Eugene Patterson


Gene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism: ‘Get over the pain, new stuff happens’

In late November 2012, Eugene Patterson, who died Saturday, prepared his thoughts about journalism in advance of a visit from an old friend. His edited reflections are reproduced here, direct from Patterson’s IBM Wheelwriter typewriter.

Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling.

How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. Technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Journalists breaking out of the wreckage of old news delivery ways carry in their bones known elements of the character which, in handling news, needs to be.

Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow.

Be fair; let all speak.

Be ethical; if it feels wrong, it is.

Be careful; get facts right.

Be skeptical; ask, what’s missing here?

Be above conflict; if in doubt, don’t.

Be beyond price; fear no threatener, favor no pal.

Be an example of integrity; people know it when you show it.

Be vigilant; to defend the First Amendment, deliver on its purpose: question authority; watch the empowered; right wrongs.

And be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor.

We aren’t just saying the Sunday school lessons here while the church burns. We’re fighting the fire. Salvage the steeple, reshingle roof that’s left, and keep a lot of kneelers. Start the annex and pay the preacher frugally to match the faint rattle of the current collection plate. Cut your sackcloth to fit the pattern. Believe in gladsome days to come.

News work in the new era is bound to ask more and pay less until new revenue can rise.

The lower-cost newsroom is likely to be limited to a compact cadre of the expert few, directing a force of carefully chosen free lancers. They used to be called stringers. They had day jobs but earned a little extra by calling in the happenings in their places. They gained hometown stature as correspondents for bigtown media, and their bigtown editors tapped their local knowledge while professionally shaping their stories. The editors verified facts and scrapped junk. This certified it as community journalism, not prattle. Cost was a pittance compared to the expense of fulltime staffers. An elite few of staffers will still parachute in to cover the big ones. But day-to-day expense for people must come down until revenues can revive. Coverage can be kept up by the time-tried means at hand. Giving it up is not an option. Among smaller tragedies, that would leave nothing for the aggregators to curate.

Editors looking to whisk up savings are already syndicating their staff writers’ accounts of events within their states. Thus they cover more of the distant stories at less cost by swapping and sharing their staffs’ work. Sorry, sports: that includes you. For a little competitive pride lost, a lot of sinew in news reach balloons.

Scratching for revenue at newspapers extends through advertising and circulation to the pressroom where commercial printing may put idle iron to use. The country weekly of my Depression boyhood printed individual labels for farmers paying to paste their names on their half-gallon tin cans of syrup when they boiled up a kettlefull at cane grinding time.

Back at the ranch, all of this still leaves some bunks open for the skilled hands who can saddle up and sit the bronc of news that bolts bucking out of the chute daily.

For sure there’ll be hunters (to investigate wrongs), gatherers (to harvest the hay and bale it), explainers (to answer the reasons why), and commenters (to argue for a verdict). They can’t be afforded if they’re numerous. So the few will have to be good.

There’s no room for the ordinary in the future news medium that earns dominance in its community, whatever its delivery system looks like.

Arid acres of jump page stuff will now be continued to a link after a couple of paragraphs. Explanatory journalism is the new spot news. Wired readers are already up to their who-where’s in what happened. They want to know why and how come, reliably. That’s what they’ll buy, along with sensible comment so nimble they’ll eagerly make it regular reading for pleasure. Think Krugman, Dowd, Nocera, and certainly Gail Collins, as you’ll know unless you’re strapped to the roof of a car somebody’s driving to Canada.

Commit to signed columns. They connect a community to a living person, not an inanimate institution. The column is a daily hello, like its view or not. Its mortal sin is to bore. Write a yawner, you’re out of here. Writers of explanatory stories can rival comment columnists for readers’ favor if they excel. Call up personal journalism to reach the reader’s answering heart. Keep arm’s length from the conniver but let the reader come in close.

Opportunities will be ample when the press re-casts this page of its history. Get over the pain. New stuff happens.

We’ve crossed the edge of the information world before and found the horizon still beckons. The fearful saw the end of printed news first in radio, then in television, and here we are, still around answering the new alarms. Open mike talk shows, game shows, gossip and gore blew through before tweets, texts, posts and careless blogs gained primacy at wasting time.

Serious and saleable handling of news is feeling its way slowly but surely to modern means of delivery that will pay the cost of newsgathering. That’s inevitable because it’s essential. And the new product worth delivering has to carry forward its old character whose commandments are graven in the printer’s stone.

This statement by Gene Patterson lives in the courtyard of The Poynter Institute.
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A grieving relative of one of bombing victims in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is led away after telling officers that some of his family was in the section most heavily damaged. Man just in back of him is holding a shoe found in the debris. At least four persons were known to have been killed. (AP Photo)

Gene Patterson’s most famous column: ‘A Flower for the Graves’

This column by Eugene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was originally published in that paper on September 16, 1963 and was read aloud that night on the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. Patterson died Jan. 12, 2013 at the age of 89.

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.

He didn’t know any better.

Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.

A grieving relative of one of bombing victims in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is led away after telling officers that some of his family was in the section most heavily damaged. Man just in back of him is holding a shoe found in the debris. At least four persons were known to have been killed. (AP Photo)

We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.

We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.

We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.

Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.

We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.

The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug. Read more


Gene Patterson to Jack Nelson: Save Us a Desk Up There in That Celestial Newsroom

Jack Nelson came into the news business with a high school diploma and a low boiling point. He left with the rarest trophy we award — the respect of his peers.

Unbounded respect.

You didn’t mess with Jack. He had the face of a choirboy but the knuckles of a cop. As an adolescent, he took that do-right jaw into the boxing ring as a Golden Gloves fighter. As a man, he sank the hard fist of truth into the paunches of racist politicians who misbegot their power by inflaming the ignorant. Jack was a leader of the post-Appomattox generation that grew up.

He was born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi and came out of the Army in Georgia to cub on The Atlanta Constitution. When I joined that paper as executive editor in 1956 I saw reporters going by the city desk for story assignment but stopping by Jack’s desk for newsroom leadership. He expected to be in charge. Even in his twenties he was the ace investigator, the star reporter and the staff pathfinder.

He had a Cracker’s easy tolerance for good whiskey and bad jokes, hot gospel music and hot fried fish. But his broad mind slammed shut when he encountered crookedness and lies among officeholders abusing the public’s trust.

He didn’t like sheriffs protecting illegal gambling in Savannah or J. Edgar Hoover paying FBI plants to witness murders in Alabama and Mississippi. How many people besides Jack Nelson can you remember who dared to expose Hoover’s excesses at the height of his power when he was misusing FBI agents to try to ruin citizens like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

No official wrongdoer got too big for Jack to take on. He didn’t hesitate to put the branding iron to sacred cows in any herd.

Even as a youngster he was a heat-seeking missile pointing his pencil as the warhead. He exposed speed traps fleecing tourists on U.S. 1 and marriage mills profiteering at the Florida line — thievery in the state house and bribery on the police beat.

Jack found doctors turning up drunk and letting nurses perform hip-nailing surgery on patients in the Georgia state mental hospital at Milledgeville. His ruthless reporting of that and other horrors forced the governor and legislature to clean up that snake pit. His stories won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was 29 years old.

Jack was never the same after we sent him to Little Rock in 1957 to cover the desegregation of Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus had pleased his voting public by defying a federal court’s order to desegregate the school. Jack’s stories showed he was profoundly shaken and moved by the sight of frightened black children shrinking from the screams of hatred spewed by crowds of white mothers, and the sound of popping leather and metal as United States Army paratroopers deployed to force white Southerners to obey the national law.

It was fated that Otis Chandler would hire Jack away from the pinch-penny Constitution when he set out to make the Los Angeles Times a great newspaper. Jack went national bearing what Howell Raines called “a rage for justice that arose from being eyewitness to injustice for so many years.”

He covered the civil rights beat across the flaming South of the 1960s before going to D.C. and becoming the storied chief of the Los Angeles Times’ high-powered Washington bureau.

Roy Reed of The New York Times liked to travel the South’s backwoods in company with Jack even though he was a news competitor. Roy said, “He was the toughest reporter I’ve ever known. I (knew) that if I ever got in a jam Jack would defend me — with his fists if necessary.”

Jack did move with a certain force. Steve Daley recalled that watching him walk into a story “was like watching Sandy Koufax get off the team bus.”

He sensed the truth of things. Eleanor Randolph said, “He was the place you went to check the smell of a story.”

Politicians seldom forgot him. Jeff Nesmith recalls a comment Marvin Griffin made to Jack after Griffin had left the Georgia governor’s office with a good number of his administration’s department heads in jail. As Nesmith remembers it, the old race-baiter said, “Jack? You know what I used to think to myself evuh time I had a press conference and I’d see you comin’ through the door with that damn notebook in yore hand? I’d think, I wonder what that beady-eyed sumbitch has got on me this week.”

Jack achieved national celebrity breaking national stories as the L.A. Times bureau chief and talking straight on network television as a star of PBS’ “Washington Week in Review.” He gave voice to things that mattered.

But he remained in his personal life the finest kind of friend anyone could hope to have and keep. If you were his and Barbara’s friend, he was steady at your side. If you wanted help, you got it before you could ask. If you had a need, count on him. If you wanted the truth, you’d hear it straight. Jack never swerved. He was tough as nails holding to his principles, but he was not ashamed to show a kindness and a sweetness of nature to friends who earned his trust. Down deep he was, as Margaret Hurst O’Neill says, “a sweetheart.”

I like the summing up of another of his Atlanta contemporaries, BJ Phillips. She said, “Jack wasn’t complicated. He was a good guy long enough that he became a great man.”

Well, so long, Jack — good friend, great man. Save us a desk up there in that celestial newsroom. We expect the editor-in-chief of us all has got you running that bureau by now.

This speech was delivered by Gene Patterson on Nov. 14, 2009 at a memorial service for Jack Nelson. Read more