By the late 1970s, I was brought back into the newsroom to do general assignment reporting, a kind of sideways move. I could handle breaking stuff, and innocent features (like my seven-day case of hiccups) but the editors might have figured I offered too much trouble on the beats — police, higher education and investigations.
Once again on the day shift, I made it to journalism’s summa cum laude, or maybe just the magna version.
On September 25, 1978, a fully-loaded PSA liner crashed into a private Cessna in its approach path to Lindbergh Field, leaving 144 dead, most of them the airliner’s passengers. The first call sent all of us to the east windows of the Copley Building, where we could see the white smoke towering over North Park.
I forced myself to ask to go to the scene but the city editor told me to stay and take the reports from the staff sent to the scene, the two of them so horrified I recommended they do what I’d done at less bloody scenes: locate the fireman in a yellow hazard suit or a plainclothes suit and walk toward either or both, looking neither left nor right. They’d have the answers.
That day almost everybody assigned the story worked so quickly the San Diego Evening Tribune was able to get out the first complete print story on the disaster some four hours after it first happened. Many months later, Joe Hughes and I were assigned to cover the National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the disaster’s causes.
The Trib credited 12 reporters, including me, and became San Diego’s first San Diego news crew awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I had a grand resumé entry.
The Banal, and the Odd
I never went to journalism school, and never took a course in it; instead, I thought journalism could be a start toward becoming a writer.
Thanks to the Trib, it became easier to see the shortcomings of people in power. Until I was hired at the Trib I’d thought them smarter than I would ever be.
There was Ron Reagan, in his role as Governor of California. I saw his act up close at a Board of Regents meeting where he was expected to place tuition on the table for the board to wrestle with. Up till then, in-state student fees had been very modest.
His bodyguards preceded him into the meeting room, two by two, until the six of them took up positions at the corners and edges of the walls, which was a stupid waste of money. Were the Regents a threat to him?
After all, they included the president of Standard Oil and other magnates, among them Dorothy Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Catherine Hearst, wife of Randolph, who owned the San Francisco Examiner.
Reagan bee-lined to the two women, hugging Chandler first, then Hearst (no doubt aware that the Times had the larger circulation). The two grown women could not suppress their delight. They actually wriggled their appreciation. Celebrity is a drug that works on most people.
Nothing happened in the morning session. To satisfy the reporters, a press conference with Reagan was called so reporters could have something to report for the record. It might have lasted 15 minutes.
I had to file something for the final edition of the day and so I went to a nearly empty press room to write it.
Tom Brokaw, had gotten there first and was doing stand-ups before a KNBC camera. I could hear him repeating lines, re-doing them, getting them right, but that didn’t interfere with my work until I realized Brokaw wasn’t composing his story; he was repeating the questions aimed at Reagan by other reporters asked minutes earlier.
I supposed then, and believe today, that KNBC later spliced Brokaw’s face and voice with Reagan’s so it would appear the young anchor had gained an exclusive interview with the Golden Governor. Brokaw just might have been ahead of his time.
That same year, David Saxon, a physicist, was appointed President of UC. His Wikipedia bio says he “joined UCLA in 1947 but was fired in 1950 with thirty other faculty members” who had refused on principle to sign a loyalty oath to UC. He went to MIT to teach, then returned to UC as its boss.
When I met him in his office he seemed to want to avoid unleashing any new hassles over his politics. To me, his biggest revelation was his answer to my question of what he’d recently read that impressed him. I always figured that a question bounced off a wall can produce surprising stuff.
Apologetically, he said he hadn’t read any books recently at all, and explained that he limited his time trying to keep up with major papers in physics.
Reagan’s little boy act, and a major university president who had no time to explore ideas?
Is banality a part of everyone’s business?
Yes. Yes it is
Donald Trump has proved it.
His only value might be unintended; he’s publicly unoriginal, pretentious, disgusted easily by women and those less white than himself. He says dumb shit and once misspelled his wife’s name in a tweet. Most of you who’ve read this far probably already can recite boasts he’s made about how he could get away with shooting people, and his taunting imitation of a semi-paralyzed reporter.
That he’s come this far serves to remind us how slender are many of our leaders’ grips on reality and that maybe, just maybe, we should reward leaders who possess common sense.
I quit the Trib the day after an obviously unbalanced black man in a suit stood casually backed up against the bricks of a sleazy Gaslamp hotel downtown. The video at the time showed him raising and lowering the gun while surrounded by perhaps six or seven cops pointing their weapons at him.
He was lowering the gun when one of the cops opened fire, initiating a fusillade from the others. It was on tape, aired repeatedly that night on local television. The mayor at the time, Maureen O’Connor, said she was disturbed by what she saw and said she’d be ordering an investigation into the incident.
I reported that and other quotes from people at the scene critical of what they’d witnessed. In the morning, when I came in, I asked to see the final version produced by the copy desk and a young assistant city editor said he didn’t have one. I found it in a waste can near him.
It didn’t contain the mayor’s quote. Police explanations were inserted. So I quit.
Not long before I left I was talking to a U-T photographer named Thane Mackintosh who told me that he was sent out years before to take a photo picture of a girl scout troupe. When it was published the single black girl scout had been cut out of the picture in the darkroom. I laughed at the stupidity of it.
“You may find it laughable,” the photographer said, “but think about what that girl must have felt.” A matter of my continuing education.
Another revelation was supplied by Ed Lawson (who later became a podcaster) when he pushed at me his story about 23 misdemeanors he’d received for walking while being black. Back then you might be considered to be disturbing the peace or some other get-off-my-lawn kind of citation for being in the wrong place.
Lawson, rich with dreadlocks and the color of midnight, freely said he’d made it his work for the few months to walk everywhere, particularly at night, to see just how many citations he could attract.
“The thing that really got to me,” he told me, “was one of the cops said he’d stopped me because police were looking for a one-legged black man.”
Once I’d quit I rented a downtown room I could use as an office and began freelancing for, among other national and local papers, The New York Times. It was an arrangement known as stringing, which roughly amounts to Ubering and Lyfting. Stringers used to be paid by editors who used strings to measure the length of stringers to determine how much they should be paid.
A story would have to be pretty extraordinary and well-sourced if it were to reach 10 inches when printed. Not everything they said they’d accept would get printed.
The Times had just used an average little San Diego exposé I’d written for them when another popped up from a caller who told me she’d seen a horse-mounted cop serve a warrant on an African American man. Arresting him, the cop looped a rope around the black man’s neck, tied it to the saddle horn of the horse and then marched him through, I think, Shelltown, thus shaming him, Klan-style, in his own neighborhood. I got hold of the police reports.
I didn’t get to recite the whole story before the Times‘ city editor interrupted me, saying, “Hold it, hold it … I can only use one San Diego atrocity a week.”
The string never came out to measure the value of that story. Another piece of my education.
Newspapers Are Better Now …
… even if they aren’t making the money they used to.
The new, significant event in this town was the purchase from a series of lesser and more corrupt owners of the San Diego Union-Tribune — and the Los Angeles Times — by Patrick Soon-Shiong, born in South Africa to Chinese parents.
A surgeon and entrepreneur who’d previously brought new hospitals to the Los Angeles area and spent, reportedly, $100 million on staffing, has apparently quickly produced a vast improvement in both papers, but especially San Diego’s.
The new U-T has busted the traditional hesitance of the old U-T to print stories critical of advertisers and local politicians who once were considered off-limits. One day this month, the paper carried an exposé of retirement homes that charge as much as $1 million entry fees for apartments with on-site care costing as much as $7,000 per month.
The same day, the paper published a disturbing story that County Supervisors spent $3 million to settle out-of-court civil suits alleging Public Health used the private health files of people without their approval.
If I weren’t so damned old I’d beg for a job at the new San Diego Union-Tribune.
Part One: Pain and Suffering at the SDPD
Part Two: Some Big Developments
John Gallup says
Really enjoying these articles! I’m particularly interested in the way editors suppressed information unfavorable to the powerful, e.g., county supervisors constantly destroying the county’s land use planning.
bob dorn says
I think county government here is increasingly being looked upon as one of the more corrupt forms of our institutions. The county has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank as reserves, so who’s going to notice the disappearance of a few million? There’s no time nor enough staffing at the newspapers for real investigations at local levels. Maybe we need to expect more from our District Attorney and our courts?
Nathaniel Krieger says
This series is a powerful reminder that memories are what make the past alive and not even past: the names of the actors change but the underlying power dynamics driving the stories remain largely the same. With the closing of hundreds of newspapers nationwide and a president who launches daily diatribes against a free and independent fourth estate we need the kind of tough, probing journalism practiced by reporters like Bob Dorn more than ever.
Desde la Logan says
I enjoyed reading this series, Bob. I hope you continue to pull nuggets from your journalistic past and share them with us.