That led me to the Rayville trucker’s son, who said he had heard the same story from his father over the years. (He said his father always insisted that the plan was only to torch the building and that they had not known anyone would be inside.) Then I spoke to the trucker’s former wife, who said she, too, had heard that story from a longtime friend of hers who placed himself at the arson with her former husband, the truck driver.

When it came time to talk with the trucker, I wanted to do it the way I always do: walk up to the door with my notebook in my back pocket and my pen in my shirt pocket, and just explain who I am and try to talk with them. But for reasons I understand, my colleagues on the documentary side wanted to walk up to the house with me and have their cameras rolling as I knocked on the door and confronted the trucker with these claims by his family.

But I’d never done that before and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I’d rather let people I want to interview see me as someone who wants to talk with them. I’m pretty quiet and pretty slow moving, and I just wanted to make sure I handled it the right way. I try to be non-threatening in my manner. I just want people to relax because I think they talk better that way. I know I do. That’s just kind of who I am.

So I went up there alone. My colleague, filmmaker David Paperny, got worried when he didn’t hear anything and came up a few minutes later with his camera running. The trucker seemed fine with it and signed his approval and we got good video. But the trucker was adamant later that he wouldn’t talk to me again. I think I can get just about anybody to talk with me a second time, so I can’t help but wonder if he’d have done it if there hadn’t been a camera filming that first time.

I understood from the beginning of the Frank Morris case that it would be a long shot to figure out what happened and who did it. But that’s just not a good reason to walk away from it. It would have been almost immoral to walk away from it. I mean, think about it, if we don’t do it, who would? If we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

Please note that the image for Stanley Nelson that appeared in the print version was wrong. A full correction will appear in the Letters section of CJR’s January/February issue.

 

Hank Klibanoff is the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which he co-authored with Gene Roberts.