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Lucasville Riot Coverage Demonstrated Resourceful Journalism

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 16th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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It hit me a few days ago. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the bloody Easter uprising at Ohio’s crowded, racially tense maximum security prison at Lucasville.

That deadly riot, the longest prison riot in American history, was The Enquirer’s finest hour.

When it was over we knew we’d done something special in the rain, sleet and red Scioto County mud outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF).  

I was Sunday local editor. Easter 1993 was quiet until we heard of a disturbance at SOCF. I sent Kristen Delguzzi. It was her first day as a reporter after a successful internship. 

Kristen also was, I believe, the only reporter with a cell phone; it was in her car. That proved to be vital. The nearest pay phone was miles away. She said something big was up and began reporting. Photographer Glenn Hartong joined her. I drove down the next day as a reporter. 

Among us, editor Larry Beaupre alone had a sense of what might be happening. He was part of the team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the bloody Attica prison riot and occupation in New York. During the 11 days before Lucasville inmates surrendered, he granted our every request for staff and expenses. Reporter Howard Wilkinson — who recently joined WVXU — was vital to our growing staff outside the prison. Larry left reporting decisions to me and Howard. Jim Smith, a local desk editor in Cincinnati, was our continuing contact. He took much of our phoned dictation and blended our stories into a coherent daily presentation. 

“Jim Smith was really a mentor to me as a young reporter and made my stories sound more eloquent,” Tanya Bricking Leach, then an intern/reporter, said last week. “He was a great editor.”

Within a day of the initial riot, state police and local deputies herded wandering, milling reporters and photographers away from the prison entrance where we had created a traffic hazard and tempting targets to hostile local drivers. A press zone with a view of the prison was set up along an intersecting county road. Someone brought in portable toilets and erected a briefing tent. 

We took a room at the Portsmouth Holiday Inn with a king size bed. Anyone could use the bed, but we mostly napped in cars or lawn chairs because no one wanted to miss the surrender or assault by state police. Enquirer photographer Gary Landers turned the bathroom into a darkroom. “We often only requested towels from the maid,” Gary said. “One, upon looking at the condition of the room, could only say, while shaking her head in disgust, ‘Nasty ol’ men!’ ” 

Everyone filed stories by phone. Dictation was an art in pre-Internet days. We thought out loud with notebooks in hand. Initially, we used Kristen’s car phone or drove to the nearest pay phone. We soon talked the local telephone company into laying a line into Enquirer photographer Mike Snyder’s crowded SUV. 

We’d been at Lucasville a week when Larry drove down to deliver the paper and thank his staff. “I will never forget the Sunday morning when Beaupre showed up,” Howard recalled the other day. “He asked me what we needed. ‘Cash, and lots of it,’ I said, explaining that we had to buy food and clothing for the crew, most of whom came unprepared for 11 days in the mud. Larry pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and start counting out a wad of $50s … gave me $500 on the spot, which I ended up spending at Big Bear and the Subway in Lucasville. ‘There’s more where that came from,’ Beaupre said.”

Larry knew how to lead.

Gruesome rumors were common; a waitress said someone was bringing in large refrigeration trucks as mobile morgues. True. We had that first. 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported 19 bodies piled in the prison gym. We hadn’t reported it because we didn’t believe it. Editors asked if they should quote the PD? We said no. Our confidence reflected off-the-record counsel by Ed Boldt, an FBI agent and press liaison from the Cincinnati office. Ed was an honest broker omnipresent among journalists during the occupation. After the surrender, no bodies were found piled in the gym.

 

State authorities told us inmates murdered nine prisoners in the initial violence. After a prison spokeswoman dismissed threats to kill a captive guard, inmates strangled guard Robert Vallandingham and threw his body out a window. We all held that story until local authorities confirmed they’d notified his “family.” However, his wife learned about it from a local radio newscast. Seems “family” meant parents Homer and Wanda, not his spouse.  

There were bright spots in the cold, wet boring vigil. Channel 12’s Rich Jaffe slipped in the mud and wore a bright, red mud spot on the back of his elegant top coat.  

The Enquirer’s Tanya Bricking sweet-talked a farmer into letting her sit on his barn at night to see into the prison. 

Perfectly groomed TV types — with mud from the knees down — repeatedly and earnestly reported nothing new. 

Channel 5’s very pregnant Norma Rashid entered the prison yard with state troopers to anchor live coverage of the negotiated surrender as naked inmates filed out. “On one hand I was listening to the station as to how our coverage would go,” she said last week, “and on the other hand I was listening to Ohio state officials so what I said would not put any more inmates and guards in danger.” 

If reporters had it tough, photographers had it worse. We could sit and nap. They couldn’t. They were heroic, considering most action was out of sight. 

In those 11 days, we missed nothing that mattered. In almost two weeks of reporting from Lucasville and rewriting, editing and additional reporting in Cincinnati, we committed no errors that required correction. 

Today’s Enquirer lacks the resources to mount that kind of response to a major, prolonged story.

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

• More on Lucasville. Asked about her coverage of the inmate surrender, Norma Rashid replied more fully than I could quote above. “I can't believe it has been that long but then my daughter is going on 19 years old! As far as why I was the one covering the ‘surrender’ it just so happened that I was the newscaster they chose. I must have been popular with the inmates. It was a long day and a stressful one. On one hand I was listening to station as to how our coverage would go and on the other hand I was listening to Ohio state officials so what I said would not put any more inmates and guards in danger. Add that to the cold, rainy day and the lack of ‘facilities’ not to mention the amount of people with guns on both sides. We had an amazing crew and everyone did their best to make sure the situation was handled properly. Oh and then there was Waco going on. Remember?” Waco is shorthand for the standoff between Branch Davidian cult and federal officials that ended with dozens dying during the final assault and fire. 

• Tanya Bricking Leach also added to her note on Lucasville: “The thing that always strikes me when I think about Lucasville is how much technology has changed since we covered that story. We worked out of a photographer's SUV on a hillside overlooking the prison and had the phone company come out and install a land line to us. We shared the phone to make calls and dictate our stories to the newsroom. It was really a group effort to get those stories in the paper ... It was our first taste of a big story.” Tanya’s internship ended a week into the inmate story and her work confirmed plans to hire her.  

• A lot of shuttling between journalists outside the prison and the town of Lucasville assured a diet of fast food. Cardo’s, a local pizza joint, quickly added journalists to its nightly deliveries to prison employees. They sold out. 

• One unsolved puzzle from Lucasville was how Ed Boldt, the FBI agent and press liaison, seemed always to be around, regardless of the weather, but never got red clay mud on his shined shoes and pressed suit pants. 

• In 1994, Kristen Delguzzi and I were assigned a first anniversary project on the Lucasville riot and occupation. She already was following the criminal probes and prosecution of inmates implicated in nine prisoner and Vallandingham murders. 

E. J. Mitchell, the managing editor for local news, was clear on what he wanted from us: a comprehensive picture of Ohio prisons within a national context. It was far beyond a traditional  update. By the time we were done, we’d talked to penal experts around the state and country as well as specialists in inmate gangs, whether racial or religious. That drew us into the whole world of American — and especially African-American — Islamic groups outside the mainstream of Muslim belief and practice. 

• A California man wins the Flying Pig and his picture accompanies the Enquirer online story. Rachel Bea of Kenwood wins the women’s category and her photo is buried in the Enquirer’s race online gallery. Print was no better.  

• During the years I covered religion for the Enquirer, a regular contact was Florence Kaufman. As her obit earlier this month noted, she was a generous, effective promoter of Jewish music and musicians. She would call me and ask me to list performances in Saturday religion notes dedicated to special events. If I missed her calls — no voice mail, no fax, no email, no texting, just human contact — she’d ask the receptionist  to have me call “the other Mrs. Kaufman.” 

• In 2010, NPR fired Juan Williams because of racist remarks on Fox News where he also appeared regularly. Fox admired his candor and hired him at what appeared to be more than NPR ever paid. Recently, he told Capital New York’s Glynnis MacNicol that he misses NPR “big time because that’s such an informed and influential audience ... “  I hope none of his Fox News audience draws the obvious inference from that. 

• The British phone hacking scandal is reaching the prime minister and his close relationship to Rebekah Brooks, former  chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s London-based News International. British politicians and parties courted Murdoch, his son, James, Brooks, and other top executives in hope of favorable bias in serious and trashy Murdoch daily and Sunday national papers. Murdoch also controlled BSkyB, the dominant satellite network. Given the unblushing traditional of partisanship in the British press, having the Murdoch papers against you was to be avoided at any cost. Now, senior government and police officials are seeing the cost to them. Moreover, the Murdochs’ bid to own a majority of BSkyB shares probably was shredded by the hacking scandal, metastasizing investigations, and official parliamentary report saying he was not “fit” to control such an empire. In this country, Murdoch’s News Corp. assets include the Wall Street Journal and Fox News. 

• The Obama fundraiser at George Clooney’s home is a legit news story: $15 million and counting. However, few stories about GOP mockery of Obama’s Hollywood support identify huge GOP donors and bundlers (gambling billionaire Adelson, oilmen Koch brothers, etc.).

• Accuracy includes context. Reporters writing about Hollywood’s support of Obama also might add how much U.S. film exports earn for this country and how many people are employed in the film and ancillary industries. Like catering a Clooney fundraiser.  

The Washington Post dug into Mitt’s prep school years and came up with a seemingly homophobic attack on a fellow student. That’s not newsworthy. If he has a history of homophobia or bullying, that’s news, but no one has found it. If he did dumb things as a prep school student, who cares? Or more to the point, who wants to be reminded of what we did as teenagers? Americans who read newspapers already have opinions of the Washington Post, but this Mitt moment risks tainting all of mainstream news media with its irrelevance, apparent partisanship and mean-spirited worthlessness. 

 
 
 
 

 

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