JACKSON – It was a sight to behold: Ron Harrist, the go-to guy at the Associated Press bureau, cradling a phone on one ear, and another phone on the other, pounding out a news story that would very well go around the country or the world.
Ron, who was born in Tampa, Fla., where his father – a World War II Army Air Corps vet – was stationed, but grew up in Shreveport, La., had covered the Mississippi news beat for 41 years. He had become the mainstay on the AP news desk, grinding out a wide variety of news and feature stories about this strange, unreconstructed state and the people and politicians who have marched across the public stage.
Last month, several dozen of us news types who have known and covered stories with Ron – as well as some of his former bosses who had gone elsewhere around the country for the worldwide news-gathering association, came together for dinner and drinks to send Ron out to pasture in style. He’s 66 years old.
Ron’s family has lived for years in neighboring Rankin County, once having his house ripped by a tornado. In retirement he is not headed to some exotic South Seas island to bask in the rays or tour golf resorts. But he is going to do some traveling as soon as he can stop worrying about a big news story breaking, and he won’t be on top of it.
In 1968 when he was just a rookie AP reporter, Ron went with me (I then The N.O. Times-Picayune’s man in Mississippi) on what was his first major assignment: to Port Gibson covering the boycott of downtown white-owned businesses by black citizens. Shop owners were on edge because blacks had finally gained economic power in this old river town which was still largely unchanged from Civil War days.
When Ron and I started nosing into stores looking for any black shoppers, some merchants gathered on the sidewalk to question what we were doing in their peaceful little city. It was obvious they weren’t the Chamber of Commerce hospitality committee, and they soon made clear we ought to look for news somewhere else.
When we headed toward a church on the edge of town where black boycotters were supposed to gather later, a Highway Patrolman pulled up beside my car and said something like “don’t let sunset catch y’all in town.” So it was Jackson here we come.
Looming over the skyline as we drove out of town I noticed the white steeple of the Presbyterian church with a golden finger pointing heavenward that even Ulysses S. Grant had spared. But instead of the index finger on the golden hand that normally sends a spiritual message, I got the impression it had switched to the middle finger, sending a message specially intended for snooping news reporters.
The departure of Ron Harrist from the front lines of news gathering and reporting must be noted as another blow to the ranks of substantive, meaningful journalism that is already threatened by the Internet and blogosphere faux “news” that is seasoned with little fact and lots of opinion.
“I still have friends who don’t really know what the AP is,” Ron said, adding: “I think we are seeing the passing of a generation of journalists.”
I can’t help but think of the countless Ron Harrist-written news stories that have poured over the AP news wire that rip-and-read radio or TV news jocks pull from the wire to look like stories of their own creation. Or, think of the role of the AP as the only ones who counted all the votes in every election, something newspapers used to do.
Always even-tempered and even-handed, Ron did his job in the best sense of our news profession. His departure will be sorely missed.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics for 62 years. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.