It Was Like This

The Houston Trial Lawyers Foundation threw its second annual First Amendment Awards banquet the other night at the Houstonian. It was one of those self-congratulatory affairs that always makes me a little uneasy -- you know, a lot of plaintiff's lawyers and journalists gathered in one room, wining and dining and yukking it up. If Jon Matthews had stumbled on the scene, I'm sure it would have confirmed his worst fears about the decline of the West.

But the wine was plentiful and the food delicious -- I shoveled down all I could stand -- and the speaker, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-Klan group out of Alabama, was inspiring, even if he went on for too long. Best of all, some deserving journalists, including Michael Berryhill of the Press, were gifted with $1,000 awards for demonstrating excellence in their craft.

George "Bud" Johnson wasn't there, even though he's the one journalist in Houston who's consistently exercised to the fullest his freedoms as guaranteed by the First Amendment, which, in addition to giving you the right to write stories designed to win journalism prizes, supposedly gives you the right to try to tell the truth as you see it, no matter who you make mad, as well as the right to risk making an ass of yourself in doing so.

It's a safe bet that perhaps outside of the few black people in attendance -- and that's a big "perhaps" -- not many people at the Houstonian knew of Bud Johnson. Even if they had, there's not much that Bud Johnson could do -- or would do -- for them, although if he'd been invited, I'm sure he would have been glad to show up and drink the white man's liquor, that is, if he weren't on probation for DWI, and I would assume he could always use a thousand bucks, although he professes not to care at all about money.

Up until late August, Johnson was the managing editor of Forward Times, the "Widest Circulated Black Owned Independent Newspaper in The South." Three times a month he wrote a column for the weekly paper called Bud's EyeView, a journey down the turbulent rapids of the mind of Bud Johnson. Every fourth week, he wrote "This Bud's For You," a social-notes column on the comings and goings of the many, many people in black Houston whose acquaintance he had made over the years. He was also responsible for a police-blotter column called "It Was Like This," which captured the street-level ugliness and futility of crime like nothing else you'll read in Houston.

I'd always pick up the Forward Times when I was in the proximity of a copy, mostly to read Bud Johnson's stuff. I usually found it to be funny and raw and uncompromising -- about as far from the sphincteral character of most Houston journalism as you can get. Johnson is a talented wordsmith with strongly held opinions, only some of them about Bud Johnson, and he writes like a man who's trying to avoid arguing with himself but can't help wading into it. His columns remind me of the saying that the novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed used for the title of one of his books: Writin' Is Fightin'.

For Johnson, that's not just some literary conceit. A couple of years ago, after the Press had named him the city's best newspaper columnist in our "Best of Houston" issue, Johnson wrote in his next column that the honor was nice but he certainly didn't need the white media to validate his talent. He also reported that some of his friends had bought him a few rounds to celebrate, and on his way home, he had been stopped by a cop, one thing had led to another, and as a result the city's best newspaper columnist had to spend the night in jail. The episode left him somewhat suspicious -- after all, he'd written some bad things about the mayor around that time, and the cop, who was white, called him "Bud," even though there is no mention of "Bud" anywhere on George S. Johnson's driver's license.

Maybe the cop had heard of him, or maybe Bud had good reason to be paranoid, or maybe both. Back in the mid-'80s, Forward Times went on a tear on behalf of Shelton Morris, a black firefighter who, the paper insisted, had been screwed out of his job as the Houston Fire Department's public information liaison to the African-American community. Forward Times blamed Bill Paradoski, a former TV newsman who was HFD's public information officer. One week Forward Times ran a full-page editorial in which Paradoski was described as a "politically hired media hack who only wants to swill from the public trough at our expense," as well as a stock PR photo of Paradoski and Morris's replacement accompanied by the caption "The Devil and His Advocate????" The following week, Bud called Paradoski a "former Channel 13 prima donna" in Bud's EyeView.

Paradoski found those characterizations so objectionable that he sued Bud and Forward Times for $4 million. That might seem funny in retrospect, but for a small, just-getting-by paper like Forward Times, a $4 million libel suit was nothing to laugh about. Fortunately, Bruce Griffiths, who was then with the ACLU, defended the paper, and Paradoski later withdrew his suit "upon reaching an amicable resolution" with the paper.

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