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Opinion No.. 24842
Heard January 5, 1995 - Filed September 22, 1998
REVERSED AND REMANDED
E. N. Zeigler, of Zeigler and Graham, of Florence, for
appellant.
John S. DeBerry, of Florence, for respondent.
Jay Bender, of Baker, Barwick, Ravenel & Bender, of
Columbia, for South Carolina Press Association, as amicus
curiae.

The paper had been sued for printing words which allegedly defamed the mother, and


the jury gave her $500,000 in actual damaged and $1.5 million in punitive damages, and
the trial judge remitted the punitive damage award to $500,000. Dumb ass. The paper
appealed, and a second trial and appeal ensued.
“I would have done the same thing,” Sayles said at a staff meeting. We were instructed
not to discuss the case, and since it was from years back, we didn’t know much about it,
but here was our managing editor admitting that if it had been him editing the story, he
wouldn’t have changed anything. They would have done it again.
Shannon was the daughter, 17, and Shannon was murdered. The day after her corpse
was discovered, the paper published an article which quoted the young woman’s physician
as saying this.
“...there simply was no family support to encourage (Shannon) to continue her
education.” The day after she was killed, she was defamed.
The physician told the court that during the interview with the reporter that
the victim had no financial support, not a lack of family support, to continue her
education.
Circumstantial evidence was that the paper didn’t use the usual procedure in the filing
and editing of this article so the jury could have found no one other than the reporter read
the entire story pre-publication. I can relate to that. According to the court documents,
“there was evidence that respondent had encouraged Shannon, a high school drop-out, to
pursue her G.E.D. in the future.
A defamation tort lets the plaintiff recover injury to the reputation as the result of the
defendant’s communication to others about “a false message about the plaintiff,” the court
reported. Just who is a private citizen? Just because you have been murdered, does that
make you a public figure since your name is in 72-point headlines on Page 1? If you are a
reporter, does that make you a public figure, or are you subject to the caprice of a jury or
the whim of a judge?
*******************
One night on a U.S. highway in South Carolina, Fall 1994
“Free Bird” is the state song in South Carolina, and the shag is the state dance. I've
now watched four “Friday The 13th” flicks back-to-back on HBO, and now I'm
in the mood to write this. If I stop, I'll never finish it. It's the basic mom-wife-boss
conflict. Taking off the gloves now, my headphones blare Lynyrd Skynyrd “Nothin'
Fancy” and the first track, “Two bodies laying nekkid, creeper think he got nothin' to
lose.”
Glenn Puit, now a terrific crime reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is
flooring the gas pedal on my white unpaid 1994 Ford Mercury Tracer as rocks and
asphalt dust spew from our tires in the parking lot of Trucker's Motel in Marlboro
County. Glenn would later bust open the John Doe II story at the Florence Morning
News, which American Journalism Review and “A Current Affair” covered. He could
have gotten in a lot of trouble by coming with me, but he relented after I begged him.
“Hurry up,” he had said. “There's a guy coming out of the front door.” We grabbed
our beers as we sped away and hustled back to his flooded apartment in Evergreen.
When FBI Agent Joe Younginer of Florence, the closest cop to James West I've
ever met, busted a Trucker's Motel hooker in Marlboro County, S.C. on July 9, 1989,
she was wanted for running a teen-age prostitution ring at a brothel where girls as
young as 14 worked. She had allegedly fled San Francisco shortly before a March
1988 police raid after a probe that began in May 1987. After “America's Most Wanted”
ran a 10-minute blip, 135 calls were received in Washington, D.C., alerting the crew
that she was at the motel.
“We got several calls from Washington,” Younginer had told me. “I went up to
Bennettsville on a Sunday night. I didn't identify myself as an FBI agent.” His only
lead was the suspect was blonde, short and was branded with a tattoo of a teddy bear.
When he and another agent entered, he said, there was a lineup and search, but nothing
was uncovered. She was found off-work in a trailer at 2 a.m. “When we got there, she
had a housecoat on. She didn't like me,” recalled Younginer. In the manufactured
mobile home she wasn't alone - there was a shotgun - loaded. I bought my first bottle
of liquor in this county illegally when I was in high school. I called in the first report,
my first week on the job in Florence, of a body found in McColl, S.C. at Pea Bridge. It
turned out to be Michael Jordan's father.
The editor had been dragging his feet about running the story. I was almost fired for
mentioning it all in a column, “Reporter's Notebook,” and finally I was told not to ask any
more questions about it. So when I got the threat, it was reported to the police, and I sent
the state police a Freedom of Information Act request to see if they'd ever heard of the
place.
The fan in our breakroom was caked with brown nicotine mung, and at the table an
editor informed me that anything I wrote, they owned. Slave labor. Our paper had been
sued for $1.5 million in libel from way back, and it was in appeals.
After the telephone threat, I mailed a story to an alternative rag, POINT, in Columbia,
S.C. When the article “Pros & Cons” was published in February 1995, I was fired the next
day for giving company property away. There was no pay for the story. It was a freebie.
My follow-up in POINT was “I got fired, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!” I sent the
two stories to Gov. David Beasley, a Republican and former Democrat born in Darlington
County, and the next September the state police busted the joint, arresting four suspects at
what Glenn wrote was “a well-known truck stop.”
Editors will rape quotes, erasing what someone actually says and replacing
verbatim transcripts with manufactured gibberish. When the monkey asks you to
rewrite a story, you shuffle a few graphs, strike a few consonants, add a verb or two,
and stir in some rice and add sausage, and you have South Carolina's state dish,
“chicken bog.” “Your story is much better, don't you think?” the editor asks. I have
never made a good editor because I'm not a big enough asshole. Editors are lower than
math teachers on the primordial scale.
In Dovesville, just over the county line from Marlboro County in Darlington
County, the state police busted Shady Pines on U.S. 52, barely mentioned in my
POINT story, a place the Darlington Fire Chief characterized to me as “the only truck
stop without gas pumps.” Arrested were two woman and a Florence dude. The second
bust at Trucker's Motel netted the ex-mayor of McColl and four others. I found out
when my mother called about a Charlotte Observer story and said, “Is this the story
you got fired over?” My young nephews never have been able to understand why I was
fired. They think it was a bad thing. I reckon it was. The arrest made the USAToday
briefs section. Most journalists are pussy lifers, chained to their desks and IV'd to the
Blue Cross.
After the whorehouse busts, the voters removed the district solicitor in an election
and the Marlboro County white sheriff with its first black sheriff, a former Highway
Patrolman. Gov. Beasley last year was at a GOP event on Kings Highway in Myrtle
Beach, where George Washington rode once to what he wrote in his journals was what he
suspected was a tavern in Little River. As two daily reporters finished double-teaming
the governor, I told him aside, “Thanks for helping me on the Trucker's Motel story. I
appreciate it a lot.”
“I'm surprised somebody hasn't taken a shot at me yet,” Beasley replied. “I know
what you mean,” I said. Word up, Gee.

***************


A barstool at Lucy’s Bar in Florence in December 1994
“I’m going to send this story to POINT.” I had just bought Ken a drink. He bought my
next five bourbons. I was always broke before Christmas. Two more Salem Lights left in
my pack. Pinballs knock, electronic beeps. A drunk is asleep at the end of the bar, his hand
still grasping a stale draft Bud in a mug. I’ve been here for three hours waiting on Ken to
finish writing cops and meet me.
“What’s that?”
“It’s some rag in Columbia. An alternative. I saw it in the Florence library. It had a
photo of Beasley dressed as a priest with horns.”
“That’s attractive.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think you’re crazy. You’re gonna get fired. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever
heard of. Let it lie. The story’s dead. What else can you do?”
“I can’t sit on a story. What do you think journalism is all about?”

“I’m not saying….”


“What are you in it for?”
“What are you in it for?”
“I wanna make a paycheck every week. The insurance is nice.”

“You’re gonna lose that insurance, and how will you pay for the hospital bills from that


diverticulitis attack? You were in the hospital, what, a week? How much did that cost?”
“I’m still getting bills for it. It was in November, just three months ago. Seven grand.
Cobra is expensive, isn’t it?”
“Damned right. How are you going to pay for that? You’re not going to get
unemployment. Unless you can prove it wasn’t your fault. And it’s going to be your fault.
You won’t be able to blame anybody but yourself.”

“You have to have principles. I’m not in it all for the money. The crap pay we get? The


Ford Credit people are going to be all over my ass. I just bought the car. Damned Ford
Mercury Tracer, demonstration model. It’s already got 10,000 miles on it, and I’m paying
17 percent interest.”
“Damn! How much? What are you going to do for a job? You’re such a fool.”
“Maybe I won’t get fired. Mike said in the breakroom that the paper owns everything I
write. What’s the copyright law say?”
“I don’t know. You better check. Err on the side of chicken crap.”

“I looked it up. It may be a work-for-hire. Maybe not. I didn’t sign anything when I


was hired, but I did sign some sheet.”
“You better check. Read between the lines. The fine print will hang your ass. The
Associated Press Stylebook covers this in Chapter 10 - subtitled ‘You’re Screwed - Get a
Lawyer.”
“Do I have an obligation to tell people the truth? Are we supposed to be a voice for
those without one?”
“Hell no. Lie. Cheat. Steal. But never tell the truth. Another beer? Man, this cigarette
smoke is getting bad. Nobody likes telling the truth. Hell, I don’t think too many folks
even expect us to relay the truth. Not even Plato’s original truth.”
“That’s Socrates, I think. What time did you get off? Did you clock out?”
“Six. Did you see me at that car wreck with Tonyia?”
“Yeah. Was it a fatality?”
“Yeah. I hope I pass that evaluation we had today. They’re gunning for me. Getting
back to the case at hand, what obligation do you feel you have to the readers?”
“Well, they don’t pay me, but I’m a reader too. I try not to write down to them. I don’t
condescend, but sometimes you have to stretch to challenge them. I check facts, but I’m
not a professional fact-checker. It’s gotta be coherent and readable. We’re watchdogs.”
“Ruff.”
“We’re supposed to bite people in the ass, the gotcha syndrome. You don’t have any
credibility when you fold under pressure. Otherwise it’s all frivolous. It’s all about power.
You have a chance to make a difference.”

“You’re gonna make a difference all right. I wouldn’t do it. You’re gonna be in the


unemployment line.”

“You think so? I would think they’d want somebody who fought the system, who


broke a story under adverse conditions. Do we have a conscience?”

“Maybe you do. Sure. But you have to cover your ass. You know that libel suit is


holding this back.”

“Yeah, maybe it’s something else though. I’ll never know unless I do it. If somebody


slipped a folder on your desk with pictures of the mayor naked with a chicken, would you
use it?”

“I’d put it on your desk.”


“Be serious. What if somebody called your place and left a message that like on your
answering machine? I’m out on a limb. And somebody’s sawing off the limb.”
“I’d have Caller ID. It could have been somebody you know playing a trick. It wasn’t
me.”
“I can’t afford that. The bank’s already calling about my computer loan being late. I’m
ducking the landlady every day to avoid paying the late rent. It’s only $180 a month, but I
ain’t got it. Guess I need to stop spending it on this rot-gut. Got a quarter? They have
some Guns’N’Roses on the jukebox.”
“You better get a lawyer.”
“That costs about $500. The company lawyer said the story is libelous. Damned
Democrat.”
“It is libelous.”
“No it’s not. It’s true.”
“What about Randy Travis?”
“The owner said he had come in during the cattle sales at the stockyard. Well, we’re
digging up bones now. Want another shot of Beam?”
“Sure if you’re buying. Some day we’ll look back on this, and you’ll be laughing at it.
You’re not happy with the job anyway.”

“In the staff meeting the other day I asked Bob about the story, and he said nobody


wanted to know about my personal life. What a jerk! Richard send my story back to him
from the editorial editor queue. They said not to write about it or talk about it! What the
heck?”
“So don’t. Drop it. Get on with it.”
***********
I certainly would have thought the wind would have calmed down by now, and it's
1:00 a.m. in February 1985.
Perkinsville has become a breeding ground for my purpose - and that is to create,
submarining every super-ego characteristic of my Crown-Royaled, Columbianed and
Watauga Democrated psyche. I'm going to write it, my first novel, and my drink just
spilled by itself, really...weirderando. Now that I've made this beautiful pre-War page
suffer enough only three quarters of the way down.
Watch out - because I am boiling a book-flood, oxygen and all-marvelous.
I now know more - more than when I yelled at the top of my lungs on Blowing Rock
Road at 2 a.m. on the sidewalk, “I am a writer,” intoxicated and flipping burgers nearby,
that somehow, what I was doing, who I was feeling and what would end up would be it.
Feeling like I've spit up a ton or so of letters, punctuation marks and words, sentences
and paragraphs, the release of hectic, relentlessly hard-baked days, answering the
telephone like it was an itch, has me scared, angry but creative and registering
predominately positive preconceptions of my Wall Street value.
Cryptic, cynical messages, rueful synapses of an accumulated encyclopedia of
meaningful sub-dissection into the frozen frame of society's chopping block seem to
punctuate the new-found freedom I have experienced since leaving a four-year drudgery
and stopping or waiting point to the passage of newly “discovered” novelists. I was an alcoholic,
untreated, raving. I would drink two six packs of Bud a day, maybe a Jim Beam chaser. I bought
a bag of good pot every two weeks. A joint would last me a day.
The release is sustaining. Wonderful, religious and taming in a sense.
Hot Sun. A mentor. Hey-yo. Sweet, perfection. Soon publication and ramifications.
The more and more I think about it, the less and less I really feel the need to dedicate a
book. (The handwriting is really deteriorating now.) I mean, what is attribution? The
innate, presumably God-given talent of writing is a talent that automatically deserves and
enlists submission. (I'll get over the shyness.) Ghost it - crap.
Somebody's gonna find out.
You've already learned the quick hard way that moo-lah doesn't, can no way matter
and won't if everyone takes notice. Their intuitive functions of discrimination and
imagination are the clue and key.
I like the start of a book with the sizzling combustion on the end of a firecracker's M-
80s fuse, which, after the touch of a flaming match, burns like the raging fire of a writer's
pen until it engages a purist blast of communication that cannot be misconceived - or
misunderstood, however badly presented or edited with gosh-all-mighty, gosh, poor,
pseudo-deital and reckless penmanship. This as I write during hiatus the post- crapass
Renaissance period and pre-heartache Melinda passage Feb. 85 in Washington
Composition Blue Book No. 543. Melinda was my first-cousin, and she died with
leukemia. I get so sad when I think about the last time I hugged her. She’ll always be with
me. The pastor said at the funeral that she wanted us all to always remember children like
the leukemia patients she ministered over at Duke. She told us to remember children.
*********************

1974 - November


Sniffing the white powder on the third floor of Eggers Dormitory, I sat back in Ron's
room, dazed and confused. I didn't know there was a lot of heroin in this stuff called “T”
that was floating around our side of campus near the football stadium, but as sure as
Bobby Cremins was teaching me basketball in my physical education class, I was screweded
up at 11 a.m. bound to take my first exam during a cool autumn in English 2020 from Dr.
Gene Miller, whose theatrical performance I was six years later to critique in the local
newspaper.
“Tim, I must be quite honest with you about your academic life back then when you
were in my class,” he told me once.
“Oh really? Shoot.”
“I was quite disturbed with your behavior back then, and I was quite concerned about
your mental health.”
Well thanks, Geno. You should have given me an A when the golden, brown, orange
and amber leaves were falling from the oaks on Grandfather Mountain in 1978, when the
wind was tearing my cheekbones into fleshy ribbons hiking up President's Drive to your
most interesting English classes.
“Day after day, day after day

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.”


Heroin kills. This T sure was good, but it was wearing off. Poem and poet, let's see...
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner/Coleridge. Correct! Now explain what the lines mean
and comment specifically on the use of the word “painted.” Go to it son.
“The word painted means the uncertainty of being lost in rescue and the despair of
escaping the danger of the sea.” No red marks until question five.
2. In what poem, by what author, are hemlock and wine important commodities? What
purpose do they serve in the poem? (What purpose indeed? How the hell should I know?
I've been up partying for four days straight because a good batch of weed and other drugs
hit the seventh floor.)
I write, “In Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats we see hemlock and wine which are used
to describe the drug-like stupor experienced by the author on the winging of the
nightingale.”
Good show, old boy. Rally on, chum, as Uncle Leon used to call me.
“The lust of the goat is the county of God.” Good Lord, what kind of questions are
these? My Uncle Norman would have a fit over this one. Pen & Poet: “Marriage of
Heaven & Hell”/Blake. Walk on, forsooth.
Explain what the line means in relation to the poet's philosophy: I go, “As experience is
the breaker of innocence, lust of the bounty of God in this proverb in which Blake satirizes
religion and the church.” Gene, what kind of blasphemous literature are you teaching us?
Just three years ago I was an Eagle Boy Scout doing his Eagle project, cleaning up First
Baptist Church of Laurinburg and making my parents smile?
You get five points for the next one. I got a minus-five. “Who is called “Destroyer and
Preserver” and what is the significance of the two names: my bat. “These are the labels put
on good and evil by Blake to better symbolize the fight of good and evil and innocence
and experience.”
“Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,

Even to _______'s chamber, and there hide

Him in a closet, of such privacy

That he might see her beauty unespied...”


Poem and poet: “The Eve of St. Agnes/Keats.” Jolly good. Who was “he?” Porphyro,
you snit, and here's your summary of the poem from this point forward - “He saw her
undress. He fixed a feast on a table which was described as a “celebration of the senses.”
Madeline awakes and realizes her beau is not what she dreamed about, but she makes love
to him anyway.”
Boone is full of hippies. It's the “Mile-High City”. I walk to Oak Street where a female
friend of mine lives, and I knock on the porch door, tapping and looking at passing four-
wheel drives. Suddenly, from out of the kitchen walks one of her roommates without her
shirt on, in a bra. I continue to knock, yet with a little less intensity. Another kitchen trip
with a bundle of clothes in her arms, her long black hair streaming down to the small of
her back, but this time when she returns she is topless and wearing nothing else but socks.
My knuckles are moving crisp, winter air as my mustache freezes with condensation from
my nose, my jaw slackened. I could knock no more. Even the sensation of knocking,
moving my wrist, made me feel like I was at least making a sorry effort, but an effort
nonetheless.
If a sexual psychologist was grading my prowess back then, I may not have made a
“52-57%” like I did on Gene English's English 2020 Exam #1, but it wouldn't have been
much more pitiful.
One question about “Michael” by Wordsworth asks me to comment on the meaning of
a stanza “The length of full seven years, from time to time, He at the building of this
Sheepfold wrought, And left the work unfinished when he died.”
I write, “When Michael is left, he is left in despair until he dies. This stanza symbolizes
the unfinished bond of love between the estranged son and his father.” My father and I
weren't into telling each other we loved each other at that point, and as much as it was
costing him to put me through my two-year party in Boone, I would have been amazed if
there was anything close to the emotion.
“I set her on my pacing steed

And nothing else saw all day long,

For sidelong would she bend and sing

A faery's song.”


I got “Ode to A Grecian Urn” right and Keats, but it was minus five again when I
wrote, “I is the young man in the poem who is chasing her “she,” the young girl. The last
line injects a mood of the supernatural magic of the girl's appearance and the perpetuality
of the chase.”
It reminds me of Alice of the Hermitage and her passionless grave in a small
churchyard off the coast about 35 miles from Mullins. I walked through this graveyard
recently and saw how a path had been worn into the ground where people had been
walking three times around the grave because when you perform this weird task, you're

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