Friday, January 16, 2009

My friend Peter Schrag calls it -30-

Peter Schrag is a friend, one of my finest mentors, a great journalist and columnist, and a wit. He used to run the editorial pages of the Sacramento Bee, then he retired, but not really. He kept writing columns and books, and his critique of California  public life is precise and devoid of partisan ideology. His observations have a western tilt but are far broader underneath.

He did more than he knows to help me in my work on Willie Brown and covering higher education topics, and his support for me on my path as a journalist and as a priest is without peer in the news business. 

He may not be a household name East of Reno, but he ought to be.  He still loves newspapers and California, and he doesn't much like blogs.

The other night I had a bad dream that I was standing in the newsroom and there was only one reporter there. It turned out to be true. Peter really is retiring, and this is his last column:

After Three Decades, Sacramento Columnist Says Farewell

Peter Schrag
Jan. 12, 2009 – By Peter Schrag

Those of us who began as print journalists in the 1950s belong to what was probably the luckiest generation in the business -- a rich and rewarding half century with a strong and confident press that knew it was an indispensable part of American democracy. But this is another era, and for me, after 55 years in the business -- 31 of them associated with this newspaper -- it's time to pitch it in. This is my last regular column for The Sacramento Bee.

At the El Paso Herald-Post, where I started, we still had a classic "Front Page" newsroom -- reporters with bottles of bourbon in the bottom drawer; a noisy, smoky city room and a couple of cranky desk men who claimed to have covered the assassination of Pancho Villa in 1923, and maybe did. This was the era of galley shears, paste pots and "etaoin shrdlu," an occasional typo produced by the letters on the first two vertical banks on the keyboard of a Linotype machine. The editor's name was Ed Pooley, known familiarly around town as "Cess" Pooley. My first big story was covering the trial of the mayor's libel suit against my own paper.

Inevitably during those 55-plus years there were encounters with some of the more notable figures of recent history, as well as the rush of great stories associated with them: the ongoing struggle for decent urban schools and for civil rights in the South; the street battles over the Vietnam War; the rise and fall of the counterculture; the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 and the "police riot" that came with it.

Looking back, it was like covering history: the Pentagon Papers case, the trial of Daniel Ellsberg in Los Angeles in 1972-73 and the unraveling of Watergate with which it became linked. The last two, lest we forget, closely connected to a courageous, enterprising press. Those of us who were not on Richard Nixon's enemies list envied those who were.

There was also the chance to work with outstanding editors, writers and reporters -- Willie Morris at Harper's, Carey McWilliams at the Nation, John Ciardi at Saturday Review, David Halberstam, Tony Lukas, all now gone -- and to have the work of great journalists and essayists as models.

Closer to home, there was the privilege of working with Frank McCulloch, managing editor of The Sacramento Bee, and reporter and editor for other news organizations, who spent much more time shaping good stories than he did on reader surveys; John Jacobs, The Sacramento Bee's political columnist, who knew that writing about politics was only meaningful if it was linked to its consequences for policy, and Bee editor C.K. McClatchy, who tried to teach all who worked for him that integrity and credibility were the indispensable assets of any news organization.

It was under McClatchy, sometimes with a little nudging, that his newspapers grew out of their historic misogyny, hiring women for senior positions, coming to grips with its historic racism, apologizing for his papers' support of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to have a woman editor as The Sacramento Bee has now.

My nearly 40 years in California, 19 as the editor of the editorial pages of The Sacramento Bee, the last dozen as a columnist, brought great colleagues and friends, lively exchanges with readers and some memorable characters -- Willie Brown, whose meetings with journalists were the best political seminars in town, and usually the funniest; Clark Kerr, creator and biographer of the multiversity; Jerry Brown, California's leading career anti-politician; Howard Jarvis, curmudgeon par excellence -- plus a large cast of bores, miscreants and mediocrities.

Sadly, however, the big story of those years was retrenchment. This was the age of Proposition 13 and other tax limitations, of ballot-box budgeting, of term limits and autopilot criminal sentencing laws, of borrow-and-fudge fiscal policies, of initiatives throwing illegal immigrants out of the public schools, and of eroding optimism and a growing unwillingness to pay for public goods. There can't be many serious Californians who would claim that California is better for it.

There were bright spots: California's leadership in environmental regulation and energy efficiency; legislation, too little noticed at its passage, to broaden financial aid guarantees to low-income college students; the passage of the medical marijuana initiative; the continuing greatness of the state's public colleges and universities.

There was the calming voice of Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, who tried her low-key best to keep the state from going off the fiscal rails altogether, the countless other public servants who got too little credit for diligence and integrity under often terrible demands, and the creation of the California Budget Project and the Public Policy Institute of California, two invaluable private research organizations focused on California policy.

Through it all, we had our quota of fires, floods, drought, landslides and earthquakes. Latinos and Asians moved in and Anglos moved out. California became a majority-minority state, as will the nation 40 years from now.

But the sturdy ships on which journalists embarked a half-century ago are now buffeted by new technologies and a print-phobic, individualistic, less communitarian culture. Some of us had watched once-proud magazines sink around and sometimes under us; others survive only with the support of angels and foundations. Now newspapers seem to be struggling the same way. Many of us now know how blacksmiths and harness makers must have felt a century ago and, ironically, how Detroit's autoworkers must feel today.

The American press -- once a party press, then a penny press thriving on sensation -- was never as strong, enterprising and serious as it became in the decades beginning with World War II. Now the blogs seem to be taking us back to an electronic version of that ancient history.

Unlike some others, The Sacramento Bee and its parent company have a good chance of coming through the storm, not as a clipper ship, but, if it retains the courage of its historic convictions, refitted as a sturdy sloop not so different from what it was a century ago. Our democracy can't remain healthy without the professional reporters and editors and the strong voices that try to make order of the information on which an informed citizenry and healthy communities must depend.

Mistakes were made. In trying to show confidence in the future of the industry, McClatchy caught a huge fish called Knight Ridder at just the wrong time. But it still has the best leadership in the business. I hope to write occasionally for this and other outlets, but this cuckoo's weekly pop-out is over.

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