Known as “Johnny Mac” in the newsroom, John MacCormack is a talented, colorful reporter. He likes telling a good yarn, both in person and on the front pages of the San Antonio Express-News. One time I heard him on the phone telling a source: “What are you going to give me so I don’t write the usual blather?”
His trademark wit was on display when he gave this speech explaining how he figured out that missing atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not dining on bonbons in New Zealand, as police theorized, but had actually been brutally murdered.
Last year, MacCormack and Express-News Photographer Jerry Lara spent months documenting the toll of violence from the Mexican drug war, and how life on the Texas border has dramatically changed for the worse. The result was a compelling series of articles and photos called Mexico in Crisis. MacCormack won an award for his work this month from the Inter American Press Association.
Given MacCormack’s gift of gab and skill at reporting, I thought it’d be entertaining and educational to do a Q&A with him, and learn how he and Jerry worked on the stories.
John MacCormack’s story today about a South Texas legal scandal in Corpus Christi had a little bit of everything. There’s a fake lawyer who’s represented by a well-connected lawyer. There’s a judge with high aspirations who gives the fake lawyer probation. And there’s an angry district attorney who says the whole thing stinks.
John’s been covering South Texas for decades now. He has a good nose for finding unique stories and writing about them in a way that’s interesting and easy to understand.
But it’s a story that very easily could have gone untold. There were no press conferences announcing it. There were no photo ops for television crews to get their images and soundbites.
This was a different kind of story. It was based off a tip and the curiosity of MacCormack and his editor, David Sheppard. And it was based on a central question: Was Brian Culp, a self-described war hero, lying about his service record, at a time when he received perks and charitable donations tied to that record?
Thanks to MacCormack, readers of Sunday’s newspaper now know that Culp isn’t the Army Ranger he claimed to be. Contrary to what he told others, he wasn’t wounded in combat and wasn’t awarded the Purple Heart.
MacCormack does a nice job explaining how common it is for people to embellish or lie about their military service:
Embellishing military records has a long and rich history in the United States, dating at least to the Revolutionary War when a German soldier of fortune gained George Washington’s confidence with false credentials.
Claiming to be having been a key military aide to the King of Prussia but alas, having no papers to prove it, Baron Von Steuben proved to be the exceptional imposter, providing valuable service in training the rag-tag revolutionary army.
But more than two centuries passed before it became a crime to lie about military honors and achievements.
Since passage of the Stolen Valor Act, in 2005, such deceptions are punishable by up to a year in prison, and dozens of fake vets have since been prosecuted. Others have gone to prison for receiving financial and medical benefits based on false claims.
A force behind the new law was B.G. Burkett, an Army veteran of Vietnam who spent more than two decades exposing legions of fake heroes and co-authored the book “Stolen Valor” that documented the phenomenon.
“It wasn’t just post-Vietnam. It’s every single conflict that’s ever occurred. It happened after the Civil War and it’s happening right now in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said of false claims by soldiers.
“The No. 1 reason people do this is low self-esteem. The second you say you are a heroic warrior, people treat you differently,” he said.
MacCormack’s story comes on the heals of a revealing investigation by the Chicago Tribune that found hundreds of people have made bogus claims of receiving medals of valor.
Most readers thought this was a valuable article. The question is, how can newspapers continue to tell these kinds of stories when newsrooms are shrinking and we’re losing experienced reporters? MacCormack is a veteran reporter and it wasn’t very hard for him to disprove Culp’s war stories. MacCormack is the journalist, after all, who solved the murder mystery of the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O’hair.
How can the next generation of John MacCormacks keep telling these watchdog stories?