In a quiet city where the hottest arguments generally are about the Packers, many citizens of Green Bay were not ready for the brusque entry of hard-hitting journalism. Or for the tragedy that followed.
For six months, some read in amazement and some in horror as the local Press-Gazette pounded away at a county judge named James W. Byers. The Press-Gazette had a new editor, one who believed deeply in investigative reporting.
Day after day the newspaper attacked Judge Byer's character and conduct, usually in front-page stories. There were 100 articles and editorials in all -- enough words to fill a 400-page book -- about the "illegal" activities in Byer's Juvenile Court.
One day a friend of the judge called to complain, and asked: "What the hell are you guys doing over there?"
"We're having a great time," an editor replied.
But something was wrong with the stories -- factually wrong. On Jan. 15, the newspaper was compelled by its libel lawyers to print an extraordinary retraction on its front page, a massive admission of error that went on for column after column, in which the Press-Gazette withdrew its accusations of illegality.
Two weeks later, a special state prosecutor chimed in with embarrassing conclusions. There were, he announced, no grounds for prosecuting Judge Byers or his administrative aide. The Press-Gazette reported this development.
Then the newspaper resumed its attacks on the judge, almost as though its own retraction and the special prosecutor's report were irrelevant to the case.
To the judge's wife, it seemed too much to endure. Last month, weary of reading these terrible stories about her husband in the daily newspaper, Nancy Byers decided she no longer could take it. She left a note to her husband:
"I can't stand the attacks of the Press-Gazette. I love you. I'm leaving."
Mrs. Byers put on her coat and went out into the night, wandering in the subfreezing norther Wisconsin winter. The police found her hours later, unconscious but alive, lying face down in the fresh evening snow.
At the hospital, Judge Byers was gray and shaken. He, too, had spent many sleepless nights worrying about the newspaper attacks. Tomorrow, the judge told his son, he would finally "go to the Press-Gazette. It's hurting your mother."
A few hours later, Judge Byers died of a heart attack. He was fifty-three years old, and the father of five.
Green Bay, a city of 90,000 on Lake Michigan, is still bruised, still arguing over the nasty implications of Judge Byer's death. The judge had suffered two previous heart attacks, but his wife and friends blame the newspaper for his death. The Press-Gazette shouted a state representative on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly, "effectively hounded and harassed a man to death!"
The editors denied responsibility, citing, as would most journalists, a professional obligation to expose the truth without regard to personal considerations. If there were excesses in the Press-Gazette's treatment of Judge Byers -- and there were -- the nasty implications are hardly limited to that newspaper. The techniques it employed -- aggressive investigation, the drumbeat of attack, the flavor of pursuit -- are common to reporters and editors on newspapers striving for public impact.
John Brogan, an old friend and political ally of the late judge, speaks with rage and bitterness about what has happened to newspapers.
"It started with the investigation of Watergate, with Woodward and Bernstein," Brogan said. "I applauded that. But now you've overdone it. You think everybody in a public job is a kink, a sleaze, a scumbag."
"Thirty years ago, 30 miles south of here, came Joe McCarthy. Now we have editorial Joe McCarthys," Brogan added. "Yes, you are the Fourth Estate. But what guarantees me that you won't turn into a mad dog, snarling and biting people without restraint of any kind? I feel threatened. I genuinely feel threatened."
A full account of Judge James W. Byers' untimely death begins two years ago when the Press-Gazette was a community newspaper that rarely said anything nasty about anyone. Its circulation was 56,000 and its only competition was a struggling morning tabloid.
The Press-Gazette could fairly be described as old-fashioned, covering meetings and school boards and conveying a tone of consensual boosterism.
The editor, David Younger, grew up in that tradition. He had worked for the Press-Gazette since boyhood.
"He was, I guess, part of the old school," said Bill Jordan, a former reporter. "He loved the community and sometimes bent over backwards not to hurt it."
When Robert Gallagher, a 46-year-old non-native of Green Bay, was brought in as the new editor, that era abruptly ended. Gallagher had never set foot in Green Bay, but he knew and understood the new hard-hitting objectives sweeping through American newspapers after "All the President's Men."
He is imposing in his size, 6 feet 4 inches tall, and in his style: Hard-driving and ambitious, rough and direct, occasionally profane.
"We can do everything and anything a large metropolitan paper can do," Gallagher said of smaller newspapers like the Press-Gazette, "There are no longer any limits and that's exciting."
He had awards and honors to prove his point, a bunch of them won at his previous paper in LaCrosse, Wis., which is even smaller than Green Bay.
"When the Gallagher appointment was announced in the Press-Gazette," Jordan says, "the paper ran his picture. He looked like a young man. He sounded like he was qualified. He seemed like a young hotshot.A lot of us were happy that the paper was finally going to join the 20th Century."
Yeunger was "kicked upstairs" to a position with little news responsibility.
He died shortly thereafter.
Gallagher set about redesigning the paper's format, instituting "centralized copy desks," job descriptions for reporters, evaluation forms and higher standards of performance.
"If there's anybody in this room who does not believe it is our vital responsibility to aggressively pursue the real story of the way government operates," he told reporters, "I'm not inviting them to leave. I'm telling them."
The juvenile court of Judge Byers was a bit old-fashioned, too. The judge was a political stalwart of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who was governor when he appointed Byers to the bench in 1962 as a routine reward for party loyalty.
In those days, particularly in the remote reaches of Wisconsin, judging often was an informal matter, frequently carried out without the strict observance of legal procedures now required, sometimes done in a casual, even sloppy manner.
If spectators rose when he entered the courtroom, Byers would wave everyone down again. "Aw, come one," he would say. "Sit down."
The judge became recognized, in time, as a "pillar of the community," though he clearly was less accomplished as a lawyer than as a political and civic leader."
Byers "had a real nice touch with people, good common sense and he treated everyone who came before him with a certain kind of dignity," said Rick Laurant, a friend and attorney in Green Bay.
But Byers also was absent a lot, especially after being elected head of a national juvenile judges" association. And when he was present things in the courtroom were loose.
The juvenile code in Wisconsin also was loose for many of those years. As late as 1972, Wisconsin laws allowed detention of juveniles for more than 24 hours without full-fledged hearings. In fact, the statute didn't even mention hearings.
In 1972, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion requiring hearing for detentions of more than 24 hours, except on weekends. It was this ruling that the Presse-Gazette accused Judge Byers of violating in his courtroom.
The paper's allegations began last September, focusing a spotlight glare on the administration of the Brown County Juvenile Court during 1976 and 1977 under Byers and his administrator, Wayne Walters.
Byers had been rotated routinely into another division of the court in 1978, and the Press-Gazette probe began after his successor, in an effort to replace Walters with his own administrator, accused Byers and Walters of having run an inefficient court wracked with delays, irregular in its procedures. The Press-Gazette took it from there.
"More than 1,000 juveniles" were "denied civil rights" by being detained by authorities without prompt hearings by Byers and Walters, the Press-Gazette charged.
On one occasion, the paper said in another article, delays in scheduling in Byers' court risked health damage to an infant whom social workers were trying to remove from his home because of alleged neglect by the parents.
Meanwhile, the paper alleged, Walters improperly used Byers' signature stamp to issue orders and to obtain personal leave days -- 12 days, to be exact.
Byers and Walters denied all wrong doing. The judge, in his only public statement early in the controversy, attributed the lack of hearings to the vague statutes, which he interpreted as not requiring them. He said he authorized Walters' use of his signature stamp and that this procecure was routine in many courts.
Out of some 100 articles and editorials in the Press-Gazette, about six actually contained substantive allegations. The rest reported, often on the front page, on the ongoing controversy surrounding the allegations, every subpoena issued by the special prosecutor or by an ongoing federal inquiry.
The Press-Gazette was onto something real, genuine weaknesses in the judge's performance. But there were flaws in the stories, too.
Last Sept. 25, the paper ran an article by investigative reporter Dennis Chaptman with the headline: "Court Blamed in Infant Health Risk."
"Permanent brain damage was risked for a four-month-old infant in 1977 when Brown County juvenile court officials failed to act quickly on scheduling a custody hearing, a county social worker charges," the story said.
The reporter had never examined the records in the case. The piece was based entirely on an interview with a social worker who charged that delays in court scheduling under Byers and Walters stalled efforts to remove the alledly malnourished child from his family.
In fact, there was no brain damage. The paper said simply that there were no "readily detectable signs of brain damage." And the article never documented that Byers or Walters had delayed anything.
Later that week the father of the child said that the delays had not been caused by the court, but by the social workers who were "stalling the hearing process in order to build a case.
"There was no health hazard,""the father said. "They couldn't prove it was malnutrition." His story ran on page two of the newspaper.
The "health risk" charge, nevertheless, joined the paper's litany of other accusations and subsequently was repeated.
On Sept. 21, the Press-Gazette quoted Byers as denying wrongdoing. on Oct. 23, the paper quoted Walters' lawyer doing the same. In dozens of articles afterward, however, each of which recounted the allegations, the denials were not mentioned.
Eventually, after months of attacking Judge Byers, the journalistic flaws and exaggerations caught up with the Press-Gazette.
The newspaper had said that the court's actions were "illegal." The paper had to retract that.
The newspaper had said that the court's records were "falsified' and "manufactured" by use of the signature stamp. The paper had to retract that, too.
Indeed, on Jan. 15, after what investigative reporter Chaptman described as a "donnybrook" with the Press-Gazette's own libel lawyers, the paper published one of the most unusual statements ever seen in an American daily newspaper: A front-page retraction of potentially libelous language used in 12 articles and editorials, plus eight full columns of a "claim of true facts" prepared by Walters' attorneys. Both were stripped across the top of the front page.
"That was one of the blackest days of my life," said Chaptman, who is 26. "I got as drunk as I'd been in a long time."
The special prosecutor's report followed two later. The juvenile court officials, the prosecutor found, "have not at all times followed the procedures set forth in the Wisconsin Statutes," but no one had "committed any crime which would warrant or justify criminal prosecution."
The Press-Gazette reported that much that next day. But it left out the next sentence: "I find that it does not appear probable that a crime was committed."
The front-page headline declared: "No indictments . . . Despite Violations."
Then the newspaper resumed its attacks on Judge Byers.
According to Mrs. Byers, the paper's handling of that special prosecutor's report and its unwillingness afterward to tone down its coverage was the heaviest blow to the judge. He had thought it was over.
Byers was up for reelection this year. He quarreled with his wife over his refusal to come out fighting against the paper.
"I can't fight back," he would say. "It wouldn't do any good. There's nothing you can do against a newspaper. I just can't fight back."
When he saw how the paper handled the story on the special prosecutor's report, the judge broke down and cried in his living room.
"Hey, Dad's crying," his son Jimmy said to his mother. "I've never seen Dad cry."
"He never had cried," said Nancy Byers. "In 26 years of marriage, he never cried."
Byers was losing color thoughout the onslaught, his wife and friends say. He also was losing sleep, tossing and turning in the night and then awakening early to avoid the reporters who gathered at the courthouse when he arrived at work.
The "brain damage" story especially upset the family. The Byers had five children -- Jimmy, 24; Stephen, 22; Paul, 20; Mark, 16, and Michael, 13 -- and if they had any qualities at all, they thought, it was love for children.
"There was no brain damage," Nancy Byers said. "The paper left the impression that there was."
"'How can they say that?'" she remembers the judge saying over and over again. "'How can they say that?'"
Eventually Byers warned his wife not to read the articles anymore because they would upset her.
The judges last words to his wife, as he visited her in the hospital, were: "I'm glad to know you're all right. I'll make it up to you, Nancy. Get a good rest.'
At the Press-Gazette, Gallagher and Chaptman said they were shocked by Byers death.
Editor Gallagher, who never met the judge, said that he does not "feel any sense of responsibility. It is extremely difficult, if not dangerous, to allow personal considerations to affect news judgment. The issues we report are of vital interest to the public and, in effect, supercede any personal situations."
"When I do these stories," reporter Chaptman said, "I try to make them disappear. I don't let them intrude. You have to detach yourself from a story. After 10 hours of working on it, you want to go home and eat your dinner and get done with it."
Gallagher says he wants to remain in Green Bay for the rest of his career.
Chaptman says he wants to leave. "There's a lack of culture here," he said.