Longform

In the Line of Fire

Page 4 of 6

The report, issued more than six months after the bloody ambush and the resulting carnage of the Davidians, concluded that McLemore's colleague, photographer Jim Peeler, had inadvertently tipped off the Davidians when he got lost on his way to the compound. Seeing Peeler on the side of the road, a mail-truck driver stopped to offer assistance. Peeler asked him for directions to Mt. Carmel and chatted briefly with him about his assignment. Peeler was unaware that the mailman was, in fact, a member of the Branch Davidians who immediately sped off to report the encounter to his leader, David Koresh.

Months after the raid, when word leaked out that Peeler had been the inadvertent tipster, the cameraman told The Dallas Morning News that he regretted the news reports that repeatedly blamed his colleague McLemore for compromising the raid.

"I feel sorry for John," Peeler was quoted as saying. "He's been the main guy that's been taking all the heat, and he didn't do anything but do his job."

McLemore felt trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, accused of a crime he did not commit, but punished for it nonetheless.

In the year following the raid, he tried in vain to get a job in a bigger media market. He applied to 50 stations and did not get a single interview, despite his Emmy nomination and a handful of regional reporting awards for other stories he'd done. No one told him outright that the allegations leveled against him were the reason they wouldn't hire him, but he suspected that was why he was being shunned by his peers.

"I'm not saying I'm God's gift to reporting, but I believe the taint of the story had something to do with it," says McLemore. "I'm in my fifth year at a station, and I break a national story. That should have had me out of there."

Instead, he watched as at least 10 of his colleagues with less experience and fewer accomplishments moved on to bigger, better-paying jobs. "John had a promising career," says Mulloney. "But I believe he was blackballed in the industry. What happened to him wasn't right, and he had a chip on his shoulder because of it. It was like a cancer; it slowly ate him up."

With a baby on the way, McLemore couldn't afford to stay in his $20,000-a-year TV job in Waco, but he couldn't get hired anyplace else. With his career hopelessly stalled and with no way to clear his name, a depressed and defeated McLemore felt he had no choice but to commit the ultimate journalistic sin: Almost a year after the botched raid, he filed a libel suit against WFAA-TV and the Houston Chronicle. He asked for $15 million in damages.

McLemore knew that filing suit against the media would be the end of his career. He also knew he would be ridiculed and labeled a traitor.

Some people might think it hypocritical or ironic that a reporter who employed the First Amendment to do his job would take offense when the tables were turned. But McLemore doesn't see it that way. The First Amendment, he says, does not entitle reporters, in their pursuit of the public's right to know, to practice shoddy journalism.

"Kathy Fair went on Nightline with an unconfirmed rumor that basically said I had set up the ATF," he says. "She didn't check it out at all. She broke the very first rule of journalism. It would have been so easy to check out who I was and where I was. If she had done just that, mistakes would not have been made."

If Fair had checked out the rumor, she would have learned that McLemore was not on the compound grounds before the ATF arrived, thus the premise of the allegation -- he tipped off the Davidians in exchange for access to their property before the agents arrived -- was totally unfounded. And if she had done any real reporting, she also would have discovered that the accusation that TV journalists were hiding in the trees was absurd. There were no trees on the sprawling, barren compound.

McLemore charges that Williams was equally irresponsible. Despite denials from McLemore's station that the accusations were not true and the refusal of federal officials to lay public blame, Williams proceeded to repeat Fair's unconfirmed rumor about a setup. Neither Williams nor Fair responded to the Dallas Observer's phone calls.

"Williams didn't check her sources, and at every juncture she was told the information was flat-out wrong," fumes Greg White, one of McLemore's attorneys. "You don't impugn someone's conduct or accuse them of illegal and unethical behavior unless you have someone telling you you're right."

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Ann Zimmerman