Bledsoe Set World Record At The Rhino
Special to The Rhino Times
October 20, 2011When The Rhinoceros Times was founded in the fall of 1991, I was leaving the newspaper business for good, or so I thought. I wasn't even aware that it had begun publication. I couldn't have conceived that it would become the most important news source in Greensboro and eventually pull me back into work that I loved.
I was fascinated with newspapers from the time I started hanging out at age 9 in the back shop of the Thomasville Tribune with its ancient and cranky flat-bed press, hoping for a paper route. It took me six months to get that route, which I delivered on foot every Tuesday and Thursday, lugging the heavy papers in a canvas sack that I switched constantly from aching bony shoulder to bony shoulder. You can't imagine my relief when at Christmas nearly a year later I got my first bike. It was just a J.C. Higgins from Sears & Roebuck, but it had a wire basket for my paper sack on the handlebars and I couldn't have been prouder of it.
I moved on to delivering daily papers from nearby cities and did it until I was nearly 16, although at 14 I had taken an additional job at Murphy's Grocery. I was so good at getting new subscribers that when I was 13 I got to go to the White House for National Newspaper Boy Day. A photo of me with the full-size replica of the Liberty Bell at the US Treasury appeared on the front page of the Twin-City Sentinel, the newspaper I was delivering at the time.
I loved everything about newspapers and when I got my first newsroom job at the Daily Independent in Kannapolis in the summer of 1964, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I started out writing obituaries and copying police reports. I moved on to covering crime, courts and county and city government matters. But what I enjoyed most was writing feature stories about interesting people and odd situations that I encountered. They were always welcome by my editors, and one of those stories about a mule in court made it onto the Associated Press national wire and was picked up by CBS News with Douglas Edwards. I felt that I'd made the big time.
I had bigger times ahead, though. After nearly a year and a half at Kannapolis, I was hired to be the High Point bureau chief for the Greensboro Daily News, a paper I once had delivered. Within two years I was feature columnist and soon would be writing for national magazines. Twice I left, once for the Louisville Times, later for a much longer period at the Charlotte Observer, but each time I came back of my own accord.
Of the 27 years I spent in the newspaper business (two of which were on unpaid leave) more than 20 were at the Daily News, which became the News & Record, after my return from Charlotte. I deeply loved that newspaper and treasured the opportunities it gave me. I thought I would be there until I retired or died. That was not to be.
In my later years at the News & Record, it, like many other newspapers, changed radically. It became thoroughly corporatized. Instead of the great editors of my early years, creative people who not only were dedicated to quality journalism but cared deeply about the readers, we began to get bureaucrats as editors. These leaders depended on guidance from hack consultants, faceless focus groups, and whatever cockamamie management fad was current at the moment. They embraced political correctness, frequently at the expense of truth, saw mediocrity as excellence and often held their readers in contempt.
When I returned from my two-year leave, the paper was about to undergo yet another redesign in an endless chain of repugnant redesigns. Readers who once had welcomed the paper as a warm and reliable friend no longer knew what odd but almost certain to be boring creature might show up at their door on any given morning.
Under this latest redesign, I learned, the paper would amount to nothing more than brief news summaries and big, gaudy space-filling graphics. No article could be more than 15 column inches. None could jump from one page to another. People just didn't have time or interest to read more than that, I was told.
I knew better. Only a few years earlier, I had written an eight-part series called Bitter Blood, probably the longest articles ever to appear in that newspaper. It had avid readership. News rack sales increased dramatically and the press run had to be upped every a day. When all of the articles were re-published in a tabloid, readers lined the sidewalk to get free copies.
Under the new rules, at least for the time being, nothing like that could happen again, and serious journalism wasn't possible. There clearly was no longer a place for me at the newspaper I had loved so deeply. I quit.
I never saw the first edition of The Rhinoceros Times, and I can't remember when I became aware of the paper. Years earlier I had met the founder and editor, John Hammer, at the Rhino Club, a bar where newspaper folks hung out. We had mutual friends but I don't recall having a conversation of any length with him at the time.
To the best of my knowledge, my name didn't appear in the paper until three years later when Ed Cone, then a Rhino columnist, interviewed me about one of my crime books, Before He Wakes.
Four years later, I returned from a book tour to discover that the News & Record had created quite a commotion in my home county. One of its reporters had written an article claiming that an adult outreach course on the Civil War at Randolph Community College was teaching that slaves were happy. That attracted international attention and condemnation. Although the reporting was being disputed, it caused the course to be shut down.
My long concern for free speech prompted me to go to the library and read all of the articles, editorials and responses that I'd missed. I found the reporting to be dubious at best. I wrote a lengthy analysis of it and sent it to every media outlet in the triad. It was ignored by all but one – The Rhino, which published it in full, the first time my writing appeared in the paper.
That caused the instructor of the course, Jack Perdue, an amateur historian and preservationist, to call me. He believed that the News & Record was using contrived information to portray him, his fellow instructors, students and college officials as racist for no greater reason than sensationalism.
This controversy, filled with vindictiveness, grew for weeks, and during the course of it, Perdue died of a heart attack. His family believed it was brought on by the stress he had endured. His death prompted me to write a book about the situation. When it came out three years later John Hammer wrote favorably about it and allowed me to publish a series of columns in response to the News & Record's reaction to the book.
That was when I began to get to know John. By that time I had been a regular reader of The Rhino for a good while. It was a newspaper with personality, and I had realized that if you wanted to know about politics and government in Guilford County you had to read The Rhino. It was the only source for knowledgeable and in-depth information and the work done by its small but gifted staff was remarkable.
I had no idea then that I later would form a much deeper relationship with The Rhino. The beginnings of that came in June 2005, when the News & Record reported that a "secret police" unit inside the Greensboro Police Department was targeting black officers because of race. More frenetic articles followed, all high on sensationalism and short on evidence.
I was as dubious of these reports as I had been of the unfounded claims about the Civil War course in my county. I did nothing about it, however, until City Manager Mitch Johnson forced Police Chief David Wray to resign in January 2006, and began making wild, false claims about a "black book," creating even more outrageous reporting and stirring hatred. A poster that I saw on West Market Street prompted me to action. It showed Wray with a Hitler mustache and proclaimed him to be grand dragon of the KKK.
A friend told me he had spoken with Wray and I asked him to pass along word that I'd like to talk with him. At some point I called John Hammer. If I could get Wray's story would he be willing to publish it?
"Sure," he said.
Neither of us had any idea what we were getting into.
The result was a series called Cops in Black & White. It began in August 2006, and continued until the end of January 2010. It could be the longest series on a single topic in American journalism history, although I doubt that records exist to prove it.
During the course of this series I got to know John Hammer well. I found him to be a person of character, caring and great humor. Working with him was like working with the great editors I had in my early days of newspaper and magazine writing, and some of them were among the best in the business. John has the one important attribute that was missing in the bureaucratic editors I've encountered: courage to seek the truth and stand by it. The people of Guilford County are blessed to have him and The Rhino serving them.