Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Laid-off Editor Asks Stanford To Save Journalism

Kevin Roderick • BioEmail
LA Observed

Wes Hughes, a former editor at various levels of the Los Angeles Times, was a city editor and columnist at the San Bernardino Sun until last week's layoffs. In the aftermath, he wrote a letter to the president of Stanford — cc'd to Sam Zell, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Dean Singleton, Associated Press, Poynter Institute and the Pugh Trust — calling on the university to step in and save journalism.

President John Hennessy
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305

Dear President Hennessy:

I am writing to ask a favor that is important to the survival of American democracy. The issue is largely couched in the words “free press” and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

My first thought was to contact the head of a large public institution but I thought better of it. This crisis is better left in the private sector with a proud and respected university such as Stanford.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped you that the newspaper industry is imploding as I write this. The Los Angeles Times for example has lost a full one-third of its circulation and its news staff has been reduced accordingly. The same is true at practically every other newspaper in the United States and the television news business isn’t far behind.

Sam Zell bought the Tribune Company for a pittance, leveraging the employees’ stock holdings to swing the deal and they threw in the once-proud L.A. Times as a sweetener.

Across the country, the barbarians are at the gates of the New York Times and if that great daily should fall, I fear for the future of America.

I know something of this situation because I’ve been a newsman for almost six decades except for some military service and a couple of other short breaks. I’ve worked for many newspapers, including the L.A. Times. I retired from there in 1992 and until yesterday I was a columnist and blogger for a MediaNews publication.

My request is that Stanford take on the problem of how to preserve public and investigative journalism with the same seriousness academia addressed global warming, because it is that desperate. Put some of Stanford’s best minds to work on it, create a think tank, talk to everybody but be wary when you talk to publishers and top editors because they are at a loss as to what to do and have succumbed to herd panic.

This isn’t a plea to save any particular medium. If newspapers and broadcast journalism have to go the way of the dodo, so be it but help the essence — the pure journalism — survive. Even higher education may be at risk. Self-preservation can be a good motivator.


Wesley G. Hughes

His last, unpublished column:

Planet Wes
By Wesley G. Hughes

When I come upon an article about sickle cell anemia, my mind conjures up memories of an old friend, long dead. In my eyes, Byron Robertson was a hero, not in an exaggerated way of heroism but day-to-day heroism that few of us can match.
Byron didn't have sickle cell disease but he carried the trait. So did his wife Edna. That's why their son Lamont inherited it. If either parent had been free of the trait, little Lamont would have escaped its grip.

The mumps are not usually a killer but when Lamont caught them, it was a death sentence.

It was a terrible time for Byron and Edna as Lamont clung tenuously to life. I was at the hospital with Byron when he got the word that Lamont had lost his fight, real and symbolic, against death, the sickle wielder.

Byron and I were close and he wanted me nearby at that time. He knew I had lost a child and he felt I could understand his and Edna's grief. I don’t know if that is true. Each person's grief is his or her own. I only know that mine was absolutely the worst thing I had ever endured. And Byron was devastated and dazed by his loss.

The couple's marriage didn't survive either. That seems to be common when a child is lost. My first marriage failed after the death of my daughter. I climbed inside a bottle for a couple of years.

Byron buried himself in work and “the movement.”

Perhaps by now you have figured out that Byron was black? It's only important to give context to this story.

He grew up in the middle of the black ghetto in Oakland, about the blackest place in the country at that time, not just in skin color but in the souls and dreams of its people. Byron grew up and associated with a group of individuals whose names were scary to a lot of people in those days — all the way to the highest offices in Washington — but names barely remembered today: Huey Newton and Bobby Seale among them.

The Black Panther Party may ring a bell.

Byron wanted to write but opportunities were scarce in the 1960s and '70s for black people, especially young black men. There were few black people in newsrooms.

Any work for black men was hard to find. Byron landed a job on the green chain in a sawmill in Weed. That's where George and Lennie were coming from when John Steinbeck set them down in the Salinas Valley in “Of Mice and Men.”

Steinbeck could have mined Weed for drama. The green chain is the most dangerous job in a sawmill. That's where the big blade makes its first rips into the huge timbers trucked in from the mountains. An unseen spike or some other chunk of metal can shatter the blade and send its pieces flying like shrapnel. Driving spikes into trees is a trick of the radical Earth Liberation Front in its efforts to stop logging.

Byron labored on the green chain — it's hard, heavy work as well as dangerous — and at night he wrote articles and submitted them to the newspaper. It finally won him an interview and job at the Record-Searchlight in Redding. He was assigned to cover the copshop, the toughest job for a black man in any newsroom. There was a built-in bias. Some of it was even felt in the newsroom.
He took on the job and covered it straight.

The slings and arrows of racism hurt but eventually he won almost everyone's respect.

That's were he was working when Lamont died.

He'd always been driven by a desire to fight racism. After he lost his son, he spent almost every weekend in Oakland chronicling the Black Panthers. It scared the hell out of police up and down the Sacramento Valley.

But his work caught the attention of bigger newspapers and he was hired by the Sacramento Bee. He told me that he even encountered racism from some of the staffers and editors there.

He stood up under the pressure but it took its toll. High blood pressure destroyed his kidneys and damaged his heart and vision. He went into dialysis three times a week at one of the major hospitals in Sacramento. It kept him alive until he received a kidney transplant and he continued his work in the movement.

He was feeling pretty good for a while but suddenly his body rejected the implanted kidney and it was removed. He refused to ask for another. He said the pain that came with the rejection was too much to risk again. If you've ever felt a kidney punch, you'll have just a bit of an idea what he meant.

So it was back to work and back to dialysis.

The union at the Bee went on strike. It was long and drawn out and it finally failed as member after member gave up and slipped back to work. Byron of the great ethics who needed the medical coverage probably more than anyone else working there was the only one who refused to give up.

He took an African name, Ndugu Chui.

I always thought it was his pride that killed him, although dialysis eventually drains you of everything. Even in his wheelchair he had great dignity and heart.

Today, I stumbled across an article about promising new research on sickle cell disease and it triggered my memories of Byron.

I wondered what he would think if he could see the world today. I know he would be disappointed that innercity black people are sunk in a morass of despair, crime and failure. He wanted black people to find their rightful place in society.

And I wonder what he would think to see a young, well educated black man on the verge of winning a major party's nomination for the presidency of the United States and doing it with the support of millions of white men and women. I hope he would be pleased.
He was just a day-to-day hero. But in hindsight, his feats look giant.

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