'The Last Editor': Hark the Herald Examiner
In this concluding part of a four-part series excerpted from his new book, "The Last Editor" (Andrews McMeel Publishing), veteran editor Jim Bellows recounts his years as editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and his "suicidal" mission against The Los Angeles Times.
Bellows' career in journalism spanned six decades and took him to newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet. His memoir, "The Last Editor," is a wry and insightful recollection of the industries he worked in and the events and personalities he worked with, and sometimes against.
Becoming the editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was perhaps the most suicidal of all my suicide missions. I was challenging one of America's most prosperous newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, which had virtually invented California and dominated the L.A. area. The Herald had been decimated by a 10-year strike that knocked out about half their readers and advertisers. Reporters punched a timeclock, there was enough puffery to open a bakery, and the Times could bury us with their staff and their coverage. But on some stories we scored big:
I was turning the pages of that morning's Los Angeles Times -- The Whale, as we affectionately called it -- on April 16, 1979.
On page 2 they print a roundup of local news, in which they devote 50 to 100 words to things that are happening around town. Suddenly I noted a brief, one-paragraph story about a 39-year-old black woman named Eulia Love who had been gunned down in her front yard. The killers were two Los Angeles police officers. They had emptied their revolvers into her body at point-blank range. She had failed to pay a gas bill.
The story shook me. It outraged and appalled me. It was one too many stories of police brutality. And the Los Angeles Times had shrugged it off with the same indifference as the L.A. Police Department.
Local coverage was the only way we could compete with the Times. But we had to choose our stories with care. And the story of Eulia Love, a woman who died of eight bullet wounds in her chest, was such a story.
Today, if you are brutalized in a precinct house lavatory, or shot down in your doorway, or stopped on a highway because of your skin color, it is more likely that the media will pay attention.
It wasn't so on that crisp January morning when a man from the local gas company went to Eulia Love's Orchard Avenue home to collect a $22.09 gas bill. When she chased him off, he went for the police. He returned at four that afternoon with a pair of Los Angeles's finest -- Officer Edward Hopson, who was black, and his partner, Lloyd O'Callagan, who was white.
"Eulia Love was in the back yard with two of her three teen-age daughters. She was holding a kitchen knife and, testified the officers in extenuation, she was sort of waving it around." As she backed toward her house, the police cornered her, knocked the knife from her hand with a weighted baton, and emptied their .38s into her. She died.
The Times had decided it was worth a paragraph. At the Herald we ran a 22-paragraph story on the front page. A few days later we ran another story on Page One. And a few days after that we ran another front-page story, this one illustrated by a smiling photo of a young Eulia Love. Our headline: "The $22.09 Gas Bill Tragedy."
L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates was not enjoying our front-page and editorial-page visits to his department's excesses. Our editorial-page editor, Tom Plate, felt his sting:
"Jim had a certain sense of what journalism ought to be. So he put the Eulia Love story repeatedly on Page One. And we wrote many editorials about it. And it got to the point where Chief Gates invited me to lunch and basically tried to intimidate me. I didn't know what I was getting into. I thought I was going out for a pleasant lunch. And he is sitting with his goons around him. And he says to me, 'Maybe you can get away with this kind of journalism in New York, but you can't in Los Angeles.'
"So I went back to the Herald and I told Jim about this lunch, because Jim didn't even want to have lunch with Gates. He was smarter than me. And when I told him what had happened, Jim said: 'Well, there's only one thing to do. And I said, 'Write.' And he nodded."
Creating an 'uproar'
Thirteen years later, Chief Gates wrote a book called "Chief: My Life in the LAPD" (which he wrote with the former Herald-Examiner sports columnist Diane K. Shah). In it he recalled the Eulia Love inferno. It had started for him when he received a phone call from Lieutenant Charles Higbie of Robbery Homicide:
"Chief, late this afternoon two patrol officers in South Central shot a black female. They both emptied their weapons. She's dead."
"They fired 12 shots?"
"Yes, sir. Eight of the bullets struck her."
Richard Reeves wrote a white-hot piece for Esquire magazine in which he deplored the Los Angeles Times' scanty coverage of the affair; he called the article "Mr. Otis Regrets." And in his history of the LAPD, Joe Domanick wrote of the affair. Joe's book was called "To Protect and to Serve," the motto of the LAPD, which Mrs. Love's survivors would find arguable.
Said Domanick: "The Herald had a large black readership, and the stories created an uproar in the city's African-American community, setting off a chain reaction of follow-up stories by the Times and the Herald on the LAPD shootings, choke-hold deaths and spying. What everybody in L.A. with an ounce of street sense had known for years was finally being investigated by the establishment press."
In the years since the Eulia Love killing, things at the LAPD have only gotten worse, and the Los Angeles Times, in my view, has consistently failed to vigorously pursue the growing signs of abuse of citizens' rights by Los Angeles police.
Domanick commented on the deficiencies of the Times' coverage of the local police: "The L.A. Times was the agenda-setting newspaper of record. And although it had already made its historic transformation from right-wing rag to one of the nation's best papers, hard-hitting investigative reporting -- particularly of local institutions -- was simply not its forte. As a major investor in the city's financial life and in the redevelopment of downtown L.A., it seemed disinclined to make waves."
Since the Herald-Examiner closed its doors, without a second newspaper in town, the LAPD's militaristic attitude and tactics have led to the infamous beating of Rodney King, captured on videotape for all the world to see.
Now, I don't mean to lay blame for all this at the Los Angeles Times' door. But, as a major institution in the city of Los Angeles -- one that enjoys the constitutional protections accorded the Fourth Estate -- it has to share the responsibility for the depth and duration of a largely rogue police force. It's a perfect example of why newspaper competition is of such vital importance to the public. It's also why I have been irresistibly drawn to second newspapers, because the big guy in town inevitably gets fat and satisfied, which makes him vulnerable to energetic competition. If the second newspaper does its job, it awakens the sleeping giant and goads it into more aggressive coverage of the city. Everyone benefits.
Enter the hippo
In February 1979, a hippo named Bubbles had escaped from the Lion Country Safari in Orange Country. I guess it had gotten tired of cement and bars. Here was another chance to show those potted palms across town how to cover a real human interest story. Don saw in the Bubbles story a little of the cry for freedom that is universal. And in time, it also became a tale of government inefficiency.
They hunted for Bubbles, they surrounded Bubbles, they tried to bring her back to the bars and cement, and, given the natural ineptitude of government, they killed Bubbles.
We covered the Bubbles story -- the saga of a 4,000-pound hippo heading for freedom and managing to escape the bureaucratic oafs who trailed her. She had dug through mud at the zoo, squeezed under a chain-link fence, and headed for freedom. Once on the loose, she rambled over miles of bushy hills and grassy meadows, before finding a home in a rain-filled pond.
We covered the escape, and when Bubbles reached her pond, we began a daily Page One feature, "Hippo Watch." The hippo editor (whoever was available at the time) was in charge of the letters and phone calls that started pouring in after we asked our readers for suggestions on the morality of hippo hunting and other issues.
Our "Hippo Watch" produced more than 11,000 letters. It crowded some of the other news off our front page. Most of the people in our newsroom found the story fun and exciting, though there were a few who winced at our pouring our resources into the story of an escaped hippo.
Bubbles was capturing a lot of hearts. She was drawing national attention to what had once been a bad second paper. The story captured the imagination of kids. When we asked for suggestions as to how to capture Bubbles, one 9-year-old boy sent in a sketch of the pond surrounded by elephants with their trunks in the water. "Have them suck out the water," he suggested.
Zookeepers wanted Bubbles to come home. But Bubbles had her own agenda. She was going to have a baby. (Maybe a "baby hippo" sounds like an oxymoron, but not if you're a hippo.) Now the story had everything -- freedom, bureaucracy, motherhood. The hippo hunt was costing Orange County $1,500 a day, and there is nothing as damaging to morality in municipal government as a $1,500-a-day expense.
But let's look ahead. Why am I optimistic about the future of journalism? First, because I'm optimistic by nature. I believe that the importance of a free press as a public service will always be valued and protected. Second, I'm optimistic because the quality of writing and reporting has improved a lot over the last 50 years. And third, the proliferation of sources of news is a good development -- it gives more control to the people and less to the historic gatekeepers.
As a lifelong maverick, that appeals to me.
The role of a free press in maintaining a free society is self-evident. The first responsibility of newspapers, in particular, is to be the eyes and ears of the public -- an early-warning system. This requires more emphasis than I see right now on crusading journalism -- spotlighting societal problems and public and private corruption and giving a platform to the folks who have solutions to offer. Americans count on their newspapers to bring important issues to their attention. And throughout the history of journalism in this country, I think we've done a pretty fair job.
Copyright 2001 Jim Bellows. Reprinted by permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.
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