Walt Herring and Big Truth

bleakmenHis biographers can’t find the actual quote, but theologian Karl Barth is credited with the advice to read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today, he would advise us not to watch CNN unless we had the Olive Tree bible app open on our iPhones.

This two-fisted devotional approach has unusual power now that the President of the United States has condemned the purveyors of “fake news” as “enemies of the people.”

I wish my old editor, Walter L. Herring, was still alive. I wish it for a lot of reasons, but I’d be particularly interested to hear his take on Mr. Trump and Fox News. For Walt, the two greatest sins of journalism were to get facts wrong and to be intimidated by powerful politicians.

Walt was editor of the Pottstown Mercury in the early nineties. My tenure at the Mercury more or less corresponded with Walt’s, although he came to the paper at the height of a distinguished career in journalism and I joined the staff following a 20 year tenure as a Baptist editor that ended with the demise of The American Baptist magazine.

Walt was a 1965 graduate of West Catholic School for Boys in Philadelphia, but I never figured out if he was religious. He did not present himself as a godly man. When he died in October 2006, his obituary acknowledged that working for him could be terrifying. “His volcanic temper was legendary,” wrote Jack Croft, former managing editor of the paper. “He was known to berate reporters and editors in expletive-filled tirades when he felt that his standards weren’t being met or that less than maximum effort was being given.”

I witnessed those tirades often, sometimes several times a week, but I don’t recall being the object of one. The worst thing he ever said to me, and it was in resigned tones, is, “Your lead sucks.”

I was a year older than Walt but he was vastly senior to me in terms of newspaper experience. He knew about my church background, but he never asked about it. It neither impressed him nor did he hold it against me. He didn’t hold my age against me either, but he occasionally took advantage of it. When a fifties-era crooner came to Pottstown to open a department store, Walt assigned the feature to me because he knew I had heard of Julius La Rosa.

I used to describe Walt as one of the purest misanthropes I have ever known, mostly because I met so few people Walt liked. Certainly he would have been appalled by the mendacities of Donald Trump and the late Roger Ailes, who allowed right-wing partisan views to befog the truth on Fox News. Walt thought the truth was the best weapon journalists had.

Many people Walt loathed made the front page of the Mercury: politicians, mobsters and slum lords to name a few, and also people who committed abhorrent crimes: rapists, wife beaters, child molesters, and murderers. Walt hated them all, and not just the bad guys; he also hated the cops who didn’t work hard enough to bring them to justice and the defense attorneys who occasionally got the malefactors off. And God help the reporter who didn’t stay on the story until justice was done.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t appreciate Walt, or that I’m offering him as an emblem of the often cynical profession of journalism. I look back on him as one of the best bosses I ever had. You never had to wait for an annual performance review to know how you stood. If Walt liked your story, he said so. If he thought you had mishandled a source, he said so. If your lead sucked, he said that, too.

And while it is true that Walt’s barometer of cynicism was abnormally high, he never gave up on the idea that life could be better for the working class majority who read the Mercury. Jack Croft, in Walt’s obituary, quoted co-workers: “Beneath the ‘tough guy’ front was a compassionate and generous man who mentored young writers and demanded that his newspapers speak for those whose voices were ignored.” Often that meant going after the employers, landlords, and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes at the expense of others, or the politicians who failed to provide promised services for borough residents. Most of those powerful people hated Walt as much as he hated them.

I didn’t always agree with Walt. I was one of the reporters who worked on a story about the dismissal of charges against a teenager accused of vehicular homicide. Three women on a morning walk had been killed when the young man’s car veered off the road. The youthful driver, sober and awake, said he had been distracted by a bee in the car, and the judge declared he was negligent, not a murderer. I agreed with the judge, but I can still see Walt Herring’s mouth gape in amazement. He was thinking about the dead women and their families. His comment, from which I delete two extraneous syllables for family reading, was, “Unbelievable.”

I think Pottstown is a better community because Walt was editor of the Mercury. And I think media moguls like Roger Ailes and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch have made the world a bleaker place.

Ailes is gone and Murdoch’s decision to remove other purveyors of bleakness like Bill O’Reilly may be signs he wants to make the world better. But he still has a kazillion jillion dollars in his bank account. He may begin to see that the world is a bleaker place because he was born, but the sheer volume of his wealth probably blinds him from realities most people have to live with. Just how the elderly Mr. Murdoch will spend the rest of his long life remains to be seen.

Walt, on the other hand, was taken from us far too soon. I do not doubt that in his own irascible, profane and hot-tempered way, he made his corner of the world a better place.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz, live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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