2001 Pulitzer nominee Life Lessons

Au Revoir, Adiós Hasta Mañana

Loose Leaves, first run Tuesday 4 April 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock
Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

Anyone who said he was not afraid of John R. Starr is a liar.

The Little Rock newspaperman died April 1. He was only 72; but, when I joined the “Arkansas Democrat” 15 years ago, he already seemed ancient, with white hair, thick glasses and a history of heart disease.

From the time Walter Hussman Jr. hired him as managing editor in 1978, Starr crafted a statewide newspaper with fire, building a newsroom staff that in late 1991 toppled the venerated “Arkansas Gazette,” owned in its last years by Gannett, a media conglomerate not accustomed to losing a cross-town war.

Starr’s corner office may have been only a 12-foot square. It seemed smaller with walls hidden by tall, filled bookshelves and piles of newspapers and documents falling across alternating black and white squares of Linoleum that dated the second-floor newsroom. Starr and his confidence filled the rest of the space.

A reporter or copy editor would squeeze in, move papers for a place to sit, barely breathing, having been summoned by memo or e-mail: “Come see me. JRS.”

Most of the time, Starr just wanted questions answered. He advised reporters on research and interviews, offering source names and numbers from his Rolodex. He did relish teaching.

Because I was wire editor and because his first two decades in journalism were spent with The Associated Press, he usually asked me what national and world coverage the wire services were transmitting. Rarely but still too often, he asked me why the hell the “Gazette” had some piece and we did not. That could ruin a whole week.

Still, it taught reporters and editors to think fast. You could not lie. Starr would not accept, “I don’t know.”

He would tell you the best answer, if you did not have one: “I made a mistake. I am sorry. I will do better.”

If you repeated those sentences, Starr would let you leave, trembling less than if he had caught you, an “idiot,” trying to hide or shrug off a “bonehead” gaffe.

We all have nightmares from Starr. There was the week of the ground attack of the Persian Gulf War with debates on running reliable AP copy or taking chances on secondary wire services’ not-quite-confirmed rumors — guessing what the “Gaz” might run.

There was the day and night of the final tweaking of the “Democrat,” rather, the first tweaking of the “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,” when he called me a “second-grader.” More accustomed to being an “idiot,” “second-grader” really stung.

We both knew I was neither, for I would not have stayed employed.

There are two kinds of editors: The copy-based editor who fidgets with words and the editor who inspires, instructs or intimidates subordinates into reporting or editing an article fully, fairly and clearly.

Starr was the latter. He developed reporters, experienced or fresh from college. He scared copy editors into doing their work perfectly all of the time, an impossibility, or quitting.

He had another side. The gruff, moody Starr talking baby-talk with an ankle-high yippy dog was as surreal as seeing him treat Norma, his wife since 1948, as tenderly as a delicate, rare porcelain vase. I saw him do both.

Starr retired as managing editor in mid-1992, months after Gannett shut down the “Gaz” and sold the assets to the Hussman family.

We reporters and line editors tried to be inconspicuous when Starr was in the newsroom. This habit was so developed that few of us looked up when post-retirement he paid infrequent visits to the renovated third floor.

On one such visit, I was trapped. We were standing by the bulletin board, when he told me to call him Bob, not Mr. Starr. My name remained “Pollock,”never Ben.

Bob is what friends called him. John R. Starr was his byline. Strangers called him John. People who should have known better called him John Robert. His enemies called him lots of things. They even called him at home. Bob, who did not shirk from a fight, who did not flinch from direct and caustic criticism, always kept a listing in the phone book.

Most readers did not realize he retired, for his column continued. When any public figure strayed from public service, Bob continued to pounce. The only changes were an increase in travel columns and a reduction from daily publication.

If Bob did not suffer rocks through windows or worse, it must have been because neither as editor nor columnist did he play favorites. He would enthusiastically praise or sneeringly condemn the same public official or policy as his thinking developed — or reversed. He was reluctant to admit mistakes, but he would do so, cleanly and with his head high.

Columns and editorials have little influence. Studies have shown few voters are influenced by punditry. A reason editorials and political columns continue, however, is that the powerful, who desire flattery and fear criticism like the rest of us, do take them seriously.

As vituperative as pundits seem to be on cable “news” talk shows, they are show biz. When Bob blasted a politician or coach for falling short, he meant it.

I am not sure Bill Clinton could have won two presidential terms or survived the impeachment had not Bob toughened him. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes a senator from New York, it will be partly because as a campaigner and politician she learned how to deflect Bob’s criticism and never take his praise for granted.

Bob’s legacy, however, should be his stewardship of the “Democrat.” Until this week, I would worry that people would see his columns as his prime accomplishment. Now I predict his editing and columning will be remembered equally.

America may not see tough newspapermen again. We have become too nice, taking elaborate pains to defend solid journalism or sincere opinion.

In 1988-90 I wrote a humor column for the “Democrat,” hidden in a Wednesday mailer to non-subscribers that wrapped around grocery ads.

On another post-retirement newsroom visit, Bob told me he only seemed to have ignored my essays.

“Would I have let it run if I didn’t want it to?” Let’s take that as a compliment.


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