On leaving the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after 28 years
After 15 years in Africa and Asia, covering Texas became one of my favorite foreign assignments
Before joining the Star-Telegram in December 1986, I had never worked at an American newspaper. Never before had I experienced a reading public so intimately, sometimes painfully, close.
Six months into my job as a roving Texas reporter, Professor Allen Saxe of the University of Texas at Arlington called to say he had read my article to his class. It told of the strangling of an East Texas teen who had been teased and taunted all her life, only to be killed by a classmate at the only graduation party she had been invited to.
Others were moved too. In fact, more than 100 angry readers wrote to school and city officials in Beckville denouncing the entire community, even though I had pointedly noted that the murder was an anomaly, and that this was a good town, one that had raised scholarship money for every single graduate.
I had to go back repeatedly to Beckville, now quite hostile to me. At one point, I spoke through the closed door of the school superintendent's office, saying, “Everybody wants a free press, but they don’t always want to speak to it...” It worked. He opened the door, and candidly told me about both Theresa Anne Downing and the killer who, like her, came from an impoverished, broken home, and how the tragedy tore up the community.
Very often I was the last person folks wanted to see during my years covering the width and breadth of Texas, an unknown territory following overseas assignments for The Associated Press that ranged from Bhutan and Japan to Angola and Uganda. At least the phones worked in Gun Barrel City and there were no roadblocks with drunken unpaid soldiers on Highway 80.
It didn’t help that I was from a “big city” paper and spoke with an accent from somewhere north of the Red River. “You’re not from around here, are yew?” I was often asked. To defrost the reception, I’d reply, “I’m recovering Yankee trash from Ohio.”
Sometimes I didn’t even have to write a story to upset people.
The Brownwood school superintendent angrily threw me out of his office. He had been under immense pressure after the high school named its first African American valedictorian. He demanded to know how a Fort Worth reporter found out about the selection. I was to learn that this irate man was an Ibsen-like hero standing up to public opinion. And it was the local police chief – rarely a good source for an unknown, out-of-town reporter – who filled me in. (Years later, the top senior, Ramona Houston, called to say she had just gotten her Ph.d in history from the University of Texas.)
When Margaret Thatcher opened a speaking appearance at Southern Methodist University to questions, she got a huge round of applause for defending author Salman Rushdie’s right to freedom of speech after Iran’s ayatollahs issued a fatwa for his death. But when I began to ask about her son’s questionable Mideast arms dealing, then in the news, my microphone went dead and 2,000 Dallasites craned their necks upward toward the balcony where I stood, then booed and hissed. I guess they only supported First Amendment rights for British novelists.
I watched life imitating art in real time while unintentionally helping drive a split in the conservative West Texas community of Anson, hometown of our then-editor, Mike Blackman. Like the over-churched community in the film Footloose, the Jones County seat had banned public dancing (back in 1927). The prohibition was annually lifted for a few days every December so out-of-towners could boot scoot at Anson’s historic Cowboy Christmas Ball.
My series of articles about attempts to change the law attracted TV crews from around Texas, and reporters from the Washington Post and London’s Daily Telegragh. When the law was eventually changed, the crowd at the celebratory dance at Pioneer Hall gave me a standing ovation as I entered. It proved an all-too brief easing of the Bible Belt buckle. The mayor still refused to be interviewed (and kept his unused roller rink closed to Texas two-steppers), and the Anson establishment pressured other property owners not to rent out their buildings to the pro-dance parents group, Footloose. The Kevin Bacon movie had a happier ending.
Thanks to the Star-Telegram, I was able to experience the complex bundle of things that make up Texas. Time was spent with armadillo racers, windmill repairmen, bull semen extractors, queen bee exporters and a cattle thief who couldn’t stop confessing the extent of his rustling. One day I met the entire graduating class of Big Bend High School, the state’s smallest that year: Two very self-assured young women.
There was the Republic of Texas standoff at nearby Fort Davis, which would have been the height of fringe hjinks if the insurgents – all non-Texans, including a native American from Colorado and his German wife, and led by an Ohioan – hadn’t held an elderly couple at gunpoint for several terrifying days.
In Jasper, on deadline, I learned how misplaced my preconceptions were of the East Texas town tucked deeply in the Piney Woods where a black man named James Byrd had been dragged to his death behind a pickup with a logging chain. A man I met at a diner led me to his former father-in-law, a black preacher who was also the local Texas Workforce Commission manager.
The cleric-bureaucrat told me that Jasper was the strangest place he had ever lived. How so? “After three months, I was elected president of the downtown Rotary,” he said, then noted that the president of the school board for 17 years, the top hospital administrator, one of the two principals and the current mayor were all African Americans in a town about 50-50 white/black. Later, it would become apparent that the Jasper-reared ringleader of the three killers became racist in prison and brought his bigotry to what a mixed race couple from neighboring Newton County told me was a conspicuous island of tolerance where they at times had sought refuge from rednecks in hot pursuit.
Reporters don't make news
Overseas, when folks were displeased with my news gathering, I got arrested or expelled, sometimes both. But my first boss at The AP, Edwin Q. White, instilled in me the belief that “reporters don’t make news.” So I never wrote about my three-days in an Afghan jail or the time years later when I wrestled with a Russian soldier over my camera during the Soviet invasion.
I similarly remained close-mouthed when a Fort Worth man launched a multi-platform campaign against me. It stemmed from a short column item about how he had lied about delaying results of a contest he ran. It was a marginal story that almost didn’t get written. Then he emailed a bribe offer – a bottle of the "finest” single malt whisky – in return for my silence.
A known prankster, the man had marched back and forth with an over-sized, stuffed koala during a TV live spot by a WFAA/Channel 8 reporter, and he had sung before an unamused Fort Worth City Council to further his absurdist request to get the inventor of hair straightener honored. He would later post videos of his antics on YouTube in hopes they'd go viral.
After my item ran, he became a vengeful cyberstalker, attacking me on obscure journalism blogs as well as going to the bother of creating an anti-Barry Shlachter website and an equally hateful (and incoherent) Facebook page. Then there was the Finnish-based online petition to get me fired, followed by a yard-long email from him threatening to destroy my reputation on the Drudge report.
Finally, he reworked the English subtitles of the bunker scene in the 2004 German film Downfall to have Adolf Hitler suffering a monumental meltdown not because of advancing Russians but because a certain Barry Shlachter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was coming to interview him. My sons urged me not to try to have the frankly hilarious YouTube video removed, And, of course, being feared by Der Führer was not exactly a bad thing. (Half my father’s family had perished in the Holocaust.)
Perversely or not, the man’s campaign of over-the-top vilification amounted to a sort of newsroom badge of honor, eliciting envy from colleagues who may only get the occasional, and unimaginative, scribbled piece of hate mail.
Texas did not have a monopoly on craziness during my tenure.
Sent by Executive Editor Jim Witt to cover the 50th anniversary of the purported alien visitation to Roswell, N.M., I called out from within a crowd departing a hugely attended lecture on extraterrestrial kidnappings.
“Anyone here been abducted by aliens?” I shouted.
Scores of hands shot up.
“Anyone here been abducted and is a Southern Baptist?”
An accounting instructor from the Deep South raised her hand. (I thought my Texas readers could relate to a born-again abductee.) We sat down and she relayed her experience. At first her husband was glad she had returned, the woman told me. But her marriage collapsed and she became unwelcome at her church after she published an all-too-explicit account of nocturnal trysts deep in the cosmic void.
Over the years, the Star-Telegram and its changing array of corporate owners sent me on all-expense-paid trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan and Haiti, as well as such to such rugged outposts as Vienna, Bonn, Budapest and Brussels. In the Belgian capital, between NATO press conferences, I acquired a taste for abbey ale. That led to my appointment as the paper’s beer critic. For seven barely memorable years, my employer paid me to sample the world’s finest brews. Quite a gig.
After 9/11, I was sent twice into Afghanistan, catching the climactic battle at Tora Bora, just outside Jalalabad, where I had been jailed 23 years earlier.
Days later, at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, just across the border in Pakistan, a former Taliban commander for some reason agreed to give me a lengthy interview. For years afterward, whenever bureaucrats, politicians and corporate spokespersons stonewalled me, I’d tell them quite truthfully that I had received more cooperation from the Taliban.
Covering the Biosphere in Arizona was not an assignment I had sought, and twice the highest echelon of the paper threatened me with dismissal over the wacky science experiment that cost a certain Fort Worth resident $200 million. It was run by folks who gave each other fake degrees from a mail-box “institute” in London, and who threatened real scientists at the nearby University of Arizona with British libel lawsuits if they dared criticize the project.
After reporting that the former Santa Fe acting troupe that provided its core leadership (I'm not making this up) was finally paid off in secret, I was told I’d be fired if I didn’t divulge the name of the source who supplied details of the multi-million-dollar settlement.
When I wasn’t given assurances that the information would be kept within the confines of the newspaper, I refused. When I asked who really needed to know the name of the source, I was told it was the head of a major downtown law firm, which represented the Biosphere and its major benefactor.
I was taken aback both by the sleazy threat and the frank disclosure that my sources would be leaked. At lunch, I informed my late wife Amrita I was going to be sacked for not giving up a source to whom I had promised anonymity. She didn’t panic. "Do what you have to do," she told me. I never loved her more. Four hours later the ultimatum was withdrawn, but the episode remains the low point of my 43-year career in journalism.
There were acts of corporate courage
A stand out was a former publisher named Wes Turner, who instructed editors not to let me know that a local BMW-Porsche dealership (owned by the brother of the Biosphere benefactor) had pulled its ads because of a column I had written. The boycott would last a year. (Auto ads are very important to daily newspapers.)
In this case, the luxury car dealership had tried to evict a tenant from a building it had just purchased, ignoring terms of the lease that gave the renter a 15-day grace period during any dispute. At issue was a $43 utility surcharge, and the tenant tried to pay following cancer surgery. After I reported that the renter, a partner of a textile design firm, won the case, the auto ads were cancelled. I found out about it months later from a person outside of the paper. My editor later confided that Turner hadn’t wanted me to know, saying he didn't want my reporting efforts to be chilled.
Turner’s handling of the matter meant more to me than the rodeo-style, saucer-sized Star-Telegram belt buckle he later awarded me for committing some other act of journalism.
[Shlachter plans to remain in Fort Worth where he runs a boutique publishing venture, Great Texas Line Press. He will occasionally write free-lance articles while concentrating on cycling and cross-country skiing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]