Police Reporter – Part II

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June 23, 2013 by genelup

When I graduated from being a pencil-sharpening copy boy to becoming a cub reporter covering the police beat couple nights a week in 1958, I wanted to learn my craft from the best sources.  Who else but my boss, city editor Bill Hermann, and The Arizona Repulic’s award-winning police reporter, Gene McLain.

Bill was the one who chewed me out for missing the double fatality my first night on the police beat.  But, he was the greatest.  He would give any young reporter the breaks in the newspaper game.

I asked Bill some vital questions concerning the newspaper’s stand on the police beat.  I wanted to know what kind of emphasis the management placed on the beat reporters. I  came across these notes just a few days ago.  I interviewed these men in the late 1950s.  McLain and Hermann have since died.

“Every newspaperman should begin training on the police beat,” Bill said one evening while he was waiting for the first edition to come off the presses.  “The reason I believe it is so important to a news hound is because it shows you all varieties of all walks of life.

“I was not fortunate to be sent out on the police beat.  And now after 23 years I have to ask police beat reporters some elementary questions about criminal terminology I would have known had I ever been on the police beat.

“Just last night I had to ask Jack Crowe who had been on the crime beat for about two years a possible libel question.

“One of our reporters wrote that Dr. Spears had a criminal record.  Spears had faced a number of criminal charges but was never convicted.  I asked Crowe if we should change ‘criminal record’ to ‘police record’  He said ‘yes.’  That’s the way I changed it in the paper.

“We at The Republic regard the police beat as a training ground for young reporters.  It is also a testing ground to separate the men from the boys.  If a guy can keep his head while working on a murder and hears of two stick ups on the other side of town, we know he will be able to make the grade at the paper.”

My interview with Bill ended on that note.  The papers came up and he had to read through the first edition.

Gene McLain took me under his wing. He helped me get my feet planted at the police station.  McLain was regarded as one of the best police reporters in the country.  He was the first person in the nation to win Pall Mall’s “Big Story” award twice.

When I interviewed Gene he had been The Republic’s police reporter for 25 years.  He had dedicated his life to the journalistic creed’s principles.  He was one of the most sincere newsman I had ever met.

During the Depression days when he was on the threshold of striking out for himself, he went to work on a weekly paper in Glendale, California.  Later, the short but stocky newsman did a brief stint with the Los Angeles Examiner.

“I worked from 8 a.m. until 8 pm. seven days a week for $80 a month,” he said.  “But one day I got fired.  An older man was hired to fill my shoes at the Examiner.”

At that time Gene’s brother, Jerry, was a police reporter for The Republic.  Gene moved in with him.  Every spare minute Gene had he tagged behind his brother on the police beat.

About a month later, The Republic switched managing editors.  One day the new M.E. called Gene into his office and asked, “What’s your job here?”

Gene told him he wasn’t employed, but the other managing editor told him he could help his brother get stories as long as he didn’t get in the way.

“Well, I can’t fire you if you don’t work here,” the new managing editor said.  “So, I guess I have to hire you.”

Gene’s first day with The Republic was April 1, 1934.  His salary was $60 a month.  While at the paper the management one time advanced Gene to city editor.  He didn’t like the job so he went back to his first newspapering love — the police beat.

I’ll never forget the time Gene got me off the hook.  It was my first week on the police beat and everything was quite new.  About midnight a dispatch came over the sheriff’s radio that a deputy shot a man.  I rushed to the hospital and encountered a sheriff’s investigator.

“I’m Luptak from The Republic,” I said.  “What do you have on the man who got shot.”

“I can’t give you anything until I complete my investigation,” he told me.

I was on deadline.  I waited a few minutes and again asked the investigator the same question.  He gave me the same answer.

I called the office and told my boss I couldn’t get the information on the shooting.  The next day I read the complete story in the paper.  I found out later the city editor had called Gene McLain about 12:15 a.m. and through channels Gene got the story from his home using the telephone.  I don’t know what Gene told the investigator, but whenever anything newsworthy happened, that investigator went out of his way to fill me in on all the facts.

“There’s a big difference between police reporting and other types of news writing,” Gene told me one day when we both sat in a booth at a coffee shop near the police station.  “A police reporter owes a greater allegiance to to his contacts than to his readers.  A court house reporter has no allegiance to contacts but he has to represent the readers.  His job is to tell the people the news.

“The reason being is the police reporter deals with such explosive news.  A good working relationship must bear such allegiance that a reporter doesn’t reveal anything that will interfere with the work of law enforcement officers.

“There’s an old working agreement.  If you do anything to interfere with the work of officers, you’ll have trouble with your own newspaper.

“A police reporter needs good judgment not to write everything he gets his hands on.  We are allowed to see police records because of our allegiance to our contacts.  We are allowed to read the play-by-play reports of a police investigation. (Note: in the 1950s police reporters could read all police reports. That’s not true anymore. Police now will only show reports they want a reporter to see.  And some things may be blacked out)

“This knowledge if printed, might cause a fugitive to escape, or a murder to be committed,” Gene continued. “That’s why a police reporter needs a conscience.

“I remember the Smith kidnapping case; the biggest crime story of the year.  For a night and a day the police reporters didn’t write one word about it.  We knew Mrs. Smith was kidnapped.   We also knew about the ransom note that was sent to Mrs. Smith’s husband.  But we didn’t write anything for fear that something would happen to Mrs. Smith.

“Police reporting is a fascinating job because the people you deal with are stripped of all pretense.  During the heat of a crime, a criminal or police officer doesn’t have time to pretend.  Everything is real. Everything is true.  Because of emotions involved during the heat of the crime, people will tell the truth.  They don’t have time to think or dream up another story on how the crime occurred.

“For example: a few years ago a landlord couldn’t get one of his tenants to move.  The occupant owned too much back rent.  After a few arguments, the landlord took his shotgun and walked up to the door of his tenant and shot him.  The police arrived just a few seconds later.

“‘I killed him cause he wouldn’t move out of the house,’ the landlord was quoted.

“He lived to regret that statement,” Gene said.  “A few months later he was convicted for first degree murder.

“Another time a guy killed a woman near Guadalupe.  The suspect was taken to the sheriff’s office and interrogated.  He confessed.

“I was out on the beat at the time when I got wind of the confession.  I went to the sheriff’s office, leaned over the desk where the suspect was sitting and asked, ‘Did you kill this woman?’

“He answered, ‘Sure I killed her.  She was a witch.’

“That man also lived to regret that statement.

“I’m sure if the two murderers were given a couple of days before interrogated, their stories would have been different.”

Gene continued:

“A good police reporter has to be part detective, part diplomat and part social worker besides knowing something about writing.  But most important, a police reporter has to have eyes in his heart.  If he can see the story with his eyes and heart, he will do a good job.

“Sometimes a police reporter acquires a curtain of hardness.  If he becomes so cynical that he doesn’t believe in gradations of colors, he doesn’t belong in the reporting game.  He has to understand that some people are not all good nor all bad.

“A police reporter also must be careful not to become soft that he forgets his obligation to fully inform his readers.  He must especially remember the people who enforce the law have a rough job day and night and they are entitled to the reporter’s understanding and help.

“A good police reporter should be someplace between hardness and softness.  No one can play the middle course because it differs in every story.  The reporter has to use discretion and decisiveness that no editor or school of journalism can teach.

“The police reporter’s job is not for the meek.  It is for the charitable, kindly, forgiving, long suffering, and bold.  But it isn’t for the meek.  It’s a rough and tough boisterous kind of work.  It’s pitched in high excitement and emotion and the police reporter must be a guy with enough grasp to carry out the job without faltering.

Gene paused, organized his thoughts.

“Sometimes a police reporter has to tell folks one of their love ones is dead.  It isn’t a job for the meek.  My saddest moment in my career came when a swing toppled over and crushed the head of a small child.  I went to the home and knocked on the parent’s door.  The father opened the door with tears streaming down his cheeks.

“‘I’m sorry to bother you at this time,’ I told him, ‘but I wonder if you have a picture of your child?’

“The man sobbed and closed the door.  I stood there for a few seconds and was just about to turn away when the door opened and the father handed me a picture.  He couldn’t say a word.  He was crying.

“Many times a reporter has to go into a place where he is not allowed.  He has to dog the heels of a policeman or detective and look like another police officer.  The people don’t know the difference and the cops play along with it.  It might not be fair but if the people don’t ask who I am, I surely won’t tell them.

“Once a bank was robbed and the police was in the back of the bank looking at the blown-up vault.  I knew the bank officials wouldn’t let reporters look at the vault.  So I walked up to one of the bank officials and said, ‘I’m McLain. I’ve just come from police headquarters.  Where are they working on the case?’

“The bank employee led me to the vault.

“You have to have a lot of guts being a crime reporter,” Gene told me.  “He took another sip of coffee.  “It’s a lousy way to earn a living but someone has to do it.  But, I like being a police reporter better than being a managing editor.  It’s the greatest job on the newspaper staff because you meet real people and situations and not play with  impressions.  I go out of my way to answer the question ‘why’ a person committed the crime.  The reason people commit a crime is far more fascinating than just knowing a crime has been committed.

“In my 25 years of newspaper writing,’ Gene said, “I’ve gotten an amazing array of stories with true situations.  Truth can be stranger than fiction.

“One time a stranger wandered into a second hand store and started to fool around with a typewriter.  He waited until the store was cleared of customers and then stuck the clerk up and robbed him.  About an hour later the police arrested the stranger.  While fooling with the typewriter, he wrote his name and address on a sheet of paper.  I wrote the story as it actually happened and sent it to three detective magazines.  I got three rejection slips.  They said the story wasn’t true to life.

“Another time a car toppled over a cliff on the Apache Trail.  When investigators got to the scene, they uncovered in the mangled wreckage the bodies of a young couple.  But sitting between the man and woman was a 2-month-old baby without a scratch on her. Scattered glass covered the bodies of the parents, but not a single speck of glass was found on the baby.

“A few years ago I was at the county jail,” Gene said.  “Two Mexicans were talking and just before deputies led one of them away, the taller Mexican said — ‘Be sure and tell mother goodbye.’  The lad was taken to California and executed.  The two Mexicans were brothers, and they had met for the first time in many years in that jail.

“There used to be an old crippled man who hung around the police station,” Gene said.  “One time he got drunk.  The police told me if I would be so kind to take the old man home; they didn’t want to put him in jail.

“I took the man home.  While helping him up the sidewalk his wife stuck a rifle out the door and shot him in the heart.  I had my arm around the man and the bullet missed me by inches.  After the shot was fired the wife yelled at me: ‘Don’t you move.’

“‘Don’t you worry,’ I yelled back.  Before the police came, it was the longest five minutes I ever spent in my life.”

Gene McLain had to go back to work.  But before he left me sitting in the coffee shop booth, he told me, “Remember Gene, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.  The police beat is the best place to see it.”

The interviews I had with city editor Bill Hermann and police reporter Gene McLain happened nearly 55 years ago.  McLain was right. Truth could be stranger than fiction.  I experienced some of them in my newspapering days, too.  You can read them on Facebook and my other blog — “Police Reporter — Part 1.”

 

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