Let's talk about sects

Why didn't the Morning News' Lee Hancock win a Pulitzer? Because of Jasper, Ronald King, and karma.

McNulty says he knows this to be true, because he tried for two years to get folks interested in the allegations made in the two films he helped put together: Waco: Rules of Engagement and the recent Waco: A New Revelation, which made many of the latest allegations reported by Hancock. Last summer, Hancock flew to Fort Collins, Colorado, to see the latter film, and she used that information to find an FBI agent who would acknowledge the use of pyrotechnic devices. It was this sort of unique coverage, which led to a congressional investigation, that McNulty believes was slighted by the Pulitzer committee.

Several things about his line of reasoning, though, are flawed. First, the investigative Pulitzer didn't go to a media heavyweight; it was awarded to a series written by the Associated Press, the kudzu of journalism. (Another fact that undercuts his theory of big-paper favoritism: The Toledo Blade was a finalist in the investigative category.) Second, should someone who ignored your claims for years -- Hancock wrote a dismissive review of Rules of Engagement, for example -- be praised and rewarded for finally getting a clue?

"In defense of Lee's work," McNulty says, "her perspective early on was on the Davidians and their alleged crimes. As was the rest of the media's. Was that a mistake in hindsight? Yeah, probably. But how would she have done it differently?"

Ronald King on Hancock: "I wouldn't walk across the street to tell her hello."
AP/Wide World
Ronald King on Hancock: "I wouldn't walk across the street to tell her hello."

Well, the short answer is that she could have done what former Dallas Observer staff writer Dick Reavis did: leave his full-time job and seriously harm his career by writing a book, Alone in Waco, that took the Davidians' claims seriously. But then you get called a kook, and people claim you've gotten too close to your sources, and then you pretty much have to resort to waiting until a respected paper like the Morning News validates the issues that troubled you before you can regain your career footing. (Reavis is now covering Waco for the San Antonio Express-News.) But that would be silly. Principled, but silly.

Except that, come to think of it, Hancock shouldn't be concerned at all about getting too close to her sources, because she is reportedly the master at ingratiating herself with them. Like McNulty. He has reason to defend Hancock, because they are, for all intents and purposes, in this thing together now -- at times, literally. Although McNulty doesn't say so, one reporter who has talked often with him says McNulty acknowledged making an agreement with Hancock to give her information exclusively, or at least a day earlier than others, once she began her latest round of stories in August 1999.

But that's just good competitive reporting, right? Do what it takes to get the story, whether it's getting chummy with sources or taking swings at the competition?

OK, I'll give you that this enters into a fuzzy journalistic area. It's legit, I suppose, to ask sources to please, pretty please talk only to you. I don't think I would do it, and certainly wouldn't do it often, because then a source thinks we're in this together; he sees me and him as "we." But what if you hear that a source likes baseball cards, so you have some rare ones Fed-Exed to him? What if you find out a source loves movies, and you see a really cheap DVD player and buy it for him? Some reporters, including some here, would argue that this is just the cost of doing business, that so long as you don't go to an extreme -- say, engaging in Tantric sex with your source -- then all's fair in the pursuit of a good story.

Either way you fall -- and I personally say never give nobody nuthin' -- the middle ground is huge and gray, and determining where the uncrossable line is, figuring out what is appropriate sourcing and what is an unprincipled arrangement, is best left to the pros. Best left to high-level editors and other media masterminds.

Best left to someone like Mike Lout. Lout is owner of and news director at radio station KJAS-FM in Jasper. He is plainspoken. His favorite adjective is "goddamned." And he is pretty much convinced that Lee Hancock crossed that ethical line.

"It's hard for us small-town media to compete with you big-timers," Lout says. "I mean, we can't afford a case of whiskey and turkey legs."

Lout gives second-hand confirmation to one widespread Hancock rumor: that in the middle of the first Jasper trial, she bought Christmas gifts for the Jasper County district attorney (at least several bottles of his favorite whiskey) and his staff (smoked turkey legs). Lout said he saw the booty personally and the staff told him from where it came. "I always thought that was unethical," he says. "I mean, I'm friendly with most in town, but I don't even let folks buy me supper."

Again, Lout's description fits Hancock's alleged modus operandi. First, get cozy, give 'em something to remember you by, whether it be a sympathetic ear or a gift or two. Second, befriend, attach yourself at the hip. Third, cordon them off, even if it means misrepresenting the intentions of your competitors. It's the way, for example, she was able to get her exclusive interview with Ronald King, the father of one of the men convicted in the Jasper killing.

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