New Hampshire has lost one of its best journalists, John DiStaso

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POLITICAL ANALYSIS



“New Hampshire is a small state” is a phrase heard frequently, but with layers of meaning.

The phrase came to mind this week with the death of longtime political reporter John DiStaso, who was at one time a competitor and then a colleague for 14 years at the Union Leader.

Although we both had been around New Hampshire journalism for a while, I did not meet John until a “press conference” with the executive officers of Northeast Utilities who were offering a settlement agreement to end Public Service of New Hampshire’s bankruptcy in 1989.

The meeting was in a sparsely furnished, second-floor office beside Veterans Park in Manchester and they came with boxes of documents outlining their proposal.

John didn’t look like he came from the Union Leader, long hair, beard, but he quietly drilled the executives about their offer. He had to have had an early copy of the documents to be asking the probing questions he did.

We talked a little as we left the conference, and we ran into each other frequently while I worked for Fosters’ Daily Democrat covering the State House and politics.

John was kind, and loved to talk about the things we witnessed that made any reporter shake their head and wonder what this or that politician was thinking or not thinking.

As with many news people in New Hampshire, if you want to stay here and make a reasonable living, there were two places you could work, The Associated Press or the Union Leader.

John DiStaso. Image/WMUR

I began working for the Union Leader in March 2000 which was also the start of one of the biggest stories in New Hampshire in the last 100 years, the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice David Brock.

The court’s clerk had reported an interaction between Brock and then-Justice Stephen Thayer, who had objected strenuously to one of the appointments Brock made to replace one of the judges who recused themselves from his divorce case.

Yes, New Hampshire is a small state.

John was covering the story and spent many days sitting outside the closed House Judiciary Committee hearing room as the members heard testimony behind closed doors.

Most reporters did not bother or were told not to bother trying to cover the closed proceedings, but John persisted and produced stories by talking to members as they left and he knew who they were interviewing.

After his many years at the Union Leader, John had the trust of the hierarchy as he always refused to disclose his sources for stories no matter who asked.

One day the impeachment’s information dam was about to break as both John and the Associated Press reporter had the basics of what the committee was investigating and where it was headed.

There was a new managing editor at the Union Leader who was uncomfortable running John’s story without knowing the information’s source.

Since I had just come from covering the State House, she asked me to confirm it, which I did and also was able to add some additional information no one else had, that later became one of the keys to his impeachment.

When I talked to John telling him the story was going to run because I had confirmed it with a committee member, he said we should have a double byline on the story.

I said I would be happy with a notice at the end saying I contributed to the story, but he insisted finally saying if you hadn’t been able to confirm it, it would not have run at all.

Over the next six months we spent countless hours at the committee hearings that summer in public as they developed three articles of impeachment against Brock after deciding not to impeach two other justices.

The impeachment was a classic case of separation of powers and who controlled the system, procedure and rules of the court system, the legislature or the court.

What had been a somewhat happy marriage for decades was turning into a contested divorce.

The days were long in rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building often going into the evening.

One of us would do an early story for the statewide edition of the paper and then John would do the main story and I would do a sidebar on one or two of the key issues.

We listened to hundreds of hours of testimony, hours of questions and House members’ comments leading up to a special session of the House late that summer that produced four articles of impeachment including one approved on the floor on recused judges being allowed to comment on the cases.

They all passed and the action moved to the Senate where the whole routine began again.

Throughout those six months John was focused, calm and determined that we would be one step ahead.

I had always respected John’s work and his ability to suss out information from different sources.

After we spent the summer and fall covering the impeachment, I had even more respect for him and his work.

He was the consummate professional and he had a low tolerance for someone who he knew was not telling the truth.

We were in nearby pods at the Union Leader and occasionally John’s voice would grow louder and he would let the person on the other end of the phone line know he knew they weren’t telling him the truth. It was usually a candidate’s press lackey who was on the receiving end.

John was old school having come up through the ranks to arrive at the top of the ladder as a political reporter.

Politics in all its maturations was his forte.

John left the Union Leader when salaries were cut as the internet took over the media world saying he had two kids to put through college and he could no longer afford to work there.

He went to the NH Journal in its early days telling me at one point he was still able to report on what he wanted without interference from the people who owned it.

But John had to feel more content at WMUR the last seven years, where he could still do his work behind the scenes to dig out the information before anyone else and not have to be in front of the cameras all the time.

The last time I saw John was before the pandemic at the New Hampshire Press Association awards dinner at the Institute of Politics and we talked about his work on television and how different it was, and his kids making their way through college.

I received a nice note from John when I received the association’s lifetime achievement award the next year when the ceremony was online.

John had received the award the year earlier, and they had misspelled his name on it, as they had mine on my award for best columnist. After all the years spent in New Hampshire journalism, they can’t spell your name.

John was a fixture in the state’s political and journalistic arena for decades and no one will replace him or the quality work he did.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Editor’s note: Public visiting hours for John will be at the Lambert Funeral Home on Elm Street in Manchester from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 30.


 

About this Author

garry-rayno

Garry Rayno

Political ReporterInDepthNH.org

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. 

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