I wish every news organization had a lawyer like Barbara Mack. But there was only one of her. And we lost her Thursday.
I was privileged to be an editor and reporter for the Des Moines Register when Barb, a former Register reporter, was the cornerstone of our legal team.
We had an in-house legal team, which was rare, even then. As I recall, we had up to five lawyers at a time on our in-house law firm. Gary Gerlach headed the team before he became publisher. Mike Giudicessi, Joe Thornton and Marcia Cranberg were among our lawyers. And I’m trying to remember others (help me out, Register colleagues). I enjoyed working with all of them, but Barb was the most memorable.
Everywhere else I’ve worked, you called a lawyer as a last resort. I’ve worked with in-house lawyers who were timid and looked at their jobs as keeping us from getting sued. I’ve worked with outside counsel we called as a last resort and the meter was always running and their job was to keep us from getting sued. Barb and her colleagues were always eager for a legal battle to pry some public information from officials who didn’t respect freedom-of-information laws. She didn’t fear lawsuits and helped us make sure our stories would stand up in court. She loved a fight and I can’t remember one she lost.
I remember some key battles Barb and her colleagues won — protecting Nick Lamberto from having to turn his notes over to a court and helping Tom Knudson pry loose some FBI files on historic Iowa figures (including Henry Wallace and Ronald Reagan).
Barb’s (and her colleagues’) aggressiveness and ability in fighting for access to information made that a wonderful time to practice journalism in Des Moines and throughout Iowa. Many public officials turned over their records and opened their meetings because they knew they’d be challenged (and defeated) if they didn’t uphold the law. And when someone pushed the law, Barb held them accountable.
She had worked her way through Drake Law School as a Register reporter and had the perfect blend of a news mind and a legal mind. When she’d read over a story that was potentially libelous, her legal advice invariably came back with advice about a passive verb that could be active or a comma that wasn’t needed.
I worked with her from 1977 to 1985 and I think I’ve only seen her once since (a fond reunion at an Iowa Newspaper Association convention, where I could see she was as funny and insightful as ever and beloved by students and alumni of Iowa State University, where she joined the faculty after Gannett bought the Register in 1985). The Facebook tributes since Barb’s death underscore that I have lots of company in my admiration and fondness for her.
I went to an Iowa town on a particular story when I was a reporter in 1984 or ’85, acting on a tip that a divorce file had some documented evidence of wrongdoing by a public official. I was skeptical that I would get access to the file because most juicy information in divorce files was sealed. But I asked and a girl working in the clerk’s office, who looked about high school age, turned over a thick file. I sat down in a conference room to look through the file and quickly saw that the girl had given me a confidential file. It did have third-party documentation of misconduct by the official. I took extensive notes, doubtful that I’d be able to make photocopies.
Sure enough, when I went back to the counter and asked an adult clerk (alas, the student was nowhere in sight) for copies, of certain pages, she said fine and asked me what law firm I was with. I said I wasn’t with a law firm, I was a reporter for the Register (I had identified myself earlier to the student as a reporter, too). The clerk said, “Just a minute, I need to talk to the judge,” and walked away, clutching the confidential file to her chest.
I hustled to a pay phone (reporters didn’t have cellphones then) and called Barb. She asked if I had misrepresented myself in any way. I hadn’t. She asked if I had talked to the judge yet. I said no. She said to get the hell out of there. The judge might order me not to use the information from the file, but if I wasn’t there, he couldn’t order me. She was confident we could beat an order, but didn’t want the legal hassle to delay the story. I hustled back to Des Moines and wrote the story for the next day’s paper (we had been planning it for Sunday, but didn’t want to give the judge or any lawyers time to try any blocking maneuvers).
Another time, a defendant in a murder trial called the Register’s city desk, saying he wanted to be executed (Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty). I hustled off to the Iowa town where he was awaiting trial. My various efforts to talk to him were thwarted because his lawyer caught wind of his interview request. But in the meantime, I tried to look at the case file. The clerk said I couldn’t have it. In this case, I knew the file had to be public under Iowa law. The clerk steered me to the county attorney, who wouldn’t release the file and wouldn’t cite a reason in the law for not releasing it.
I found a pay phone and called Barb. She called the county attorney. He insisted that some of the materials in the file were not public. She told him to give me what was public and they could fight in court over the rest. I stood there while he removed most of the pages from the thick file and gave me a rather tepid remnant that didn’t reflect much about the facts of the case. But one page the county attorney left in the file was a receipt of an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court. I hustled back to Des Moines before the Supreme Court closed. There I found the full file available and public. I made a copy and wrote a Sunday story about the defendant’s confession and the defense attorney’s effort to suppress it, none of which had been reported before.
My story prompted a move by the defense attorney for a change of venue (a pointless move, because the Register had statewide circulation in those days). The county attorney, angry at me because I found the parts of the file he was illegally trying to hide from the public, subpoenaed me to testify at the change-of-venue hearing. Fortunately, I was away from the newsroom when the deputy came to serve me.
I learned of the subpoena from an editor when I called in from southern Iowa after an interview. I quickly called Barb, who told me they had to find me to serve the subpoena. She couldn’t tell me to avoid the subpoena, but I knew what I needed to do (Barb and her colleagues held excellent legal seminars for Register staff). I needed to leave the state for a few days. Mimi and I went to visit her sister in Omaha.
Barb took care of the subpoena, testifying at the hearing herself about the Register’s circulation figures in the town in question (which I wouldn’t have known anyway). I didn’t have any confidential sources on this story; all my information was from the court record. But we preferred to avoid putting reporters on the witness stand. It could set a precedent in other cases where a colleague or I did have sources to protect.
A final story about Barb (this one is second-hand, but I invite the editor to identify himself or herself and provide a first-hand account):
As an intern or young reporter, she was sent to Omaha to cover a tornado. An editor told her that people always think a tornado sounds like a freight train and young reporters always use that quote, but she needed to come up with something better than the it-sounded-like-a-freight-train quote. She did. She found someone who said something like, “I’ve always heard that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but this one didn’t.”
RIP, Barb. We need more journalists and professors like you. And we damn sure need more media lawyers like you.
Check out these other tributes to Barb and news accounts of her death:
Andrew Schneider Jr.’s Storify of tributes