Chuck Colson dies and the free press is ailing…

April 22, 2012

Well first this week it was Dick Clark of American Bandstand fame, and now Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame is dead. Two totally different stories of course.

But just as Dick Clark was a seminal part of my growing up, so was Colson. Well not really Colson himself, but the Watergate scandal he was involved in. Actually I was grown up when it occurred. But I was just out of the Army and beginning my so-called career in journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story about Watergate that eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

That was back in the days when there was something called journalism, not just “media”, and when students still majored in “journalism“, not “communication”  or whatever name they have given it now (there used to be something called “publicity”, which reporters got into to make more money, kind of like prostitution).

Their efforts were made famous in the book and movie “All the President’s Men”. Of course reporters from the New York Times and other outfits did a lot (even more, perhaps) to tell the whole sordid story of Watergate too. It was about a presidency and re-election campaign gone way out of control, with Nixon using the power of his office and the government to stifle or intimidate political opponents or anyone who he or his staff thought might threaten his power.

I did not decide on journalism because of Woodward and Bernstein, though. Actually I thought it might be easier than work at the wood products mill and more suited to my talents or abilities. But that summer of the Watergate hearings, the summer before I entered into the actual workaday field of journalism, I was working in sugar beet and bean fields moving irrigation pipe — I had left the mill job. But every chance I got I listened with rapt attention the live broadcasts of the Watergate hearings. And I knew that something had gone terribly wrong with our democracy but the power of the press had been used in a good way and had set in motion the wheels of government oversight to set things right. And after I had become a newspaper reporter, I recall watching what I considered one of the most historic things I had ever seen — the President of the United States announcing his resignation of nationwide TV. I actually took a picture of the TV tube (I think at a 30th of a second shutter speed), just for my own remembrance (don’t know if I still have it).

Colson did prison time and then found God — that’s the nice thing about sinning, you can always later find God, or at least claim you did — I’m not sure how falsely claiming it will work at the pearly gates, though. Colson may have really been repentant or he may have just been sorry he got caught. I don’t know. Never paid much attention to him.

Nixon was able to regain some of his stature and reputation after time, not all of it. Ironically, I think he was an extremely able politician and leader, but he had a major character flaw (to say the least). And if he had just owned up to Watergate in the beginning I feel certain he would have gotten away with it, but covering up bad activity is sometimes as bad or worse than the actual bad activity and increases exposure to jail time — just ask Martha Stewart.

But anyway, when I watched the movie, “All the Presidents’ Men”, there they were, Woodward and Bernstein (well of course Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing them) hunting and pecking away at their manual typewriters. I never hunted and pecked. I at least used a my modified touch typing method, based on that taught in school, but I used manual typewriters for years. I thought it great that at the little paper where I worked at the time we were no further behind in that score than the Washington Post (my time frame is a little messed up in that the actual Watergate scandal pre-dated my entry into journalism a little bit, I think, but I saw the movie after going to work at a paper).

I often note (to anyone who might care) that newspaper newsrooms moved from manual typewriters to computers, while other offices had already been at least using electric typewriters for years or decades. Once when I was covering the local county board of supervisors meeting during a yearly budget session, the sheriff requested an electric typewriter for jail bookings. When asked by one of the supervisors why they could not just keep using the manual one since it would only be used by deputies not clerical personnel, the sheriff said he did not want to make his deputies labor at those manual typewriters — and you can just picture a deputy or jailer booking someone, hunting and pecking away, like on the old Barney Miller TV Show. I was nearly incredulous. I mean I knew I was headed back to my office to type out my story and many others on an old Royal manual typewriter. But hey, you know, they’re county workers, they get better pensions too.

And back to Chuck Colson and Watergate. Politics is dirty. Always has been. Always will be. And where there are elections (and even where there are not) there is politics — you just can’t take the politics out of politics. Colson and the others probably for the most part did little worse than had been done before and is still being done — except, I think in Watergate President Nixon and his henchmen did cross the line, using the power of government, such as through IRS harassment, and even the disruption of free elections, to thwart our democracy. They thought that because they felt they were supporting the right cause the ends justified the means. That thinking still often prevails today. Actually, it’s really scary. We even have people implying that we ought to do away (and I’m using a euphemism) with our current president (and you can’t get me to believe there isn’t some racism there). Colson is dead. Dirty politics will never die.

P.s.

Watergate made me feel good about the role of the free press in a free society. I was not too surprised to learn that in the small time newspaper owners were not so keen on investigative reporting, especially if it involved advertisers. But I have been saddened that with the advance of technology and competition in news reporting from the internet and the decline of newspaper advertising, the bean counters have taken over much of the larger segment of the free press. There is not as much money or enthusiasm to do real reporting — it’s more like who can be first with the tweet with the most banal comments. On the other hand, with the ability to instantly disseminate information worldwide and the pervasiveness of texting and You Tube and so on, it’s hard for anyone to get away with anything.


They were odd birds but they fit into a nest…

February 17, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Call it too much time on my hands (although with incurable cancer, how can one have too much time?) but from time to time I put some past work colleague into Google to see what might have happened to the person.

Did that a few hours ago and found out the guy died a month ago of acute pancreatitis. I’m, 59, he was 57. For some reason I had thought he was much younger. Still of course much too young to be leaving this world.

He was a newspaper reporter. I said he was a past work colleague. I did not say he was a friend. He was not an enemy either. We simply shared some space in time at the same publication. I had talked and joked with him on a few occasions and I think we might have compared notes on a story or two.

What I can say about him, though, and I hope it is not disrespectful of the dearly departed, he was an odd bird who had a droll mannerism and dry sense of humor.

At the time, we were two journalists seemingly stuck in the small time at a bedroom community newspaper always overshadowed by the larger metropolitan newspaper.

We both suffered the same fate: the chain that owned the newspaper, first gutted it, converting it into a three-day per week publication (nowadays it’s down to one day and is the most amateur of amateur with no serious news) and finally sold out to another chain, and in the process we both, along with many others, were unceremoniously dumped (I think we did get three month’s pay, don’t recall for sure).

And that was the end of my so-called journalism career. I had gone through a love/hate/indifferent relationship with newspapers for a couple of decades and abandoned the field forever (until I began this blog, a kind of offshoot from my journalism experience).

In my desperation to find out what an out-of-work small-time newspaper reporter does, more than anything else, I had contacted my former colleague a couple times. At one point he had a temporary gig correcting SAT tests or something like that. About the same time, I tried my hand at substitute teaching , an uncomfortable memory of which I have never been able to commit to writing but a few words).

I eventually shifted gears entirely, one might say; I became a truck driver.

At some point I saw that he had got on with the metropolitan newspaper’s suburban throw away. I tried to contact him, but got no response.

But as I read his obituary I found out that suburban throw away was merged into the regular paper and he became a regular reporter. He volunteered for the police beat and got rave reviews from readers and colleagues.

One of the rave reviewers was his assistant city editor, a woman who worked with us both as the managing editor of that other newspaper. And since I am not naming names and since I doubt she will ever read this (don’t know), I want to say that she had her quirks too. A kind of odd bird, herself. But I have no question that she was a good editor. I think she had a sense of news and a good command of the English language. We had computers at that newspaper, but that was the old type. No spell check or anything like that. I have to laugh when folks think that computer technology replaces the need for grammar and editing ability (just read my blogs). Not yet. And what an ugly dehumanized world that would be anyway.

I knew she had gone on to a stint at a local business weekly and even a competing metropolitan daily that eventually folded. But now I see she finally made it to the big time.

The sad news, besides the death of my former colleague, is that newspapers seem to be dying too, including that metropolitan daily (it’s not dead yet, though).

But not only that, the breed those two people were part of (she still is) is dying out too.

He was the seemingly introverted reporter, quietly peeking around all the corners and digging into public records looking for information (the kind that is supposedly open and certainly useful to all of us, but at the same time the kind we have no time nor inclination to research – and this was pre-internet days when I knew him. She was the English teacher who apparently felt more at home directing writers in the real world, rather than the necessary, but nonetheless artificial world of the classroom. She was a competent writer in her own right, as well.

I read in his obituary that he may have not been completely introverted. He engaged in amateur acting and stand-up comedy (well, I imagine introverts are sometimes good at both of those).

And pathetic blog writer I am, I’ll steal from the writer of his obituary who noted that my former colleague had said that he sometimes practiced his comedy monologues by delivering them to a cow. He figured if you could make a cow laugh, you could make anyone laugh.

Real newspaper people were or are often odd birds, usually not glamorous, and strange as it might seem, not easily able to fit into society.

You see, that newspaper breed differ from their broadcast showbiz counterparts where pizzaz, sex appeal, and all-around showmanship takes the lead, with objective and even interesting reporting taking second fiddle.

Was I part of that old newspaper breed? Yes, to a degree. But the difference between them and me is that they were odd birds who fit into the nest. I may have been the former, but probably not the latter.

I miss that breed, even so.

P.s. I have seen some sign, nonetheless, that maybe thanks to blogging, writing news, as opposed to performing it strictly for the camera, may be alive and well, not so much from the blogging itself, but the interest it promotes in the written word.

P.s. P.s. In interest of accuracy, when I worked with my colleague on a daily bedroom community newspaper I was serving double duty as a daily reporter and as an editor of affiliated weekly newspapers.


Local reporter fails to get Watergate fame…

December 19, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

The death of Deep Throat of Watergate fame brings me back to the time I was assigned to what you might call an investigative journalism piece. It did not bring me fame as it did Woodward and Bernstein, instead it piled on to the frustrations that would bedevil me throughout what I always refer to as my “so-called career in journalism”.

Before I reminisce more, I’ll update anyone who did not take note that it was reported today that Mark Felt who was the former FBI agent and the legendary Deep Throat of Watergate fame has died at the age of 95. Felt was the secret inside source that provided the Washington Post investigative duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with so much invaluable info for news stories broke by their newspaper the Washington Post which led to coverage by other news outlets that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.

During my years as a newspaper reporter I did little to no actual investigative reporting. There was little time and nearly no interest at the outfits where I worked. The closest I ever came was a story I tried to do on a controversy involving a drowned boy, an ambulance driver/deputy coroner/real estate agent (who advertised heavily with our newspaper and threatened to sue it and me if we mentioned his name, on what grounds, I don’t know), and the fact that the boy was not taken immediately to the hospital, and that then he was eventually revived, but died later.

It was quite a story, but we never published more than the minimal details of the immediate incident – no investigative piece.

I was assigned by my editor to look deeper into the matter and I did. Actually, beside the fact that the ambulance driver decided not to take the boy immediately to the hospital, pronouncing him dead at the scene, and then instead stopped and talked to witnesses in order to fill out his coroner’s report, I found nothing too startling, although I guess all that was startling enough.

My investigation was done, as I recall, basically on my own time, in addition to my normal news beat duties, although, since I had a fairly free hand on how I conducted my work, it would be hard to differentiate between normal job time and my own time. I don’t recall I was paid overtime, though.

Except for a weekend drive by, I don’t recall that I did much touring of the actual scene of the incident. But I did make a lot of phone calls and I did do an interview over at the Sheriff’s Department.

I do distinctly remember receiving the phone call from that ambulance driver, who was also the deputy coroner and a real estate salesman, who ran a long list of classified ads in our paper each day.

“If you use my name in your story I’ll sue you and the newspaper,” he gruffly warned me over the phone.

While I was assured by both the editor and the general manager of the newspaper that his threat would not interfere with our reportage, such was not the case.

When I finally submitted my story, the editor told me he would have to first submit it in turn to the general manager (this had never happened before). He did. We kept waiting for the big man’s decision. It never came, or maybe in reality I should say it did come. The result was the story never saw the light of day. I left that job in disgust a month or more after doing that story, not just over that, but many other things.

Sometime after I left, they published an editorial that claimed the newspaper had done an exhaustive investigation on the drowning incident and had concluded there was no wrongdoing. Not only was my aborted story not an exhaustive investigation, I must admit, but the newspaper did not bother to share with the readers what they supposedly found other than, no story here folks, let’s move along.

After being away from town for several years, I came back and served for awhile as a radio reporter. New on the beat, I introduced myself to a honcho at the Sheriff’s Department, one I had interviewed on the drowning story. Either he had a bad memory, a strange sense of humor, or I just don’t make that much of an impression on folks, but he proceeded to let me know something:

“We have a pretty good relationship with the press here, an understanding. A few years ago we had a story about a drowning that was too hot to handle. I lived next to the general manager of the newspaper and we agreed to have the story killed.”


Excitement of hard news is a real rush…

November 21, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

The late-breaking Associated Press news story’s lead ends with the clause: …where his condition was not immediately. “Known” is the word that should have ended the sentence.

At least when I make a blunder only a handful of folks usually read it, but I saw this incomplete AP sentence on several sites on the world-wide web.

The subject was Attorney General Michael Mukasey, 67. He collapsed Thursday night while making a speech in Washington D.C. and was taken to a hospital. (As of 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time he was reported to be alive and alert.)

But he’s not a relative and I’m a hard-nosed former journalist who is just using the immediate reporting of his misfortune as a lead into my blog.

During my so-called career as a journalist – something I did before truck driving – I don’t recall covering any news stories of such major significance as the condition on the Attorney General of the United States, but I do know what late-breaking news story pressure is, when you barely have time to type it out, let alone see if you’ve written grammatically correct and complete sentences. You hope that there will be some check along the way. In my case, I often had to worry not only if I made a grievous error, but whether my editor (s) would make it worse.

On the other hand there is something about pressure that makes one think clearly (or go completely to pieces). In fact, the best hard news stories are written in a free-flowing stream of consciousness fashion. They are written with the excitement that is news, the excitement that is the reason a real journalist gets into journalism in the first place.

My favorite hard news story that I ever did was when part of a rural school burned down in the 1980s in Tulare County, Ca. It was the school I mentioned in my recent blog where a man who was both a local farmer and school board member did the school’s drinking fountain repair work.

The newspaper I was working on published every day except Sunday. It was back when there were still a lot of afternoon papers, of which it was one. I think our morning copy deadline was 10:30 a.m.

As I recall, one Monday I showed up for work about 7 a.m. I had no idea there had been a fire at the outlying school. The reporter who usually covered things to do with fire and police agencies had been covering something in another nearby town over the weekend, as I recall, and was on his way back when he noticed the fire trucks. But he felt that he was off duty and it wasn’t right in town, so he just continued on home.

When I got to work my boss was already mad at that reporter. But he turned to me and told me to go out and get a story and photos about a school fire, being that schools were on my beat.

So I drove several miles out of town to the school, where indeed several classrooms, not the whole school, had been gutted. As quickly as possible, checking my watch as I went, I interviewed the principal, some teachers, and even some pupils, made some photographs and rushed back to town to the newspaper office, handed my film to the darkroom guy (which was me on every other Saturday) and proceeded to bang out my story. That day on the front page was a photo of the principal standing in a gutted classroom amid the fire-charred desks, reduced to their metal frames, plus my full by-lined story of what happened, the result, the reaction, and what the plans for the future were. I had to write that story in a hurry, but my mind was a lot clearer than if I did not have to have it done until the next day.

I was on a roll. That evening, or maybe a day or so later, I don’t recall for sure, when I was officially off duty, on a whim I drove back out to the school and found a school board member surveying some of the damage. I got a good interview with him, to include the lead they had on the culprit and what the board’s immediate plans were for rebuilding.

In the scheme of things, maybe a small story or a big story in a small town. But once I was a journalist, and I actually did leg work and thrived on the addictive drug that is the deadline.


“Lion of the Left” is now Lompoc bound….

August 28, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

Probably the blog I shouldn’t bother to write, but I feel I have to comment about one of the few counters to right-wing hate radio, Bernie Ward, formerly of KGO Radio in San Francisco.

The “Lion of the Left” as they called him, was sentenced today  to more than seven years in federal prison, to be served at Lompoc, Ca., a minimum security facility. He was convicted on numerous counts of distributing child pornography via the internet.

He had maintained he was doing “research” on a story, but I guess it seems as he had done a little too much “research.” I didn’t follow the whole story closely, but I heard that he had had some problems previously (don’t know for sure about that). He had been a Catholic priest at one time.

The point is this. It is always disturbing when someone who has been such a spokesperson for a point of view gets discredited on moral grounds. The worst example in modern history I think is Bill Clinton. Now he did not have to go to prison and he did not do anything illegal or quite as disgusting (oh, I guess he may have committed perjury, maybe).

In Clinton’s case, the tragedy is that he gave the other side (extreme right wing) such ammunition against progressives and liberals and anyone who is not extreme right wing everywhere.

The extreme right wing, neocon, even fascist-like politics of the last decade or two has been largely supported by the ubiquitousness of right-wing super cynical don’t let the facts get in the way radio and the void of any other point of view on the airwaves, to include middle of the road.

Ward filled that void. He was extreme left. I often did not agree with his extremism. However, I appreciated his analytical ability and his handle on events. As I drove a big truck down the road in the middle of the night, he was the first one to give me a heads up on the fact that George W was taking us into Iraq and that was before 9/11, as I recall. Bush was looking for an excuse and he found one (and I don’t want to get into the merits of that argument).

I should also mention, Ward was a tremendously successful fund raiser for causes mostly dealing with feeding the poor.

But as I blogged once before, I did always notice something creepy about Bernie Ward, usually when he discussed drugs and sex.

Then one night he casually mentioned that he might be in trouble for something involving research on a story or book he was writing concerning child pornography. It was kind of like, hey I had to look at it to do the research, would they put a policeman or a prosecutor in jail for looking at the evidence? I didn’t think much of it at the time and then was shocked when I heard that he had been arrested and charged (and I may have been the only one shocked; I don’t know).

I do know this: he reached millions of people all over the U.S. because of KGO’s strong nighttime signal (50,000 watts, I believe). He was also becoming a fixture on TV talking head panels because of the oddity of a far left mouthpiece these days (or anyone that is not far right).

It seems plausible to me that he could have been set up by the feds. But he has pleaded guilty and apologized (maybe because to fight it would be hopeless and you can get better treatment and possible time shaved from your sentence if you say you’re repentant).

I suppose the fact is that he is just plain guilty of a terrible and disgusting and heinous crime.

Certainly he deserves what he gets if that is the case.

I wonder how much talking he did to authorities. He often counseled that the last thing you want to do when dealing with the law (police, prosecution) is talk, even if you are innocent. Keep your mouth shut, he said.

For Ward, that would have been hard to do.

P.S. I plan to blog in reaction to Barack Obama’s speech tonight.