Most journalists never think they will break a story that will completely rearrange a public’s perception of one of its most loved figures, but Tres Savage did just that.
On March 26, Savage broke the news that one of former University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s male aides, Jess Eddy, accused him of sexual battery. The Oklahoman reported in February that OU hired the Jones Day law firm to look into allegations of sexual misconduct against Boren by former male assistants, but Savage’s story was the first time someone officially came forward about the allegations. Along with allegations against Boren, Eddy and another OU graduate, Levi Hilliard, accused former OU Vice President of University Development Tripp Hall of sexual battery.
Savage, 34, grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and started working part time at The Norman Transcript right out of high school. He got a journalism degree at OU and worked for the student publication — The OU Daily. Savage covered two sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature for eCapitol.net and then worked in health care for six years.
Now, he is the editor-in-chief of NonDoc, an independent publication based in Oklahoma City. Savage has been the editor-in-chief of NonDoc since it launched in September 2015.
Savage said while he started at The OU Daily with professional experience, he “really learned a lot” during his time working there. When he was the editor-in-chief at The OU Daily, he had the idea to tape condoms to the front of the newspapers that went out for national condom week.
“It accompanied a series of feature stories about, you know, sex on campus or STDs or student opinions about sex,” Savage said.
In terms of changes in his writing style and ability — from taping condoms to newspapers to breaking a shocking story — Savage said he isn’t sure that much has changed.
“I don’t know that that’s like a linear line between there and now,” Savage said. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten to be a better writer. I mean, I guess I have over time.”
By working at The OU Daily, Savage came to know Boren and said he was “grandfatherly” and “personable.” Savage told of how former President George H.W. Bush came to campus, and initially, Boren was not going to allow any public interactions or interviews. But when Savage met with Boren about letting him speak to the former president, Boren changed his mind.
“I was one of a handful of people, you know, who got to meet and interview the former president at the time,” Savage said. “So, you know, he made you feel like you matter.”
Savage said people, himself included, knew for years that Boren was gay, even though he denied this when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1978 by swearing on the Bible publicly.
He said he always knew there eventually would be a story about Boren’s sexuality, but he never thought it would turn into anything like this.
However, he said he had heard rumors during his time at OU and afterward about Boren’s alleged sexual misconduct, but he was unsure they were true until Eddy told him his story.
In the story, Savage describes how Eddy battled addiction following his alleged encounters with Boren and Hall and the mental anguish he went through from the events. When Savage worked in health care, he got certified as a mental health first aid instructor, which he said is essentially “CPR for mental health issues,” and teaches people how to deal with individuals in a mental health crisis.
Something he was taught was the best way to prevent suicide, which is to ask the question: Are you having thoughts of suicide?
When Eddy came into his office to be interviewed a week before the story broke, Savage could tell Eddy was anxious. Knowing Eddy’s situation, Savage asked him the question at the end of the interview to make sure he was OK.
“I suppose most journalists wouldn’t do that or think to do that,” Savage said. “But, you know, I think the gist is just to treat somebody like they’re human.”
That night, Savage said he took his notebook to a bar, something he often does, and came up with the idea to start the story with the “liquor store.”
“So I have written here in my notebook, ‘On a November afternoon in 2010, OU President David Boren’s red Jaguar pulled up to the Spirit Shop in Norman. Boren handed his 2X-year-old teaching assistant Jess Eddy a $100 bill. Insert quotation Eddy recalled Boren telling him,’” Savage read.
He said he then put in subheads, picked out the best quotes and wrote around them.
Savage said writing the story wasn’t the challenge — the waiting was. He finished writing the story the day it was published and then anxiously waited until it was scheduled to go live at 6 p.m.
“So there were about three and a half hours where I just sat here in my living room, white-knuckled against my chair, just like reading the thing over and over again,” Savage said. “I called a buddy of mine at like 5:30 and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be too dramatic, but I really could use you to pick up a bottle of whiskey and come over here.’”
Despite his nerves, Savage said the blowback from the story was minimal, but his section about Boren’s sexuality received some criticism.
“I’ve heard from a couple of people who didn’t like how I phrased (that section),” Savage said. “There were some posts in the OU LGBT alumni Facebook page that were saying, ‘Why are we not calling this out? This is not acceptable. We need to be making a statement.’”
Savage said including the part about Boren’s sexuality was not to highlight he is gay — it was imperative to the story because it showed Boren “would stand there and lie.”
Savage said he doesn’t think he would’ve been able to grasp a story of this magnitude 10 years ago.
“But at the same time, I got to be honest with you — I don’t know that you’re ever ready to write a story like this,” Savage said. “I mean, I wasn’t super thrilled.”
Savage said his advice to journalism students, especially when working on a breaking story, is not to focus on being the first to get a story out in order to gain recognition because it’s “self-serving and irrelevant.”
“The importance is not promoting one’s self or one’s work, or this is my accomplishment or whatever,” Savage said. “It’s, you know, this is a story worth — that needs to be out there because it affects people, and it’s not a competition.”
And Savage’s one journalism rule he hardly ever breaks?
“If the source cusses you quote it,” Savage said. “Because it means that they really care.”