It was around 2:30 in the morning. I was on my way from my radio job at KDTH in Dubuque back to my apartment in Platteville. I crested a hill, and a man came running into the road to flag me down. Behind him was a crashed car. A second man was lying in the middle of the road, and I knew from looking at him that he was dead. “There’s been an accident!” the first man cried, somewhat obviously. I stopped my car and got out, and I saw a porch light come on at a nearby house. “Call the sheriff!” I yelled.
This happened a long time ago, so I can’t remember much more. I do recall that I parked my car at the crest of the hill with the hazard lights on to slow other drivers who might come on the scene. I don’t know how long it took a sheriff’s deputy to arrive—10 minutes, maybe? Several cop cars and an ambulance came out eventually, and once I had determined that they didn’t need me to hang around, I went on my way.
It must have been 4AM until I got home. Before I went to bed, I called the KDTH newsroom and left a message. “When you call the Grant County Sheriff this morning, they’re going to tell you about a one-car accident in Maryvale Heights. I saw it driving home, and I’m pretty sure that there’s at least one fatality. A guy was lying in the middle of the road and he looked in pretty bad shape.”
Within a day or two, one of the news guys thanked me for calling in the story. “We had the fatality before anybody else in town,” he said, meaning the other radio station and the newspaper.
It was my greatest moment in journalism.
I have written before about how much I learned by watching various reporters at KDTH and elsewhere. Not every newscaster was a legend, although some were; some of them were pedestrian writers and others didn’t sound all that great on the air. But all of them, the legends and the lesser, had one thing in common: they took their jobs seriously. Not a one of them was half-assing it. They called up public officials and asked them to comment on stories, even when they knew the public officials might not want to talk. They went to press conferences and asked questions. The 40-hour week was just a rumor to them, because they had to attend evening school board and city council meetings after working a full day. They came in on weekends and holidays to cover severe weather and other disasters. They wrote with care, and they stacked their newscasts with care.
They did not report what they did not know. On those rare occasions when I am called upon to read news on the radio, I try to emulate them as best I can.
Two pieces I read over the weekend will give you good insight into how hard reporters work. One discusses how former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy broke the story about Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s knowledge of domestic violence committed by an assistant; the other is a first-person account by Robert Klemko about his attempt to get inside the bubble that has protected NFL star Ray Lewis since he was convicted of obstruction of justice after a double murder in Atlanta. Both stories make clear that these guys busted their asses to get the story. McMurphy spent hours and days and miles tracking down scraps of information to corroborate his story. Klemko had the courage to ask questions that absolutely nobody, from Lewis on down, wanted to hear, let alone answer, and he persisted in asking them.
Of all the crises Donald Trump has wrought, his war on journalism may end up being the most destructive. And not only that: it’s the most absurd. He insists that CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, and any news outlet that isn’t Fox, is simply making shit up; that nothing they say is true. He calls the press the enemy of the people, which is a loaded and violent phrase that’s eventually going to lead to more incidents like the newspaper shootings in Maryland last June. And it’s garbage, and not just because every word out of Trump’s mouth is garbage. Even less-talented reporters don’t simply make shit up. What the good ones do is precisely the opposite.