was in on the caper made it suspect. A nd there weren’t any goddamned announcers. What did they do with the announcers? So Newsroom rocked along sweet and easy, Lehrer on top of the world because he had made it his baby. He had been the one to work up the grant, he’d put it all together, and everyone knew there was so much of his heart and soul and sweat in the thing that it could never belong to anyone else. He was riding herd on this big news staff and every night he got to sit in the middle of a circle of desks and ask questions and these people would sit there and talk up the news, just like human beings. THE FIRST FEW months amounted to a shakedown cruise. The team was feeling its way, learning which end of the camera was for them and that a microphone is something you talk into, not to be confused with a speaker. Adjustments were made. A. C. Greene began phasing out of Newsroom and developed a program of his own. The show expanded from 30 minutes to 45. They hadn’t raised a big stink yet, but the people were looking. Everyone was feeling hairy of chest and stout of voice, except the women reporters, who were feeling liberated. The show was really beginning to get cranked up when Darwin Payne came along. Darwin Payne had been on the Newsroom staff only a couple of weeks when one night he went home and watched the replay at ten and something caught his attention. Mike Ritchy, one of the Newsroom reporters who covers county commissioners, had mentioned that after the regular session that day the county commissioners went into a closed session at the request of Harriet Bercu, a member of Ed Polk’s Dallas Legal Services Project staff. Mrs. Bercu had appeared before the commissioners court representing the Committee of Concerned Citizens for Child Welfare. Payne remembered the 1967 Open Meetings Law and felt sure the meeting Ritchey had mentioned was an illegal one. The next morning, he went to the library and researched the law. Convinced that the closed meeting was in conflict, Payne thought about filing a complaint. He called Lehrer and explained the proposition and Lehrer agreed that it was a good idea. Closed meetings have always irked the press, though God knows why, and Lehrer knew from experience that the county commissioners had been getting a free ride for years. So Payne went to Dist. Atty. Henry Wade’s office and tried to file a complaint. Wade refused to accept it, telling Payne that in practice his office always sent minor misdemeanor complaints to the justice of the peace courts. Payne went to Justice of the Peace Tom Naylor and explained his complaint again. Naylor told Payne that he was personal friends with every one of the county commissioners, and besides he didn’t think Jim Lehrer they were in conflict with the law. He refused to accept the complaint. Back to the DA. When Payne returned, Wade wasn’t in so he saw one of his assistants and went through the proposition for the third time. The assistant nearly fell off his chair. Back to the JayPee, and enter lawyer, stage left. Payne and lawyer confer. Lawyer and JayPee Naylor confer. Everyone involved in the deal is feeling like he’s being had. I mean, who the hell is this Darwin Payne and what’s all this crap about filing a complaint against the Dallas county commissioners? Dallas county commissioners? Closed meetings? Ho hum. So what’s new and what about it, Bub? File that complaint where that kind of complaint is usually filed. Or shall we file it for you? A few days later Justice of the Peace Robert Cole returned from vacation and Payne went to see him and explained the case again. Cole agreed that Payne had a case, but the complaint had to be signed by an eyewitness, so Ritchey came down and the suit was filed in his name. The news hit Dallas first on Newsroom, and on June 1, the complaint was filed. MIKE RITCHEY is from Abernathy, in West Texas, where people develop an appreciation for thunderclouds and country music. He’d been a small town high school football coach for a time, then he’d worked a year and a half for the Dallas bureau of the Associated Press. When he heard about Newsroom, Ritchey went and visited Lehrer and was hired as an apprentice reporter. He did such a good job covering county commissioners court he was elevated to the front line and was soon considered one of the program’s bread and butter boys. Once the suit against commissioners court was filed, Ritchey’s growing reputation among the courthouse crowd was firmly solidified. Not only was he a strong, incisive newsman, the whole KERA image became one of a gusty, independent organization that wasn’t afraid to tackle any thing. And by and large, the Newsroom staff isn’t. They were tackling problems left and right that went untouched in Dallas for years, running a scale from consumer issues to sex and race discrimination. Lehrer was in a position of strength at the station and was always prepared to back his staff. When a KERA board member tried to exert pressure on Pat Reed to cut her long, straight hair or at least wear a wig, Lehrer rooted out the source and silenced it. Some of the reporters and assistants fell into the habit of calling him “Chief.” The staff morale was what you might expect to find among crusaders. There was the essence of a crusade loose in the air, and filing suit against the Dallas county commissioners court had the effect of intensifying it. The suit was filed under the providions of Title 10, Article 6252-17, “Prohibition on Governmental Bodies From Holding Meetings Which are Closed to the Public.” Article 6252-17 states that “Every regular, special, or called meeting or session of every governmental body shall be open to the public, except as provided otherwise.” Provisions otherwise include matters concerning appointments, employment or dismissals; deliberations pertaining to the acquisition of real property; matters affecting security; and the right to exclude witnesses from testimony during investigations. The Newsroom suit had immediate effects all over Dallas. Many news reporters and journalists were tickled by the action and felt it would have a good effect, yet until the suit was ultimately dropped, no major newspaper or television station took a stand. Dallas City Councilman Jesse Price backed up his old friend Judge Lew Sterrett, who was himself so incensed by the action that he refused to acknowledge the summons. The KERA suit got a lot of play in the North Texas press, and scarcely a day passed without the Dallas Morning News printing letters to the editor concerning the event. Some people, including Sterrett, accused KERA of seeking publicity and of conducting a special interest vendetta against Judge Sterrett. Of all those involved with the suit, none took it more seriously than Sterrett. A long time Dallas political figure, Judge Lew Sterrett said that he would ignore Justice of the Peace Cole’s summons, asserting that lie would have to be arrested and jailed before he would respond to the charge. When questioned, Cole indicated that he would exercise the full course of his duty, implying he would arrest Judge Sterrett if necessary. Sterrett said that he would wait until KERA board chairman Ralph Rogers returned from Europe and then they’d get the whole thing straightened out. September 18, 1970 5
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