MAXWELL:  The beauty of journalism

4/15/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Believe it or not, journalism can be a dangerous profession. In 1999, 34 journalists were killed around the world just for doing their job _ reporting and writing. Eighty-seven others were imprisoned. A Tampa Tribune reporter, whom I knew, was killed in Peru several years ago as he investigated drug trafficking in the mountains there.

Two years ago, I had the dubious honor of spending a day in a Gaza City jail for photographing a Palestinian Authority building.

All that said, journalism can be fun, and it is always interesting, especially for those of us who regularly get out of the office. For us, finding a place to write and a way to transmit our copy are the greatest challenges. Quite often, the process is down right crazy.

As a boy in Florida during the height of the civil rights movement, I used to marvel at the journalists who came down South. To me, they were as brave as Marines, and I wanted to be like them.

In St. Augustine, the scene of some of the nation’s most violent racial confrontations, reporters and commentators faced down armed Klansmen _ some in St. Johns County sheriff’s uniforms _ snarling German shepherds, powerful water hoses, billy clubs and civilian mobs who wanted to kill “nigger lovers.” These were white men, many fresh out of college, trying to do their job, trying to report on bigotry and injustice. To this day, I love their memory.

Some of the bravest reporters I have known wrote for the tiny Daily Commercial in Leesburg. They had the dangerous task of covering the deeds and misdeeds of the late Willis McCall, the infamous sheriff of Lake County. McCall, the representative of decency and law and order, thought nothing of eliminating black men: He shot one prisoner to death, shot and wounded another, and, a few years later, kicked another prisoner to death in a cell. That act finally brought the governor down on McCall’s head.

Those who wrote about McCall, such as Emmit Peter and Mike Archer, did so knowing that the big, pot-bellied sheriff might take revenge.

He often did. In 1954, for example, according to news accounts, Mabel Norris Reese, editor of Topic, Mount Dora’s weekly newspaper, wrote some scathing stuff about McCall. The angry lawman poisoned Reese’s dog, painted “KKK” across the windows of her office and placed a burning cross in her yard.

The tough editor persevered, however.

Even today, reporters risk physical harm in many parts of the country. Mob hits remain a real possibility. During the Florida Senate race last November, a Republican candidate approached me in a grocery store parking lot and threatened to rearrange my face and kick my “black” hind quarters. Fortunately for me _ or the candidate _ a St. Petersburg Police Department employee witnessed the encounter and saved the day.

A St. Petersburg Times reporter was accosted on election night of the city’s recent mayoral contest.

Finding a suitable place to write always makes journalism interesting. I have seen reporters sit on the ground in battlefields typing away or writing in longhand. I have seen them duck bullets and mortar fire while taking notes. The legendary Ernie Pyle was killed while writing in combat. Ernest Hemingway writes of near misses in combat.

I was not a reporter in the Marine Corps, so I never experienced writing under fire. But I have written whole columns on airplanes, in airports, in telephone booths, in the front and back seats of cars, in the bed of a pickup. While writing about floods in Arkansas several years ago, I had to climb up a tree to write. It was the only dry spot around.

I will never forget when I covered Hurricane Elena. I wrote from the roof of my Chevy pickup. From that perch, I could see the Gulf of Mexico pound the old buildings, including one of my favorite seafood restaurants on Cedar Key.

Over the years, I have written many columns in bathrooms. I write in bathrooms when I am traveling with someone else and I must work late at night or into the morning hours. I do this so as not to keep my companions awake.

As for transmitting copy, difficulties crop up like weeds, especially in the electronic age. When I was in Israel in 1996, I had no trouble sending my copy by modem from the Laromme Hotel. Two years later, however, I had a bad telephone line everywhere I stayed and wound up downloading to a disk, printing and faxing. Last year, in Poland and Romania, I was forced to telephone the office and dictate everything.

That East European experience reminded me of the good ol’ days, when frantic reporters would phone in their stories to rewrite editors, those living legends who could make a hack sound like a genius. I should know. The first daily newspaper I wrote for had a rewrite man who made lousy prose sing. He set my linguistic monstrosities to music _ often.

My biggest fear these days while on the road is this: Staring at deadline, I may wind up having to write with pen, pencil and paper. My laptop (the company’s laptop) has ruined my ability to write by hand. My thoughts do not come well when I am not in front of a computer. A blank computer screen does not scare me. A blank sheet of paper does. Sure, I have written complete columns in notebooks. I wrote a piece about New York’s Cardinal Egan in a bar on Amsterdam Avenue. But I struggled.

Despite the dangers, the unconventional offices (trees, parking lots, toilets) and transmission headaches, I do not want to do anything else for a living. Sometimes journalism is true high anxiety. That is the beauty of it all.