N.C. Reporting Legend Stith Retires After 37 Years
Scattered throughout the country is a small band of investigative reporters whose names strike terror in the hearts of the lazy, the corrupt and the wasteful in local and state government. These journalists do not get the book contracts and the acclaim of the Bob Woodwards and the Seymour Hershes, but they become something like the conscience of their communities. Year after year they churn out deep, well-reported investigations that right wrongs and send corrupt public officials to jail. Pat Stith, 66, who will retire next month after taking a buyout from the Raleigh News and Observer, was one of the very best of this breed.
"For almost 40 years, Pat Stith has been the soul of this paper," News and Observer Executive Editor John Drescher in a story in his paper announcing the news on Friday. "He represents the best of what we are: tough, fair, honest, vigilant and hardworking."
We asked Washington Port reporter Joby Warrick, whose work with Stith on an investigation of the environmental consequences of the pork industry won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, to write about his memories of Pat:
His nickname in Raleigh bureaucratic circles is "Dirty Harry," but it doesn't quite do justice to Pat Stith, the legendary investigative journalist and my former reporting partner at The News & Observer. Sure, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry was tough. But then, he never had to look a punk in the eye after blasting him with his .44 magnum.
Pat, by contrast, always made it his habit to look each of his targets in the eye, not just during the reporting and the inevitable "showdown"--Pat's version of the confrontational, face-to-face interview--but also after the story was published. Whenever one of his hard-hitting stories hit the paper, Pat made it a practice to show up at work early so he could be the first person to phone the man or woman whose misdeeds he had chronicled on that day's front page. He would ask for a reaction, then he would ask if he had gotten anything wrong. He almost never did.
This was Pat Stith's way, and it certainly took guts. But Pat's toughness is a reflection of a kind of journalistic integrity that's getting harder to find today. For Pat, knowing that you're going to call the person means you never cut corners, never shade the truth and never take liberties with language to tell a better story. It's a toughness that also includes a fierce commitment to fairness--to always telling both sides of a story, and not just in a perfunctory way.
These are qualities that were appreciated even by the corrupt officials who lost jobs or did jail time because of Pat's reporting. When we worked together, there were times when those morning-after calls would provoke rants that could be heard from a couple of desks away. But more often, the subject of the article would thank Pat for being accurate and fair.
Pat once explained it this way: "Fairness is not some hill we have to climb," he said. "It is something we do for ourselves. Because fairness makes our stories stronger. When we're fair, every lousy thing we report about somebody will stick."
I had the good fortune of being Pat's partner on a number of investigative projects at The N&O in the1990s, including the "Power of Pork" series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1996. There was so much I admired then, and still do, about this bulldog of a reporter who sprang from blue-collar Alabama roots and become, in the minds of many of his colleagues and admirers around the country, one of the purest representations of old-fashioned, journalistic integrity and investigative skill.
In addition to his toughness and extraordinary work ethic, Pat had an amazing ability to reinvent himself as an investigative journalist every few years, expanding his repertoire to take advantage of technology that would enable him to do his job better. Already a master at paper records, he taught himself computer-assisted reporting in the early 1990s and became a nationally recognized expert in the field.
But of his many talents, none impressed me more than his skill as an interviewer. The ability to ask good, smart--and often hard--questions was a key element in Pat's success, and his interviewing style said a lot about him as a journalist. Pat poured himself into preparing for a major interview, sometimes studying for hours or days to make sure he understood the material. He carefully honed each question and anticipated in advance what the answers and follow-ups would be.
When it was finally time to look his subject in the eye, Pat would show up, usually early, with a couple of freshly sharpened pencils and a stack of documents, highlighted and tabbed. His tone was never combative, nor was it overly friendly. He would simply ask straight-ahead, honest questions, and then sit back with an alert and open mind to await the reply.
And he would say "thanks" a lot. Because, for this Dirty Harry, toughness isn't a license for forgetting your manners.
Or as Pat would say:
"We can say 'please' and 'thank you,' and still ask: 'Did you steal the money?'"
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Posted by: NC Reader | September 24, 2008 10:13 PM