A former colleague of mine was stabbed to death in his yard this month, apparently for writing something someone didn’t like.
His name was Jeff German and he was a crackerjack reporter who spent a career covering crime and corruption in Las Vegas. We worked together at the Las Vegas Sun some 23 years ago.
I won’t lie to you and tell you we were close. Jeff was one of an assortment of newsroom characters I’ve worked with over the years.
He believed he deserved a private office in the shabby building where we worked. So, he erected makeshift walls around his desk, which was topped with piles of books, documents, notebooks and other journalistic debris.
I never heard him say a bad word about anyone – except for the reporter with the same beat at the other newspaper in town. To hear Jeff tell it, that fellow was Satan incarnate, the purveyor of numerous journalistic transgressions – and not to be trusted.
That just shows you how much things have changed in the news business. Newsrooms are leaner now. And the struggle isn’t so much to beat the competition but to write the best story that one can with the resources at hand.
We’re competing against ourselves.
German’s reporting was phenomenal. When I worked with him, his adept reporting essentially solved the murder of casino boss Ted Binion. Looking back, I’m amazed at what he was able to accomplish. Law enforcement essentially followed his lead on one of the highest profile murders in the state’s history.
Recently, a county official blamed German for an election loss. He had written an exposé about the official and malfeasance in his office. An informed and angry electorate went to the polls and tossed him out of office.
The official, Robert Telles, has been charged with murder.
Authorities said his DNA matched specimens found at the scene of the crime. A GMC Denali registered to Telles’s wife and parked at his home was picked up on surveillance video near German’s home before and after his killing. A straw hat allegedly used by Telles to disguise himself was found during a search of his home and car.
German was 69 when he died. He was part of that vanishing breed of characters who used to populate newsrooms.
Just about every newsroom I’ve worked in has had such folks. To them journalism wasn’t a vocation – it was a calling. No one ever entered the profession for the prestige or the money. There is little of either.
But newsrooms were a happy habitat for those who marched to a different drummer.
I think of a Texas county government reporter I worked with who drilled a hole in the floor of his van and attached a hose and funnel so he wouldn’t have to stop for bathroom breaks between assignments.
Or there was the Texas photographer who, while on assignment at the mall, stood on a park bench and spoke in tongues. (He remains the most gifted shooter I’ve ever known.)
Or in Nevada there was the reporter who married a woman who was always threatening suicide – when he was on deadline. She would have a gun to her head threatening to shoot, while he would be trying to talk her down on the phone while simultaneously pounding out a city council story on deadline.
I’ve never met a journalist who handled deadline pressures better.
All of these people are long gone from newspapers. And some have left this life. But each was a gifted newspaper person who I’m proud to have called a friend.
Newspaper work is hard. The hours are long and irregular. Your mistakes are public. And the criticism is constant. But the reward is making a difference.
Las Vegas is a better community for the decades Jeff German kept an eye on corrupt politicians and underworld figures.
Was he quirky? Yes. Tenacious? Certainly. Courageous? Absolutely.
Communities across this nation are the better because of people like German.
When one thinks of German or the five Annapolis, Md., journalists killed in their newsroom in 2018 the loss is obvious and profound. Their lives were sacrificed because someone didn’t like what they wrote.
We mourn not just the loss of their lives but the silencing of their voices.
Other newsroom voices are silenced not with a bullet or a knife but with an accountant’s pen.
Regardless, the question remains the same: When a watchdog’s voice dies, who will hold those in power accountable?
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected]