Monday, August 4, 2014

Journalism memories: The acid-pen editor

To show just how different Ernest V. Joiner was as a newsman, I only have to detail the way in which I was hired. Ernie was flying from eastern Oregon to San Francisco to complete his purchase of the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper in Sonoma County. He had a stopover at Portland International Airport, which was about 12 miles from where I lived at the time. I met him at the airport and handed him my book of clips from an internship I had while still at the University of Oregon. He looked it over while we both had our shoes shined. By the time he walked to the gate to catch his flight to SFO, he offered me a job, and I accepted.

Ernie once told me that he loved nothing better than "twisting the tail of the tiger." Oh, how Ernie could twist tails. His columns often crossed the line between being exceptionally tough and downright vicious. He took on governmental entities and law enforcement organizations, but he saved his most potent attacks for Democratic politicians and lawyers. He once wrote a column that blasted Willie Brown, who was the most powerful Democrat in the California Legislature. The column finished with a racist remark that included the n-word. It was such a bad reference I won't retell it here. Lawyers? Ernie was once quoted as saying that he would rather have his daughter be a prostitute than a lawyer.

I will tell two stories to put Ernie's style in perspective. He was one of a kind, and he stayed in small-town journalism because he could write anything he wanted without fear of reprisal from higher-ups who might rein him in.

While I was at the Times, a man from western Sonoma County was convicted of rape and sent to the state hospital in Atascadero. It wasn't a long time before the man was released and sent home. The man was in western the area for exactly three days before he was arrested for rape again. Ernie was livid. His column tore into the California penal system for botching the case and putting the women of Sonoma County in danger. His final line was something like this: If anyone sees this guy in western Sonoma County again, you have my permission to grab him and bring him to my office, and I will personally castrate the son of a bitch with a dull spoon.

Nice, huh?

When Ernie died in 1998, one of the stories told about him involved his time as publisher of a weekly newspaper in Texas. Ernie wrote stories about the sheriff being a bootlegger, and there were reports that death threats were made against Joiner. Ernie was sitting at home one night when a bullet shattered the window and barely missed him. What did Ernie do in reply? He pushed to have the sheriff be the subject of a recall election. His basis? Any lawman who could have such a clear shot and miss had no business being sheriff.

He had this combative nature even as a college student. He was the editor of the student newspaper at Texas Tech, and he was fired for running a story that asked students to name the worst professor at the university. He eventually got the job back because of student pressure, but he was fired again for another controversial story.  Ernie did indeed graduate, and while being handed his diploma the university president was reportedly heard to say, "happiest day of my life, Joiner."

The funny thing about this reputation was that Ernie was one of the nicest employers I ever worked for. He was soft-spoken and amazingly courteous. He had me over to his house a few times, and he was a gracious host. Oh, he could argue political points for hours, but he never got as nasty as he did in his columns. He was a gentleman's gentleman. He just never wanted anyone to find out.

I owe Ernie a lot. He gave me my first real journalism job. He taught me not to shy away from writing articles or columns just because they might be unpopular. He gave me a wide-ranging education by giving me the opportunity to write about politics, do cop beats, cover sports, be a photographer and produce pictures back in the soup-film-and-print-the-image days, and write feature stories. A couple of those features rank as the favorite pieces I have done. One was on a helicopter pilot for the Sonoma County sheriff's office (published about a month before the pilot died in a crash), and the other was on a free spirit called Tintype Gordon who ran a photography business in the Russian River community of Guerneville. Gordon had been a mid-level manager for IBM before realizing the corporate life wasn't what he wanted to do. He was a middle-aged hippie, and happy about it. I love nothing more than a good feature story about an interesting person, and I love it even more that I was able to write some of those stories. 

Ernie also introduced me to the subject of my next blog entry. The man's name was Lyman Jones, and he was an iconic figure in my development as a journalist. He also came into my life in a rather surprising way, which just seemed to be a natural occurrence in Ernie Joiner's world. Heck, Lyman and Ernie were destined to have a common history although Lyman was a diehard Democrat and an Ivy League product. More on that next time.