Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger
In the middle 1970s, I was firmly established as a Times staff writer in Orange County and relatively happy there, particularly since I was regularly allowed to roam afield on immigration and drug stories that started on the Border and ran up and down California. I probably would have still been there but for a political fight that broke out in the Los Angeles newsroom of The Times.
As I heard about it later, the combatants were the Times labor writer, Harry Bernstein, and a young, ambitious staffer named Frank Del Olmo. Harry was a canny veteran of the newsroom. He reminded me of an old-line trade unionist. His outlook seemed supportive of traditional union positions, which was in itself odd, considering the long history of union-baiting at The Times. And on the issue of illegal immigration, Harry was adamant. The flow of cheap illegal labor was a threat to union effectiveness. As long as there were thousands of illegals in the labor pool, wages would be suppressed throughout California.
Sound familiar? It should. The cheap-labor issue is still hot today, thirty-plus years later. Organized labor is more divided on the issue but illegals still have the capacity to ignite fierce passions.
On the other side was Frank Del Olmo, a relatively young reporter, one of the first of a new generation of Latino (the term they chose for themselves) reporters being pulled into the newsroom by a newspaper that had for most of its history been white, White, GRINGO and very proud of it. I knew Frank only from his summer internship in Orange County and he seemed to me to be very quiet and ill at ease in the newsroom. In retrospect, he may have been sitting directly in front of me when I wrote the story about the San Onofre Checkpoint, but it was several years before I had any idea how he might have felt about it.
At this point, I should note that Frank Del Olmo went on to an extraordinary career at The Times. He died in 2004 and was memorialized in Los Angeles and across the country as one of the most important Latino journalists of our time. I do not want to impugn his memory but I always had some difficulty with that term, “Latino journalist.” Frank played, it seemed to me at the time, by different rules than the rest of us did. He was a Latino first, proud and actively involved in promoting (as well as covering) causes he believed in. This was a time of great social unrest, and The Times had a lot of learning to do. Frank did much of the teaching and, in the process, exerted influence far beyond that of your average journalist. When he died, he was an associate editor and a columnist, rather than a reporter, but his power in the newsroom was beginning to accrete even then.
I knew nothing of the conflict between the labor writer, Bernstein, and the young Latino, Del Olmo, but apparently it was common knowledge in the Los Angeles newsroom. The grounds for disagreement were manifold: the United Farm Workers organizing campaigns; border enforcement and human smuggling; labor costs and social welfare benefits. Harry thought like a traditional unionist and Frank was always eager to impart a Latino spin to Times coverage. That was, after all, his job, whether anybody publicly acknowledged it. The friction became open and acrimonious. Something had to be done.
Enter the naif, me.
The first I heard about the dispute was when my supervisor in Orange County came to me one Friday and said, “The boss is going to call you to offer you a job downtown, and I think you ought to know that you don’t really have a choice but to take it.”
I pressed and he gave me a little background on the job I was being offered. I was to be a specialist in “immigration,” which is to say that I was to take over the stories that seemed to be the source of rancor between Del Olmo and Bernstein.
And I had no option.
When the job offer came down, it was much more politely described, but it amounted to a confirmation of the original description. In retrospect, I can now see that I was being placed between a couple of guys who were much more sophisticated political infighters than I ever hoped to be. In truth, I was not even really aware that there were political games to be played in newsrooms. (I know, I know. What can I say, I’m a slow learner.)
Like a good soldier, I took the job and spent much of the next three or four years catching flak from both sides and never really managing to stop the civil war. I was always more of a punching bag than I was a buffer, which is probably a sign of the depth of passions in the newsroom and in society. It wasn’t much fun because it was, from the get-go, a doomed experiment. The dispute in the 1970s was like it is today. It was political and there seemed to be but two sides. I was neither side. It wasn’t the journalist’s job to take sides, so far as I was concerned. I was hopelessly naive.
Rodney King said it during the riots: “Can’t we all jus’ get along?” In the several years I held the unofficial title “immigration writer,” I asked the same question in what would become an increasingly politicized newsroom.
The answer always came back, “Hell, no.”