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Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Natural wonders aren’t yet in jeopardy as Delaware North claims trademark rights over Yosemite landmarks, but might there be a chance that this beauty eventually will become Buck and a Half Dome?

Encouraged by the best picture award for “Spotlight,” a movie about real-world investigative reporting, I thought this might be a good week to share what I find to be a highly interesting piece of investigative reporting trivia. It is also good timing because of this week’s forced renaming of some of our favorite Yosemite landmarks. Yes, there is a connection.

On a hot day in June 1976, Don Bolles started his Datsun in the parking lot of a Phoenix hotel only to have it explode. Bolles, 47, was an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic and he had done as well as one man could at finding the links between organized crime, Arizona race tracks and corrupt public officials.

His last words, according to those who rushed to his aid, were “Telephone my wife. They finally got me. The Mafia. Emprise. Find John Adamson.”

Adamson, a petty thug, was tried and convicted for his part in arranging Bolles’ death but the murder was never directly tied to Emprise, which had been a focus of Bolles’ reporting largely because of its organized crime connections and its major role in the world of sport, both in Arizona and well beyond.

Forgive yourself if little of this rings a bell. It wasn’t long after Bolles’ death that Emprise changed its name to Delaware North. That should be more familiar because it’s the company that has claimed ownership of the names of various Yosemite landmarks, resulting in the loss of longstanding monikers such as the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Wawona Hotel as of today.

After losing the concession to run the money-making operations at Yosemite, such as the hotels and ice cream sales, Delaware North demanded the National Park Service fork over $51 million for the intellectual property attached to the place names, on the theory that it had marketed and enhanced the names during its 23-year management of the facilities. Unfortunately, there is some precedent because an earlier concessionaire long ago had been allowed to sell what should have been publicly owned trademarks.

The old signs come down Tuesday, though litigation could prevent the Ahwahnee from permanently becoming The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. There also is legislation that seeks to prevent something like this from happening again, before someone changes the name of the Big Sur Lodge to Just Another Lodge or something like that.

But prevention is not the point of this piece. The point is historical, an effort to make sure that when people consider the Yosemite naming controversy they also remember who is involved. This is not the case of some little company from Delaware trying to stand up to the big, bad National Park Service.

What today is known as Delaware North began as a partnership known as Jacobs Brothers and formed to operate theater concessions in Buffalo, N.Y. The operation quickly grew, however, with the three Jacobs brothers taking over concessions at baseball stadiums, first in New York, then in Cleveland and then just about everywhere baseball is played for money.

They moved into racetrack ownership and operations in the 1930s and into airport concessions in the 1940s.

The company became notorious in the 1970s when Sports Illustrated and congressional investigators linked it to a number of well known mobsters. In 1972 the company was convicted on federal racketeering charges for its role in a mob takeover of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was still known as Emprise at that time.

Despite the tarnish, the company continued to grow, still under Jacobs family control, taking over ownership of the Boston Bruins NHL hockey franchise, Boston Garden and additional concession contracts nationwide as well as in England and Ireland.

When it won the concession at Yosemite in 1993, it was the largest national park concession in the nation. It later took over concessions at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and continued to expand its holdings in horse and dog racing.

Despite the high profile dispute over the Yosemite names, Delaware North remains best known as the operator of concessions at major league ballparks nationwide and as the operator of slot machines in five states.

Though company officials seldom comment directly at times of controversy, the company does defend its name by offering statements such as this response to a critical piece in a Boston magazine:

Delaware North Companies is regarded as one of the most admired family owned companies in the world. This is reputation that they earned through integrity in business dealings for nearly 100 years. The company has operations on four continents and 55,000 employees and operates at locations ranging from Kennedy Space Center to national parks. Delaware North is a partner with more than fifty professional sports teams and the Jacobs family is highly regarded for their reputation in the sports and hospitality industry. The Jacobs family is also one of the most philanthropic families in the United States. In fact, last year they were named Philanthropist of the Year and Philanthropic Family of the Year. While I know it won’t sell as many magazines, that might have been a nice story to tell. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
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 So there you have it.

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After seeing the journalism procedural “Spotlight” in Monterey, I want more than two thumbs to thrust upward in ringing endorsement.

I was glued to the seat as the film tautly demonstrates how a Boston Globe 2002 investigation by four reporters unfolded. It shows them working their tails off to reveal the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of scores of sexually abusive priests and hundreds of their victims.

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“Spotlight” is the better of the two great U.S. journalism films of the past 40 years. The other is 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”

The movie about the Washington Post’s Woodward-Bernstein reporting team and Watergate was a Washington, D.C., movie — secret sources, timely leaks, the reluctant but ultimately grinding strength of the capital’s machinery of political power.

“Spotlight,” though based on what happened in Boston and how a Boston paper finally told its Boston readers what happened, is really about good, below-the-surface journalism in any community.

That’s apparent from three screens (using very small type) that appear before the final credits. They compose a long list of other cities around the country and world where cover-ups of Catholic clergy abuse were brought to light after the Globe’s example.

Monterey, of course, was on the list, as someone in the row behind me said aloud as the names quickly scrolled before the lights came up.

Former colleagues of mine at the Monterey Herald had worked those local stories about abusive priests in the Monterey Diocese. And local media still work the story, as evidenced by the Monterey County Weekly’s Oct. 29 cover report on unsealed court records in a case involving alleged sexual abuse by a priest in Salinas.

Much commentary about “Spotlight” has focused on the question of whether the shrinking staffs and resources of American newspapers — especially regional papers and those in smaller cities — will support the commitment to time-consuming investigative reporting like the Globe did 14 years ago.

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, addressed the question in two of her recent columns — here and here.

I’m hopeful important journalism about stories that mean something has a future because I see the evidence every day. That said, the media in Monterey County — home to two daily papers in thrall more to financial returns than community service — have an uphill battle to go beyond the daily blotter into the heart of matters. But there are good journalists here, new tools to gather information, new ways to tell stories, and the old fire that has always begged for “more reporters” and “more time.”

What made “Spotlight” so good were little details the film’s makers got so right about the work reporters do and the buildings where they work. It’s true there is a certain nostalgia for a very recent past at play here.

My heart raced with joy at the scene where one of the Globe reporters asks the paper’s library to pull all the clips — the paper’s previous stories — on clergy sexual abuse.

I loved rifling through those little manila envelopes stuffed with yellowed, but date-stamped clips. When the paper’s own library collected, copied and collated them, I felt bliss. Those were the days.

(Rule of thumb in working a big story: Check all the clips at the get-go.)

Other parts of “Spotlight” had me chuckling to myself. Small details in the film deftly captured so much of newsroom life.

— A farewell party in an opening scene with newsroom staffers holding small paper plates and little squares of frosted white cake. My teeth still ache with the molar memory of so many similar newsroom occasions.

In earlier days, they were usually to honor colleagues moving on to bigger papers, better jobs or family moves. Toward the end of my career, more cake breaks marked simple retirements, buyout retirements or colleagues moving into –gasp — better-paying public relations jobs. The ones who left via layoffs didn’t get to break cake at all with the shrinking pool of survivors.

— Near the end of the film, the top Globe editor scratches out something in a final draft of the first big story in the paper’s investigation. The reporters, who can’t see which of their words are being scrubbed, gasp as if their first-born children are being wrested from their arms.

“Just another adjective,” the editor explains without lifting his eyes.

That’s good editing, what every reporter needs. Nouns and strong verbs tell stories best. Adjectives and adverbs are weaker words, and too often inject a writer’s editorial opinion. Cut them away.

— In a short scene, Rachel McAdams (playing reporter Sacha Pffeifer) demonstrates what a good reporter does best: listen to what people say and ask logical follow-up questions. McAdams’ character actually spends much of her screen time doing what reporters do: knock on doors, interview people and take notes.

In this scene, she confronts a retired priest about his abuse of children. Her expression is neutral as the old man offers a sickening alibi. It wasn’t really sexual abuse, he reasons, because he derived no pleasure. Like myself, I’m sure many viewers felt like slapping the old man silly.

But McAdams’ expression remains unchanged. She hurriedly asks more questions without being judgmental. Keep people talking. That’s what reporters do.

Of course, the scene ends when the old man’s sister appears, tells the reporter to go away and slams the door. McAdams is still writing in her notebook as she goes down the steps, getting all the details of the brief exchange down in the record. She doesn’t react in any way to the door being shut in her face. That’s just part of the job.

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