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."

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste

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