News-editorial Alumnus

Denniston's fascination with the law takes him on a 52-year adventure

By Lindsay Grieser
Alumni News staff

Lyle Denniston’s career, according to a colleague, “sounds like Astronomy 101.”

The luminary reference stems from Denniston’s stellar 52-year career covering the Supreme Court for the Washington Star, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe.

Denniston, 70, a 1955 University of Nebraska journalism graduate, has reported Supreme Court decisions and explained complex legal issues to readers, radio listeners and students since 1949. He received an award from the Journalism Alumni Association during J Days ceremonies on April 6.

Although now only a part-time reporter for The Globe, Denniston’s curiosity and energy are in no danger of diminishing. He uses his spare time to finish a textbook on constitutional history and teaches at Penn State University’s Washington program each fall. He also is a monthly guest on a public affairs radio program and is enrolled in the master of liberal arts program at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington campus.

“I’m an adventure junkie,” he said, adding that he dislikes being “idle.”

Denniston was never idle during his 19 years at The Baltimore Sun, according to Robert Timberg, The Sun’s deputy Washington bureau chief.

“Lyle is the best, most careful and hardest-working reporter I have ever met,” Timberg said. “Lyle was always extremely industrious and invariably on top of things. We leaned on him for his ability to explain to us what was going on (legally).”

During his last few years at The Sun, Denniston reported the most memorable court decisions of his career. He covered the infamous legal cases of the 2000 presidential election between President Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as the scandal surrounding former President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“Those are clearly the best stories I have ever covered,” Denniston said. “They had the most fascinating legal and constitutional issues.”

Timberg said Denniston wrote “one, two and on occasion three stories a day” for the entire 36-day period of court deliberations on the 2000 election. “Lyle has been in journalism for 50 years. He capped that half century with the performance of a lifetime with last year’s presidential election.

“Several of us worked very hard during that period, but no one worked as hard as Lyle,” Timberg said. On Thanksgiving Day, which occurred during the 36 days, Timberg said Denniston was told to take the day off but sneaked into the office anyway.

“We made it sound like an order, to the extent you can order Lyle to do anything,” Timberg said. “But the next morning, we woke up and Lyle had two stories in the paper.” Denniston informed Baltimore readers of the legal issues at every level, from the Florida Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court, Timberg added.

Denniston also covered every legal issue of Clinton’s impeachment. At The Sun, he wrote a question-and-answer piece almost every day, explaining the legal concerns the case raised. Fred Monyac, news editor at The Sun’s Washington bureau, said because of Denniston’s awareness of impeachment laws, “He knew what the courts were able to do. He was always extremely eager and willing to work long hours and weekends. Because he’s so tireless, people appreciate him around the office.”

In addition to his capacity for hard work, a key to Denniston’s success has been his vast knowledge of the law. Being able to explain the legal side in his stories gave him an advantage over other reporters, Denniston said. He continues to go to school as a student as well as a teacher to keep expanding that knowledge.

“It’s easy to be journalist if you are first a serious student of what you are covering,” Denniston said. “It’s hard to be a journalist if you only have a superficial understanding of what you are writing about.”

As Denniston continues to shed light on Supreme Court cases for Boston Globe readers, he has also spent the past 10 months writing a textbook on constitutional history. The book corresponds to the undergraduate course he has taught at Penn State since 1997.

“The best part of teaching is the students,” Denniston said. “They’re so bright and energetic.”

Fellow Penn State professor Robert Richards, who started Denniston’s “Astronomy 101” nickname, said his colleague is an extraordinary professor. “His students think he’s topnotch. He’s earned the title of dean of the Supreme Court correspondents.”

Denniston also is a popular professor, partly because he takes his students sailing each year. “They learn to work the boat,” said Richards, associate dean of the College of Communications and director of the Penn State Washington program. “It is a great bonding experience and one of the great memories for students.”

Denniston has been an instructor for more than 20 years, teaching at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and American University. He taught courses on journalism, creative writing and Supreme Court cases. Denniston did plan to teach a course on First Amendment rights in cyberspace, but he had a heart attack in December 1996 and had to cancel the class.

His understanding of the law also has led him down other avenues. Radio listeners can tune in to hear Denniston summarize current legal developments on “Justice Talking Live,” a public affairs program broadcast weekly from the Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia. Denniston, the Supreme Court correspondent, phones in about once a month.

A native of Nebraska City, Denniston wrote a gossip column called “Denny’s Dirt” for the high school newspaper and also was yearbook editor. After graduating in 1948, he said, he had no plans to become a journalist or go to college. But after he had written for the Nebraska City News-Press for three years, a friend told him he would never make it as a journalist without a college degree, so he enrolled at NU in 1951.

During college, he had a part-time job at the Lincoln Journal, working 35 hours per week. Denniston graduated cum laude and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. After receiving the Joseph Seacrest Scholarship for graduate studies, he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1952 to attend Georgetown University, where he earned his master’s degree in political science and American history in 1957.

Shortly thereafter, Denniston got a job copy editing at the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, but he left in 1960 to write legal newsletters for Prentice Hall Inc., a publishing company. By this time, Denniston said, “I had developed a strong fascination with the law.”

His first beat covering the Supreme Court came at The Star. As The Star faced financial difficulties, Denniston in 1980 began writing his first book, “The Reporter and the Law: Techniques of Covering the Courts,” as a way to make extra money. The text still is widely used in academic journalism and remains “the only book I know that covers legal reporters,” Denniston said.

When The Star closed in 1981, Denniston began writing for The Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau. He stayed at The Sun until the paper offered buyouts to its employees this year. Denniston said he thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to work for a different paper, so he accepted a part-time job at The Globe in February.

“He was extremely valuable for a lot of reasons,” The Sun’s Monyac said. “His years of experience covering the Supreme Court provided him with a vast institutional memory. I’ve never known Lyle to make even one factual error. And for all his years covering the court, he never seemed to lose energy and eagerness as a reporter. His eyes would literally brighten over the news value or personal interest of a story.”