It sure seems as though American journalism is having a very bad year. Dan Rather resigned in disgrace. Ted Koppel's Nightline went off the air. Peter Jennings died suddenly. The WMD debacle has made toilet paper of the New York Times. Pulitzer winner Judy Miller of same is proven to be quite flaky at best. Even that living icon Bob Woodward has been caught being less than impeccable as reporter after reporter appear before -- for crying out loud -- a grand jury. Meanwhile the federal government is planting news stories both here and abroad.... Fox News is screaming itself hoarse.... CNN fills its 24 hours a day with the same old b.s. -- video ad nauseam of the latest almost-fatal (!) plane crash landing and the current forest fire in California ("Three thousand acres! Two sprawl-divisions threatened! -- Do they keep this footage on a loop?).
Just when one is prepared to pronounce the Fourth Estate dead -- dead -- dead along comes a fellow like Jerry Mitchell. Now this man is a journalist, a legend in the making, who will restore your battered faith in investigative reporting.
Mitchell is a reporter for the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger. In 1989, he took an interest in Mississippi's criminal history -- specifically the all-too-long list of unsolved cases dating to the civil rights era and involving the murders of civil rights workers and black folk in the South. His reporting has directly led to the reopening of several old murder cases -- and has resulted in convictions.
Four men are now behind bars as a result of Mitchell's work: Sam Bowers (who murdered NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966); Byron De La Beckwith (who murdered NAACP leader Medgar Evers in 1963); Edgar Ray Killeen (who murdered three civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in 1964) and Bobby Cherry (who bombed a Birmingham church and killed four little girls in 1963).
Perhaps what is most amazing about Mitchell's reporting is the fact that that he convinces -- he actually convinces -- these old klansmen to talk to him. To leak documents to him. To sit down over catfish dinner for six hours and open up about the past. Mitchell describes himself as "the opposite of Mike Wallace" because he can get anyone to talk to him.
To his credit, Mitchell urges the public not to view these old men as tattered grandpas who are best left alone. According to Mitchell, he has interviewed some of the most profoundly racist people living in the United States today.
Indeed, their philosophies go well beyond racism and into some sort of deeply rooted mental disorder. Murdering kluxer De La Beckwith, for example, told Mitchell in an interview -- citing the book of Genesis -- that black people do not have souls.
On another occasion Mitchell tried to track down a convicted murderer by the name of Billy Ray Pitts. Pitts was one of the few men who was actually convicted in connection with the murder of Vernon Dahmer; Mitchell wanted to know how long a stretch Pitts served in prison. Come to find out that Pitts never served a single day of his life sentence for murder. When Mitchell tried to figure out why this was so, he was told that Pitts went into a federal witness protection program.
The only trouble with that excuse was that the witness protection program did not even exist at the time of Pitts' conviction.
So Mitchell went onto switchboard.com to try to track down Billy Ray -- and there he was -- name and address and phone number. And the gutsy reporter had the nerve to call the convicted murderer to ask him for an interview. He got one. Pitts was eventually arrested.
So why would this old racist murderer give a journalist an interview? First of all, Mitchell says, he passes the "test." He's a southern white man and a Christian. He's a low-key sort of guy. But also of importance, Mitchell says, is the fact that "everyone wants to tell their story... it's amazing. I'm the last person I would be calling if I was one of these old kluckers."
Mitchell has already received several journalism awards and the most recent came from the venerated Columbia School of Journalism; one of the judges said he deserved the award for recognizing that these stories belonged to journalism and not to history.
I for one expect to see his name connected with even grander journalism prizes in the future. When you single-handedly restore people's faith in the power of investigative reporting -- despite the plethora of awful headlines for the profession as a whole -- that sort of thing tends to happen.