Truth, justice worth the fight
Some of the most rewarding moments of my career have involved stories that righted a wrong or brought about justice.
The movie, “Deadline,” is described as “inspired by a true story” and is loosely based on the reporting experiences of Mark Ethridge, a former managing editor of The Charlotte Observer.
The premiere benefited Vox Teen Communications, a student journalism program, and included a discussion hosted by our editor, Kevin Riley. Many journalists and potential teen journalists in the audience appeared inspired by the earnest tale of redemption.
In the movie, a cub reporter and grizzled veteran both work for the fictional Nashville Times, a newspaper facing dwindling advertising and readership. Their miserly publisher wants them to stick to quick stories close to home, but like many journalists they are motivated by something bigger. When a young woman from rural Alabama reaches out for help bringing justice to the family of a murdered teen, they quickly become engrossed in the investigation.
Not everyone, of course, sees digging into a 19-year old case with racial overtones as a good thing to do. Many discourage the journalists, saying they are “stirring up things that don’t need to be stirred up.”
I heard that sentiment a lot when I was editor at The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter there, has spent much of his career digging into unprosecuted or unresolved crimes of the civil rights era, resulting in the jailing of four killers. He’s the most courageous and inspiring reporter I know and I feel lucky to have worked with him.
In the first story of this type, Mitchell revealed that state interference in the original trials of the killer of Medgar Evers brought about two hung juries. Three decades after Evers was shot, prompted by Mitchell’s reporting, prosecutors reopened the case and the killer was sentenced to life in prison.
During the years I worked with Mitchell, his reporting broke new ground in the fatal firebombing of an NAACP leader, the slaying of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, and the church bombing in Birmingham. I was in the courtroom when Sam Bowers, the former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted on a murder charge he had evaded for 32 years.
The work Mitchell began spread to other newspapers and has resulted in 24 convictions in the United States.
Hank Klibanoff, a former managing editor here and now the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University, currently works with Mitchell on the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a collaboration of journalists and others dedicated to pursuing murders that remain unsolved or unresolved.
Klibanoff says it’s not unexpected that some people would question the importance of pursuing 40- and 50-year-old racially motivated murders.
“We have a responsibility to get our history right and to fill it with truths, even uncomfortable ones,” Klibanoff said in an email. “We don’t finish writing that history until we finish telling the stories of the perpetrators and the victims and all the other major and minor players in those dramas in towns across the South. Some of the families of victims have been living awkwardly and painfully in the same towns as the perpetrators for all these years, knowing, as the whole town did, who killed their daddy or grandfather, and not understanding why they were allowed to get away with murder.”
The Klan murders and other violent offshoots were homegrown terrorism at its worst, Klibanoff says, as cruel as any international terrorist group we face today. The killings often involved law enforcement and prominent white citizens who either looked away, covered up, or, worse, participated.
That’s the case in the “Deadline” movie; the facts behind the crime are devastating. The killer is ultimately brought down by a remorseful Klan type, and that begins the healing.
The wrap-up of the movie seems a little Hollywood for my taste — the reporters win a Pulitzer Prize and the publisher embraces in-depth reporting like never before — but the point is clear. Truth matters, even decades later, and journalists must continue to pursue justice or these stories will go untold.
That’s a storyline I can certainly buy into.
“Deadline” is currently on a benefit tour of cities across the country and is expected to go into wide release after the tour. See deadlinefilm.com for details.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to explain openly to readers what we do and why. Public editor Shawn McIntosh writes a column every other week to provide insight into newsroom operations, the newspaper’s role in the community and the industry. Write McIntosh at email@example.com or join the conversation on editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ajceditor.