The news this week out of Missoula, where a congressional candidate let his fist do the talking after he ran out of words, caused me to reflect on the times when I, too, was on the receiving end of a overly vigorous response during my journalistic career.
There are only two occasions I can recall, if you don’t count the time a steelworker poked a gun in my ribs and suggested I stop poking into a deeply flawed construction project. Unfortunately, neither of my encounters was witnessed by FOX news, so I never received either the acclaim or derision I deserved.
The first occurred while I was working on a long and involved story about the since-departed Vang Pao, the Hmong general who had worked for the CIA during the Vietnam war. After the war, the general had settled in California and was running a giant scam, telling the Hmong refugee community that he would lead them back to Laos if they would send him money each month. If they paid enough, they could make the trip. Their money, however, was paying for Vang Pao’s fancy living and gambling debts, not for the resistance army he claimed to be forming.
With another reporter, I had gone to a social service agency catering to Hmong folks in Fresno to ask the director, Tony Vang, what he knew about the payments. He said he knew nothing. I said sure you do. He said no I don’t. It went on like that for a while until I looked down at my notebook and he let go with a karate-style jab that landed squarely on my chin.
I saw stars but didn’t fall. I said something witty like “What the hell?” and a couple of Vang’s associates rushed out of their nearby office and led me away into a hot Fresno afternoon.
The other reporter, well, what can I say? She said she was looking in another direction and didn’t see anything. I don’t know why.
Our story about Vang Pao came out a few months later. It was pretty much ignored by the authorities until several years later when the feds charged him with extorting money from his followers, the same scheme we had written about. But because of his old CIA ties, Vang Pao had some hardcore connections in the U.S. government. The charges were eventually dropped. Now there’s a Vang Pao Elementary School in Fresno.
The other encounter also occurred while I was a reporter for the Fresno Bee. Election time was approaching and I was working on a story about how a serious candidate for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had run an insurance scheme years earlier. He was an insurance agent specializing in crop insurance, especially for raisins.
Here’s what he did. When a freeze hit the San Joaquin Valley, he declared that some of his customers had lost their crops even when they had not. So the insurance company he worked with paid for their losses. He then took the perfectly good raisins and sold them on the black market. These were raisins, not peanuts. There was some serious money involved.
Anyway, it was a hard story to put together and we didn’t have anything ready until very close to the election. It is considered bad form journalistically to raise new allegations very near an election but we broke the rule because we felt what we had uncovered was compelling. We published on the Friday four days before the Tuesday election. It ran across the top of page 1. The candidate’s name wasn’t Smith but let’s just call him that. The headline read “Smith implicated in raisin scam.”
Smith was not pleased, so not pleased that he called me up that night and said he wanted to tell his side of the story, which he had repeatedly declined to do before the story ran. So on that Saturday, we met at his campaign headquarters. His lawyer, Brian Tatarian, was there and so was my city editor, Dana Heupel.
We sat on opposite sides of a table. I was on about the third question when Smith snapped. Although he was slightly smaller than I was, he was one of the strongest Smiths I have known. He jumped up, grabbed me by my shirt and arms and essentially dragged me across the table. It was a fairly impressive move given that I carried around a few extra pounds, even then.
Judo-style, he then tried to flip me up against, or through, a floor-to-ceiling window but by then the observers had stopped merely observing. Dana grabbed Smith’s left foot while Brian grabbed the right. Dana and Brian both ended up on the floor, still holding feet, and Smith and I soon joined them there.
By the time we were standing again, there seemed to be consensus that the interview was over. Dana and I went to a bar. Later, we took pictures of the bruises on my arms and shoulders but nothing ever came from any of it.
I believe Smith was the favorite before our story ran but he went on to lose to the incumbent on Tuesday, which was a good thing. I never directly encountered him again but I heard from numerous others about the speech he gave some time later. He was receiving a big award for sports boosterism. He told the assembled crowd how it was one of the great moments in his life and that the only thing that could have made it better would have been for me to have succumbed to a painful disease on the same day.
Overall, the journalistic life isn’t particularly dangerous in the United States, at least not compared to the way things are in many other countries, Mexico in particular. As far as I know, none of the many reporters I worked with over the years was ever attacked but we have all seen stories of reporters and photographers being assaulted at crime scenes or other newsworthy events. I don’t know whether any arrests ever resulted but obviously such occurrences should be taken seriously.
I am writing this, I suppose, as a reminder to folks that it isn’t easy being a reporter but it ridiculously easy to be critical of reporters, to diminish them and their work. I get a little tired of the way reporters are portrayed on TV and in popular literature. Even Michael Connelly, the extremely popular crime novelist who worked at the Los Angeles Times, depicts many of them as the sort who might warrant a poke in the chin or a toss through a window. The truth is, there are times when I probably deserved worse because I could be more than a little pushy, a little obnoxious in my righteousness, but for the most part, reporters are only doing what they do so you won’t have to. Cut ’em some slack.