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Journalist, free press advocate Gene Miller dies

Herald reporter, editor helped guide Reporters Committee for quarter century From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media &…

Herald reporter, editor helped guide Reporters Committee for quarter century

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 15.

By Kirsten B. Mitchell

It takes guts to ask for a million bucks.

From your boss, no less.

“I don’t know exactly how to write this letter. I feel a little awkward. . . . This is my idea; no one else’s,” Gene Miller pounded onto Miami Herald letterhead one Saturday in 1978.

It took just 11 paragraphs.

Six months later, John S. Knight, editor emeritus of Knight-Ridder Newspapers Inc., signed a check to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

It wasn’t a million. But $150,000 was manna for a struggling organization that Miller called “one vital means to keep things from going haywire.” The gift laid the cornerstone for continuing support of the Committee by Knight and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Miller, a longtime Steering Committee member, died of cancer June 17. “Excellent health . . . except for a fatal disease,” he wrote in his self-penned obituary in the Herald. It was pure Miller.

He was 76. And a legend in the Herald newsroom: His reporting freed four men convicted of murder &#151 two from death row &#151 and twice won him the Pulitzer Prize. He spun countless stories with his distinctive punchy writing style &#151 “the Miller Chop” his colleagues called it with a mix of envy and affection. His editing &#151 dubbed “Millerizing” &#151 lassoed needless words from copy. His recruiting lured young talent to the paper. His sense of humor sparked a million laughs.

Herald editors called him “the soul and the conscience of our newsroom.”

A lesser-known side of Miller: his bulldog-like defense of a free press.

“Gene was always on the side of being a First Amendment guerrilla,” said Jack Landau, former Reporters Committee executive director. In 1972, Landau asked Miller, whom he met in 1967 when both were Nieman fellows at Harvard University, to join the Steering Committee. Miller stayed on for 24 years, one of its longest serving members.

When Miller won his second Pulitzer in 1976 for reporting that freed Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee from death row, he could have spent the prize money on vermouth and gin for a favorite vice: martinis. He didn’t. The Reporters Committee became $1,000 richer.

Miller’s doggedness emerged in the courtroom in 1975 when U.S. District Judge Ben Krentzman denied him access to documents in the corruption trial of former U.S. Sen. Ed Gurney.

“Believing that the rights of the free press were outrageously being trampled upon, Gene convinced his editors and the Herald‘s lawyers to sue for access to the trial documents, “Angel Castillo Jr., then a St. Petersburg Times reporter, recalled in the Herald”s online guest book. The Times joined the suit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) ruled that trial courts can limit news media access to court proceedings. “But I was proud to have my name recorded in the august law tomes of American jurisprudence with Gene’s as fellow plaintiffs fighting honorably for the First Amendment,” wrote Castillo, now a lawyer with Morgan Lewis in Miami.

In a June 22 eulogy, Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, said that Miller “often got away with asking the question that nobody else had the guts to.”

To wit: Miller once invited Knight to lunch, and after several drinks, bluntly asked him his worth, Fiedler said. When Knight revealed a staggering sum of hundreds of millions, Miller said, “In that case, you’re in position to spring for lunch.” Knight replied, “I can, but I won’t.”

“My hunch,” Fiedler told mourners, “is that while Jack Knight may not have paid for that lunch, neither did Gene. Somewhere there’s an expense account with that date for a lunch between Gene and ‘A news source who cannot be named.'”

In his solicitation letter to Knight on behalf of the Reporters Committee, Miller thanked him for allowing the Herald to keep “its own den of saber-toothed Dan Pauls,” referring to Miami First Amendment lawyer Dan Paul.

“The danger,” Miller wrote Knight, “is the bad law that evolves from smaller and less adept papers and reporters who can’t fight, don’t fight or fight badly &#151 and lose for us all. Here, I think, the Reporters Committee will be a crucial force in the survival of a free press for a long time to come.”

Knight’s gift left Landau nearly speechless.

“For an organization like ours in one room with a couple of law students, it was quite a tremendous amount,” he said. “We were running around getting furniture from the alleys on 18th Street that all the big law firms were throwing out.”

Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish praised Miller for so clearly understanding the importance of journalists leading the effort to protect the public’s right to know. “Gene Miller was one of the Reporters Committee’s earliest and staunchest supporters. Although he was based in Miami, he had an impact on reporting throughout the country.”

In his obituary, Miller instructed readers: “In lieu of flowers, have a martini. Try Boodles gin.”

Many did. But many also followed Miller’s family’s request to contribute to the Reporters Committee. By mid-July $4,225 had been collected. An unknown amount of that total comes from Herald employees and will be matched twice by the The Herald and Knight Ridder.

“Parting words:” Miller wrote in his obit, “Great run! Much joy! For sexual escapades, see addenda.”