Danger is part of the job

Writer: 
August 6, 2018

I began my professional journalism career juggling three elements: political commitment, personal ambition, and—when necessary—danger. For a young, activist reporter in a hurry, the trick was acknowledging the risks inherent in that mix—and managing the fear inherent in putting yourself in harm’s way.

In search of career-making bylines, in 1973 I traveled on my own to strife-ridden Northern Ireland. For six weeks, members of Sinn Féin (the “Official” Irish Republican Army’s political wing) guided me and handed me off. At least once, a bomb exploded in a building I had just left, yet with youthful arrogance I managed to push the fear away. One night in Belfast, a British army patrol lifted me from the front stoop of a Falls Road squat and took me to a warehouse where a military intelligence officer interrogated me. For some reason I wasn’t afraid, and I brazened my way out.

My big break came in 1974, when a young black woman named Joan (pronounced “Jo-Ann”) Little faced first-degree murder charges in the small, eastern North Carolina town of Washington. She said she killed her white jailer in the midst of a sexual assault. While Little awaited trial, I went to the small, riverside town, where I researched and reported the first national pieces on the case. Ultimately, she was acquitted by a jury in less than ninety minutes.

The Little case established my career template for the rest of the decade. I would hear about a case somewhere in the Southeast, either from local press accounts or from defense lawyers specializing in cases involving racial injustice, frequently with the possibility of the death penalty. My motivation: Maybe by bringing these cases into the national media spotlight I could derail innocent defendants from the fast track to Death Row.

So I would drive—alone—to small, out-of-the-way, unreconstructed towns like Tarboro, North Carolina, or Dawson, Georgia, which the civil rights movement had largely bypassed. Here, the sheriff’s word was law, which was always in my mind. Tensions and hostility ran high. I’d do my initial reporting, without the formal affiliation (or protection) of a large news organization. At times I felt frightened—alone and exposed—but it also was exhilarating. I managed to push the fear away because of the importance of what I was going to write.

That changed on November 3, 1979. Radical, anti-racist activists engaged in a protest march, including half a dozen Duke graduates and one former instructor, were shot down by self-proclaimed Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen. The event was quickly dubbed the Greensboro Massacre. After a New York Times national desk editor alerted me, I sped from Hillsborough to the blood-spattered waiting room of Moses Cone Hospital. Behind the emergency room’s swinging doors, one of my near-classmates, Mike Nathan ’69, a doctor, lay dead. At another hospital, Paul Bermanzohn M.D. ’74 clung to life. This time the violence was personal and not a journalistic abstraction. It shook me.

Days after I filed for the Times amidst the waiting-room trauma, my next story would be a funeral procession for some of the slain through the deserted, rain-slick streets of Greensboro, where tensions remained high. Solemn survivors led the procession; some carried unloaded rifles, while armed National Guardsmen lined the sidewalks. I was determined to cover the event, but I feared for my safety. So, with the help of Duke Student Union director and social activist Jake Phelps, I borrowed a bullet-proof vest from campus security and wore it discreetly under my raincoat.

Bombs, backwoods law enforcement, a bloody massacre, a bullet-proof vest—each evokes memories of fear on the job. Stoicism, suppression, and altruism are some of the ways I’ve learned to manage that fear. I’m still learning.

Pinsky ’70 is the author of, most recently, Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan (John Blair).