My best lede

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 10.47.39 AMCame across the above clip the other day while going through an old cabinet.

Great story behind it …

In the spring of 1995, Catherine Mayhew, my editor at The (Nashville) Tennessean, finally became fed up by my nonsense. I was an awful features reporter who botched names, botched dates, never made follow-up calls. I was sloppy and lazy and awful, and she decided upon a solution.

“I’m moving you,” she said, “to the police beat.”

I cried.

The police beat was the worst. It was all facts. It was sitting by a scanner, waiting for news. It was checking in with the police chief, chasing leads, hard news, more hard news, more hard news.

“That’s the point,” Catherine said. “You need to shape up.”

So I was banished. I worked late nights, waiting for the big robbery, tragic fire, nearest murder. It was pretty dull stuff—every so often something happened. Mostly, though, my life consisted of writing 200-word briefs off of police releases. I wasn’t happy.

One day, however, Catherine came to me with gold. “How do you feel about tagging along with the police on an undercover prostitution sting?”

Uh … what?

Turns out the Nashville Police Department was troubled by the upswing in hookers, and wanted to get the word out that it was taking action. Hence, two days later I drove out to a fleabag motel in an awful part of town. I was introduced to Sue, the undercover female officer who was disguised as a whore. I was introduced to Bob and Steve and Ed, the three officers positioned inside the motel room (where Sue would enter with the customer). Initially, I sat down in an across-the-street surveillance vehicle, where I watched the action on a monitor. After a while, someone said, “Do you wanna go in the motel room?”

Hell yes!

I’ll never forget the experience. I crouched down in a dark bathroom with the three officers. When we heard Sue enter the room (“C’mon, baby. Don’t be shy …”) we pounced! Wham! The looks on the faces of the men were priceless—and, oddly, heartbreaking. In a moment, their lives were forever changed. Marriages—presumably over. Jobs—presumably gone. I’ve never solicited a prostitute or cheated on my spouse, but I certainly understand sexual urge. Not to that degree, but … well, yeah. It was sad.

One man, in particular, was crushing. His name was Richard Harrington. He was 34. When he opened his wallet, alongside his driver’s license was a photo of his wife and kids. “I’ve never done this before,” he said, shortly after offering $20 for oral sex. “Never.”

I was 22. Excited. Nervous. Sad. Energized. I rushed back to The Tennessean office to write my story. My editor, a nice man named Ted Power (not the ex-Reds reliever), asked if I had good stuff. “I do,” I said. “Definitely.”

After about an hour, I sent in the piece. Ted read it, in silence. He approached, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We need to talk.”

Uh oh.

“Jeff,” he said, “I get what you’re trying here. I appreciate the effort. But we’re a family newspaper in the heart of the Bible Belt. You just can’t use this lede.”

“Why?” I said. “It’s true.”

“That’s fine,” Ted said. “But we’re not starting off a story with, ‘All Richard Harrington wanted was a blowjob.”

9 thoughts on “My best lede”

  1. Nice story, but I wonder what purpose was served by publishing this guy’s name and address — and not just that, but making his name the first two words of the story. I know, I know: it’s a public record once he’s arrested. But it seems a little discretion here would have been the humane way to handle this.

  2. If Richard Harrington’s saga was so “crushing” to you, why are you using his real name in a blog post almost 20 years after the fact? It was a very good story, but it might be time to let Richard Harrington from Murfreesboro off the hook.

  3. Good comments all. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, much of it on the police (“cop shop”) beat. I, too, wrote my best lede on a police story. It had nothing to do with BJs, sadly.

    My other specialty was politics, but I can’t point to one of 10,000 political stories I wrote where there was a memorable lede.

    Jeff, these guys who point out the potential for injuring this guy’s reputation so many years down the road are right, just as you have acknowledged. I learned after a couple of years at the cop shop that once someone gets arrested on any kind of sex charge and his name gets in the paper, it follows him the rest of his life.

    Why is this? Because everything the newspaper writes about a local resident named Frank Jackson will go into the Frank Jackson file in the newspaper morgue. Any time Frank Jackson makes it into the paper, there is a good chance his past will make another appearance in print to give the story some “backgrounding.” Newspapers shouldn’t do that, I don’t believe. But they do.

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