The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon. Chapter Nineteen will appear Jan. 7.
Frank’s maneuver worked. At least it worked in the sense that he got the paper to publish what he had learned from Sgt. Greene, about Officer Hanrahan’s use of a drop knife to make it look like he had been attacked by Tyrone T. Washington.
The story unfolded with great fanfare, starting with a four-column headline above the fold on Page One. For most of the day, other news outlets had to credit the Star with reporting about the mystery witness and what he might say in his testimony. Landgon timed her arrival at the airport so that it would be a breaking story for the evening news broadcasts.
At her press conference she continued to play coy. “All I can tell you is that we have located a witness whose testimony is likely to accelerate my office’s decision process about whether to bring charges in the case,” she said in front of a bank of microphones.
By refusing to go further, she was forcing the news outlets to continue to reference Frank’s story and The Star. Maybe it was just lawyerly caution, but it sort of seems like it was a personal favor to Frank. I know I would have done the same.
At one point Langdon was asked about the whole airplane trip and whether it was really necessary for her to make such a dramatic gesture. She was ready for that one and explained that her office had spoken with the witness by phone but wanted to speak with him in person to make a “firsthand assessment.”
It was a huge story that all the local media chased and that even got some national distribution. Normally such a turn of events would be seen in the newsroom as coup, but this case was a little more complicated.
Corker hated surprises, he hated the idea that someone knew something that he didn’t know, and he hated feeling like he was being pressured to take an action that he hadn’t had a chance to think through.
All of those factors came into play with the Greene story. Corker was happy to take credit for the paper breaking the story and to bask in the attention it attracted. But he felt that Frank had backed him into a corner where the paper had to run the story and had to go with it right away.
Corker was one to nurse a grudge, and he harbored one against Frank for years, at least that’s the conclusion Frank came to.
“At first I didn’t think so,” Frank said. “But it would flare up from time to time, in odd ways. And then what he did today—I think that seals it.”
Frank and I were lying awake in bed. It had been a tumultuous day. I thought Frank was maybe overdoing it. He wasn’t the one who had gotten fired, and what happened didn’t really reflect on him and maybe only a little on something he had done.
I tried to make his mind off work, something I was usually pretty good at. But he wanted no part of my advances and ignored my hand on the inside of his thigh. Instead he kept coming back to what had happened to Lynn.
OK, from my perspective, I didn’t have much sympathy for her. When she wasn’t making me look bad by working so hard, she had usually been rude and condescending. Still, it must have been hard for her—it was a pretty steep drop.
“You should have seen the look on Corker’s face, in his eyes,” Frank said. “You know how he usually just gives you that friendly-idiot look, like his brain is incapable of having an idea? Not today. He was mad, and he looked like he was getting ready to enjoy what he was getting ready to do. I think he was happy that it happened to one of my interns, so I would have to watch.”
What should have been Lynn’s moment of glory, a best-of-show award at the state newspaper convention for her one-woman coverage of the Spot fire, had ended up costing her her job and, most likely, effectively ending her career in journalism.
“Résumés are supposed to be real—that’s what Corker kept saying.”
Apparently Corker had been pretty harsh, even brutal. “Well the good news, Ms. Ling, is that you are now an award-winning journalist.” Frank looked over at her face and noticed that Lynn had started to cry. He assumed that it was from the excitement of the moment, and then Corker lowered the boom: “The bad news is you’re fired. We have zero tolerance for what you did.”
It was now abundantly clear why Lynn had fought so hard to keep Frank from entering her story in the convention competition. She had been afraid that her work was so good that it would attract attention and that somehow her secret would come out.
She wasn’t the first student journalist who had decided, or maybe even been told by a professor, that grades in j-school don’t matter, that she should focus on what she was doing at the campus newspaper rather than what she was doing in the classroom.
During her last year at school, Lynn had done a fine job of building a portfolio of great clips—that’s how she got her internship. But she had stopped showing up for one of her classes, and the instructor who had given her an F was unmoved by her tears and her promises that she had learned her lesson.
Lynn’s bad luck was that the judges for the competition were journalism professors, and one of them noticed in her bio where she said she had graduated with a journalism degree from a school with a very big-league reputation. A call of congratulations from the judge to a former colleague at the school brought an awkward silence and then a whispered question: “Are you sure she said she has degree from here? I hope not, because that’s not true.”
Eventually word got back to Corker. The newspaper association didn’t want to take the award back, and the president pretended it was probably just a paperwork error that would need to be cleared up in the future.
But Corker saw it differently. He decided, and maybe Frank was right that Corker saw it as a way of getting back at Frank somehow, that Lynn had to be fired for lying about her academic credentials.
“A newspaper has to have the absolute trust of its readers, and so it must demand absolute honestly from its reporters,” Corker had lectured to Frank and Lynn. To make matters worse, Corker insisted that the paper give the award back and write a story about the situation, naming Lynn by name.
“That was just not necessary,” Frank said. “Sure, she made a mistake telling us she had graduated, but she was just an intern.”
I thought about reminding Frank that I had tried to warn him, but I could tell that he was in no mood to take any responsibility for what had happened.
“I really felt bad for Lynn,” he said. “But she shouldn’t have said she did something that she didn’t do. And what she said to me afterwards, that was just out of bounds.”
I tried to explain her point of view. “She comes from a ‘shame’ culture, and she lost a lot of face today. She never really wanted the award, and then to lose it, and to have to read about losing it and about losing your job in the paper, a paper that you have to pay for since you no longer work there. I think I would be pretty worked up, too.”
“But the things she said to me….”
“She said that what I did to her was worse than a rape. She said it was as if I had physically hurt her.”
“She does have a temper, and can get pretty angry,” I said, thinking back to my first encounter with Lynn.
“But rape? C’mon. Not with that girl. She was in a rage.”
I was exhausted, and I started to drift off, with Frank still muttering. “Rape? Gonna come back and get it back from me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
When Frank’s story broke, its meaning was immediately clear to Officer Hanrahan and Attorney Black. It didn’t really matter that the DA was pretending not to have made up her mind. They both knew that someone must have seen Hanrahan throw the knife, apparently some soldier home on leave and back on post at Ft. Benning.
“This could be a bigger problem than I thought,” Black told his client. “I always like the witnesses who are wearing uniforms to be on my side of the case.”
Frank didn’t get a scoop on the actual announcement of Hanrahan’s indictment. The afternoon before a press advisory had gone out, and word was leaked pretty much everywhere in town that charges were being brought in the case.
But he got a Page Oner out of the news of the press conference and then another Page One piece the next day based on the DA’s official announcement.
Frank and the DA engaged in a little banter at the press conference, which Frank started by asking her what she could say about her mystery witness.
“Well, Frank, I mean Mr. Angleton, I don’t want to litigate this case in the newspaper, but I can tell you that the witness we spoke to in Georgia was an eyewitness to the incident.”
“Is it true that he saw Officer Hanrahan drop a knife by the victim’s body?”
“Mr. Angleton, as you know, that is something that your paper has reported. It will be up to a jury to make the ultimate determination as to what happened that day.”
“Are you denying that the knife was Officer Hanrahan’s?”
“That’s all for now,” the DA said, refusing to answer Frank’s question.
We journalists pretend to hate such charades, but we engage in them all the time, showing what we know, a little, and then refusing to show more. The newspaper is a public medium, supposedly, but it’s also an inside game.
Maybe the only thing that Frank and Shirley Langdon shared was some inside knowledge about the Hanrahan case. But I will never be sure. Often when he spoke of her, there was a little catch in his voice, as if he had suddenly remembered something about her that was private, an intimacy that bound them somehow and that he didn’t want me to know about.
There was a lot about Frank that was private, that I know I never got to see while he was alive and that I can only speculate about now that he’s not. As a reporter, you are always reminded of the risks of trying to keep things private–and of the impossibility of keeping things private.
Lynn was a good example. She should have known better. She should have known that her story would come out, the way it had for Janet Cooke and the Pulitzer that she had to give back.
What Officer Hanrahan did wasn’t exactly private, unless you live in world where only white people matter and the brown and black and yellow people aren’t really there. But maybe that’s why he thought he would get away with it. He figured no one who saw him shoot Tyrone T. Washington would be seen as someone worth believing in a court of law.
Making something public, bringing it out of from the shadows of secrecy, is the great power that a reporter has. Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to go completely public. Just the possibility is enough to make a person change his mind.
After the flurry of news about Sgt. Greene’s testimony in the Hanrahan case had died down, Frank had a chance to deal with that bill for his airplane ride. Frank dialed the man’s number.
“You know I think I’m finally ready to write that story.”
“Too late, pal. I don’t want no story. I want my money.”
“No, I insist. I’ve been doing a little digging about you and your business empire, and I think there’s a really good story there.”
“Listen, the deal was a story about my car service.”
“Right, but that’s not the only service you provide to members of the military, now is it?” Frank asked. “I understand that you run another little company, whose motto is ‘We Service Those Who Serve.’”
Frank’s stalker had come through again.
“I don’t know how you know about that, but I think that the best thing for you to do right now … would be to tear up that invoice. I’m gonna pretend that I’ve never heard your name.”
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.