John Shurr, a champion of the public’s right to know and a former longtime South Carolina Associated Press bureau chief, died Sunday. He was 67.
He died at his home in the Columbia area, and his death was released by his family through the S.C. Press Association.
“South Carolina’s public may not have known the name of John Shurr, but every day our people get information about officials and records they wouldn’t have otherwise had if it hadn’t been for the right-to-know fights he led,” said Jay Bender, press association lawyer and University of South Carolina media law professor.
Over the more than 20 years Shurr led South Carolina’s AP bureau, he spoke out for openness in courts, public agencies and in public records.
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“If it weren’t for John Shurr, we might not have cameras in courtrooms today,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, who praised Shurr’s years-long crusade to bring more transparency to criminal and civil legal proceedings.
As longtime chairman of the S.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee, Shurr was often quoted in stories about the public’s and press’s struggles for more transparency in government, explaining in simple terms why it is important for citizens to know what is going on and for official processes to be open – especially in the courts. He would be pragmatic, arguing to judges and justices that it would help reporters be more accurate if they were allowed to have tape recorders and cameras in the courts.
Shurr was a quiet crusader who, when he could, used persuasion rather than confrontation to change minds. In the years he worked to open the courts to electronic coverage, he regularly convened meetings with journalists and judges so each could learn the others’ concerns. He was also someone who – as a last resort – would support the AP’s and others’ Freedom of Information lawsuits.
“He came from an earlier era, when his Associated Press bureau was larger than it is today, and its culture was to more consistently to go after hard-to-get but important news,” said Bender.
Bender said Shurr’s aggressive pursuit of news and openness in government in South Carolina came from stints earlier in his career in Rhode Island and Chicago, places where secrecy and corruption were normal.
“His coverage of secrecy and corruption in those places put him in a good place to recognize corruption in South Carolina because there was plenty of it here,” Bender said.
Shurr’s efforts to bring cameras and tape recorders into South Carolina’s courtrooms took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a time when older, more conservative judges feared more openness in public courtrooms would disrupt the courts and undermine justice.
In 1988, Shurr suffered a major defeat when the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously voted to refuse to allow cameras or tape recorders in courtrooms. But Shurr continued to set up meetings where judges, lawyers and journalists could carry on the discussion. At that time, South Carolina was one of about five states that didn’t allow journalists to have electronic equipment in courtrooms.
In 1992, largely due to Shurr’s efforts, S.C. courts began a six-month experiment allowing cameras in the courts. It was a success.
Today, having televisions and still cameras in state courtrooms, especially for significant proceedings, is commonplace. Journalists follow certain rules – no photographing of jurors, juveniles or rape victims, for example – and judges can modify press photography and videography according to circumstances. (Cameras and audio equipment are still banned in federal courts.)
During the late 1980s, Shurr played a major role in helping bring to light transgressions of former University of South Carolina president James B. Holderman that eventually forced him from office.
In the mid-1980s, when it became obvious that only a Freedom of Information lawsuit would convince USC-related foundations to release records showing Holderman’s spending, Shurr persuaded The Associated Press to commit money and resources to bring such a lawsuit. The Charlotte Observer and the Greenville News also filed Freedom of Information lawsuits against the university to learn about the spending.
And in the mid-1980s, when the first investigative reporting by The Charlotte Observer and The Greenville News about Holderman’s questionable spending began to be done, Shurr made certain The Associated Press picked up those stories and got them circulated around South Carolina.
The statewide distribution of Holderman stories was crucial to informing the public and the General Assembly about Holderman.
In that pre-Internet era, The AP was the gatekeeper on how much information was distributed to the scores of television, radio and newspaper outlets around the state. At least one Charlotte Observer reporter made a point of telephoning Shurr the night before a big Holderman story was about to break to let Shurr know the story would be there in the morning “if the AP wanted to pick it up.”
Shurr was also a proud Native American and was an adviser to the Cherokee Phoenix, a Cherokee nation newspaper.
“I’m an enrolled Oklahoma Cherokee and a student of native history. My mother, her parents and her brother were on the Dawes Commission rolls, a census of Cherokees taken before Oklahoma statehood,” Shurr wrote in a 1992 op-ed piece in The State newspaper.
Shurr had written the op-ed to take issue what he said were numerous factual errors in a State editorial praising Christopher Columbus as well as, Shurr believed, ignoring and misrepresenting Native American history. In his piece, Shurr pointed out that Native Americans were in America at least 12,000 years before Columbus and that European diseases and massacres had led to the deaths of millions of Native Americans.
Shurr retired from The AP in 2007 but continued to work on Freedom of Information issues with the Press Association.
Shurr, a 1973 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, was brought up in Muskogee, Okla. He was a fan of the 1930s newspaper columnist and comedian-actor Will Rogers, a Cherokee Indian famous for his skeptical but folksy attitude toward government and prominent people.
Shurr was a Vietnam veteran who spent time on river patrols in the Mekong Delta.
During that conflict, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the U.S. military to destroy vegetation where the Viet Cong were hiding but that also led to numerous debilitating health issues for Americans exposed to it. In his final years, Shurr was classified as disabled by the chemical.
The same aggressive spirit that Shurr displayed in going on river patrols in Vietnam carried into the rest of his life, friends said.
“He was very competitive, not just in the news, but in the two hobbies he loved – tennis and sailing,” Rogers said.
He was married to Debbie Ashe Shurr.
Funeral arrangements will be announced.