You don’t have to look far – in our very own town in fact – to see that journalism is facing some tough times. There are DNA-deep cutbacks and Rube Goldberg-type restructurings at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. And if you read the first quarter report from Dallas Morning News’ parent Belo, who could blame you for reaching for a bottle of Pepto-Bismol or Jack Daniels, particularly if you own stock (a bargain at $4.95!)?
So it was a bit of a relief – if, I’ll admit, a bit of an exercise in nostalgia – to attend the 15th annual First Amendment Awards and Scholarship Banquet April 27 at the Sheraton Arlington Hotel, put on by the Fort Worth Society of Professional Journalist.
Veteran Texas newsman Mike Cochran received the Open Doors Award at the event, being recognized for his body of work over a nearly 50-year career where he covered everything from a presidential assassination to the infamous Cullen Davis murder trial to the far more uplifting Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point, he was covering the trial of former Methodist minister Walker Railey (who was accused of trying to strangle his wife) during the week and then heading north to cover the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco on weekends. Yep, we’re in Texas.
Along the way, Cochran cut a swath of exemplary journalism, writing and storytelling that puts most Pulitzer Prize-winners to shame. Plus, having had the pleasure of working with him a few times, he’s about the easiest guy to deal with in the business.
And he was a giant that still walks the earth – particularly the Texas earth, for the Associated Press and later the Star-Telegram.
But he didn’t come from the womb a fully-formed journalist extraordinaire. His mother, in fact, used to edit the letters he sent home. And his journalism professor at what is now the University of North Texas, C.E. “Pops” Shuford, gave him a lesson he never forgot.
Cochran was writing short, clever (hopefully) items that newspapers used to use to fill space called “brites.” Shuford began reading some of the brites written by the students and began with Cochran’s. Cochran prepared himself for a compliment. Not to be.
“He took it, wadded it up, threw it to the floor and then stomped on it. He called it a name, and I won’t tell you what it was, but it began with a barnyard comment that I can’t tell you what it was, but it began with ‘bull.’”
Cochran was stunned, but Shuford told his young student that “one of these days you’re gonna thank me.”
Eventually, Cochran proved his mettle and became the West Texas correspondent for the AP working out of a bureau at the Star-Telegram.
“I became a roving correspondent traveling Texas and I felt like this was the greatest job in the whole world,” he said.
It would appear so.
When President Kennedy came to North Texas, Cochran helped shepherd the other AP reporting superstars around as “they” covered the president. After hearing Kennedy speak in Fort Worth, Cochran headed back to the Star-Telegram newsroom, figuring his work was done. Hardly.
A few minutes later, a copy boy shouted that Kennedy had been shot. He and other Star-Telegram staffers headed to Parkland Hospital.
“We did not know the president was dead until several sobbing nurses came stumbling down the hallway,” Cochran said.
He returned to Fort Worth to cover the burial of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, whose mother lived in Fort Worth.
“I was chatting with [Star-Telegram reporter] Jerry Flemmons that afternoon at Rose Hill [Cemetery] when we realized there was nobody there to carry the casket. Jerry turned to me and exclaimed, ‘If we’re going to write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re going to have to bury that son of a bitch ourselves.’ And we did.”
Fort Worth Police Chief Cato Hightower came over and asked Cochran if he would be a pallbearer.
“I not only said ‘no,’ I said ‘hell no,’” he said. “Then a much brighter reporter from our opposition news service United Press International (UPI) stepped up and said he would help carry the casket. I wasn’t very bright, but I wasn’t totally stupid.
I quickly said ‘I changed my mind, I will be a pallbearer.’”
Longtime Fort Worth readers certainly remember Cochran’s coverage of the many trials of T. Cullen Davis. The Texas millionaire was accused of murdering two people and injuring two others, including his ex-wife, Priscilla, in 1976. The first trial, in Amarillo, was a bit of a circus, with the defense successfully putting Priscilla and her lifestyle on trial. He was found not guilty in criminal court, but Cochran noted he didn’t fare as well in civil court.
The trials of Davis were the subject of two Cochran books and the story didn’t end there.
During the trial, Cochran suspected the defense, let by Texas legend “Racehorse” Haynes, had an inside track on the prosecution’s plans.
In 2001, Cochran was contacted by Ray Hudson, Cullen Davis’ father-in-law, who summoned him to his ranch. Hudson told Cochran that he had paid an investigator for the district attorney $25,000 over five months to provide daily reports on prosecution witnesses and their testimony.
Hudson wanted to talk, Cochran said, because he was ill and didn’t “want to take his secrets to the grave.”
The young man from Stamford, Texas has not done too bad for himself. And he hasn’t forgotten his West Texas manners either. He thanked his wife of nearly 60 years, Sondra. A smart move.
He then ended his talk before a room full of budding young journalists with a few final words for that professor who wadded up his brite so many years ago.
“Thank you, Pops,” Cochran said.
Thank you Mike.
Robert Francis is editor of Fort Worth Business Press