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Covering the National Drama

By Paul A. Engelmayer

Steve Oney is not a college student. His tweed jacket, Knapsack, pullover sweater and predilection for Bartley burgers (he prefers the "Ronnie Reagan burger," two jellybeans included) may make him look like one; he does attend some half-dozen classes and will continue to do so for the rest of the year. But Steve Oney is a 1981-82 Nieman fellow, a self-styled "new journalist," and his mission at Harvard this year is not to pave the way toward professional school but to take courses "that I don't know anything about." There's one other thing: he wants to write a novel.

The 26-year-old Oney hasn't tried his hand at fiction since his sophomore year at the University of Georgia, but that doesn't faze him. After five years writing for Atlanta Weekly magazine, churning out features of up to 60 pages in length, Oney, with typical modesty, says "I think I know how to write pretty well now." And so he will avail himself of a fiction-writing workshop here, and let the creative juices flow.

His will be "a coming-of-age book set in a very southern college town" and will concern "a crime taking place [that forces] people to make decisions and moral judgements." That may sound like a strange combination, but there's method to Oney's seeming madness. Journalistically speaking, he came of age in his college town, Athens, Ga., where he edited the student magazine and wrote for the daily newspaper, the "Red and Black." And his most recent experiences in journalism have concerned the most sensational mass murder spree since Lizzie Borden took up her axe, the Atlanta child murders. In covering that story, Oney had to make the moral judgments a journalist must in any situation where the desire to scoop other reporters conflicts with the danger inherent in leaking sensitive information.

Oney's report on the Atlanta tragedy took a form very different from daily newspaper accounts. As the murders increased in the early spring until one was occurring every three days, swarms of story-hungry journalists trailed every detective and hounded every victim's family. Many turned family funerals into what Oney calls "public carnivals."

Disgusted by such reporting, Oney sat down and cranked out a 60-page magazine piece that spotlighted the participants in Atlanta's trauma as "characters in a national drama" and which "tried to tell you what the people are really like." The product of a solid month of research, "Oney's piece recounted the vigil of a Black family with a missing child; of the family's last-ditch hope that hiring private detectives to scour Atlanta would help; and of the "absolutely surreal" atmosphere that took hold of the city in early spring and did not let go until the indictment of a suspect this summer.

Oney recalls that atmosphere: "Every night on the news there were artists' conceptions of the killer" based solely on psychics' hunches. Billboards around the city bore only one word: "Survival." Every weekend a posse of 100, armed with sticks and flashlights, would scour a town "in a military-type search," turning up "all sorts of weird things" but little evidence. In short, Atlanta, Oney recalls, "turned in on itself looking for a killer--everyone became a suspect."

Though the Atlanta story was probably the most publicized of Oney's journalistic efforts, it certainly wasn't his only poignant piece about life in the Deep South. A reporter who prefers delving into issues of local concern to covering national media events, Oney won a prize for the best Sunday magazine story of the year with a lengthy impressionistic piece on Leary, Ga. Leary is a remote town some 60 miles south of Plains, where Oney lived for several weeks to research his piece. The quiet and reflective mien he assumes when discussing what he observed in Leary leave no doubt that the experience profoundly affected him. A lifelong Southerner, Oney realized that places still do exist "where nothing has essentially changed since the Civil War."

A small town with "no main roads" and where the only industry is peanut farming, Leary is a community of "men who hunt on land that their grandfathers had hunted on--it's kind of Faulknerian." The backwoods town is a "very racist kind of society," where Blacks until 15 years ago "were kept in a kind of serfdom by a family that kind of ruled them."

One incident in particular encapsulizes the sadness Oney found in Leary. Oney stopped into a bar--"a little tar-paper walled shack"--one evening and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Black man who worked in a peanut warehouse. The two men became hungry, and drove some 30 miles in Oney's car to a steak house. But as the men got in line to order, Oney suddenly realized from his companion's confused look that his new friend was illiterate. Oney's discomfort grew when the two reached the salad bar--and he realized his acquaintance "didn't know what to do (at a salad bar)--he was kind of confounded by the whole thing." Reflecting, Oney says the incident "about broke my heart. Here was a man with this quiet dignity who I'd grown to like in the space of an evening, living in a benighted age."

Oddly, though, Oney contends that "the prospects for racial harmony are better in the South than in any part of the country, [because] Blacks and whites are used to living with each other. They're much closer than they are in the North." As evidence, he points out that his native Atlanta features a Black mayor and a Black chief of police, and recalls that former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, who is also Black, hails from Atlanta, too. After several weeks in Boston, he believes that the Hub "is as racist a place as you'll find anywhere."

The stories Oney prefers to focus on--including the Atlanta slayings and Leary pieces--are examples of the "New Journalism" he so greatly admires. His work aims to present people as they really are, a goal made immeasurably easier, he says, by the absence of daily deadlines and by the magazine format of the Atlanta Weekly. During his five years there, he interviewed people as diverse as California Angels' manager Gene Mauch ("a very strange and interesting man ... he's liable to do anything, really"), former Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge (defeated last fall), and Billy Carter. Laughing, Oney remembers quoting Carter as saying, in a fit of irritation over Plains' influx of tourists, "The only solution for this town is to pour some gasoline on it, light a match, and burn it down." Carter's clan wasn't tickled with that story. When Oney called again several months later, Lillian Carter's secretary bluntly asked him: "You ain't dead yet?" Printing the Carter quote, Oney now acknowledges, "might've been too hard on them--[Billy Carter] was out of his league" with professional journalists.

Turning from memories to current concerns, Oney denounces the conservative backlash against innovative "new journalists" in the wake of the Janet Cooke incident earlier this year. Cooke, he suspects, "fell prey to the highly competitive scene at the Washington Post." But, he adds, conservative editors are over-reacting by calling for "the death of the new journalists"--people who Oney says enhance journalism by "using the full complement of techniques writers can use to make a point" The soft-spoken Oney does not appear to get perturbed often, but he is more biting than usual when discussing those who would silence his new journalistic counterparts: "In spite of the pontifications of those old farts and press critics like Ben Bagdikian, 'new journalism' is still really important."

The prospect of being a journalist first excited Oney in the early 1970's, when he read the writings of men like Tom Wolfe. Wolfe argued that in contemporary journalism, one could write on current events with the novelist's attention to craft. The discovery that journalism need not be dry "was kind of a mind-blower for me," Oney recalls. Besides, "I didn't want to be an English teacher--which is about the only other option for an English major unless you work for Bell Telephone or something."

The former English major is back at school, "doing really heavy course shopping," living on Harvard St., and appreciating the fact that, without the pressure of deadlines, "you can sleep till noon if you like." (He says, though, he probably won't avail himself of that privilege too often.) Under the Nieman program, he may audit as many courses as he likes but need only complete the full workload for one--a requirement he says will only be a problem "if I choose to concentrate in a science course."

The Nieman program stipulates that its 11 journalists not write for publication during their years at Harvard, an attempt to "instill the notion that we're not here to write stories or to put out, but to take in and suckle at this great academic breast." Toward that end, Oney plans to attend classes ranging from art and music to psychology and economics. Whether this will leave him time to learn "to write news stories that read like short stories" remains unclear, but Oney is confident. You may see his novel sooner than you think.

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