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.