Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger
Okay, boys and girls, I promised you a story or two so I really should deliver. This one’s about the politics of the newsroom, a subject that used to be taboo, since newsrooms were thought not to have politics. But they did and they still do, contrary to what some journalists try to tell you. The politics of this story have to do with immigration, a subject much on peoples’ minds today and it’s fascinating to me that so little has changed in the debate.
The tale is also about one of our favorite subjects here, the Los Angeles Times, aka The Ol’ Grey Lady of Spring Street. For more than fifteen years, I was a scribe in those hallowed halls and while I’ve been gone for quite a while, I’ve seen no evidence that my story is out-of-date. As a matter of fact, I think much of what the Times is today was laid down over the last thirty years, just as much of what I am is a summation of what I have lived through.
My story begins on a cool Sunday night in August, 1972. I was a young and relatively green reporter for the Orange County edition of the Times. ORA, as it was called inhouse, was regarded as a kind of farm team for the big newsroom in Los Angeles and we got away with a lot of stunts down there that would have been frowned upon by the Spring Street Brass.
On this particular night, I was at the Border Patrol checkpoint in the shadows of San Onofre’s famous nuclear reactors. The Point, as its men called it, was relatively new, part of a strategy to interdict the smuggling of illegal aliens from Mexico. So far as I knew, nobody at the Times had ever written about its operation and I wanted to be the first.
The Border Patrol is a much maligned organization but on that night, the 10 p.m. shift made a little history for my benefit: the shift leader, a raw-boned hard-head named J Wood, executed a feint, making it appear that there were not enough patrol agents to properly man the Point. The bus and the flashing lights were wheeled out of sight and for all appearances, the gates to the promised land were thrown wide open.
It was to be a graphic demonstration of the cat-and-mouse game played by professional smugglers. Their scouts reported back south from pay phones at a rest area near the point. “Come on, come on,” was the message. And within an hour, dozens of “load cars,” as they were called, had jumped on Interstate 5, headed toward Los Angeles.
That’s when Wood and his men turned on the lights and began pulling cars off the freeway for further inspection. The first car, driven by a Mexicano scared out of his wits, was intercepted, stopped and searched before my eyes. The trunk was popped with a crowbar after the driver claimed not to have a key. Inside were six apprehensive and disappointed illegal immigrants. One of them was smoking a cigarette.
There is always an element of exploitation in the reporter’s work. I had a keen sense of the unhappiness that had just been loosed on these guys. But that emotion was fleeting as more and more load cars were stopped and more and more illegals detained. Within an hour, if my memory serves, 206 men and a few women were in custody. Then the Point had to be shut down for real, since the entire crew of patrol agents would be busy the rest of the shift processing the detainees.
I wrote a story that was pretty straightforward, I thought. The photos were the key, in retrospect. It was the first time Times readers had been able to see the process of illegal immigration close up. And the story, originally scheduled for the Orange County edition, ran in the downtown paper, as well. I may even have gotten an “attaboy” from the Managing Editor, although I don’t remember clearly.
What I do remember is that the story, a kind of fluke, somehow established my credentials as an expert on border issues. That’s how newsrooms work. Expertise is acquired on the run, often almost by accident. I was hooked, fascinated by what I had seen. But more importantly, the bosses began to think of me as a resource to be utilized. When a border story came along, I was one of the reporters, perhaps the first reporter, who came to mind for the assignment. At that time, the paper was expanding its scope; all of Southern California was up for grabs, and while the Border was out at the edge of coverage, it was fair game. I exploited it for stories several more times over the next couple of years and got stories into the main edition repeatedly.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but those stories also made me something of a target.
TO BE CONTINUED………
UPDATE BY PATTERICO: Part Two is posted here. Good stuff, huh?