5 Writers Who Showed Crazy Courage Chasing A Story
Before Mark Zuckerberg was a twinkle in the eye of new media, newspapers used to have this thing called "money," with which they paid people called "writers" to do this thing called "journalism," as opposed to whatever it is that we're doing these days. Over the years, we've carved out a small niche reporting on the insane antics from this bygone era. Here are some more stories we dug up ...
Lee Harvey Oswald's Funeral Was So Empty That Reporters Had To Be His Pallbearers
November 22-25 of 1963 was the busiest half-week of Lee Harvey Oswald's life. After assassinating John F. Kennedy on the 22nd, Oswald himself was then assassinated on the 24th, and with the authorities figuring that there was no point in keeping him around any longer than required, he was buried on the 25th.
On the day of the funeral, two ministers whom the government tapped to lead the service backed out at the last second, fearing that they might join Kennedy as members of the Texas sniper club's target practice. The funeral itself was so sparsely attended that there weren't even enough attendees to serve as pallbearers. That is, until officials noticed that there were an awful lot of reporters sitting around doing nothing.
Despite the level of secrecy around the burial, over a dozen journalists had gotten word about the ceremony and turned out, hoping that there was a story to be found. After much complaining, eight of them stepped up to help flush Oswald down the metaphysical pan. (One only managed to take the coffin a few steps before letting go in disgust.)
To be fair, they didn't have much choice. The options on the table for everyone were A) leave the service and allow Oswald's corpse to become an all-you-can-eat buffet for stray cats, B) step up and become the story themselves, or C) spend the rest of that rainy afternoon hoping and praying for something newsworthy to happen. And the odds of Jack Ruby coming along to re-kill a zombie Oswald seemed slim, at best.
A Team Of Chicago Reporters Bought (And Ran) A Bar To Trap Corrupt City Officials
In the 1970s, even by normal Chicago political standards, the government was a cesspool of corruption. It tapped small business owners for bribes on the regular, and intimidated those who refused to pay. Pam Zekman, a reporter at The Chicago Sun-Times, wanted to expose this well-oiled operation, but could never get any business owner to go on the record because, well, that's how you wind up your business burnt to the ground and your body in a deep-dish grave.
So Zekman changed tactics. If she couldn't get a business to tell their story, why couldn't the paper just buy its own business and report firsthand on the corruption they witnessed? The paper loved the idea, and Zekman soon teamed up with another reporter, Zay Smith. Together the pair, posing as a married couple, bought a local dive bar that'd caught their eye.
Their sting worked so well that they caught their first crooks before the place even opened. Their business broker, who handled the sale of the bar, slyly informed Zekman and Smith about how he could help them cheat on their taxes and arrange payoffs to city inspectors. After being instructed to leave out envelopes containing a certain amount of cash for each inspector, Zekman and Smith bought off building inspectors, electrical inspectors, fire inspectors, and health inspectors (who approved the place despite the kitchen floor being infested with maggots) in return for amounts ranging from $10 to $25. "I think one of the things that amazed us," Zekman later explained, was that "these inspectors sold out public safety on the cheap."
With their dive bar now open for business, Zekman and Smith spent months juggling the responsibilities of running a bar, trying not to blow their cover, and dealing with the hordes of officials who wanted their palms greased. From a hidden loft overlooking the bar, two photographers from The Sun-Times snapped pictures of every dirty deal that took place, while Zekman and Smith quickly amassed a mountain of notes documenting every payoff.
Zekman and Smith kept the bar open for four months, after which time -- figuring that they'd built a solid case against the city -- they sold it and spent several more months turning their notes into reporting. On January 8, 1978, the first of their 25-part series was published, and the effect on the city was instantaneous. Within a couple of months, over a dozen officials were fired or suspended, while a special task force was created in order to hunt down any corrupt employees who remained on the books. And Chicago never had a problem with corruption again .
Alex Haley Punk'd The American Nazi Party
If there was a competition for worst American ever, George Lincoln Rockwell, the "Barnum of Bigots," would be a strong contender for creating the American Nazi Party. In 1966, journalist Alex Haley contacted Rockwell and asked whether he'd be interested in doing an interview for Playboy. Rockwell was interested ... but wanted an assurance before signing on any dotted line that Haley wasn't Jewish. No, Haley replied, he wasn't Jewish. He chose not to mention the part about being Black.
On the day of the interview, Haley pulled up outside the mansion that served as Rockwell's "International Headquarters," and noticed a guard standing at the door wearing khakis and a very bemused expression. Explaining who he was, Haley was directed inside and waited to wait in "the shrine room," which was exactly what it sounds like.
[It was] a small, black walled chamber dimly lit by flickering red candles and adorned with American and Nazi flags, adjoining portraits of Adolf Hitler and George Washington, and a slightly larger, rather idealized painting of Rockwell himself. On the table beside my chair sat a crudely bound and printed copy of Rockwell's self-published autobiography. I was leafing through it when a pair of uniformed 'stormtroopers' loomed suddenly in the doorway, gave the Nazi salute and informed me coolly that Commander Rockwell had ordered them to take me to his new personal headquarters.
Would you have gotten into the car? We wouldn't, but then again, we aren't Haley.
The car turned into a narrow, tree-lined road, slowed down as it passed a NO TRESPASSING sign (stamped with a skull and crossbones) and a leashed Doberman watchdog, and finally pulled up in front of a white, 16-room farmhouse emblazoned at floor -- and second-story levels with four-foot-high red swastikas. About a dozen Nazis stared icily as the guards walked me past them and up the stairs to Rockwell's door.
Haley was escorted into Rockwell's office, where Rockwell was standing -- as if he needed to telegraph how much of an D-bag he was -- smoking a pipe underneath a portrait of Hitler. Despite being on the receiving end of every white supremacist talking point imaginable, Haley kept his cool throughout the interview, and even managed to land a couple of zingers himself:
ROCKWELL: I see you're a black interviewer. It's nothing personal, but I want you to understand that I don't mix with your kind, and we call your race "n****rs."
HALEY: I've been called "n****r" many times, Commander, but this is the first time I'm being paid for it.
After the interview was published, Haley went on to write his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Roots, based on his own family's history. It was later famously adapted into a TV miniseries, which later got a sequel miniseries which fictionalized his journey into the Nazi compound, featuring James Earl Jones as Haley and Marlon Brando as Rockwell.
As for Rockwell, he was gunned down in the street by a guy annoyed at being kicked out of his big fascist LARP. Upon hearing the news, his father replied, "I'm not surprised at all. I've expected it for some time." He then had to cremate the body, as no cemetery wanted it.
Martha Gellhorn Smuggled Herself into D-Day
We wrote about how despite epitomizing the concept of manliness, Ernest Hemingway was a big phony who inflated his wartime experience in order to make himself look cool. In 1944, however, no one had worked this out yet, which meant that Hemingway was selected by Collier's to report on the upcoming D-Day landings -- an assignment that he beat out his estranged wife, Martha Gellhorn, to get.
This annoyed Gellhorn for a number of reasons. She'd spent most of the last few years reporting on the war, while Hemingway had only touched down in Europe that year. Furthermore, Hemingway wasn't even a writer for Collier's. She was, but her name wasn't judged to be weighty enough to carry the story.
She rightfully felt this assignment should've been hers and hatched a plan to get it. On the day that the troops left for France, she smuggled herself aboard a hospital ship. Later, as the troops began landing, she disguised herself as a stretcher carrier and headed ashore, with no one any the wiser. When the coast was clear, Gellhorn contacted her editor and began reporting on her experiences and the aftermath that she was standing in the thick of.
The juiciest part of the story, though? While Hemingway also crossed the English Channel with the troops, the military decided that he was too high-profile to go ashore. Which meant the old man had to stay in the sea the entire time Gellhorn was ashore, beating him to the punch.
Mike Dornheim Out-Stealthed The B-2 Stealth Bomber
In November 1988, the U.S. Air Force unveiled the Northrop B-2 Stealth Bomber to a rock-hard media -- or rather, should we say "unveiled." In order to ensure that no journos published any details about the plane's exhaust system or its distinctive shape -- i.e. the parts that put the "stealth" in "stealth bomber" -- the Air Force not only had everyone packed into bleachers that were angled in such a way that the plane's rear wasn't visible, but also arranged for those bleachers to be surrounded by a contingent of angry guard dogs.
So it certainly must have come as a shock to the Air Force when the magazine Aviation Week published a bird's-eye view of the B-2 that showed off all of those sexy, surreptitious features. Did they get scooped by a team of paparazzi UFOs? Soviets spies? Superman? (He is a reporter, after all.) Nope, this was the work of two plain old human journalists in a Cessna.
When Aviation Week editor Mike Dornheim heard about the restrictions that the USAF had imposed, he was a little annoyed that they were keeping all of the good stuff out of sight. That is, until he realized that they probably weren't expecting a media blitz from above. On the day of the launch, with a cameraman in tow, he took to the skies in a rented Cessna and flew both literal and metaphorical circles around the USAF.
The next week, Aviation Week published the story above which contained their exclusive photo, as well as a full technical analysis of the plane's stealth features by the magazine's editorial team. Meanwhile, the Air Force learned to actually look up in air sometimes.
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