Tuesday, March 02, 2021

A bit of backstory on the Vernon Jordan shooting

 With the word today of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan's death (https://apnews.com/article/bill-clinton-vernon-jordan-archive-9ca12262adc98e0d6615c67432b6fdbf ), I thought I'd share a bit of back story on the reporting around the attempt to assassinate him in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I was working as a reporter in 1980.

Those were heady times, with a lot more access than we have today, but journalism still is about having that mentality that you're going to get the story, whatever it takes.


I was deeply involved in covering his shooting in Fort Wayne, for instance breaking results of the police interview of Martha Coleman, the woman he was with. 
She had been secreted away, and trying to get any information out of that hermetically sealed environment was, to put it mildly, difficult. We knew she'd been interviewed extensively and possibly given a polygraph. We HAD to get the results. The Times, NY Daily News and what seemed like half the nation's other major media had set up shop in the Journal-Gazette newsroom and were trying to pry out the same info. 
I finally told Dana Heupel, the city editor, I thought I could get it. 
The Oyster Bar on Calhoun Street was both a cop/prosecutor hangout (back room) and a press bar (front room). We mingled, and the rules of engagement were what happened and was said there stayed there. 
But this was different. This wasn't some local scandal, it was international news. 
I knew the prosecutor handling the case would be there. He and his wife were, along with another couple. I walked up to the table, made my apologies, flipped a chair around from the next table, looked at him and said, "We need to talk." 
Over the next 10 minutes (possibly aided by a drink or two before I arrived), he pretty much told me everything, much of it on the record. I raced back to the newsroom. 
The issue then was keeping it secret while I typed the story on deadline on my Selectric with all the prying eyes and ears around. But we managed to get it through the process and onto the front page unnoticed, and it was sweet to see the national corps swear profusely when the paper came out. 
The J-G got the drop on the initial story in a twist too. 
I had left WPTA-TV as assignment editor not long before. At 2 a.m., the phone rang in our apartment. ABC had my number from the affiliates' news operation directory and was on the line. 
What did I know about Jordan's shooting? Hadn't heard about it, but I would scramble, I said. I think I might have forgotten to mention I was now at the paper. I immediately called Dana. His wife answered.
"It's Doug Fisher. Sorry to call at this hour. But I need to talk to Dana. It's a big story." 
I heard her wake Dana. "Dana. It's Doug. He says he has a big story."
"It damn well better be," I heard in the background.
A groggy and obviously annoyed Dana comes on the line. 
"What is it?" 
"Vernon Jordan's been shot." 
"Vernon Jordan, the civil right leader's been shot. At the Marriott." 
"Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit." 
After that day, we had the "Oh, shit" scale for the importance of a breaking news event. 
Little remembered is this was debut weekend of CNN and its first major live effort when President Carter visited Jordan at Parkview Hospital (around the block from where we lived).

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