The education of a journalist

The Albuquerque Tribune was investigating the Bernalillo County sheriff when the under sheriff stopped a reporter in a courthouse corridor “to explain in the most gentle way how little it cost in Albuquerque to have someone killed.”

Anyone who thinks police misbehavior began with the current scandal, or the scandal before that, or even the scandal before that should read “Life Story: The Education of an American Journalist,” by Gerald Moore (UNM Press, 376 page, $24.95 in paper). The cop’s implied threat to have the reporter killed occurred in the 1960s.

forum mtn musing _20160404_110016The background of the encounter makes the anecdote even more interesting. The under sheriff was a former Albuquerque cop, a lieutenant, and who had been the boss of Moore when Moore too had been a cop. Moore also happened to know quite a bit about the lieutenant’s corrupt activities. In one case the lieutenant had ordered a prominent businessman released without charges although he had been driving drunk. In another instance Moore had watched cases of Cutty Sark liquor being loaded into the lieutenant’s car.

Moore, however, chose not to blow the whistle on the lieutenant. The result of his silence was that Moore was hired by the Tribune on the recommendation of the cop.

The author also recalls how he almost killed a private security guard simply because of bad police coordination, an incident with echoes in the recent tragedy in which an Albuquerque lieutenant mistakenly shot one of his own undercover officers. Moore also describes cops beating up people in the street and demanding bribes from liquor stores. He recounts fellow cops seducing him into misbehavior—consuming liquor taken as a bribe and carrying another officer’s gun—so that they should have something on him.

Moore names names. That’s good. It’s also unusual in a memoir such as this one. On the other hand, Moore didn’t disclose these and other incidents of the interwoven problematic worlds of policing and journalism until half a century after they occurred. That’s not good.

Moore also has some intriguing things to say about his newspaper colleagues. He describes Ralph Looney, the longtime editor of the Tribune and later of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, as a homophobe, racist and petty, vindictive, manipulative autocrat who thought “the New York Times was run by a bunch of communists.” For example, he quotes Looney as referring to the Nobel Peace Prize winning civil rights leader as “Martin Luther Coon.” In a backhanded compliment, he thanks Looney “because he instructed me in important matters: the darker side of things, naked competition, bending the rules, pleasing the readers, appropriate cynicism, and the value of sycophant behavior.”

Moore also has the unusual honesty and equally rare modesty to present his own journalism in harshly realistic terms. He reviewed books and movies he didn’t understand. He wrote about the performances of the Santa Fe Opera although his only knowledge of opera came from a reference book. “My job, I thought, was primarily to celebrate the opera and encourage attendance.” However, on the basis of these reviews, Life Magazine hired him as a reporter in its entertainment department.

He is also refreshingly honest about what publications, be they local and unknown like the Tribune or national and prestigious like Life, were willing to undertake. When he finds a group of trailers in the desert masquerading as liquor stores so they could snap up state liquor licenses cheaply and resell them at enormous profits, Looney tells him the story is too old and complicated for the Tribune and he should just write a caption for a photo.

When Moore helps cover an Air Force test of the potential damage of sonic booms for Life, his editor tells him, “We won’t write much. The whole debate is too complex, but it might produce some pictures.”

As a Life reporter, Moore finds numerous inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the investigation of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, but Life’s editor shuts down Moore’s inquiry. What he “deemed important in these situations was not so much finding the truth as getting on with business.”

Moore is not much more complimentary of the Tribune’s larger competitor, the Albuquerque Journal. Moore covered a minor accident in which a crane operator hit the side of a building. The Journal, covering the same story, blew the accident up into a fabricated act of “heroism.” Moore said he learned from the episode what is expected of reporters.

The Trib was always operating under huge handicaps. A marginally profitable chain-owned afternoon daily, its budget was so small that its newsroom was chronically understaffed, reporters were prohibited from flying and the staff was restricted to covering two counties, Valencia and Bernalillo. “We couldn’t even go to Santa Fe,” Moore writes. To compensate, Moore adds, the Trib developed “a penchant for attacking public officials on very small issues.”

When Moore was hired, Looney warned him this “is not the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or even the Denver Post” and was no place for idealism, romanticism or ambitious journalism, what Moore calls “being a cop with a pen.” In the early 1980s, I talked to Looney about a job. He told me the Trib was “not the New York Times,” and added that almost no story could exceed 300 words. Nothing had changed in two decades. I didn’t even bother applying for the job.

There are no heroes in this decade of reminiscences, from 1963 until Life Magazine essentially went out of business as a weekly photo news publication in 1972. There are nice guys and good guys as well as the bad and the corrupt. The overall impression, however, is that this naive and idealistic young man in his 20s received an unforgiving education in how the real world worked. That reality hasn’t changed much in the intervening half century.