Part of reporting is simply watching

Alanna Pyrtle filming

I spent the past 10 days in Israel, mostly in Huqoq, where a group of students and scholars is excavating a 5th century synagogue. I was a co-leader of a group of 14 UNC School of Media and Journalism students whose aim is to document that effort. We are writing about the dig itself, the leader of the project, Jodi Magness, and many of the diggers.

The course of the excavation has been a huge success — “mind blowing,” according to this story in the Times of Israel in 2018. (We’re publishing our stories about the dig next month; the story in the Times gives you a good idea of what has been found so far.)

Our reporting didn’t start off smoothly. The dig had been going on for two weeks by the time our group of journalists got there. New mosaics had been revealed, and the diggers had bonded with each other. We were a new factor in the equation, and it took a while for the equation to balance. Many of the diggers weren’t sure what to make of us. All of a sudden, students with notepads and video cameras and still cameras and radio microphones were wandering around the dig site. They shot video and photo and asked questions. In short, we were doing what journalists do. We call it reporting. Some others might call it intruding.

We tried to stay out of the way and let them do their work, but I could see how we got in the way. Especially as they were digging in the dirt, sweating, and we had a camera in their faces.

Midway through the first day, some of the journalists complained to me about the standoffishness of the diggers. A few even seemed to be hostile.

Look, I said, you need to learn how to do this. Not everything you do in journalism is going to be set up for you. Not everything is a pre-arranged interview or a planned meeting. You need to get used to being where people don’t want you. You need to get used to getting a cold shoulder. If you want to cover government or politics or international relations or cops or courts, you’ve got to learn how to get the story anyway.

I told them to close their mouths, put their cameras and notepads down, and to watch for a while. Listen to the students and scholars talk with each other. Understand what they’re doing and saying, what motivates them and discourages them. We weren’t in a rush. We were going to be with them for seven days. We needed to gain their trust. There’s a rhythm to construction projects, which is basically what this was. Learning to feel and understand the site’s vibe was critical. First, you understand it. Then you ask about it.

It’s an important lesson and I’m glad the students learned it now, rather than later.

Margaret High

Some of the journalism students got permission to join the dig for a bit, picking up pickaxes, trowels and dust pans. That earned  respect. Eventually, most of them warmed to us. By the end of the week, there were hugs and handshakes and warm goodbyes. And our folks got a bunch of good stories.

When a joke becomes news

Back in the day, I covered local education for the News & Observer. My best source was the school superintendent himself, John Murphy. He was a controversial figure and had done many good things to shake up Wake County schools, including pushing magnet schools to achieve integration.

He was also a salesman and a quick-witted storyteller. He knew the importance of fair news coverage — good, if possible — and he knew one way to get his message out was through the newspaper. So, he made himself available pretty much whenever I needed him. I liked him. He was sharp and authentic and quotable. But sometimes, I would be in a rush and purposely avoid his office in case he was in the mood to talk.

It was like that.

One  morning, we were passing the time and he told me a racist joke. I don’t remember the joke itself, but I do remember that he used the n-word when he was quoting one of the characters in the joke. I was caught short. I don’t remember how I reacted — I hope I didn’t laugh — but I do remember that I left his office uncomfortable.

As I drove back to the office, I had this internal debate. On the one hand, the most powerful school official, a man in charge of a 50,000-student school system with a large minority population, told a racist joke. No way that’s defensible.

On the other hand, it was a joke. He had done a great deal to improve learning for minority students. Publishing this would be a dagger in his career, I thought.

Then again, he should know better and the dagger was self-inflicted. I wasn’t there to protect him from his words; my job was to tell the public about his words.

As I walked into the N&O building, I wondered if my counterpart at the afternoon paper, the Raleigh Times, had the story. How likely was it that Murphy had told him the same joke? (Likely, I learned later.)

I decided that readers should know what I heard, and I wrote the story. I called Murphy and told him what I was doing.

“C’mon, John,” he said. “That’s a chickenshit story.”

The newspaper published it on the front page of the local section. It wasn’t a dagger. I don’t remember it even making a ripple in the public consciousness. He, however, froze me out for a few months. It didn’t make much difference in my reporting because I had other sources. And eventually, he talked with me again.

A while later, he had more serious problems. That’s another story.

My biggest story? Jamscam

I was at the N&O on a Friday evening in May 1980, and Gene Cherry, the city editor, asked me if I was free over the weekend. And that’s how I ended up on the biggest story that I worked on as a reporter.

Cherry told me that the paper had a tip that money raised through the sale of grape jelly by the N.C. Jaycees to benefit the N.C. Burn Center was being used for something else.

“The annual convention of the Jaycees is in Asheville this weekend,” he said. “Can you go see what you can find out?”

I didn’t know much about the Jaycees or the jelly sale or the burn center, but I did know Asheville as I had worked there. And I had nothing else to do that weekend. That was qualification enough.

I drove up. Went to the convention center. Apparently, a finance officer had told the gathering of Jaycees that since 1978, more than $100,000 in money raised for the burn center had not gone to the burn center. I wandered around, talked with various men between the ages of 18 and 35, most of whom didn’t know what I was asking about or didn’t want to talk with me. Found officers of the organization. Got nowhere. Until finally, I found the right guy.

As it later turned out, $191,000 was diverted over three years to create fake chapters filled with members who didn’t exist, all to advance the standing of the state organization.


I sat down to write the story, but was overwhelmed with what I had. I came up with half a dozen leads, all terrible. I called the paper, ready to dictate the dreck I had and, thank god, got fellow reporter Bruce Siceloff on the phone. He calmed me down, asked what I had, and took over as the rewrite man. Saved me and the story. He should have given himself a double byline.

The story was published across the top of the Sunday front page. I can’t find it on the Internet; my guess the only place it’s archived is in the N&O’s morgue. A few days later, if memory serves, State Editor Dale Gibson nicknamed the story “Jamscam.”

Within a few days, I go ahold of a N.C. Jaycees membership book, given to me by a Jaycee who was appalled by what was being done in the Jaycees’ name. As the Washington Post story says, “The list contained scores of Jaycee chapters consisting of nothing but numbers (Jaycee No. 1, Jaycee No. 2). Still other chapters were composed of names duplicated as many as 33 times in 15 different cities from the mountains to the coast. Each bogus chapter contained exactly 20 names or numbers, the minimum required.”

IIn the end, criminal charges were brought against three past state presidents and two other Jaycee officials. The state Jaycee president in 1978 had his sights set on the presidency of the national Jaycees, but that was derailed. Within three weeks of our stories, the Jaycees purged about 4,500 “fake” members. And they vowed to repay all the charity money.

It was a helluva story that had national repercussions, and I was excited to be the lead reporter on it. It gave me a taste of investigative reporting on a major scale. I loved it. I wrote stories about it nearly every day, which was the N&O MO on big stories — “Keep the story alive,” we were told. I did my best to do that.

But after three weeks, I was sent back to my beat, which was the Guilford County schools. That pissed me off, but in truth, the story was pretty much played out until the various federal and state investigations were completed. I’ve forgotten all the details, and I didn’t really track what happened to all the principals at the time. Now, a Google search of the names of those involved doesn’t turn out much.

Two postscripts:

  • A year or so later, before the trials of the men, I got a call from someone describing themselves as a reporter. He said he was writing about the trial and asked me several questions, all pertaining to what I thought of the Jaycees and whether I thought the men were guilty. I deflected. I didn’t have an opinion of the men — Jaycees at that time were all men. I never saw a story, and I wondered if the call came not from a reporter but from an investigator for the defense.
  • In 1984, when I was interviewing with the News & Record, one editor later told me that my reporting on Jamscam was the main reason I even got in the door for an interview.

Sunday sampler

Mostly N.C.’s front pages are consumed by high school graduations and Trump’s deal with Mexico. Still there’s:

Fayetteville: A painting depicting a Civil War scene is 22 feet high and 376 feet long and weighs 6 tons. Oh, and it’s worth $6.5 million. “t is believed to have been painted in 1905, near the end of a period in which cycloramas were considered entertainment, sort of the earliest predecessors to today’s IMAX theaters. Cycloramas are rolled across the inside of a round building. When people go inside, they can turn in a circle and view the picture in a 360-degree viewing experience.”

Raleigh: I used to live in Raleigh, and I had a definite sense of what Garner was. The News & Observer has corrected that sense with a good piece on the city that Raleigh is encroaching upon. From the explosion at ConAgra 10 years ago to Amazon’s planned distribution center, it’s a diff place. “Garner and other eastern Wake towns have not seen the explosive growth over the years that has come to Cary and the rest of the western side of the county. But Garner grew 6 percent last year and now has a population of about 30,500. It was the 13th fastest-growing town in North Carolina in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”


Wait. I got Global Entry so this wouldn’t happen

Part 2 of 2. Part 1 here.

Once I was home, I didn’t think too much about it, other than to make it into a funny story: “Listen to what happened to me when immigration stopped me at the airport!”

Then we planned a trip back to Italy, and my wife decided we should get Global Entry. We drove to Richmond — the nearest place we could get a reservation for the interview! As I told my story to the agent there, he made sympathetic noises. But he begged ignorance about my name or any list it may or may not be on.

And we were approved.

Upon return — this time flying into Charlotte — I walked past the hordes of people in the “regular” immigration line. Went to the Global Entry kiosk and did the fingerprint thing. It printed out a card with a big, black X on it. “Oh, hell,” I thought. I took it to the agent who picked up the phone, said she needed assistance, and another agent — male, bigger — came and escorted me to a room in the back.

“But I have Global Entry,” I said. “I got it to prevent this from happening.”

“This won’t take long,” he said.

I had heard that before.

This time, the room where they took me was empty, except for another officer. I sat for a moment as one officer was keying my information into the computer. He looked up and told me to get my suitcase from baggage claim. As I walked out of the room, he said to the other agent, “Look at this. I’ve never seen so many flags on one person.”

Great, I thought.

By the time I returned with my bag, the officer handed me my passport, apologized for the delay, and said I was free to go.

“What’s this about?” I asked. “I got Global Entry specifically to avoid this.”

“I understand, and I apologize,” he said. “A person using your name is a bad, bad actor. I will contact my supervisor and make sure you’re cleared through Global Entry in the future.”

I thanked him and left. I know government. Global Entry didn’t work well enough to prevent me from being stopped; why would I believe that an officer telling his boss that I was clear would work.

Last March, we went to London. My wife bet me that the officer took care of me and I’d breeze through. We landed in Philadelphia again. And we did breeze right through immigration, thanks to Global Entry!

Next trip, Israel. Flying into the U.S. from the Middle East will be a cakewalk, I’m sure.

Wait. Your name is John Robinson?

Part 1 of 2

The first time I realized I had a problem was when my family and I were stopped at the airport ticket counter in Rome as we were trying to return home. The ticket agent ran our tickets, got on the phone, spoke some Italian and told us to step aside for a few minutes. That turned into 20 minutes and a few more phone calls before we were allowed into the airport proper. “I’m not sure what the hold up was,” she said. “Something about your name.”

The second time my name became a problem was after I flew into Philadelphia from Paris. The immigration agent took my passport, tapped on his computer, looked at me, and asked me to come with him.

“There’s a flag on your name,” he said as we walked to a holding area. “We need to check on a few things. It’s clear, though, you’re an American citizen so don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing, and you won’t have to wait. They’ll put your passport on top.”

He took me to a room the size of a small airport gate, filled with people and half a dozen men dressed in blue uniforms and badges. He gave my passport to an officer at a desk and it was put in a pile that was about three inches high. It didn’t appear that I was going to get any priority. I found a seat.

All around me, people trying to enter the U.S. were talking to each other and to officers. Many of them didn’t speak English. The officers were all business and dead serious; how they understood the various responses in different languages was beyond me. I watched one officer question a woman in a hajib until she began to cry in the middle of the room. She was trying to answer her questions in another language, Italian, I think. He told her to sit down, and he put her passport back on the desk. A man they took into another room. I don’t know what happened to either of them.

I didn’t see anyone given a smile and told to go on their merry way.

After 20 minutes, I began to wonder what would happen to me.

I thought about my connecting flight and was tempted to go to the counter and say that the immigration agent said I would get priority, but the looks on the officers’ faces suggested to me that that was a bad idea. I imagined the officer looking through the passports, finding mine, and putting it at the bottom of the pile. I waited.

After another 10 minutes, my name was called, an agent put my passport on the counter and said I was free to go.

“What was this all about?” I asked.

“You’re free to go, sir,” she said, and pointed to the door.

Apparently, my name was on this list.

Coming Thursday: “Wait. I got Global Entry so this WOULDN’T happen”


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O features a short, inspiring high school graduation story of a mother from India and her two daughters facing all kinds of adversity to get to where they are now. (Full disclosure: It’s written by an intern I taught last semester.)

Greensboro: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of undocumented immigrants finding sanctuary in churches. The News & Record writes the story of one woman from Asheboro who has lived in a Greensboro church for two years.  “Tobar Ortega is the face of a movement that has rallied supporters against what they see as unfair immigration policies that separate families and return people to situations many had fled out of fear for their lives. The mother of four from Asheboro had steady employment as a seamstress, was an active member of her Pentecostal church and doesn’t have a criminal record.”

High Point: The Enterprise has a story behind its paywall about the 12 shootings in town in the last 7 days of May. Is that bad? It sounds bad. And 95 shootings this year compared with 63 last year. Think the city has a problem on its hands?

Lenoir:  The News-Topic has a story behind its paywall about stupid crooks in Granite Falls who robbed a store. One of the guys was a frequent customer of the establishment; the other didn’t cover his face. Gotta love it.

Reporting: “Embrace the awkward”

Yesterday I spoke with a student about how to get in touch with some sources who weren’t returning her calls. (Yes, she was phoning, in addition to sending emails.) I suggested other people who might be equally good sources and gave her other options on how to get responses. As we talked about using Twitter and sliding into sources’ dms, she said, “OK, but it seems super awkward.”

I agreed: “Most of reporting IS super awkward.”

Reporters insert themselves into the best and worst times of people’s lives. They go where they don’t belong and get in your face. They ask intrusive questions of people they’ve never met and will never speak with again. They want to know details and facts and “how do you feel?” Watch reporters in action and you might conclude they’re rude.

Meanwhile, no one likes being rejected, and reporters have to get used to being told “no comment” and being ignored entirely by sources. Now that the president of the United States has declared the news media “the enemy of the people,” being met with outright hostility isn’t uncommon.

“Super awkward,” indeed.

As an introvert, I came to see the “Professional Reporter’s Notebook” was my badge of authority, my letter of introduction. I would pull it out of my back pocket and, pen in hand, it gave me a reason to ask strangers questions. It reduced my sense of awkwardness into a shape that would fit into a little box: I was doing my job.

Last night I tweeted about the exchange with the student. My conclusion about reporting is shared by many. Some responses:

When you run out of letters to the editor

In a more innocent time — back in the late 1990s — I was the editor of the editorial pages of the News & Record. As part of that, I read, selected and edited the letters to the editor. The letters gave you a real feel for the community — the paper still had about 50 percent circulation penetration in our county then. Note I said “real” as opposed to “good” or “accurate.” (There was one letter writer who often said he was going to come downtown and whip my ass. He never did.)

Back then, we limited writers to one letter every 30 days; it’s two letters now, thank you, declining readership. We had space for about five letters every day, and people submitted many more than that. So, we usually had plenty of letters to choose from.

But during the Christmas holidays and the humid, slow-moving, “it’s-too-hot-to-even-move” depths of summer, letters would slow to a trickle, and I’d scramble to fill the space.

Dave Dubuisson, who was my predecessor as editorial page editor and who remained as associate editor, taught me most of what I know about the job. He was — and still is — an astute thinker and insightful writer. His sense of humor was also as dry as James Bond’s martini.

I bemoaned the lack of letters one day.

He said, “That’s OK. I’ll just write about gun control. That will solve the problem.”

(He didn’t.)


Sunday sampler

Happy Memorial Day!

Charlotte: Good story on a WBTV personality who is gay and hesitant about coming out. “It was ironic: Hampton was always looking for the best in people, but deep down, she feared the worst in them. It was also hypocritical: She prided herself in being authentic with her audience, but felt strongly against coming out to it.”

Raleigh: What do you do if you’ve been in prison virtually your entire life? You don’t want to leave. Joe Neff returns to the front page of the N&O with a piece about a man who feels that way. “I ain’t going nowhere,” Phillips said in a recent interview at the minimum-security Randolph Correctional Center. “Too many fools out there.” Easy to understand that.

High Point: You’ll hit a paywall on this story in the Enterprise. It’s a good one, too, about one of the city’s more dangerous streets. “This is a prostitute street.” And the Enterprise got the information from a public records request.