The passing of journalism

Jules Loh dies

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Jules Loh died yesterday. As the Associated Press explains:
Former AP reporter, features writer Loh dies at 79
By RICHARD PYLE (AP) – 13 hours ago

NEW YORK — For most of his four decades as a reporter, Jules Edward Loh traveled the United States, reaching every state and using his honeyed Georgia accent to charm his way into the hearts, minds and lives of Americans, famous and obscure.

To write "Lords of the Earth," a 1971 book about the Navajo Indians of Arizona, he became so close to tribal elders that they named him Poputiney, meaning "Many Pencils." Back in New York, his irreverent colleagues at The Associated Press dubbed him "Loh, the poor Indian."

Despite numerous journalism awards by the time he retired in 1997, Loh said of himself, "I am a reporter, period. They can chisel that on my gravestone."

Loh is remembered for his coverage of the American civil rights movement, the Alaskan earthquake, the space race and, most endearing, his long-running AP column "Elsewhere in America." But, to me, he was first of all "Uncle Jules," my mother's brother.

Ours is a far-flung extended American family, and so I didn't much interact with Jules as a child. My only memories of him from that period were the arrival at our house of "Lords of the Earth" and then my mom's excitement when Jules' column showed up in the Sunday Virginian Pilot. His was a distant presence for me: Wow, someone in my family is a famous writer.

But about a decade ago I started becoming better acquainted with my relatives. On the way back from one trip to the states, I stopped by Jules' New Jersey home; he entertained me with journalist war stories, and treated me to lunch at the 76 House, his hangout, which is owned by another relative. He invited me to spend the night, but I was in a rush to get back home. I wish I had.

Since that trip, Jules and I have maintained a regular email correspondence, and would catch up in person at family reunions. He was always generous with both praise and advice, and he seemed genuinely excited about my career. That still strikes me as odd---he was a titan of American journalism, and I'm just sniping on the edges of municipal politics in an obscure city on an obscure edge of the continent, but I guess he got a thrill out of reporting, wherever it came from.

Unfortunately, Jules wrote mostly in the pre-internet age, so there's not a lot of his work to be found online. He is, however, still found in the Associated Press Reporting Handbook, which features his chilling story "Death of a Bully":

SKIDMORE, Mo. (AP) -- No sooner had Ken McElroy walked out of the courtroom where they found him guilty of shotgunning the village grocer than, sure enough, there he was back at the B&G tavern.

He showed no remorse. He was sullen. When Ken McElroy was sullen, prudent people gave him room. Even when he was not sullen, tough guys in saloons all across Nodaway County called him mister. It was recognized as unhealthy to cross Ken McElroy.

"He never knelt down to nobody," his young, blonde wife of five years, Trina, reflected the other day. "He didn't care who they were or how many there were. He didn't need nobody beside him."

Just so. He was a big, thickset man of 47 ill-spent years, five-ten and 265 pounds, massive arms, low forehead, bushy eyebrows and sideburns.

He wasn't a street brawler. He was specific. He struck fear in your soul by staring you down, flashing a gun, occasionally using it. If you were his prey for today, he stalked you. He glared at you in silence and when he spoke it was with a slow whisper. Chilling.

He was born on a farm just outside of town. When he was a boy he fell off a hay wagon, requiring a steel plate to be implanted in his head. Some wondered if that was what made him so mean.

This is a small town: 440 people, filling station, bank, post office, tavern, blacktop street, grain elevator. Beyond lie rolling meadows, ripening corn, redwing blackbirds, fat cattle, windmills and silos -- a scene off a Sweet Lassy feed calendar.

Ken McElroy jarred that pastoral serenity. So it is with outspoken relief that the citizens of Nodaway County now speak of him in the past tense. He is dead. The fear he brought them, though, still lingers in a new, unexpected form.

That's an excellent example of Jules' simplistic style (read the rest of the piece here); "A simple, declarative sentence is like a beautiful woman in a plain, black dress," Jules explained.

Consider Jules' reporting on police suicides:

Graduate frequently exposed to blood, gore, and danger. Does not unburden these horrors on spouse. Spouse wouldn't understand. A few drinks with the guys after work to help unwind. Fellow cops don't understand. Can't trust civilians. Can't admit troubles, even to fellow cops; would be considered a wimp. Can't trust fellow cops. Drinking increases. Spouse takes off. Gun is handy.
In my discussions with Jules, however, what struck me most was not his considerable stylistic excellence, but rather his decency. Jules cared. He was of that generation of reporters who saw themselves as part of the civil rights movement and not, as today's mainstream journalist would play it, as some dispassionate neutral observer from nowhere giving he-said, she-said accounts of equally plausible truths. (He appears in it as only a footnote, but Jules exemplifies the kind of reporter described in The Race Beat.)

To his death, Jules was unapologetically a Democrat, both in the big-d party sense and the small-d populist sense. He did not like what journalism has become. He wanted reporters to be engaged, to work for a better world, to be good people.

And now there's one fewer of them still.

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