During my senior year of college I interned at a newsweekly alternative paper called MetroBEAT in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit from the experience.
One of the writers I got to know best was James Shannon. I recently Googled him to see how he was, and I unfortunately learned he’d passed away back in 2015.
Below are notes I took during the internship that recount the stories we covered and adventures we had.
“The Eyes Of Joe Jordan”
“The Eyes of Joe Jordan” was the first story Kenneth Hamner worked on with MetroBEAT news editor/writer James Shannon. Every paper has a cover story usually written by James Shannon. The news section has the weekly column “Shannon’s Law” written by James, “Left Hook, Right Hook” by Roxanne Walker and Ralph Bristol (a “Crossfire” style battle between two radio hosts who look at local and national issues), and “The Sound, the Fury, etc., etc.” by S.C. Davis. Following the news section is the Week at a Glance section where MetroBEAT picks the highlight activities of the week and reports them. Arts is next. This section deals with visual arts and arts agenda; Amanda Lang contributes a lot of articles to this. Film is next with Matt Brunson; it tells what is playing and does quick and 1-2 lengthy reviews of current movies. Food section has reviews. Music section is usually done by Dan Armonaitis and freelance writers; they do album/concert reviews, and they also preview upcoming concerts, list local music events, etc. The miscellaneous section called Etc. has the syndicated articles (dream zone, astroscope, crossword, news of the weird), the calendar of Upstate events, and sports watch for local sports calendar.
With everything coming together at the office after the move, James and Mr. Hamner got down to work on January 9 following several slow days. They headed over to Joe Jordan’s photography studio on East North Street. Jordan is a former council member from the second seat who had close to eight professions before he became a professional photographer. He is also a WWII veteran and fought in the Pacific theater. Jordan told them his life story and showed us photographs that included:
- Grace Kelly in the Biltmore house up in Asheville
- Joanne Woodward sitting in a car just before her movie career took off
- President Ike pinning a flower on himself in Charlotte
- LOTS of old pictures of Greenville, including a picture of Furman when it was just starting to be built on its current location
- A picture of an illegal casino getting busted – this one is a classic
The Joe Jordan story was on the
front cover feature for the Jan. 14th edition of MetroBEAT. Chris Haire asked
Mr. Hamner if he learned anything from observing James conduct the interview.
He told him that he learned that each question should require more than a
simple “yes” or “no” response. By acting interested in the conversation and
allowing the interviewee to talk openly, they will answer any question.
Sometimes, the interviewer has to ask two or three lead in questions to get to
the question they really want answered, but by making the interviewee comfortable,
getting information is not a problem.
“He’s Back” / “Judgment Day”
On January 20, Jim was absent from the MetroBEAT office. Mr. Hamner thought nothing of this since he regularly had to go to the doctor’s office to care for his cancer-stricken wife, but he called around 11 a.m. to be picked up (James’ car had broken down during the move). Mr. Hamner volunteered to pick up Jim from his apartment. On the ride to the office, Jim says how he is having trouble with his article on the Sanford inauguration. Jim spent a lot of time with him in informal settings. “We’d have conversations just like you and I are having,” Jim told Mr. Hamner. He then said he thought Sanford was going to have a rough four years since he wasn’t the party’s first, second, or third choice to be the republican governor for the state.
As they exited the car, Jim invited Mr. Hamner to attend a luncheon/strategy meeting with Jessie Jackson on January 21st. Jackson was in town to attend the Greenville County Council meeting because the county did not observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a paid holiday. Jim wanted to spend some face-to-face time with him. Mr. Hamner agreed to go with him.
The next day, the two headed to Allen Temple off Augusta Road and attended the meeting led by Jesse Jackson. There were about 20 people within the room. Jim, Lynn the photographer from MetroBEAT, and Mr. Hamner were the only white people in the entire place. What they saw and heard were things kept behind close doors. Only black community leaders usually are allowed to these types of meetings (there were 2 black Board of Education members, a county council member, and a mess of preachers from black churches). The press and those not within the inner circle are pretty much barred from these meetings.
Lunch was served cafeteria style in the dining room around 12:30. There was a definite sense the hierarchy in the room. Jessie Jackson was the first to get his food followed by his two main assistants. Black community leaders and religious figures were the next group to get food. The press, consisting of Jim, Lynn the photographer for MetroBEAT and Mr. Hamner, were the last to be in line. Since Mr. Hamner was the intern, he was the last to be served.
Everybody sat down at the table and started eating their chicken and salad. Jessie Jackson was sitting perpendicular to me at the head table no more than three feet away from Mr. Hamner. After the blessing Jesse grabbed his utensils, started cutting into his chicken, then set them down on his plate. He got up and started talking while he was walking around the room. He talked for almost 2 hours straight. He didn’t touch his food once.
Jessie started off his speech with a very slow, confident voice that had you hanging on each syllable. By the end of the speech, he was loud and unrelenting in his message. His followers and the community leaders would follow every sentence with a loud “MMMhmmm” or “yes.” By the end of the first hour, though, they had subsided significantly. Noticing this, Jessie would pep them back up by saying “Can I get somebody to testify?” The whole room did. “MMMMHHHHMMM. YES!”
The content of his speech concerned the MLK holiday debate we saw tonight. He used metaphors. Jessie offered a number of ways to get the MLK holiday recognized, but the points he kept stressing and making the audience repeat several times in unison was “Research, Educate, Negotiate, Demonstrate.” This means recognize a problem and find out its details (Research), tell other people about it (educate), try to solve it peacefully and quickly (negotiate), and then if that fails take more extreme measures to get your message across, mainly picketing (demonstrate).
The meeting ended around 2:30 in the afternoon. Jim and Mr. Hamner left the meeting agreeing that they saw outsiders of the movement rarely get to see. What they saw was not for their eyes, and the only reason they witnessed the meeting is because Jim is a friend with Mrs. Lonnie Gibson, an outspoken black county council woman. It was great being an observer during Jesse’s meeting, and Mr. Hamner learned quite a bit from it – from race relations to grassroots political movements.
When county council started, one of the steps was occurring. Carrying American flags and pictures of MLK, the beginning of the “demonstration” portion of the holiday grievance had taken form. Jesse had organized it so every attendee at the meeting (minus the press and myself) would recruit people to demonstrate for the holiday, and people would continue to demonstrate at every meeting until the county adopted MLK’s birthday.
Mr. Hamner thought the demonstration had little effect on the council since many members had already made up their minds on issues prior to the meeting. No amount of public outcry will change their minds in one night, but as the weeks passed and the demonstrating continued, it became impossible to ignore. With the rise of civil disobedience, Jesse said that meetings will eventually be impossible to conduct as the crowds grew larger and more impatient, and the issue will finally have to be resolved.
Mr. Hamner had a number of opinions on the holiday/Jesse Jackson issue. They are as follows:
January 22, 2003
I believe Greenville will eventually recognize MLK as the democratic council woman said earlier, but I don’t know if this plan will work. I think the community is unorganized and too decentralized to push this issue till the next MLK day – never mind the next Flag Day. I heard lots and lots of pep talking today. I question it’s steam, though.
January 23, 2003
Before the meeting even started, I thought the council members had an idea on the significance of the holiday and what it meant to the community. However, the council members had their minds made up about the issue before it was even discussed. All the talk about not having the resources to fulfill pay role is a bunch of baloney. If they wanted to celebrate the holiday, they could find the resources to do so. Their actions and comments disgusted me.
January 26, 2003
The Greenville News reports that business within the area will suffer due to this MLK holiday issue (http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/01/26/20030126295.htm). If business does start to hurt within the area, Greenville will finally catch up to 2003 and “have” the money to do the right thing – adopt the holiday.
January 30, 2003
I’ve been thinking about the burning bridges comment for some time and
addressed the issue with James today. He recounted a small story where he
could have burned a bridge of his and refused to. Not to save the source,
but rather to keep his integrity as a journalist. A politician’s
representative (who will remain nameless) said some comments concerning
Sanford that could have damaged the reputation of the politician he was
suppose to be supporting. The Sanford camp found out James had these
comments and wanted him to report them in an issue of MetroBEAT (this is
when Sanford was running negative ads against opponents). James, however,
refused to run the comment despite being friends with Sanford. MetroBEAT has
a policy that they report the news, not make it. By making the news instead
of reporting it, people would be looking at James and refer to him as “the
guy who printed that quote” rather than being known as James Shannon.
Despite refusing to print the quote, he still remains close with Sanford and
maintained his bridge and his integrity as a journalist.
February 19, 2003
I’d like to write some final thoughts on this on-going MLK saga before I pass out for the night. (http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/18/200302181631.htm) I think it is very obvious that this issue will not die until supporters of the holiday get their way. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever got to witness in local politics, and I wish the council would recognize how they are in a no-win situation. With business leaders lining up in support of the holiday too (http://www.greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/17/200302171498.htm), this will eventually get passed, and if this is a just world (which does manage to happen from time to time), the political careers of individuals who seek high office will be dashed.
Mr. Hamner was not the only person with opinions on the MLK holiday issue. Following the publication of “He’s back!,” MetroBEAT received the following letter:
Your opinions on the Martin Luther King holiday do not reflect the majority opinion of the citizens of Greenville County. You lambasted the Counsel members who voted against the resolution, but you had no negative comments about Jesse Jackson, who like King, is a moral degenerate. My mother always asked me when I told her “everyone was doing it”, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?”. Just because the rest of the nation and this State has jumped off a cliff honoring King, doesn’t mean Greenville County has to follow. I, for one, will be at the next Counsel meeting supporting the defeat of the resolution supporting a King holiday. Jesse Jackson and his crew want to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Is it not clear to you that blacks are trying to force their black cultural heroes on all of us who are resistant to this and to destroy Southern heritage? What is sorrier than Jesse Jackson are the whites who would abandon their heritage and jump on the politically correct bandwagon in order to make a dollar. Check out www.mlking.com if you want to know the truth about Martin Luther King. It is surprising to me how the MetroBEAT stays in business.
The email sent to MetroBEAT seemed to reflect the popular sentiment of the Upstate. On January 30, a poll on the Greenville News website claimed that 37.9% of the people who volunteered to submit a response wanted the county to recognize MLK’s birthday. 62.1% did not want the holiday recognized.
Observing and assisting James Shannon on the MLK holiday articles taught Kenneth Hamner several important things. First, it demonstrated the relationship between local government and the local media. It is the responsibility of the media to cover the activities of the government to promote the democratic process. As the opinions surrounding the MLK holiday issue show, there are different organizations and sectors of citizens who support or oppose the holiday. The media has to objectively report the news to inform people on the issue so they can form an opinion that will affect their community and local government. James Shannon did this reporting, and as a result, it helped promote the democratic process on the local level.
Watching James Shannon also taught Mr. Hamner the laziness present in reporting news. Many television reporters and writers from the Greenville News were on hand to report the happenings of county council. Television showed sound bite clips that did not show the magnitude or scope of the proceedings since the reports were brief and contained few specific details. The Greenville News articles did a better job at reporting specifics, but they were short articles and suffered from the same problems plaguing the television broadcasts. MetroBEAT, however, reported specifics and details the other media outlets did not report. For example, MetroBEAT was one of the only media outlets stating that Jesse Jackson would return to future county council meetings in Greenville. When Jesse Jackson and his followers also slept inside County Square in protest to the proceedings of the council, the other media outlets had already left. According to James, he had called them all back inside to cover the story.
“Strom at Rest”
While researching a Wal-Mart labor dispute in Aiken, South Carolina, Mr. Hamner and James ate lunch in Edgefield, South Carolina. The signs in the city said it was home of ten governors, but the place was awful and looked depressed. People stood around the square for no reason at all. James took Mr. Hamner around the city, pointing out important Thurmond landmarks such as the spot where Strom’s father killed a man during an argument. When they reached a statue of Strom, an old black woman passed them and said, “That man is not MY hero.” They both agreed with her.
After circling the square, they walked into a restaurant and were served hamburgers and French fries by Strom Thurmond’s second cousin. She claimed to be related to him on both her mother and her father’s side. She also told them where his hospital was located. He had just moved there less than a week ago and showed us a picture of him in his custom built apartment. The place looked like the oval office with a United States seal painted into the ground and a desk placed in the middle of the room. James and Mr. Hamner thanked the woman for her assistance and drove to the Edgefield county hospital. While they were there, they found out what Strom’s living conditions were like, and they found out interesting details like what he had for lunch the day he moved in.
The visit to Strom Thurmond’s hospital taught Mr. Hamner that one can get exclusive information while doing fieldwork. It also taught him that Edgefield is not a happening place to be.
From the Greenville News
February 20, 2003
“Trooper’s son accidentally shot with father’s service weapon”
By Andy Paras
The bullet that killed the 8-year-old son of a Highway Patrol trooper this weekend came from the father’s service weapon, Greenville Police Chief Willie Johnson said today.
Johnson said preliminary results of the investigation indicate that the shooting of Yaquan V. Sabb was an accident.
Yaquan was shot with a handgun while at his father’s home near J.L. Mann High School Friday night. Johnson said one of his two older brothers was with him when the gun went off.
He said they are waiting on the results of forensics tests to determine whether the gun was fired by the victim or his brother.
The boy’s father, Ricky Sabb, was off duty and not at home at the time of the shooting, authorities said.
Kenneth Hamner had no role in the production of this story. He was only an observer. But what he got to observe is noteworthy enough to include in this portfolio.
James Shannon was very moved by this story since it involved the death of a young boy. Writing this article was a personal experience for him, much like producing Bowling for Columbine was a personal project for director Michael Moore. James thought this story was important to write to prevent future accidents similar to this one mentioned in the article.
Mr. Hamner learned that the media can affect the reporter just as much as the reader. When a story moves the reporter, it can open their eyes as well as make society and government consider its actions.
“Town Without Pity”
Prior to the start of Kenneth Hamner’s internship, James Shannon received an anonymous letter from a police officer in Easley, South Carolina. A copy of the letter is included in this portfolio, and it got James interested in doing a story about police brutality in Pickens.
While researching the story, James stumbled across a man who has had his rights violated by the police. There were some young adults blasting their car stereo in front of this man’s house, and he told them to turn it down. As they were leaving his neighborhood, they hit him with a beer can. The man headed towards the car, then the driver hit the man with his car and knocked him to the ground. He called the police about the incident, but they refused to arrest the driver and said there was nothing they could do. The man got a lawyer to sue the police, so the police reacted by arresting him on Christmas morning in front of his wife and kids. He spent the night in jail, and when he was released back to his family, the cops continued to harass his family.
James stumbled across a similar case where a man had his rights violated by the same police force. Harold Jr., an 18-year-old auto mechanic, was standing out of his girlfriend’s apartments and got jumped by some teenagers. After the attack, Harold Jr., went to the police to file a report to get his attackers arrested, but then the police claimed that the attackers did not attack him. The police arrested Harold for filing a false report. To make matters worse, Harold spent 20 days in lockdown with hardcore druggies and other big time offenders of the law. All this kid did was file a police report, and it wasn’t even a false one according to him.
Harold’s story and the Christmas guy’s story have similar elements even
though both men and circumstances are different. The police in both situations sided with the criminals without considering the facts, and both men had been unjustly arrested. According to informants who approached James, the police are trying to protect drug dealers who are paying them off.
Despite numerous interviews and extensive research, James could not verify the corruption charges. When Mr. Hamner asked him why he just didn’t run with the material he had, James said, “I can’t find an angle.”
Mr. Hamner learned that articles can take a lot of time to research and develop. Busting major stories take lots of evidence, and acquiring that takes time. Though it is the duty of an investigative reporter to report hard-hitting news that affects the community, proper steps must be taken to maintain journalistic integrity and to avoid libel lawsuits.
Kenneth Hamner picked James up from his apartment on February 4 and headed down to Aiken, South Carolina to cover a Wal-Mart labor dispute. Some employees of the Aiken Wal-Mart wanted to create a union. Though Wal-Mart claims to not be anti-union, the manager of the store, Tim Mallet, tried to block the formation of one. He told the employees attempting to form the union that they were not allowed to talk to each other about anything – work related matters or personal matters. He justified this action by claiming they were violating solicitation laws.
James and Mr. Hamner figured he was trying to stop the workers from discussing a union. When one employee refused to follow the rule and continued researching and discussing a union, Tim fired her, claiming she broke gift certificate policies. The matter ended up in court, and the Wal-Mart employees wanting to unionize were represented by two union lawyers. Wal-Mart had sent down a lawyer notorious for busting up unions. Tim sat by his side.
Tim looked like a stereotypical bad guy in court. He had slicked back blonde hair, a gold suit, and a smirk on his face throughout the entire hearing. When James and Mr. Hamner cornered him during a recess, he refused to talk to them, saying “No comment.” He still wore the smirk. When he left, James described him with swear words.
James and Mr. Hamner left before the verdict was given, but victory has already been achieved in a way. Having a court listen to a labor dispute like this is a big deal for South Carolina.
James Shannon will publish an article on South Carolina unions as more cases get resolved in court.