused readers to be more cautious. A state trooper at the time urged me to pictorially publish a subsequent violent scene, saying, “We have feelings, too. We don’t like viewing those accidents, but we have to.”

I was still struggling with my decision on that accident when, at dusk, another accident happened on the west-bound lane of a street not far from the newspaper office. An elderly woman, who police believed might have been blinded by the setting sun’s glare, rammed her car into trailer that was parked on the side of the street; she died. The woman and her car had been cleared away by the time I got there. The investigating officer speculated that the setting sun’s glare had blinded the old lady.

The next day, a state trooper came to the newspaper office and asked me to write a column urging people to keep their eyes on the road while driving. I did so, rightfully supposing he had been referring to the first accident described above. However, after the paper was distributed that Thursday, the grown grand-daughter of the woman who died in the second accident came in and upbraided me for insinuating that her grand-mother “had her head up her ass”. Of course, that had not been my meaning at all, but I did not dispute her accusation: she was angry, grieving, and seemingly not rational enough for any explanation. Also, I did not know but what the old lady might have been distracted or too old to be driving. But it did not end there, the grand-daughter tried to get her two male cousins to beat me up, which, after discussing the matter with me, they declined to do. Then, a year or so later I saw her in one of the bars; and when she noticed me she started whispering to a young man on a stool beside her. He glanced around at me, then turned to her and shook his head, indicating “no”. That was the last time I saw her.

On a lighter note, I was enjoying beer and a pool game one Saturday afternoon at Charlie Chailland’s Game Room when we heard a crash outside. A few minutes later, a policeman came inside and said to me, “Bob, looks like you’ve got a new car coming.” I followed him outside and saw where a “nipple up trailer” had become disconnected from the truck that was hauling it (while the truck was turning left) proceeded across the street, and struck my Ford Pinto. The neck of the trailer had ploughed through the driver’s side door and hit the hump right above the transmission. If I had been in that vehicle I would have lost at least one leg. Fortunately, the nipple up service was owned by one of our local auto dealers. We settled for a couple of hundred dollars above the Blue Book value of my car and a new truck at wholesale price.

While all that negotiating was going on, however, I needed something to carry me from one news event to another; so I bought a bicycle. One day during this interim, the newspaper publisher and I decided to do a little “horsing around”.  So we unplugged my phone, gathered my .30-.30 rifle and my notepad, and went out into the street for a photo shoot. However, we did not publish that particular photo, but another one…minus the rifle and the phone…shown below:

Bob on the job after a trailer wrecked his car

Not all journalistic risks are actual; there are also those fantasy hazards. One day, for instance, a Star Wars character copy-cat wandered into town promoting something, although I do not remember just what. We chatted awhile and then horsed-around awhile, pretending that Darth Vader was doing the local editor in. Our conversation was pleasant and I suppose interesting but not interesting enough for me to put in the paper; I don’t think we published this photo there, so this is a first time publication of Darth Vader attacking Bob. A few months later, I read in another periodical that this Darth Vader wannabe (or perhaps another just like him) had been ordered by New Mexico authorities to cease their promotion game or face civil action:

bob and darth

Well, so much for the perils of reporting. You might be able to gauge from the above why I suffer from just a slight case of paranoia.

Be cautious out there..especially if you’re a journalist. Okay?

Finis

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lohr McKinstry on December 16, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Bob, was that the office on the left as you came in the door? I had only a cubicle to the right as editor. Pearson’s office was behind me.

  2. Yes, Lohr, it was. When I began my job at the MN, I, too, was located on the right, beside the door. The society editor used the far left office. When she resigned I moved into her office. In this blog post, the episode involving the two accidents occurred while I was using the same desk you had occupied. By the time of my confrontations with the DWI complainer I had moved into the office.

  3. Posted by Lohr McKinstry on December 16, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Beverly Bose was the society editor who had the nice office, as I recall. Good work upgrading your space.
    One of my problems was the school superintendent at the time, who told me not to write about the new school budget. When I didn’t say aye-aye, he called Pearson Cooper to relay the directive.
    To show what the superintendent thought of the News, at School Board meetings he made me sit at a child’s school desk I had to squeeze into. I was never sure whether it was a joke, or he just didn’t want any news coverage and tried to discourage it that way.

  4. Thanks, Lohr. My single problem with that superintendent, who I assume was Lathan Walker, was much less significant than yours; it had to do with the Baptist church wanting to rent the school’s new multi-purpose building for a revival. He retired about the same time I left, I believe, and the school board renamed the junior high school with his moniker.
    Your little anecdote adds a bit of humorous luster to my blog post, citing as it does another way impedimenta can be placed in a journalist’s path. Thank you for that.
    BTW, Bose was succeeded by Marilyn Ann Cornelius (nee Hunt); and it was after Marilyn left that I took over that office. Pearson grumped briefly about that move, but I had his brother and his father on my side by then.

  5. Posted by Lohr McKinstry on December 16, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Lathan Walker was the superintendent. I remember Pearson took me to the school, which he said had an outstanding band. The band director gave me a vinyl album of their marching songs.

  6. I like the severe look.

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