(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
After moving to Dallas in 1974, former investigative reporter Byron Harris spent his career at ABC affiliate, WFAA, reporting on everything from Medicaid fraud to government secrets at Area 51. He won two Peabody Awards, four Edward R. Murrow Awards and six duPont-Columbia Awards — the TV equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Five years ago, the Channel 8 newsman retired after more than 40 years on the air. The East Dallas neighbor wanted to fly fish and travel without looking over his shoulder for the Russian mafia or running from bludgeoning Teamsters. Yet Harris hasn’t abandoned journalism in retirement. He still writes for WFAA and is working on a documentary about the 2015 shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco.
What have you been up to in retirement?
My wife and I fly fish. I used to do that a lot. I’m on three nonprofit boards: Literacy Achieves, Heroes on the Water and a group that tries to give transportation to people in South Dallas who can’t get to work.
I’ve been working on a documentary project that we’d like to sell to Netflix about the nine people killed in Waco a few years ago. I still write for wfaa.com about things I encounter. Journalism is a way of life. You don’t really abandon it. You maintain your curiosity. I’m not dead yet.
Tell me about your volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity.
I do Habitat for Humanity Global Village trips. I’ve been to South Africa and India. I went to Macedonia in March. I was interested in our local Habitat because they build about 25 houses a year, and that form of capital is one of the foundations of our society. No one gets it for free, but if you can have a house to live in and invest in, it’s extremely important. I used to work once a week here building houses. It’s as much fun as the people you work with. One of the things I’ve learned from being a cynical journalist all my life is that there are a lot of people in the world who want to help other people.
How did you get in to journalism?
I thought I would be a social worker in undergrad. I got drafted after I graduated college. It was during Vietnam, but I didn’t serve overseas. When I got out of the Army, I decided I would go back to grad school. The war was still huge for all of us. Watergate was starting to percolate. Plus, I had a strong social bent. Journalism has that same social service bent to it.
What are some of your favorite stories?
It depends on the day. One of the most exciting stories was an investigation into the Russian general who was stealing money from NASA. It required me to go under cover on a base outside of Moscow. The last big story I did, we discovered several hundred million dollars of Medicaid fraud in Texas. That was probably the most important thing I did. I got to cover a lot of great stories that weren’t investigative. I knew Jack Kilby, who invented the semiconductor. Hanging out with scientists was a lot of fun. They tolerated an enormous amount of stupid questions. It’s been a great ride for me.
Did you ever get scared?
Usually you’re too wrapped up in a story, but I was definitely scared in Russia. I was exposed and all by myself. I was scared before the [Iraq] war started. We sat around in Kuwait, and until we got moving producing a story every day, it was quite scary. I also got beaten up by Teamsters. There were other times when people were mad at me and wrote nasty letters. All those times are stressful. You just shut it out, move on and try to solve the next problem.
How well do you think local news outlets covered the coronavirus?
I would say OK, not exceptionally well. Covering a spot news story for a long time is really hard for everyone. The story evolved as the disease went up and down. You have to think of new angles. All of us are getting to the point where we’ve heard all this before.
What do you love about the neighborhood?
I’ve lived over by the Arboretum for 45 years. I have very friendly neighbors. I like the trees. I like that before I retired, it was close to downtown, where I worked. I like some of the small businesses. Our neighborhood go-to is Smoky Rose.
How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t think journalists have legacies. Life goes on. Journalists are just there to record the first draft. I hope I was nice to my colleagues and a solace to those who were suffering. To be graceful under pressure is what I would try to be remembered as.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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