The reporter — some journalists are meant to be news hawks

By Jeff Zeleny
Alumni News Staff

He had visions of playing baseball. From a sandlot game in the quiet, obscure city of Lincoln, he would dream. Dream about standing on a real mound, casting a real pitch.

He longed to be the star of America’s favorite pastime, back in the days when little boys wanted to be the next Mickey Mantle, not Michael Jordan.

As a child, Joe Starita pictured himself standing atop the mound at Yankee Stadium. One day, he hoped he would be there.

“Between the ages of 5 and 20, I ate, slept and lived baseball,” he says. “We’d play it all day long. That’s how we spent every summer.”

Joe Starita the baseball star? Never heard of him.

Try Joe Starita the writer, the interviewer, the investigative reporter.

Starita is the newest member of the news-editorial faculty at UNL. The 48-year-old former Miami Herald investigative reporter returned to his native Lincoln in 1991. This year, he began teaching reporting classes in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Starita didn’t set out to be a journalist. For a while, it seemed his aspiration of throwing a red-stitched ball for a living would come true.

When Starita was growing up, summers in Lincoln were straight out of a black-and-white television series. Quiet streets, little crime, lots of baseball.

Every Saturday, he would put his wooden bat between the handlebars of his bicycle and ride across town to Brooks Field in North Lincoln. Starita, his brother Jim and a pack of friends would field a team and play the game from dawn to dusk.

“Mickey Mantle was my god,” Starita says. “I followed him like most Christians follow Jesus.”

Mantle wasn’t a pitcher, but Starita admired his baseball greatness. If anyone was going to break Babe Ruth’s record that summer, it had to be Mantle.

Each day after school, the young Starita would call the Lincoln Journal sports department to see if Mantle had hit a home run that day. In the days before ESPN, there was no other way to quickly learn the day’s score. He certainly couldn’t wait for the morning newspaper.

In the late 1960s, people began to notice Starita’s arm. After high school, the Kansas City Athletics made him an offer. Scouts from the Los Angeles Dodgers watched him, too. But a baseball scholarship from the University of Nebraska seemed more intriguing.

Everything was going his way the summer before he started college. Then came the defining moment in his early life.

As he fired a pitch, he tore the rotator cuff muscle in his right arm. From that day on, his baseball hopes spiraled. He played college ball for two seasons, but his golden arm had turned cold. At the time, doctors didn’t have the capability to rehabilitate rotator cuff injuries.

It seemed his pitching days were over.

“That was the end of Yankee Stadium and the beginning of reality. I wanted to hang on another year, but I was just taking up space. The bottom line was I had a torn rotator cuff and I couldn’t pitch.”

Coach Tony Sharp gave Starita’s baseball scholarship to another pitcher. Starita tried to stay in school but seemed lost without the game.

“Baseball always provided that buzz. Then, all of the sudden that buzz wasn’t there any more. I couldn’t get that buzz from school.”

After baseball, his life took a radical turn.

A Turkey adventure

In the summer of 1970, Starita be-friended a Turkish student living in Lincoln. At the summer’s end, the friend asked Starita to join him in Turkey. Starita couldn’t pass up the opportunity to live in a new land.

“It was a pretty rough first month. The streets of Ankara were mean.”

Because of his American heritage, Turks spit and threw rocks at him.

With the help of his friend’s family, Starita auditioned for a position on a Turkey professional basketball team. For four months, he traveled with the team and saw a new side of the country.

“Basketball was, and is, a passion. It’s something that I could do. All of that wasted energy in baseball got transferred to basketball.”

Starita says he was able to break down the cultural barriers by spending time with the Turkish players and their families.

“This gave me an inside vantage point. They turned out to be the most generous people anywhere.”

While Starita was in Turkey, he also herded cattle and picked grapefruit on a kibbutz — a collective farm made up of people who fled Yugoslavia.

Starita also toured the Middle East. Walking around the streets of Jerusalem at age 19 was incredible, he said.

After a year, he returned to the United States. He came back with more than new experiences. He came back with a new perspective from a different corner of the world.

“In a lot of ways it was fortunate,” Starita says of the shoulder injury that forced him to leave baseball.

A wandering man

In the fall of 1971, Starita returned to Lincoln. Continuing school didn’t seem like an option. Instead, he began wandering around the United States, living with friends from coast to coast.

In Oakland, Calif., he manufactured cardboard boxes while living with friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also ran a 90-pound jackhammer on a construction crew.

“I would just go to a place I was interested in, and I would try to pay the bills.”

After one year in California, he moved to Hoboken, N.J. As Starita traveled, he kept diaries and wrote short fiction tales about his experiences.

“The pattern went on uninterrupted for four years. Finally, there was a realization that this can’t go on. It had been four to five years of indulging in a wanderlust of impulses.”

Back to Lincoln. Back to school. Back to reality.

“I was anxious to go back to school. I was ready to turn this restless, almost reckless, energy into a profession.”

Starita considered law school but chose an English and journalism double major.

Starita says journalism offered three attractive features: meeting people, writing and traveling.

“Leaving school was the smartest thing I ever did. Coming back was the second smartest thing I did.”

Starita says he immersed himself in journalism studies and professional work. He spent two years at the Daily Nebraskan. He also worked as the campus correspondent for the Lincoln Journal.

His national exposure came through his work in the Lincoln bureau of United Press International.

Starita’s Daily Nebraskan story about Lincoln-based neo-Nazi Gerhard Lauck quickly moved on the national news wires. The next week, Starita says, ABC News asked him for sources to help prepare its own story.

“In less than a week from when that story appeared in the University of Nebraska newspaper, it was around the world. It was my first example of what a powerful giant the media are.”

In the summer of 1978, Starita was an intern in the Miami Herald’s West Palm Beach bureau. Tremendous stories, great people and the climate lured Starita back to South Florida one year later for a full-time job with the Herald.

“In January of 1979, the only thing I knew for sure I was leaving behind was poverty (his salary). It seems like a pittance now. It seemed like a fortune then. There was nothing unattractive about Miami.”

Florida bound

Starita was hired as a reporter in the Herald’s two-person Naples bureau. He moved to the Fort Lauderdale bureau and eventually the city desk in Miami. The fast-paced lifestyle appealed to him.

After four years in Miami, he was named the Herald’s New York City bureau chief. Competition for the job was intense, he says. Reporters formed a line outside the editor’s door each time the job was vacant. Starita says his Mid-western humbleness allowed his work to speak for itself.

“It was the plum job at the Miami Herald. It was the job they hung out as a carrot to the city desk staff.”

In 1983, Starita and his wife, Melissa Malkovich, moved to New York. They were expecting a child. Starita spent four years in New York before he was given a coveted position on the Herald’s investigative staff. The family moved again — back to Miami.

The four-member investigative reporting team worked the biggest stories at the Herald. In 1987, the team trailed presidential candidate Gary Hart and published stories about his affair with Donna Rice.

While the Hart story was nationally noted, Starita says other stories were more rewarding. Those stories, which Starita ranks as his most prized, captured his favorite journalism axiom: “You comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Starita took aim at unethical lawyers who were abusing the weakest members of society. He spent five months investigating a story that detailed a doctor and lawyer who took in $8 million to $10 million faking injuries in car accidents.

“We were able to completely shut that down. It was just a very, very ugly exposure of the legal and medical underside.”

During the investigation, Starita received several nasty telephone calls and a death threat that he took seriously. With a wife and son at home, he says, the stakes are considerably higher.

“You’d better be careful when you start up your car in the morning,” an anonymous caller told Starita.

For the next few weeks, before Starita would place the keys in the ignition, he would check underneath the car for possible bombs.

“These stories had the real potential to ruin someone’s business. People were blown up for more petty reasons.”

Starita says he loved the work, and he knew the danger was part of the job.

“It just goes with the territory. If you’re going to do these kinds of stories in Miami, you’ll have to take the risk.”

Soon, the risks started adding up. The cons of Miami began to outweigh the pros.

“I was really exhausted after four years of doing those kinds of stories. My needle wason empty. I needed to be rejuvenated.”

Simply stated: “I was tired of all of it.”

Tired of watching local television news where the first seven minutes were packed with homicide after homicide. Tired of looking out his door to see the only pets in the neighborhood were pit bulls and other attack dogs. Tired of traffic and the obscene commute to work.

All the details about Miami that were annoying and troubling to Starita and his family were key ingredients of stunning investigative reporting stories.

“This was fairly close to journalistic nirvana. The things that made the job great made it terrible to live there. It was kind of a love-hate thing.”

The Miami muse became elusive.

“There was a point where I longed to move back to a place with open spaces.”

The book he had wanted to write about the Native Americans on Pine Ridge, S.D., kept coming to mind.

Besides, Starita wanted his son, Jesse, to grow up in a city like he did. A city where a game of sandlot baseball wasn’t too dangerous.

“Investigative reporting requires a full tank every day. Investigative reporting lost out.”

Back in Lincoln

In November 1991, Starita moved back to Lincoln. Although it was a different Lincoln than the one he left, it was still Lincoln. It was still home.

“My son had been lobbying for this for years.”

When the family would come back to visit, Jesse would cry most of the flight back to Miami.

“It was just harder and harder to just come back here and leave again.”

Two months later, Starita was sitting in a graduate-level statistics course. His master’s degree in journalism was under way. His main goal was to write a novel documenting an Indian family.

For the next three years, Starita would research and write his first book, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge. The book, published in April 1995, tells the story of five generations of a Lakota Sioux-Northern Cheyenne family.

Starita spent hundreds of hours with the Dull Knife family. He slept in vans, tents and trailers with the family for up to three weeks at a time.

“I really came to love this family a great deal.”

When he finished each chapter, he would mail it to them. Many interviews were done through Lakota interpreters, Starita says. Accuracy checks were crucial.

The book, which Starita used as his master’s thesis, has won several awards, including a Pulitzer prize nomination. In his modest style, Starita downplays the book’s accolades.

“I didn’t really think about any of that. I was happy to let the book speak for itself. The more successful it becomes, the more people who will read the story of the Dull Knife family.

“It’s real important for people to know the story of this family.”

After the Pine Ridge book, Starita says he needed a break. He needed another story, a different story, to rejuvenate himself. As a self-described crazed Cornhusker football fan, the next assignment seemed natural.

In the fall of 1995, Starita and photographer Tom Tidball captured the aura of Nebraska football through the fans’ eyes. Another book, A Day in the Life, The Fans of Memorial Stadium, was the result.

“They were nice companion pieces. It was very refreshing to walk the north parking lot of Memorial Stadium instead of rooting in the basement of the Colorado Historical Society.”

Starita and Tidball took one football Saturday apart, hour by hour. They documented the weekly pilgrimage Nebraska fans make to Memorial Stadium for home football games.

“In truth, I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool Nebraska football fan for 35 years. I really felt the fans were being left out of the loop here. Without the fans, this doesn’t happen.”

In stores across the state, Nebraska football is celebrated on rolls of toilet paper and lampshades. But there was no book documenting the fans.

“There wasn’t that one product that pays tribute and homage to the real grease that makes the machine roll.

“There is much more than just going to a game. This is a real ritualized process that involves more than a football game.”

Much more, indeed.

He’s one big Husker fan

Starita’s penchant for Nebraska football is evident to those who watch him on the sidelines of Memorial Stadium during a Husker game. This, perhaps, is one of the best perks of living in Lincoln. One of the best perks, maybe. But not the best. As a freelance writer and a part-time journalism instructor, Starita has time to spend with his 12-year-old son. If he’s not coaching Jesse’s youth basketball team at the YMCA, he’s aggressively checking his homework. His wife, Melissa, is a pre-medical student at UNL.

He wants Jesse to have the same opportunities he had more than 30 years ago in the same city. The same city that he couldn’t wait to flee.

“By January 1979, I was convinced this was the most boring, one-dimensional flat place you could live.”

Now he sees things differently. As a parent and as a person.

“I’m bullish on Lincoln. I’m obnoxiously bullish on Nebraska.

“You are constantly amazed at the basic level of civility here.

“People on the East Coast assume you’re a bad person unless you prove otherwise. People here assume you’re a good person unless you prove otherwise.”

The accolades go on and on.

Starita can’t seem to say enough about Lincoln — the same city where he had visions of playing baseball.