Journalist, Free Press Advocate Gene Miller Dies

By Mitchell, Kirsten B. | News Media and the Law, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Journalist, Free Press Advocate Gene Miller Dies

Mitchell, Kirsten B., News Media and the Law

Herald reporter, editor helped guide Reporters Committee for quarter century

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 - two from death row - and twice won him the Pulitzer Prize. He spun countless stories with his distinctive punchy writing style - "the Miller Chop" his colleagues called it with a mix of envy and affection. His editing - dubbed "Millerizing" - 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 Si. Petersburg Times reporter, recalled in the Herald"s online guest book. The Times joined the suit.

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