Friday, June 24, 2016


In his song "Souvenirs" the late, great Chicago folk singer, songwriter Steve Goodmam came up with this in his lyrics:
     Memories, they can't be boughten
     They can't be won a carnivals for free
     Well, it took me years
     To get those souvenirs
     And I don't know how they slipped away from me

Well, I was in the garage earlier this week weeding through boxes of sourvenirs from my 45-year career in newspaper newsrooms -- with the intent of getting rid of stuff I really didn't want -- when I came across a picture frame containing a white name tag enclosed in a clear, plastic sleeve with a swatch of red ribbon attached and a purpling with age 3 x 5 photograph of three guys in tuxedos, each with a name tag and red ribbon pinned on them. The ribbon has gold leaf on it reading "DSA (Distinguished Service Award) Winner." Here is the photo: 

The three tux-clad mokes are (from left to right): Me, then assistant managing editor; Mark Thompson, then Washington Bureau reporter; and the late Jack Tinsley, then executive editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The photograph was shot in 1985 in Salt Lake City where Mark, Jack and I had just picked up the Society of Professional Journalists national Distinguished Service Award for Public Service in Journalism. The newspaper won the award, one of American journalism's most prestigious, for Thompson's incredible five-part series detailing a design defect in the Cobra and Huey helicopters that Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter built for the U.S. military. The series revealed that the company had known about the design defect for years and had a fix for it but did not correct it even though it had apparently been responsible for the loss of many choppers, costing the lives of numerous GIs, particularly during the Vietnam War. As a result of the work by Thompson, who now reports on the military for Time Magazine, all of the U.S. military's Bell Cobra and Huey helicopters were grounded and retrofitted with a device that corrected the design defect.

Naturally, finding the the picture frame with this souvenir ribboned name tag and aging photo kicked off a wave of memories.

During my 45-year newspaper career, the Bell Helicoter series was one of the finest pieces of journalism I was ever associated with, had the privilege of editing and, as it turned out, defending in the face of demands from Bell's top officials that the series be halted and that Thompson and I be fired -- him for pursuing and writing it and me for being responsible for its oversight and publication. Ahhhhhh, yes, those were the days. Incidently, the series went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and several other major national awards that year.

The first part of the series was publish on Sunday, Mar. 25, 1984. By the time Monday morning rolled around, after publication of the second part, the angry phone calls from officials and employees at Bell -- then Fort Worth's single largest employer -- had reached a fever pitch. When I walked into my office shortly after 9 that morning, I was greated by phone and written messages inviting me to Jack Tinsley's office immediately.

Jack informed me that Jack Horner, the president of Bell Helicopter, had called him after trying unsuccessfully to contact Publisher Phil Meek, who was, I think, out of town on business. Tinsley told me that Horner was demanding that the series be halted immediately and that the paper issue an apology to Bell and that Thompson and "the editor responsible for publishing" the series be fired. Tinsley told me that he had left a message for Meek to call him ASAP so they could consult on Horner's demands and he said there was certainly chance the I might lose my job.

Meek finally called back and Jack -- with his phone on speaker and me sitting there across from his large cluttered desk -- told the publisher about the rising storm from Bell and its employees and about Horner's call and demands. Phil assured Jack that he did not want to halt what might be one of the paper's best-ever jounalism efforts and that neither Mark nor I would be fired.

"Well, what do I tell Jack Horner," Tinsley asked. Without hesitation, Meek replied: "Tell Horner to go fuck himself."

So, moments later, and still on speaker phone with me sitting there, Tinsley called Horner back.

"I talked to Phil Meek about your demand that we halt the series, publish an apology to Bell and fire Mark Thompson and Steve Fagan, the editor responsiblefor publication of the series," Tinsley told Horner.

"Well, what did Phil have to say," Horner asked with icy smugness.

"He said for me to tell you to go fuck yourself," said Tinsley. A Loud click came over the speaker followed by the dial tone. Tinsley hung up his receiver, and turned toward me with a big grin on his face and suggested I get back to my office because I was probably going to have a lot of phone calls to answer.

Before I could get back to my office, however, Circulation Director Jim Tingle -- an ex-paratroop officer who stood about a head and a half taller than me -- cornered me in a hallway and angrily backed me into a corner.

"What the hell do you think you're doing? Do you now how many cancellations we've had this morning already," he asked with a glaring red face. "More than 300 and that's just for starters."

He then informed me that officials at the Bell plant had pulled all of our circulation boxes off the property and tossed them outside the main gate and the off-work Bell employees were planning to show up and picket outside the newspaper building after lunch (which they did).

Tingle then demanded to know "why the hell are we running this story and did anybody consider what kind of problems it would cause" for his department.

I blurted out that we were running it "because it's a great piece of Journalism."

"Oh, yeah," he responded. He then drew the thumb, index and middle finger of his right hand tightly together and used them to pound on my sternum with each word as he growled emphatically: "Well, if it's such a goddammned great piece of journalism, why wasn't it in the New York Times or Washington Post first." With one final snort, he stormed off leaving me shaken and my sternum bruised.

Once the flood of memories subsided, I decided to post the photo on Facebook. It almost immediately started drawing "likes" and comments -- lots of them -- from my, Mark's and Jack's mutual and individual friends.

Among the comments, the one that surprised and touched me most came from Phil Meek, who has Mark as one of the select few people he has friended on Facebook. During my newspaper career I was fortunate to have worked for several pretty good publishes including Barry Bingham Sr. and Barry Bingham Jr. at The Louisville Courier-Journal and Times, and Olaf Frandsen and Ray Stafford at The Montior here in McAllen, Texas. But I think, perhaps, the best publisher I ever worked for was Meek because unlike the others who came up with a newspaper background, Meek come to the business from the automobile industry. However, he seemed to have an innate understanding of the role and responsibility of the press in general and newpapers in particular.  As publisher he seemed absolutely fearless and was 100 pecent supportive of his newspeople, putting his full faith and trust in their work until they were proven beyond doubt to be wrong. He seemed to truly believe that the purpose of a newspaper was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

In his comment, Phil wrote regarding the photo:

"It was so appropriate that by his presence Steve was recognized for his largely unheralded work behind the scenes that helped Mark's four part (actually five part) investigative series lead to the awarding of the Granddaddy of the Pulitzers, the Gold Medal to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for Distinguished Public Service in May 1985."

Appreciating that sort of comment from a publisher I greatly admired, it replied with this:

PHIL: Editor's seldom get publicly heralded for their behind the scenes work and editing of fine pieces of reportage. That, rightfully goes to the reporters who have to bust their butts and often even put their personal safety on the line to piece together the information that makes up a good story or series and then write it in a form an editor can grasp and hone. Editors, the good ones, take their pleasure from seeing the people they supervise doing good journalistic work and knowing that, in part, their directing, influence and encouragement have an impact on that work. As far as the Bell Helicopter series was concerned. I felt I got all the heralding I needed from the people whose heralding really mattered most to me -- you, Mark, Jack, my colleagues at the Star-Telegram and from those who had worked for or with me at other papers who knew and understood that this was one of the finest examples ever of the kind of journalistic efforts I tried to promote and encourage my staffers to engage in.


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