Sometimes Jay Gourley seems to resemble an urban guerrilla more than a reporter. Consider some of his journalistic exploits:
In 1975 Gourley helped himself to five green plastic bags of trash outside Henry Kissinger's home in Georgetown. He was questioned but not arrested by Secret Service agents; in a story he then wrote for the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, Gourley suggested that sensitive documents tossed away carelessly could have been of use to potential assassins.
As a reporter for the Kentucky Post covering the Frankfort statehouse in the early '70s, Gouley picked locks or used a master key (he can't remember which) to enter the statehouse when it was closed. He admits that sometimes he looked at other people's mail and documents, sometimes stealing those that appeared newsworthy.
To obtain a telephone interview for the Kentucky Post with a senator's daughter undergoing treatment for concer, Gouley told the hospital he was a member of the patient's family. To secure an interview with stripper Fanne Foxe, he gained entrance to her living room by posing as a security man in her apartment building. Gourley -- there on behalf of the Arkansas Gazette -- assured the publicity-shy woman that "no reporters will bother you."
Gourley recently arranged for a young woman to "flash" House Speaker Tip O'Neill to help a friend publicize to help a friend publicaze the founding of a satirical weekly tabloid in Washington. Gourley was the photorapher in the incident.
Who is this journalistic puck with the seemingly careless attitude toward the traditional ethics of his trade?
Gourley is a slight, apparently distracted 31-year-old who earns his living mainly as a free-lance reporter in Washington for the National Enquirer. Last month he married a Prince George's County elementary schoolteacher. He describes his reportorial techniques with a straight face, in a tone of innocence that suggests the rest of the world, not Jay Gourley, is out of step in the practice of journalism.
A philosophy major -- he's pursuing a master's degree in the subject at Georgetown University -- Gourley takes a roundabout way to explain why he has no qualms about sometimes misrepresenting himself in pursuit of a story.
"All things being equal, I'd rather be honest with someone than dishonest," he says. "But so many people are just dishonest with reporters. You have to decide which is more important -- to get the story straight or be forthright with people who would rather you don't get the story straight."
Gourley started in the business at age 4, when his father, the publisher of a small daily paper in Hemryetta, Okla., translated son Jay's musings into a column called "Jay Talking." Later, as a high school student near Oklahoma City, Gourley worked as a copyboy at the Daily oklahoman.
"Over Christmas holidays when I was 17 or 18, several reporters wanted to go hame, so I did obits for a couple of weeks," recalls Gourley. "On the third day we had a record day we had a record-setting 84 inches of obits, and I made something like 19 errors -- very serious errors. I was back in the wire room as a copyboy the next day, and I had another year to think about accuracy before I had a chance to be a reporter again."
Then a rival daily began in Oklahoma City, and Gourley began honing the techniques that would mark his career. The other newspaper would come off the presses a couple of hours before Gourley's. He would stroll into the rival's printing plant posing as an inserter, reading the front page as it rolled off the presses at the rate of 30,000 papers an hour; if the opposition had a story his paper missed, Gourley would phone his editor and make a report. Such skullduggery was necessary, he says, because the new paper was stealing police reports to try to ensure exclusive stories for its front page.
"They couldn't figure out how we were keeping up with them when they thought they were tricking us," Gourley says. The ploy ended several months after it began when an editor from the Oklahoman switched papers and tipped off management to the phony inserter sneaking into their pressroom nightly.
During college summers, Gourley worked as a reporter for the Tribune Herald in Hilo, Hawaii, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Then, during his senior year at the University of Oklahoma, he began reporting for the Oklahoman. He obtained an exclusive story about a master plan the new university president was about to unveil by "stealing a copy from someone."
After a stint as a flying instructor, Gourley was hired by the Kentucky Post, a Scripps-Howard newspaper in Covington. Soon he was transferred to the state capital.
"The governor didn't really care for me," says Gourley. "He just despised me. Well, he hated my guts."
"He'd follow Gov. Ford [now Sen. Wendell Ford] on vacation all the time," recalls Mike Ruehling, them and now a press aide to Ford. "Sometimes he had some good stuff, but his tactics would befuddle anyone's mind. Whenever you looked for a story he wrote, you weren't mainly interested in what he wrote, but what he did to get what he wrote. He can come across as witty, charming and personable, but then some of the bizarre things he takes a delight in just kind of blow your mind."
Adds another Capitol Hill press assistant who dealt with Gourley after his promotion to the Washington bureau of the Kentucky Post in 1973: "He has some of the best and worst traits of a reporter. Dogged, he'll work like hell on something, stopping at almost nothing to find out what he needs to know."
Gourley, by his account and others, will peek in windows, work the telephone all night, badger sources, misrepresent himself,fly all over the country to find someone, and even go through garbage in search of a story. Kissinger's wasn't the only trash rifled by Gourley; he once did the same to some of then- governor Ford's trash. Another time, at the direction of the National Enquirer, he staked out the Russian embassy for a week, paid a trash collector $40 for a truckload of rubbish collected there, and sorted out the stuff in the parking lot of RFK stadium. As Gourley suspected, he found nothing of interest.
The stories seem endless. He recently quarreled with the House assassination committee chief counsel for secretly taping a phone conversation the two had. A couple of months ago, on assignment in New York to dig up some stories for the Enquier, Gourley thought prospects appeared slim. Then, much to his delight, an actor murdered his wife and shot himself dead.
A couple days later, while sitting in a Manhattan bar with some other scribes, Gourley spotted a national newscaster walk up and begin to cuddle a young blonde. Out came Gourley's miniature camera with strobe. The Gourley party was booted from the bar only to land in an Italian restaurant a table away from a well-known television actor who loathes the Enquirer. The table of Enquirer reporters struck up a conversation with the actor and his new wife; Gourley convinced him to pose for a picture for "my sister in Oklahoma." The actor may soon be suprised to find that picture and story of his "secrets for a successful marriage" in the Enquirer.
Just how far will Gourley go?
"If people know you'll steal information, that actually helps," he says. "You often don't have to steal because people will give you stuff because even if they're the only ones who have it, they con always say, 'Gourley stole it.' You have to weigh the story against the risk. I'm not going to do something morally reprehensible for a mediocre story. But if the story is good enough... if it was really good..."
Jay Gourley laughs at his private vision.