Mr. Bickham, Joan, and Us

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Dennis and Joan posed outside the IFC Center, 11 November 2017

I haven’t written in awhile, not since we got back late this summer. Call it a combination of work, routine stuff, and not having any deep thoughts about what I did on my summer semi-vacation, or how I felt about returning from it.

But an outing this Saturday got me wanting to write here again. My old colleague-comrade Joan Cheever and her husband Dennis Quinn invited us to a screening of a mini-documentary they helped produce, Seven Dates With Death. It was part of the Doc NYC festival, said to be the largest documentary film festival in the world.  Seven Days riffs off part of Joan’s book Back From the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked Off America’s Death Row. In one chapter, she describes the life and case of Moreese Bickham. (You should buy the book; Amazon’s selling it in digital form, too, and it’s an engrossing, thought-provoking read about capital punishment and redemption.)

Bickham lived in Mississippi and Louisiana for most of his nearly 100 years. He’d gotten into an argument with sheriff’s deputies in a bar back in 1958. Later that night, the deputies, without shields, and who many in the area said were Ku Klux Klan members, approached his house and opened fire. Bickham fired back, killing the two men. He was convicted of the murders and spent over a decade on Louisiana’s death row. He won seven stays of his execution date. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman vs. Georgia that capital punishment was cruel and unusual punishment; from that moment all capital murder sentences were commuted to prison terms, usually for life.

In Seven Dates, Bickham talks about the incident, and his life in prison and out. The guy (who died last year at the age of 98) talks without guile, and without bitterness. Sure, he takes blame for the two men’s deaths, but he’s cleared eyed about the bigotry and mistreatment of African-Americans that led to his spending decades on death row.

Joan and I worked together as editors at The National Law Journal, back then a scrappy print weekly. We worked out of a cramped and ugly newsroom in what is now Google’s New York base. Regular old-fashioned metal desks were pushed together, although there were rudimentary partitions for some reporters. Joan and I sat without partitions at the entrance of the main part of the newsroom, sort of like Tibetan temple guards. In that little, crowded space, we committed some terrific journalism—and we heard everything that went on.

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Three of the Florent Four: Rose Olander, Joan Cheever, and Anthony Paonita

Joan’s a lawyer, and through a friend was representing a death row inmate who eventually lost all appeals and was executed. She was getting into the capital punishment issue with the enthusiasm that is typical of her, and soon she was reporting and writing a book about the death row inmates whose sentences had been commuted by the Supreme Court’s Furman decision.

Suffice it to say, Bickham became our friend. I should really say “Mr. Bickham,” because that’s how Joan referred to him over the years, and that’s how I sort of know him. We heard all the updates about Mr. Bickham’s life, and in a way, everyone in the newsroom felt like we were part of Joan’s journey. Years later we were attending a memorial in the Bay Area for the spouse of an NLJ reporter, and Bickham lived in Oakland, and Joan and I went to the farmer’s market, where Joan bought Mr. Bickham a gift, wind chimes. I never got to meet him, though. At some point in the weekend, a friend took me on a whirlwind tour of San Francisco and the woods north of the city while Joan brought Mr. Bickham his gift.

The Seven Dates screening was pretty early for a Saturday, 10 a.m. We approached the theater and saw Joan and Dennis outside. We hugged like the old friends that we are, and I turned around to see Rosemary Olander-Beach, who was our copy editor at the paper way back when. It might have been awhile since I’d seen either of them, but we fell into conversation and laughs as though we’d seen each other the day before, at our then-regular Friday lunch spot, Florent. Soon afterward, another former colleague dropped by, ex-copy editor Joe Phalon. It was great to have part of the old gang together again.

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The Florent Four, with Flo (left), at the infamous Table 8, during a 2002 reunion.

Why am I writing this? For a couple of reasons. First, I’m pushing Joan’s book and documentary short. But it also got me thinking about journalism, how people working in the profession formed long-lasting bonds—and how the business has changed, and not for the better. A lot of my best friends come from that era; we worked closely, and there’s something about that editor-reporter bond. It’s almost like a doctor/patient relationship. The reporter supplies the work for the editor, and places his or her life—the painstakingly crafted or even tossed off story—into the editor’s hands, hoping the editor will make it better.

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Joe Phalon came, too.

Newsrooms until sometime earlier this century, or maybe even back into the 1990s, were full of brilliant and eccentric people. The so-called grownups, the editors, tolerated a lot of what would be deviant workplace behavior elsewhere from the reporters and from one another. It was more than tolerance, actually—we wanted it, cultivated it. We knew that people somewhat on the edge were sensitive and driven enough to connect with sources and really draw something great out of a conversation. Truly curious people tend not to be drones. We derisively called normal work environments “insurance companies.” (Apologies if you’re in that fine, fine trade.)

If we worked hard, we played hard, too, and not just in the approved way of meeting after work for drinks. We often drank on deadline nights; it helped with the headline writing. And we had a tradition of ducking out after the paper went out at lunchtime to a diner-turned-into-24-hour sanctuary for the weird and creative, Florent in the old meatpacking district. What started out as a restrained meal with a glass of wine turned into a legendary thing, with a core group of editors consuming bottles of wine with lunch, and having cocktails or armagnac for dessert. Occasionally our editor in chief would drop in when we were already pretty drunk, and ordered a bottle of the paper’s house Champagne, Veuve Clicquot. We started that day—our weekly deadline—with bubbly and bagels for breakfast. That sort of behavior probably would get us fired now.

What kept the sacred newsroom that way was separation. We existed apart from the business side of the operation. Good editors protected their wacky charges from such concerns as circulation and ad sales. But that couldn’t last. Maybe the business side’s resentments got the ear of management, but today’s newsroom often resembles that reviled insurance company. It’s a quiet place, with reporters often just emailing sources. They’ve got production quotas and metrics, and should they forget, there are large flatscreens showing how many mostly casual readers have clicked on their stories. As el Cheeto Loco might say: Sad!

In short, American business practices have taken over the news business and turned its workers into digital drones. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic curmudgeon, but the kids getting into it now are working in a more sterile, less adventurous, more orthodox careerist environment.

Do I or any of my ex-colleagues want to go back to that? I doubt it. Maybe the memories are like insects preserved in amber, pretty to look at and think about, but of a particular place and time that can’t be replicated.

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