Let's talk about sects
Lee Hancock was flushed and furious as she stomped through the Jasper courthouse early last year. The Dallas Morning News reporter, in Jasper to cover the murder trial of one of the young racists who dragged a black man to his death, had just come from a meeting with the Jasper County District Attorney. Hancock and her co-worker, Pete Slover, had confronted the district attorney with evidence suggesting that a juror in the case had previously been convicted of a felony -- but the district attorney calmly showed them they had confused the juror with someone else. Word of Hancock and Slover's debunked news angle soon reached other reporters covering the case. One of them, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Barry Shlachter, decided to needle Hancock.
"I guess," he said, grinning, "I should never have tipped Pete off with that."
Hancock didn't laugh or ask whether he was joking -- he was -- about supplying a bogus news tip. She snapped. According to Shlachter and other reporters, Hancock grabbed Shlachter by the tie and pinned him against a wall. Shlachter, who confirms the near-asswhuppin', says he doesn't remember what Hancock said to him, but another reporter who covered the trial laughs and says, "She basically bounced him off a wall and told him he'd better shut the fuck up, or else."
The "assault" -- journalists like to use that word to describe any sort of physical contact, because most of us are pasty and frail -- is just one anecdote they like to tell about Hancock, who declined comment for this story. And before they tell it or any other disparaging tale, they're quick to say that they admire her work: Her work in Jasper, where she scored the first interview with the father of the first person tried and later convicted in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Her recent work covering the fallout from the 1993 standoff in Waco between the government and the Branch Davidians. It was Hancock, in fact, who wrote the first stories revealing that the government used pyrotechnic devices that could have caused the fire that killed more than 80 followers of David Koresh. Her Waco coverage recently won a Texas Headliners award for investigative reporting, and some (read: me) were surprised it wasn't at least a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, given the governmental re-investigation it has caused. "Look," says a reporter at a Texas paper, "she's a helluva reporter. The only time I've had my ass handed to me in my professional career was by Lee Hancock."
Terry Ganey, who covers the Waco re-investigation for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which began covering Waco in September when Missouri Sen. John C. Danforth was named to lead the re-investigation committee, echoes the praise. "Looking at it as the new kid on the block," he says, "she's clearly the person who's wired." As proof, he mentions a story she wrote about the Waco wrongful-death lawsuit being delayed. The story appeared even before the court clerks knew of the postponement. "Now, as to how she got wired, I have no idea."
There's the rub. Others think they do know, and they say it's the same way she's been "wired" into other stories. Because for everything the necktie-straightening episode reveals about Lee Hancock -- her charming humorlessness, strong right arm, large set of journalistic testicles, and the sort of rabid devotion to a cause usually reserved for WTO protesters and stalkers -- it doesn't get into the ethical baggage Hancock accumulated during past trips to Jasper and Waco. (Should a reporter buy a source a case of whiskey? Discuss.) It doesn't get into the question of whether she is a professional tin woman, checking her heart at the door. (Should you screw over an old man who has helped you and who now begs for your kindness? Discuss.) Finally, it doesn't address the equally troubling concern of why the tone of her Waco coverage has gone from reading like it's written by a government flack to reading like it's written by a Davidian conspiracist. Taken together, these things lead me to think -- OK, to hope -- that it was karma, the wheel of Ironic Justice coming full circle, that had as much to do with her Pulitzer snub as anything else.
"It's all that stuff she does with her sources," says a competitor. "The things that make her beholden to them, and them to her. It's too bad, because she's so good, she doesn't need to do it."
Mike McNulty, the investigator most responsible for keeping attention focused on alleged government abuses at Mount Carmel, has one question when he hears I want to write a column about Hancock and her Waco coverage.
"Why didn't it win a Pulitzer?" he asks, immediately worked up. "From my perspective, I can only think of reasons it should have won: the depth of coverage. The amazing new additional information. The pertinent human-interest details. The marvelous job she's done with a subject that is not very popular with the media...The fact is, if she would have been working for The Washington Post, she would have won. Assuming they would have even done the stories, which they wouldn't have."
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?"
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.
Ronald King is an old man who suffers from emphysema. He was a point of pity during the trial. He arrived every day in a wheelchair and with an oxygen bottle. But he is still alert today, still clear about what went on when Hancock came to town and sought him out.
First, King shoots down some of the things others said about Hancock's tactics. He says she didn't help him draft the statement he released after his son was found guilty. He says that he didn't, as rumored, run interview requests from other media by Hancock to get her permission. But, he says, she wouldn't have objected.
"I heard she was telling reporters that they had to go through her for an interview, which wasn't true," King says. "And she did try to tell me that it would be against my best interests to talk to certain other reporters.
"She did try to cozy up to me at first," he says. "Tried to make herself a part of the family. But once she printed something I had told her in confidence, something I asked her not to print, well, she screwed me up real good. I'm still bitter about it. After that, I wouldn't walk across the street to tell her hello."
King says he trusted Hancock and believed she wanted to help him tell his complex emotional tale, about how someone could hate what his son did but still love him. He talked to her for an exclusive interview -- an interview every media outlet in the country would have loved to have -- that ran in November 1998. But in another story, in a conversation he considered private, he claims he told her something about another family member that he didn't want printed. (It was about his family, and it wasn't pertinent to the crime, he says. In fact, King said he would confirm this story only if I promised not to repeat it, a condition to which I agreed.) "I cried and begged her not to print it. She just sat there and said, 'Don't worry. It'll be all right.'"
Again, in the strictest sense, there's nothing wrong with this. "Off the record" is a contract made between a source and a reporter, and if two people haven't explicitly agreed that something is off the record, it isn't. In the real world, though, old men in small towns with failing health whose sons are on trial for murder, men who are trapped in the tent of a media circus, men to whom you've ingratiated yourself, deserve human decency. If King's version is true, then he is a perfect example of why so many people hate the media: The quest for the story leads someone to whore himself, trading his decency for the easy money/cheap thrill of an exclusive. Lee Hancock may be a fine person, and she certainly is an excellent reporter, but I take joy when people get what's coming to them, and I choose to chuckle about the empty space on her award mantel.
You won't find Davidian supporters complaining about her tactics or point of view, though. In fact, they gave her another laurel last week. At the anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire, one of the speakers, electronics expert Gordon Novel, said he was awarding Hancock his "straight-shooter" award. Everyone, the folks who've forgiven her for her past Waco coverage and those who are newly interested because of her current Waco coverage, clapped loudly. She used to refer to the Davidians as a "cult." Now, in her stories, they're a "sect," and she is their hero.
Send turkey legs and news tips to Eric Celeste at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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