HUNTSVILLE, WALKER COUNTY Location: 12th street, Walls Unit, Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
Scene: 5-year-old girl and her father strolling down the street, en route to local ice cream shop. Daughter stops and waves at inmates peering through jail windows.
(Father) "Honey, don't wave to those men. They're dangerous."
(Father) "Because they're in prison."
(Daughter) "I still want to know who they are. I love good stories."
That's a wrap. And it's a true story.
Jenna Jackson was just a little girl when curiosity led her to wonder about the people serving time in Texas' most notorious prison. She couldn't have known this would lead to a notable career in telling their stories on prime time television, but that's exactly what happened.
"It's less about crime and more about human nature, and where that thin line exists for everyone," Jackson said.
Now 38 years old and a mother of two, Jackson is an award-winning producer who launched her career covering crime. She has a new award coming her way, that of "Outstanding Young Alumna," the first female selected for the award since its inception in 2006.
"She's made a name for herself in the television industry," said Susan Lenamon, president of the 2013 SHSU Alumni Association board of directors. "Her resume is like somebody who's been in the field for 25 years. That makes her outstanding to me."
And then there's the fact that Jackson was nominated by Dan Rather.
Jackson, who graduated from SHSU in 1997 with a degree in journalism, met Rather during her sophomore year. As president of the Student Society of Professional Journalists, Jackson had been in contact with Rather before his appearance on campus for the dedication of the Communications Building. They discovered a common bond—Jackson's grandfather played high school football with Rather, who grew up in the Heights in Houston—and a friendship was born.
"She is a kind of one-woman promotional cheerleader for our beloved Sam Houston State," Rather wrote in Jackson's Outstanding Young Alumna nomination. "She talks up the school wherever she goes; always has, even while she was at the school."
Rather mentored Jackson throughout the remainder of her college career, her gig as a criminal justice reporter for the Huntsville Item, and a nine-month stint at the Beaumont Enterprise.
But Jackson had her sights set on CBS News in New York.
"Dan (Rather) said 'I can get you in the door, but you'll have to do the rest,'" Jackson said. "I had to prove myself, that I wasn't Dan's little pet."
And that's exactly what she did.
Jackson took a written test at CBS, required for all journalism applicants, and scored higher than anyone since journalist Charles Kuralt in 1950.
With that, Jackson, who grew up in the small Texas town of Jacksonville, scored an entry-level job in Manhattan.
"I didn't know how to dress, how to act…," Jackson said. "I remember Dan giving me some advice: he said you can't come off as weak here, they will eat you alive; don't make eye contact with anyone, don't be too nice, and don't say 'y'all.'"
With the occasional "y'all" thrown in to convey Southern manners and charm, Jackson "toughened up" and quickly worked her way up the ladder, resulting in a 15-year career that culminated as producer and booker for 48 Hours.
Jackson lived in New York for a few years, but moved back to Houston in 2002.
"48 Hours is basically all murder stories, so I was already in Texas a lot," Jackson said.
Jackson landed several exclusive stories, including Charlene Hill, a Fort Bend County woman who was charged with shooting her husband; Susan Wright, a Houston woman charged with stabbing her husband 193 times and burying him in the backyard; Laura Hall, a University of Texas student accused of helping her boyfriend kill a fellow student and chopping the body into pieces; and Robert Springsteen, who walked off Death Row after being imprisoned for the rape and murder of four young girls in Austin.
"You actually see amazing courage from the victims andtheir families, which inspired me," Jackson said. "Most of the criminals made horrible mistakes, but they were still human. I've only met one guy whom I believe was 100 percent evil and born that way."
That would be Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who'd been randomly killing across the country for more than 20 years.
While Jackson has a passion for criminal justice, she also has a passion for criminal injustice. Her coverage of Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit—the murder of six people, including four children—earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Coverage of a News Story. It also earned a Peabody Award in recognition of distinguished achievement in electronic media.
Jackson received the awards in October 2012, several months after she left CBS News and 48 Hours.
"We did the Anthony Graves story, and it won an Emmy, which is really exciting—but that was a story I had to really fight to do because it wasn't the show's usual formula of murder stories," Jackson said. "It was frustrating to have to fight for stories I felt were really important. It kind of wore me out. I love crime stories, but I wanted a little more variety, and I wanted to be in charge. If I picked the wrong story, and it doesn't do well, that's fine, it's on me."
That's why Jackson launched her company P&R Productions, the Houston-based business named after her twin sons, Parker and Rees, now 6-years old.
After a slight delay due to a nine-month stint helping Katie Couric launch her talk show, "an opportunity I couldn't turn down because it sounded fun and exciting," Jackson threw herself into P&R Productions.
"We are developing unique and cinematic television shows, documentaries and films based on genuine characters with real stories," Jackson said. "I feel like we're doing important work."
Jackson is currently in negotiations to produce a true crime series for CNN, and is exploring the world of film.
"It's so different than the TV world," said Jackson, adding that they are working with a new director out of Austin to produce a movie about a tsunami, children, schools and a village brought back to life after complete and utter devastation.
"I'm probably working harder than I ever have in my life," Jackson said. "Whenever I talk to high school classes, I always say, you don't have to be the smartest or even the most talented – just get out there and work really, really hard."
Rather couldn't agree more.
"Journalism is a very difficult business to get into, but Jenna was very talented and determined to pursue her dream," he wrote in his nomination of Jackson for Outstanding Young Alumna. "She's an exceptional investigative reporter, overall superb television news producer, plus one of the best writers of her generation of American journalist."
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