Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Appreciation: John Hall, an ally of the people -- April 4, 2019 column


In an era of “fake news” and the press as “enemy of the people,” let us today remember an ally of the people: journalist John Hall.

As a reporter, editor, columnist and bureau chief in Washington, he went to work every day for decades with the goal of informing readers about the nation’s capital and the world. He died of pneumonia March 26 in a Falls Church hospice at 81.

It’s not an exaggeration to say John changed my life. I couldn’t believe my luck when he hired me as a reporter in Media General’s Washington bureau, and I worked for him for about 20 years.

But if you were reading newspapers in Virginia and elsewhere from 1979, when he was hired to build the Washington bureau, until he retired in 2006, John may have changed your life too. 

He believed in the duty of a free press to educate the electorate, and he challenged his reporters by example to be fair and get the facts right.

He and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Charley McDowell were unlike many Washington reporters then and now in that they didn’t follow the journalistic herd, and they were great listeners.

“We zig when they zag,” Hall would say.

The bureau was a window on Washington, and Hall used it as a base to open a window on the world.

One of the few American journalists to report from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, he courageously covered demonstrations in Tehran, where he faced a million people marching toward him, shouting, “Death to America.”

He wrote countless columns over the years on foreign policy, reporting from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, Poland, Great Britain and Western Europe.

Hall came up in the gravy days of newspapers, when print was king and papers were fat with want-ads and department store display ads. Local newspaper owners used the good times to hire reporters and editors, open state, statehouse and Washington bureaus, and start investigative reporting teams.

Travel and expense budgets were generous. Hall once gently scolded a young reporter who, after an assignment in New York City, submitted an expense report with a cheap lunch at an automat.  

“Don’t go back there,” Hall said. “You’ll make the rest of us look bad.”

He consistently put his reporters forward, often stretching the sense of their own possibilities.

Before the 1984 Democratic National Convention, my first, Hall asked if I wanted to rent a car in San Francisco and take a reporting trip across country, stopping to join bureau staff covering the Republican convention in Dallas, and continuing to Washington. 

Did I? I was on the road seven weeks.
Hall and McDowell were members of the Gridiron Club of journalists, and I later was invited to join as well. Hall was a prolific song-writer for the annual white-tie dinner that “singes but never burns” government officials. One of his songs was performed at Carnegie Hall.

As Gridiron president in 2006, Hall sat next to President George H.W. Bush at the head table, while Sen. Barack Obama was the Democratic speaker.

But Hall never forgot his roots in Philippi, W.Va. He fumed for years after a pompous member of Congress, on hearing where Hall was from, offered what amounted to condolences.

Married to his wife, Susie, for 60 years, Hall was the devoted father of two sons, Mark and Doug, and grandfather of five.

John did have a tornadic temper – mostly directed at himself. He didn’t suffer machines gladly; computers confounded and passwords perplexed him. To help him keep up with his appointments, he kept weekly engagement calendars.

One notation, Susie Hall told me, read: “ANNIVERSARY!! Don’t screw it up.”

But his reportorial instincts were spot-on. When a turret explosion aboard the USS Iowa in 1989 killed 47 sailors and the Navy blamed two young crewmen, Hall said the explanation didn’t smell right.

He headed home one Friday evening loaded with documents. After poring over the official reports and much dogged reporting, he wrote an award-winning series showing the Navy had scapegoated the young sailors.

John Hall was an ally of the people.

Don’t let anyone tell you the news media are the enemy.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

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