The good thing about working in a newsroom is that you occasionally have a breeze from the past waft in over the transom. The latest example turns out to be a new book from an old star of the Little Rock media cosmos: investigative- reporter-turned-media-professor?Mel Hanks.
After a childhood spent in the Florida Keys, Hanks moved to Little Rock in 1974 for his first on-air job at KTHV Channel 11. Over the next 29 years, Hanks managed to work at all three of the market's network stations, as well as teach journalism at UCA and ASU. He is probably best known, however, for his 14-year stint at KARK Channel 4, where he made a name for himself as one of Little Rock's most tenacious investigative reporters.
After leaving Arkansas in 2003, Hanks worked for a while as a news director for a small television station in Yuma, Ariz., before landing his current job as an assistant professor of media studies at Fort Hays State University in western Kansas. Reached at his office there, he fondly recalled his time in Little Rock. “It was a great feeling,” he said. “That was probably the best time of my life, doing investigative reporting like that. It really affected a lot of people. It wasn't just, well, I have to fill a minute and a half tonight on the news. You could really see the impact.”
While Hanks' new book “Getting It First and Getting It Right: A Reporter's Guide to Surviving in the Trenches,” is officially a journalism textbook, it also manages to present a good bit of memoir, including Hanks' take on some of Arkansas's most high-profile stories of the 1980s and '90s.
“I figured I should give some examples, rather than having people say, ‘Who's this idiot?'” he said. “These are things that actually happened… Some of it's laughable and some of it's shocking. But you have to take the good with the bad to know what the business is really all about.”
Included as examples in the book are Hanks' account of reporting on the story of cop killer James Dean Walker; exposing a theft ring that stole pets for sale to medical testing labs; the beating death of 4-year-old Steven Walters, which led to a special legislative session and an overhaul of the state's child welfare laws; and the “Boys on the Tracks” case, in which two teen-agers were killed and their bodies placed on railroad tracks near Bryant.
“The one that we did more stories on that really went nowhere was the kids on the tracks, the two teen-agers run over by a railroad train in 1987,” Hanks said. “That one led to a grand jury and all kinds of speculation. It was almost like a spider web of leads, and we never really dotted the I or crossed the T on that.”
Hanks said he wrote the book as a way of telling students all the things no one ever told him about the news business while he was in college.
“When I was in school and even as a professor here,” he said, “there wasn't really a book that said: OK, here's what you're really going to face. Here's what happens when you have an assignment editor. Here's what will happen when a producer wants three versions of the same story.”
Hanks has seen a decline in local investigative journalism since his days on the air. He blames it on news directors who are afraid of making people angry for fear of losing advertising dollars.
“Not only in Little Rock but all across the country, it seems that investigative reporting – on the local level at least – is given kind of short shrift. You have to take a lot of heat when you do investigative reporting, and a TV station is a business. Usually the ultimate boss is going to have a sales background, and the way you succeed in sales is by making people happy.”
As a media professor, Hanks said he often encourages his students to go looking for untold or controversial stories. Hanks said that a more aggressive approach will pay off for a station in the long run.
“I think that you get more ratings and therefore more money if you rock the boat in a good way,” he said, “because that means more people will watch and that means more ratings and more advertising. I don't think they see it that way. I think it's more of a short-term gain for them where they don't want to rock the boat ever.”
Asked if he sees himself working in television again, Hanks said the news business has probably passed him by. These days, he's happy imparting what he knows to a new generation of reporters. “I've always loved deadlines of any sort, but the business is so competitive now, especially with the Internet,” he said. “To be honest with you, I'm not sure I could keep up.”