Butler native preps news for rest of the world

By Bob Robinson

Star Staff

   Jim Luther, son of Trilla and the late Ray Luther of Elizabethton, has come a long way in journalism since serving as co-editor of The Flasher, student newspaper at Elizabethton High School (EHS), his senior year in 1956.
   Today, the Butler native is the supervising editor of The Associated Press (AP), Washington, D.C. Bureau. Luther has been with AP almost 37 years. He began his journalism career 44 years ago at The Elizabethton Star.
   Luther is the last person to read AP stories before they are sent to daily newspapers and 7,000 broadcast stations in the U.S., and beyond. AP's Washington Bureau has a staff of 15, 100 editors and reporters, and photographers.
   "It is the largest AP bureau in the world, as far as news goes. War coverage centers on Washington because daily news briefings are held at The White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
   "We learn more about the war from Washington sources than from Afghanistan, simply because of the way the news is generated," Luther said.
   Has the increased level of security in Washington since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack limited news reporter access to political leaders?
   "The increase in building security has been gradual but it has been tightened since Sept. 11. I remember when people could walk off the street and visit a senator's office or the U. S. Capitol at will without going through metal detectors. Security has always been tight at the White House since the Kennedy assassination.
   "The Bush administration keeps tight control over the flow of information on the war in Afghanistan for obvious reasons. The president, rightly so, does not wish to place in jeopardy U.S. war plans or the lives of American service personnel.
   "There have been complaints from some news organizations that President Bush is holding information too close to the vest. It seems to be working, okay, however."
   Luther has been in Washington since 1970 when he transferred from AP's Nashville Bureau to AP's Capitol Hill Bureau located in the Press Gallery on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol. He was assigned to cover Congress and the Courts.
   Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee was Senate Majority Leader at the time.
   "Most of the time I wrote about tax legislation. Congress loves to cut taxes. It is a more difficult job to raise taxes.
   "Sometimes marathon sessions are held by those who write tax legislation. It is not uncommon for Congress to be in session 24-36 hours, non-stop. Members are locked up in a room together.
   "The most challenging part for journalists is trying to make sense out of all of it...to listen, to interpret and to separate what is important from all the political sloganeering you hear.
   "There are no set hours for Congress. Sessions may go until 3 or 4 a.m. You have to be there to listen. You are at the mercy of Congress," Luther said.
   From 1965 to 1970, Luther was AP's political writer in Tennessee. He also provided news coverage of the Tennessee General Assembly.
   From 1959 until joining AP in 1965, Luther was the political writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.
   "It was my first time to cover the Legislature. It was nice to have someone like the late State Sen. Herman Robinson of Elizabethton, with whom I also worked at the Press-Chronicle, to turn to for advice."
   Luther graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in 1961.
   Prior to joining the Press-Chronicle, Luther was a sports writer at The Elizabethton Star in 1957.
   "My brother, Bill, had been hired for the job. But he was called into military service and shipped to Lebanon. Frank Robinson (publisher) called me and asked me if I wanted the job."
   After military service, Bill went to work at the Bristol Herald Courier, Johnson City Press-Chronicle and Knoxville News-Sentinel, the latter as assistant sports editor. Bill covered NASCAR, high school basketball and football and the state tournament before retiring from the News-Sentinel a couple years ago.
   What journalism experiences over the years helped prepare you for your current job?
   "I have covered a lot of courts. It is the most enjoyable as anything. I covered the Smithdeal-Faircloth Trial. Reporting on the Courts, Congress and the Legislature, seeing laws made, helped prepare me."
   How has covering political candidates and elections changed?
   "Everything today is 24-hour news station. There is such a demand for news. There are a lot of things we see, read and hear, that were not mentioned in the past. There is a constant demand for more news to fill time and space."
   What advice would you give young people who desire to be a journalist?
   "The first thing they should do is get a good liberal arts education. When I went to ETSU, there was no full-time journalism major. They should have a strong background in political science, history and economics. These are the subjects that control news today. The more you get the better.
   "More importantly, aspiring young journalists should be curious. Ask questions and don't give up until you get an answer."
   What else would you like to accomplish before you retire?
   "I'm hoping to retire within the next year, 2002, and move to Wilmington, N.C., where my wife and I have bought a house. It is 15 minutes from the beach. My wife has a daughter there.
   "I'm going to kick back with no specific plans in mind. I'm the only reporter alive that has never desired to write a book. There are so many good ones out there, it would be difficult to compete with them.
   "I plan to get in some fishing and sailing and hope to take up golf."
   Will he miss Washington?
   "I won't miss the harsh winters in Washington. You have never seen a traffic jam until you have seen one inch of snow fall in Washington."
   Luther was in Elizabethton for the holidays, visiting his mother, brothers Bill of Knoxville and Vaughn of Elizabethton, and sisters Carolyn of Nashville, Betty of Hampton, Nancy of Johnson City and Mary of Boone, N.C.
   He and his wife, Norma, live in Springfield, Va. He and his former wife, Martha Mayo of Elizabethton, have two children, Jamie, a surveyor in Springfield, and Jennifer, an attorney in Lawrence, Kan.; and two grandsons, Nathaniel and Malachi Ashley.
   Whatever happened to the other co-editor of The EHS Flasher in 1956?
   Betty Sue Cooper of Elizabethton is now with the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.