Great columnists possess one common trait: They’re all newspapers reporters at heart. They sometimes opine on the day’s news, but they usually leave 24-hour news punditry to others.
Instead, what they most believe in is going to talk to the neighbor, the cop, the pastor, or the taco truck owner. Reporting, true and straight. Nothing like it for burning away crud and getting to a joyous kernel of veracity.
That’s what Mike has done as a columnist. He combined that instinct with a deep knowledge of his native town.
Today, awash in the sewage of 24-hour news, we too often confuse columnists with pundits. They are not the same – at least the best columnists aren’t.
The best columnists help you understand where you live, often by pointing out the tiniest corners of the town that you realize only later that you were dying to know about. Mike did that.
It’s not that they don’t have opinions. Columnists’ job, in part, is to have opinions. But these opinions should be based on the relentless collection of facts, not on ideology. Mike did that.
Sadly, we Americans prize pundits, who are cheap, as everyone has an opinion; we don’t want to pay for columnists and thus we are poorer for it. We have too many of the former and one less of the latter today.
Mike and I met when I began my stint as the Record’s crime reporter. He took me around to meet the cops and others that would make up my daily rounds for the next four years (1988-92). That first night we drove to south Stockton where a car had plunged through a house and landed on a woman sleeping in her bed. I’d never known that to happen, but in Stockton I covered another dozen of those.
In a year or two, they made Mike a columnist. We sat across from each other for a couple years, as he churned out terrific snapshots of the corners of the town, of its politics, its neighborhoods filled with Cambodians, Sikhs, Michoacanos, blacks, and the whites of north Stockton and east Stockton – which were then two separate planets.
We covered the horror of Cleveland School together, where a drifter showed up in January 1989 with an AK-47 and killed five kids and wounded 30 more.
We were part of a staff then that I believe the best I ever worked with – young reporters, eager to cover the world, growing with experience, and set loose on a town that was full of stunning, beautiful, crazy, terrible stories.
Mike and I got along because we recognized in each other a kindred spirit: we were both born to be reporters. We’d have been miserable and failures in any other profession.
It helped Mike, too, to that Stockton is one of the great American cities. Integrated, roiling, common-sensical, a lot of problems and a lot of heart.
As Mike writes: “It’s the drug addict in recovery. The Hmong in adult education class. The millennial who wants to live in a high-density downtown community. Filipinos digging out their history to restore their lost narrative.”
Mike got out of the office and told their stories and many more. That’s what great columnists do.
When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.
Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.
I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.
I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)
I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.
Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.
Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.
Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.
I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.
Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.
Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)
The last few days have been tumultuous for my family and me – and filled with strong emotions.
But I wanted to say how much I appreciated all those who wrote in, via various media, with kind words, words of support and encouragement. Tens of thousands read the blogpost below. Thousands of people shared the post below on Facebook. Hundreds more tweeted it. I received many e
mails, and (now that my WordPress comments section is fixed) comments on my blog. Many folks wrote in on the 60 Minutes website and the show’s Facebook page to object.
It means so much that you would do that. Thank you!
“People can see the truth,” said one editor and friend. I think that’s probably right.
Journalists and writers sent me notes with their own tales of how 60 Minutes and other shows had taken their stories/books/articles/reports and redone them without giving credit.
“This has been going on for years,” said one.
Maybe, but that doesn’t make it right. I hope writers/reporters will speak up when this happens in the future.
I hope my public objection, calling them out, means that a show like 60 Minutes will think twice before it appropriates the work of others without giving them credit. Television in particular seems afflicted with the weakness for taking the stories of others.
To those who would do that, I say, fine. Just give credit. It’s common decency. Show the work the real reporters did. Show respect. Don’t pretend, as 60 Minutes did so brazenly, that you’re blazing some new trail.
All that show had to do was mention my name, my work, my book, and that I did indeed help them.
That seems unlikely now, given the comments of the show’s spokesman. Let me say for the record: I spoke up not to promote my book. I spoke up because I had to defend my work. Because if I didn’t defend my work, no one else would. 60 Minutes was profiting from my work. I spoke up because this was work that 60 Minutes had not done by themselves. I had and I did it when almost no one in the media cared about this issue; early on, some questioned my judgment for even getting into the topic. Who cares about heroin addiction?
I spoke up because we’re in a new world, where if you want to do good journalism you almost have to go independent. And if independent journalists are routinely, and with impunity, scavenged by predators without the interest or energy for doing the work themselves, then we are doomed.
I spoke up because 60 Minutes, while taking what I’d taught them in phone conversations and in Dreamland, displayed no interest in advancing the story, taking it new places, teasing out new angles. None of that. Just the “Cliff Notes,” as one retired cop told me, to my book.
After 30 years in this business, three books and more articles than I can count, I’m accustomed to seeing stories that I scooped get picked up by other news outlets. I barely flinch. It’s part of the job. It’s even happened with many news outlets since Dreamland appeared. Everyone seems to be talking about the heroin epidemic in the last six months. Time Magazine, New York Times, Sports Illustrated. That’s great, and one of the reasons I wrote the book.
I called out 60 Minutes because it was such an egregious violation.
They could have gone anywhere in the country and done this story. You’d have to ask them why they didn’t. I suspect they went to the place I told them to go (on the phone and in an email) and where a major part of Dreamland was set – Columbus, Ohio – because it was cheaper to do it that way, with the roadmap I provided them.
The night of the show, I was proud of the parents who were interviewed, several of whom I know. They spoke for millions of mothers and fathers like them across the country who have suffered this nightmare of watching their kids transformed into something like zombies under the influence of pills and now heroin. They pushed along this awakening regarding the opiate epidemic that has been gaining strength across the country in the last six months.
But I also found myself dumbfounded, then outraged as I watched, remembering all the work I’d put in on this topic, the time I spent away from my wife and daughter – all of which 60 Minutes just appropriated as if it belonged to them. After it was over, I apologized to my daughter for my outbursts during the show.
I grew up admiring 60 Minutes for its storytelling and investigative reporting.
So many original stories. No one on television was doing what 60 Minutes was doing then. It looked so exciting and that was part of why I became a journalist.
So six months after the publication of my book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, it saddened and appalled me to watch the show last night.
Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about heroin in Ohio. I’m very happy that these Ohioans, who I know and like and respect, are getting this megaphone. Their story needed telling.
But I have to stand my ground.
Months ago, my publisher and I pitched 60 Minutes on stories from Dreamland: first, the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and then a story about heroin in Ohio.
Over the span of several months and several phone calls, 60 Minutes decided against both ideas.
The Xalisco story wasn’t doable, they concluded, after I convinced them that it was unrealistic to assume that they could show up and in 3-4 days have someone magically open up a heroin lab for them to film. I argued that there were other ways to tell the story. I found them sources, people with years of experience in the drug underworld who trusted me. That wasn’t good enough. They wanted traffickers who spoke English. I told a producer that the traffickers in the Xalisco system were working-class guys from Mexico without even sixth-grade educations and that they spoke only Spanish. He also insisted that 60 Minutes had to have film of dope being made, and had to have it accessible after three days of reporting on the ground.
The Ohio story that we then pitched 60 Minutes had no such cost/danger/language concerns. The state was awash in heroin now. America’s opiate ground zero – for many reasons I made clear in Dreamland. Pills had taken hold there first, and heroin had come sooner than it had anywhere else. Over lunch, a 60 Minutes producer even asked me what story I would do in Ohio. I gave her some ideas.
60 Minutes did go to Ohio. Made it look as if they had figured out who to talk to, and what questions to ask, all on their own. No mention of what led them there and what explained the whole story to them. When I asked them whether they were going to refer to my book, one producer said they wanted to focus on the personal stories of local folks. They could have done the personal stories of local folks in Alabama, or anywhere else in America, but then they wouldn’t have had a book telling them specifically where to look, whom to talk to, and what the story was.
Parents and others in Ohio and elsewhere are understandably thrilled that major media like 60 Minutes are finally taking an interest in this topic. I’m glad for them and very happy that the issue is now getting attention. Wayne, Brenda, Tracy, Jenna, Rob and others spoke with eloquence and force, and in my opinion saved the piece.
I hope they won’t see this as raining on their long-overdue parade … but I have to say something to defend myself, my family’s sacrifice, and my work. If I don’t, who will?
I spent years working on this story, interviewing hundreds of people, poring over documents, taking collect phone calls from Mexican traffickers in prisons. Before doing it, I lived and wrote for 10 years in Mexico, which made me distinctly prepared to see a part of this story that 60 Minutes producers, judging from our phone calls, knew only because of me.
I took a leave of absence from the LA Times, where my book’s story began (as I note several times). I finally resigned from the paper to finish this book. I went all over the country. Each trip meant time away from my wife and daughter; each trip meant scrimping on meals and motels. When few people were talking about heroin, when most folks I met looked at me askance for researching the topic, I risked my professional career and my family’s financial future: all to find a story that I believed to be profound in its nationwide impact, and in what it says about our country.
I’m thrilled to receive emails like this one, from a retired undercover narcotics officer, who helped in my heroin education:
“The 60 minutes Heroin story last night was the “CliffNotes” version of your book, they needed to have you on that piece! … These news stories are great but they are quickly becoming “old news”. They need to go a few layers deeper. It’s time to talk about solutions! Thanks to guys like you the nation now knows very clearly what the problem is, now it’s time to move the national narrative towards developing real solutions through accountability. … Keep up the good fight Brother …Be Safe!”
It isn’t often that a book more or less scoops radio, TV, and print. But I believe that, to a large degree, is what Dreamland did.
Since its release, I’ve been disappointed to see Time, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post and now the New York Times publish stories on topics that I dealt with first in Dreamland and not mention it. (Btw, my book clearly cites several books to which I am indebted, both in the text and in the acknowledgements.) But 60 Minutes seemed to me to cross a line.
And even after the months of dealing with them, I might not have written this blogpost had not Sunday’s show itself seemed to involve so little original reporting and seemed to rely so heavily on my book.
Is that what it means to be 60 Minutes these days? Just riff off the work of an independent reporter and do nothing to recognize it?
The whole episode reminds me that 60 Minutes is no longer a standard bearer of anything except cost containment. Shows like 60 Minutes no longer set the national debate. They’re followers, imitators, now, where once they were leaders.
Yet I’m also invigorated, exhilarated even, by this experience. For it means that I and many independent colleagues have wide-open spaces now where we can harvest stories. That if we’re willing to put in the work and take the risks, that important stories will be ours to find. It means it’s a great time to be an independent journalist.
The Daily Show made fun of TV cable journalists, and gave respect to real reporters. It taught a generation to be skeptical of what was reported to them on television. The next step is to elevate real independent journalism.
As desiccated titans collapse, abdicating any role in maintaining standards of journalism, we now have this terrain to ourselves. We must work it, push at it, be relentless. But it’s there. People want it, thirst for it, as I’ve found in the reaction to Dreamland. When we find these stories – as now only we are equipped to do – they will probably mean more than ever.
Remember, too, that if you want risk-taking, on-the-edge, original, independent, red-blooded American journalism, then you have to look pretty far past 60 Minutes. The Atlantic is doing some good stuff. As is the Atavist. Might check out the Marshall Project. I thought Grantland looked good before ESPN pulled its plug. I’m sure there are many places I don’t know of – and I invite them to chime in.
Find his book on Juarez – Murder City, it’s called – and read that. Pretty fine piece of journalism, and reflective of the guy and his take on his craft and the world. With the rough-edged, opinionated, cranky prose that made him worth reading, and listening to. I met him once, at a conference at Cal State Northridge.
There aren’t too many out there like him any more.
After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.
It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.
I’m still walking around in a daze.
Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.
This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.
Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.
None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.
The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.
It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.
On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, and the Mexican village, and envy and desire.
I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.
I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.
It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.
Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.
Today was my last official day at the Los Angeles Times after 10 years at the paper.
It was a sad thing. I’ve been a reporter for 27 years. I was very happy to have worked at what amounted to my hometown paper.
I’m very proud of the stories I produced while I was there (see below). But I decided it was time to move on, so I resigned.
Journalism, you may have heard, is changing, and I want to see if I can change with it. So I’m heading back to my freelancing roots.
I’ve got a heroin book to finish, then a podcast to start, my Tell Your True Tale workshops to teach, this blog to write — and other stuff. I hope you’ll follow it all as I wrestle with this grand experiment.
As these LAT farewell notes to colleagues have become almost a genre in themselves, I’ll add mine:
Adios Amigos –
Though I’ve been gone for many months writing a book about the (suddenly recognized) heroin epidemic in America, today is officially my last day at the paper.
It’s been great fun writing about Cambodian doughnut kings and palm-tree trimmers, Oaxacan hamburger chefs and stolen tubas, about transgender hookers and hellacious windstorms, kidnappers in Phoenix and Indian toothbrush gurus in Buena Park, about gangster matriarchs on Drew Street and the Mexican Mafia in every barrio around.
Such a great town. So many sublime stories to tell. …
So here’s wishing you all the best.
See you on the street, or wherever those stories happen.