Rick Rodriguez is the former executive editor and senior vice president of The Sacramento Bee, who joined the Cronkite School at Arizona State University as the Carnegie professor, Southwest Borderlands Initiative. His staff, while at The Bee, won many of the country’s most prestigious journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, the George Polk award for investigative reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, National Headliner’s award, Sigma Delta Chi, Overseas Press Club, American Society of Newspaper Editors diversity writing award, and many others. He was the first Latino to serve as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is a graduate of Stanford University.
February 16, 2011
Interviewer: Russell Frank
Videographer: Karen Mozley Bryan
INTERVIEWER: I thought we might go chronologically maybe, even though it’s not an ethics question per se but just in terms of background like, how you got started in journalism and why you wanted to be a reporter and how you got your job and that kind of stuff.
RODRIGUEZ: I grew up in Salinas, California. I grew up in kind of an interesting family background. On my mom’s side we’re a military family and she was from South Dakota where here parents were Russian and French immigrants. My dad’s side were immigrants from Mexico, my grandparents originally came across the country illegally, they got their green cards, moved from El Paso to Salinas to work in the fields and we’re one of the first really, Latino families to settle there back in the 1930s and so we have long roots in Salinas originally working in the fields as many Mexican laborers find out. My mom met my dad on a blind date, he was a high school dropout; she was a high school honor student. And it was very controversial, white woman - Mexican at that time and they actually threw my mother out when she told my grandparents that she was going to be the wife of a Mexican. And so she actually got placed with a Mexican family, my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in the United States for 50 years and never learned how to speak English so all of their circle were Spanish speakers so, in those days there were long courtships so she placed in with a Mexican family. And she lived with that Mexican family for 2-2 ½ years and learned totally—fully acculturated and so even though my mom is—we’ve made her an honorary Latina and so she’s been a real stickler for education. Her mother was a teacher so she got me reading at a very early age. My dad, as I said, was a high school dropout and when I was growing up he was a garbage man and kind of carried the cans on your back, they didn’t have the lifts then, he had to go in the back and empty it. And so, we came from a very working class family but my mom stressed the education. My dad was a great leader, actually ended up moving up in city government to a midlevel position, he did very well. So I had that kind of influence from my mother saying I need to study, you need to do education. And so she’d play games with me, and being a reporter, the first game that I played was, being a sports reporter listening to radio broadcast of the San Francisco Giants and writing down box scores. And so every morning I would go and see if my box scores were accurate and so that’s actually what first got me interested in journalism…like 1962 I was 8 years old and so as Mays McCovey, their first run at a World Series, my mom would listen to the games with me and she would write up my little stories and she’d correct the stories. I used to read a lot, we used to have book report challenges in my elementary school, and I was fortunate. In those days they would actually track students and most of the students who were Latino got tracked in the slow class. I got tracked—because of my mother’s influence—I got tracked in the high class so I would read more and they would push me to read. Through reading I really like journalism. So, I get to 8th grade, was made editor of the paper there —The Roundup it was called. I was really attracted; still, to sports writing, that was kind of my passion. Went to high school, didn’t take journalism for my first two years and my junior year I decided to take journalism and after the first edition I was named editor of the paper. They didn’t have an editor that year so the next two years I was editor of the paper, did really well. But something that was happening in Salinas at that time was that Cesar Chavez was starting to organize the United Farm Workers and I was in this really unique position and that position was, I’m the grandson of farm workers, my cousins were members of the United Farm workers, and those I was throwing passes to on the football field, were the sons of the growers and the girls that I was dating were the daughters of the growers. So I was going through this very unique perspective—at the same time, we were writing about some of these issues in the Salinas High School newspaper, The Flashlight. So I did very well, won some statewide awards in journalism but still was undecided of my profession and my senior year in the spring I was sitting at home one day and I got a call from the editor at the local paper, he said how would you like to come work as a copyboy at the Salinas California. At the time I was working at El Charrito Market which was a Mexicatessen / tortilla factory, everything. It was really bad on the tortilla line if you ever saw I Love Lucy where she had the chocolates and they were all over the place, that was me on the tortilla line, they’d hit the ground, I’d pick them up see if anybody was looking and I’d stick them in the plastic bag and try to seal it. So, I didn’t think I had much promise there but they asked me if I would come to work at the Salinas Californian.
INTERVIEWER: They knew you worked for the high school paper.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah they knew I worked for the high school paper and, this is the other connection, the editor was the son of the presiding judge of the Superior Court, a man named Eric Rosell who’s a lifelong friend, still see him regularly. My dad’s sister had been Eric’s nanny and family maid growing up and he really loved my aunt and he said, how can I repay Maria. So he called me up took me under his wing and it turned out to be magic. I’m 18 years old, there’s nobody on staff other than Eric who could speak Spanish. So I’m taken to translate on this world important story of Cesar Chavez and the civil rights movement of Latinos—it’s breaking right there in the Salinas Valley. So I started stringing, doing side stories, even though I’m totally untrained other than high school newspaper, and I had a great high school teacher who inspired me and really taught me some basics but I’m covering stories, I’m stringing for, assistant stringing for the Washington Post, Associated Press, writing for when people didn’t have time and I’m totally getting into the journalism profession. And so, instead of going to a four year school I was so hooked by journalism I decided to go to community college here locally, work 35 hours a week at the paper, continue covering the story and then I transferred to Stanford at the end of two years. Would come home on weekends to work on the story, I was just bitten by the bug and when I graduated from Stanford I went back and covered some more. There’s a lot more story but that’s how I got into journalism – so people—reading was really important, my mom’s pushing was really important, my experiences were phenomenally important and I think the perspective I’ve brought was different.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioning Cesar Chavez immediately raises a question that’s an ethics question which is how—you must have been paying attention in general to how the farm workers were covered in the press—nationwide, in California. What did you see in terms of stereotyping or other problems with the coverage?
RODRIGUEZ: I still see it. I still see a lack of depth, a lack of nuance, sophisticated reporting and, I was too young to really recognize what I was seeing at that time. The reporters I worked with were actually good for a small paper they were very sophisticated, very well read. Eric was totally, he’s a renaissance man really and so he understood everything that was going on but watching people parachute into the story was sometimes disconcerting because they would go for quick quotes, not have done the background research necessary to put everything into context. It was, and it has been a really interesting ethical challenge. There was some ethical challenges of being one of the few Latinos covering Cesar Chavez at the time. Cesar himself expected because there were so few Latinos, expected I think that I would be 100% with La Causa, that I would write things that were pro-Chavez. While I had insights that some say I wrote pro-Chavez—but they were different insights. I would look at it from a person’s perspective, a people’s perspective. Cause I think a lot of times, even today, illegal immigrants are demonized. They’re not seen as people, they’re seen as less than human. You know, the ethical debate over the use of “illegal alien”, after Sigourney Weaver made it a show that people started thinking about using that term because of it and in the general public’s mind it made them less than human.
INTERVIEWER: What were you using in Salinas?
RODRIGUEZ: I think at that point we did use illegal alien. And the real debate didn’t start until the 1980s; ultimately I think it changed to illegal immigrant but there were a lot of debates. But on the other side you know, when I was in Salinas I ultimately went to work. My next step was to go to work in Fresno and I was going to cover the farm workers in Fresno for the Fresno Beat and one of the editors at Fresno, very initially walked up to me and said, do you think you could cover Cesar Chavez effectively? And I said, what do you mean, I’ve been covering him for several years now, since I was a kid—still was a kid, I was like 24-25, something like that. I said I covered him objectively for quite a while and he says but, you’re a Mexican and he’s a Mexican. And I had a sharp mouth always and my temper flared and I said, can you cover Dan Whitehurst objectively? And he said what do you mean? I said, he’s white, you’re white. And the guy looks at me and I said okay, I’m thinking in my mind, you’re fired I mean, this is like your second week on the job, either that or you’re going to get labeled troublemaker. He said okay, I understand, and he let me…it never got raised again. But even later, years later when I was already editor of the Sacramento Bee and I had objected to a blog post that one of the editorial columnists had written in which they took some shots at Cruz Bustamante who I never thought—Cruz Bustamante was a lieutenant governor—never thought at that time, I think he was speaker of the assembly and I never thought he was a great leader in some terms but he was a decent legislator, etc. and there were some shots taken at him and I thought they should have been edited or at least gone through and edited, but it was posted directly to the web because it was a blog. And my publisher calls me and instead of saying you know, you’re raising legitimate questions, her first reaction is, there’s some people who are thinking you are just defending Cruz Bustamante cause you guys are friends cause you’re both Latino. And I said I’ve had lunch with Cruz Bustamante once in my life, I wouldn’t consider him a friend. If we ran on the street he wouldn’t know me and I probably wouldn’t know him. But you know, even then, the ethical challenges from Cesar expecting a certain coverage from editors and publishers assuming that you’re going to cover, that puts you in a position that many reporters never feel.
INTERVIEWER: You know Steve Lopez has told me that he’s gotten that kind of flack in LA and of course he’s not Mexican in any way shape or form.
RODRIGUEZ: Right. And you get it and it’s almost like those who are above you feel compelled that they have to ask that question. Obviously I didn’t take a lot of crap as I showed you from, at the age 25, telling the editor what I told him. And it has irritated me. You can also get in a position of getting stereotyped and saying you’re going cover the Latino beat and that’s all you can cover. African Americans probably get the same thing. And some people resist. Right now at the Walter Cronkite School, I’ve started a Latino specialization but I don’t worry about what people think anymore because I think I’ve proven myself as a journalist over the whole spectrum and if people want to have their own ideas of where you’re coming from that’s fine.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about, just summarize why the Cesar Chavez story was an important story—just because I think it’s receding into the past and a lot of people might not be familiar.
RODRIGUEZ: Sure. The Cesar Chavez story, when you start talking about it and the lasting impact of what it did was mainly a civil rights movement more than a labor movement. But when you look at farm workers in California and indeed in other heavy farm worker states; Florida, Arizona, some of those battles that he fought back in the 60s and 70s with the United Farm Workers Union are still being fought, I mean, they’ve never been rectified. And what you have, we started thinking about farm and food—farm work is very difficult, I did it as a kid. Not extensively I worked picking strawberries for a couple of summers—didn’t eat strawberries for like 3 or 4 years afterwards cause I could still smell the stench on my hands even then. But it’s stoop labor. It’s bending over, at that point when I worked there were no places in the fields to go to the bathroom, there was nowhere to wash your hands. I still remember my brother and I picking strawberries one day and a crop duster came, without any warning and sprayed us all with sulfur and we were all yellow. I don’t know what any lasting impact that would happen. And those are the kinds of abuses that were taking place regularly with no question. Cesar Chavez, most of those workers were Mexican although the first farm worker organizer was Pilipino and so Cesar was a community organizer at that point working in San Jose, grew up in Arizona, born in Arizona and he decided he need to unionize farm workers. And it was a difficult position to unionize farm workers because many of them are undocumented immigrants, they’re here illegally. So how do you get somebody who is here illegally to actually confront powers that can have you deported? So he was more than anything a charismatic leader, for the time, who came and started to say, we need to confront these situations, we need to confront the low wages, we need to have toilets in the fields, we need to get breaks. If you’re working in the San Joaquin Valley where the temperatures can easily go into the 110s and above, you need to get water out to you, there has to be some kind of human compassion for workers to go with this. So at that time, you’re talking about civil rights movement just happening, tail end of it. Civil rights, assignments have been done so there’s a public consciousness already in place and the timing was right and he started organizing Latinos, mainly. I said Pilipinos, Latinos, other workers, throughout California, Arizona, some in Texas but mainly California became a movement. It was a civil rights movement more than just a labor movement. Labor concessions, higher wages, all of those things ultimately were won but it became a rallying cry and Cesar Chavez in many states has become a folk hero. Cesar Chavez day is celebrated in Arizona now—not everybody celebrates it but it’s a holiday in California. There are streets named after him, and it’s because he was a leader at his time. The lasting impact—wages are higher—but in some places they’re still sliding back. The union stopped organizing the fields per se and they ended up going into very political—kind of a political mode—where they would support candidates and bring out people to vote, etc., etc. so shifted their emphasis and some people thought that was a bad move and so they never fulfilled their promise but there’s a legacy there that was built and so it was an important story for the time.
INTERVIEWER: So, back to the coverage. Both California TV stations, national TV and you know the California Papers, large and small; San Francisco, San Jose, L.A., Sacramento, I’m curious to know first of all, how often when you were out covering the same story you know, the reporter spoke Spanish? And also, whether you thought the coverage was even-handed…it was sympathetic to Chavez…whether it was…
RODRIGUEZ: I think by and large the reporting was decent. Particularly by some of the reporters that were regular, Ron Taylor from Daily Times was a good reporter but probably I would say he was more sympathetic to Chavez than not. Later I think people, including me wrote some very hard criticisms of Chavez about having retreated to the mountains and not organizing in the fields. But early on I think the coverage was generally sympathetic because you’d see people getting beat up with baseball bats, you’d see teamsters coming in with burly guys and beating up on people. You saw sheriffs and others clash, you saw almost in some of the counties in the valley, there was almost a police reaction against the UFW and against the strikers and all of that’s documented and people…it tends to be…in a way it was the same kind of coverage that Martin Luther King had generated during the civil rights movement and Cesar wasn’t nearly the speaker or whatever but he was a charismatic leader, somebody willing to stand up and be counted and so a lot of the stories took on the same kind of flair and the same kind of flavor of the coverage of the civil rights movement. So it was an interesting period. How many spoke Spanish? Very few, very few. It’s still the situation today.
INTERVIEWER: Really? Still.
RODRIGUEZ: Still. Still not that many speak Spanish. But, I think…the ones that covered it regularly did a really good job of trying to understand it and a lot of the Anglo reporters who covered it tried to learn Spanish, so I thought the efforts were there. The TV folks were another story, just by nature they’d come in for quick hits, then go. Not that many knew the background, know what they’re doing, didn’t get their film of the long march or somebody getting whacked with a bat or something like that. And so the context and the nuances weren’t there, but a lot of the stories that I saw were good. The quick and dirty ones, AP, sometimes rewrites, etc., those days they just took whatever they did and they rewrote it. They didn’t have much depth but the people that did in-depth—I was impressed, and you know, kind of said this is what I want to do.
INTERVIEWER: What about routine coverage of Hispanics apart from La Causa, in terms of—crime stories, or gratuitous mention of ethnicity in stories where they didn’t really belong? You know, those kinds of things.
RODRIGUEZ: It’s still troubling, always has been. I think coverage of Latinos and other minorities—African Americans—you always hear from those communities that you’re portraying us as criminals mainly…pictures. And then when you try to make a difference as an editor, and I tried to make a difference as an editor, I’d say I don’t want just crime, the suspect was a Mexican-American. How do you know? A description like that, I say give me some identifying factors you know, a dark skinned…you noted he’s speaking Spanish, he had a scar on his face. Same thing with African American you know, everybody—and we’d get calls all the time from people who wanted to say that, we need a description and I bet you that that suspect was black or the suspect was Hispanic and you just didn’t want to put it in because you are who you are and you’re holding those out. Had those debates internally. I mean, it’s not only the public that would have the debates. You’d have the debates when you’re trying to diversify a newsroom. I had one of the most diverse newsrooms in America, particularly at the management level and there were grumblings within my own ranks. I remember one sports writer, I had a Latino sports editor, a Latino sports columnist, a Latino deputy sports editor, African American assistant sports editor and the sports writers would call the staff Rick’s Mexican mafia so, you would have…that racial tensions exist everywhere. Newsrooms, people could say that newsrooms are generally liberal. Maybe, until people started looking for reasons why some people are getting promoted and they are not. And so you had those ethical questions abound by how you’re making decisions, what they bring to the paper. I always think that a diverse staff brings different kinds of stories to the paper. Since I left my paper there have been a lot of cuts, I understand what’s going on but the stories, the kinds of coverage that we did they’re fewer and fewer, the kinds of stories that we did and I think part of the newspapers responsibility—and I think it’s an ethical one and a moral one—is to reflect the whole community. Not just a segment of the community that is going to be appealing to advertising, they’re going to be the high demo[graphic]s that people want, you know. And some of that’s changing, the industry is changing. They’re aiming, they’re targeting towards high demo[graphic]s in order to get money and I think that’s the wrong way to go. I think that’s why you’re losing appeal, circulation, relevance, and it’s a bad decision. But in order to get that kind of coverage, you need people who are interested in telling those stories. They don’t necessary have to be Latino or Black or Asian-American to tell those stories. In fact, the reporter at the Sacramento Bee became the ethnic affairs reporter, Stephen Magagnini is a Jewish-Italian from Brooklyn who was just interested in doing these stories. You know, he’ll do things like sit in sweat lodges with Native Americans to gain their trust or he’ll go spend nights on his own without writing a story with Hmong elder, the shaman to learn what they’re doing and part of that I think is a community responsibility of the newspaper, is to let them know who their neighbors are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I think some of that’s gonna be lost in this new era of cuts. Cuts that are necessary because of finance, but if you don’t have people in charge that don’t understand or don’t value those kinds of ideals, then you’re not going to get those kinds of stories.
INTERVIEWER: So how do you figure out as an editor, you mentioned a guy who’s sort of an outsider doing stories about communities and their advantages to that because sometimes outsiders question everything. They don’t have all this…when you’re new, you ask all kinds of questions but if you’re a part of the community it doesn’t even occur to you to ask. On the other hand, insiders have more kinds of incite that are advantageous as well so how do you juggle those two?
RODRIGUEZ: I think you made a really good point; you’re new, you’re asking different questions that many in your readership would probably ask themselves because they don’t understand. One of the things that I tell students now is to look within yourselves to try to understand what you…stories that you may think that are not stories but they’re really unique and you bring a perspective that can illuminate your world for others. And so when I was choosing Steve for that, I took a lot of crap internally because…I said you know, okay, this is a very high profile position under you—I was managing editor when I did this—and it’s going to be a very high profile position and all the African American, Latino, and Asian-American applicants were ticked off because I didn’t select one of them. I said here, it’s an opportunity you do that and I said, he brought a passion to it that I think will serve everyone well. When I talked to the others, they were very well versed in one—Latinos were versed in Latino perspective, African Americans were versed in African American perspective. I wanted this writer to look across the whole spectrum, and he brought something that I just—you know, you make a decision. It’s a judgment call. It turned out to be the right judgment call. Columbia put him in their hall of fame for diversity coverage. He won the ASNE writing award for diversity coverage. He’s done a terrific job, he’s still there but he’s covering that plus other things. He’s done a really good job of covering community. He made end roads into the Muslim community. I think it’s really important that you reach out to communities you don’t know. The Muslim community, when I was managing editor and later editor, were very angry over the way they’ve been portrayed in the media and particularly after 9/11 and they actually had a contingent a couple of times come in to talk about their coverage and how they’ve been portrayed in the Sacramento Bee, and some of it was really bad. I remember a political cartoon that was really bad that—I was managing editor then and I was at a conference in Orange County and the editor called me up, it was like three weeks after I became managing editor—you need to come back we’ve got a firestorm going. So I left right in the middle of the conference. I was on the panel, I left the panel right in the middle of the thing and caught a flight home and had to deal with this large contingent of angry Muslim community. I thought they had a right to do that and I think an editor has to listen to what the community is saying and then to judge whether or not they’re accurate or you’re going to…are you just being politically correct. But the Muslim community afterwards, when I left the Bee, they actually threw me a huge going away party.
INTERVIEWER: This instance you were talking about, it was a cartoon you said?
RODRIGUEZ: It was a cartoon.
INTERVIEWER: Could you describe?
RODRIGUEZ: You know I don’t even…I was trying to remember what the cartoon was about. I don’t, but it was a cartoon…and I can’t remember what it was about, I’m sorry. But we had a really big…there was other ethical challenges I mean, photographs presented ethical challenges. And one I remember, another photograph that caused a huge uproar—rightfully so. And you know, the captions over the photographs had misconveyed with the story. A picture that was kind of innocent, it was a Halloween picture and we had this really cute picture of a young girl, white girl dressed up in her princess outfit with like angel wings. And then we had, powdering her face was a young black girl who was dressed in what appeared to be like a maid’s outfit. And so it was an innocent picture…great chemistry in the picture but the headline they put over it, the caption they put over it was something like, getting enrolled or something…getting in the right roles. Something like that, it was something like that. Oh, getting in character, that’s what it was, getting in character. And they were trying to do a play on a character and obviously the African American community went nuts saying, well you’re saying the character of African Americans is to be a white…to have a white princess and to have a maid be that so, we had a series of issues like that—ethical issues and you know, you learn from them all. I learned to end up reading…somebody was writing an innocent—and I believe it truly was innocent after talking to the guy that wrote it, a Latino—and he never thought of it so I started reading things differently. I mean as an editor you even read headlines to make sure they don’t have innuendo, that you don’t want people to write or you’ll end up on Letterman or Leno with funny headlines. There’s a lot of things; military, images are important, headlines are important, choice of words are important. Intentions might be good but people don’t read into your intentions they actually read into those words and try to guess what your intentions were and a lot of times when a community hasn’t been covered adequately or fairly over a long period of time, the wrong connotations can be taken from those words or those pictures.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things we talk about a lot in the ethics classes are the importance of newsroom conversations. Don’t just have one guy writing a cutline or something like that and nobody else looks at it and then it blows up in your face. So I was wondering if you could think of instances where those conversations did take place that averted those kinds of public relations fiascos or situations where if such a conversation had taken place perhaps it would.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I can talk about some situations where the conversations did take place and I think I made the wrong decision but sure, there have been many conversations that took place that I think have averted public relations disasters. I can think of one off the top of my head. We did a story looking at a cheerleading team in a low income area of Sacramento and this cheerleading team had a series of tragedies. One young girl died of Lupus, another one was struck by some other disease and we followed them over a period of months and how they were coping with the tragedy. Very nice story but over a period of months we took photographs of everything and then wrote a multipart series. One of the stories was about the Hmong girl who had died of Lupus. It was a traditional family who wouldn’t allow you to go to doctors, so she was treated by shaman and ended up dying, we ended up going to the funeral and we took…the family was totally with us, even during their grief they allowed us unbelievable access and we took these beautiful pictures including one that was quite tender of the girl lying in her casket, she looked like she was asleep. Dressed up in traditional Hmong and they had the mother touching her and all of the hands touching her and the facial expression—just wonderful moment captured. First the question we had, whether or not we print the pictures of a dead child. And it was a wonderful photograph, they wanted to print it. But then I raised a question is, this is six months, we’re printing it like four months…six months, I can’t remember, after the kid has died. I said, the family was okay with it then, but what about now. What happens if we bring up these memories four months later? They said, oh no the family is cool, they’re cool. And so I listened to everybody, the consensus was to print it. And so I said you know, I don’t think we should do that without checking with the family. They said well that’s self-censorship and giving the family control and there was a big debate internally about that. I said no, it’s human courtesy and I said part of what we do, yeah we can be cold, we can be hard, yeah we have a right to publish, but do we publish when your gut instincts say that they deserve the courtesy since they let us into this very private moment? Do they deserve the courtesy to find out what the reaction was? So the reporter and the photographer went out, showed the picture to the mother and said we’re planning on printing it and the mother kind of went off the deep end and she went into hysterics. Kind of ended up I think, a couple of nights in the mental ward, etc. and you know, so the reporter and photographer—I didn’t hear this very much as an editor—came back and said, you were right. You know, even though we had that conversation, but you were right, because you know…and I think you do that in stories if folks who aren’t use to dealing with the media…I think you have a responsibility to take the extra step, the ethical responsibility to take the extra step and make sure that they understand the impact of what you’re going to do. Not only on them but that picture or that story that you’re going to write about them is going to be transmitted to a million people and it maybe picked up by other media and it’s going to live on, on the Internet, those images will live on forever. And so, I don’t think we think often enough about that, but I think that that’s a community responsibility. I think journalists in saying we have a right to publish, we’ll publish people’s salaries in public because we can. And we ask the question; do we need to publish that secretary’s salary? Do we need to publish the janitor’s salary? The high level people, you know that are used to dealing with the public, I think it’s fine. They’re big boys and girls and they should know it’s coming and they’re in public service. But we have to ask those questions and I fear and I know that too often people don’t ask them.
INTERVIEWER: I wanted to follow up on something you mentioned a little bit ago about debates about when is race/ethnicity relevant in stories, did you ever wind up developing a standard for that?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah I did.
INTERVIEWER: Share it with me.
RODRIGUEZ: The standard was in crime stores for example, I didn’t allow just saying that the suspect was an African-American male 6’2, they had to have other distinguishing facts.
INTERVIEWER: And why?
RODRIGUEZ: I looked at in saying, I reinforced people’s negative images. Part of it to me was, when I talked to some folks they already say that they notice that people are walking across the street when they’re walking down the street. Does every African-American then become a suspect in a person’s mind. But if you’re doing more identifying; this African-American male with a large scar on his left cheek, your narrowing the field and actually—if the purpose is to help police catch somebody or the public could be aware of whose knocking on your door, then you don’t want every suspect, every Latino male or every minority male, or even every white male to become a suspect, an automatic suspect. I don’t think that’s the way you build community. So, identifying marks I say go ahead. And it wasn’t always clear. There was always debate, is this enough to print. Took a lot of heat because I changed…I had continued the policy of my predecessor, Gregory Favre but there was a lot of pressure on me, even internally, from people hiring me to change that policy and I never did. I think it was the right thing to do. We had cases where we one time said the suspect was an African-American male and it turned out to be a white guy. You know, I mean, come on. And you see as well, you’ve seen the cases, the latest one where…of the woman who threw acid on herself in Seattle and claimed it was an African-American woman who had splashed her face with acid. It turns out that she did it to herself. But you had the cases in Boston where they said they had been kidnapped and then their kids had been taken by African-American males. Again, reinforcing the stereotype which I think was unfair and left people with again, we’re saying okay, people are going to believe it if I say that, and it wasn’t true and the public believed it so to me, it’s got to be more specific rather than… I think you hurt the community, the community building process if you take everything just at very low face value.
INTERVIEWER: So in your own career, you develop all these ideas about ethics, about doing the right thing I mean, in your case, where would it come from, in terms of, how much of it was formal training? How much of it was mentoring by the editors you worked under early on? How do you develop this set of guidelines or principles for yourself?
RODRIGUEZ: You know, I think the guidelines…the ethics I developed were really developed primarily in my childhood. I think my mom and dad and my grandparents—they were poor but they were really honest people. And my hero when I was a kid was the Lone Ranger, truth, justice and the American—you know. And you know, he had his trusty Native American friend. Unfortunately his name was Tonto which in Spanish translates to dummy. But I liked what he did. He helped folks and, even watching those shows and those values. And then my high school journalism teacher was very good, talked a lot about ethics. Then, I had three great mentors. Eric Rosell who I’ve already talked about who picked me out of the El Choritto Market. And then, I was about to quit journalism actually after I got to the Sacramento Bee because I never could move up. I was being kind of pigeonholed. I felt like folks didn’t respect me because I had come from the Fresno Bee to the Sacramento Bee and the whole terrible hierarchy that occurs within news organization.
INTERVIEWER: I know, I feel lucky that you’re even speaking to us.
RODRIGUEZ: But you start thinking, I was thinking about that and I had this guy named Bill Endicott and again, was supposed to have lunch with him on Friday but Bill was the former political capitol bureau chief of the Sacramento Bee and he just took me under his wing. I remember the day he called me in and I said oh man, what did I do again? He closed the door and he says, why have they been keeping you on the sidelines covering this penny ante stuff because you’re really good.
INTERVIEWER: What were you covering?
RODRIGUEZ: Politics. I was covering for Fresno and Modesto. And he says, you’re really good; you may be the best political writer in Sacramento. And he says, I’m going to give you an opportunity, I believe in you. When you hear people believe in you and you look at their ethics and how they conduct themselves; and then Gregory Favre, the editor of the Sacramento Bee, senior vice president of McClatchy, you know he promoted me, I was essentially a recruiter—I was assistant managing editor but I was essentially the recruiter, did special projects for him and edited special projects. It was kind of like the AME that was people who, because they thought he was never going to go anywhere, he’s a Latino sitting in the corner, he’s never going to go anywhere. So when the AME job came open, nobody gave me a chance and I didn’t give myself much of a chance but I never wrote a budget, never supervised anybody, never done a review of anybody, didn’t have anybody reporting to me. And all of a sudden, out of a nationwide search he chooses me to be managing editor. I still ask him, why did you choose me? He said, I knew you would have to grow but he said you had the ethical foundation that I was looking for, you were very principled, you had—and he said, I knew you wouldn’t be the best managing editor I could hire at that moment, he said I knew you would be in about two years. And he taught me a lot, the whole issues about race…he’s a distant cousin of Brett Favre but he says he doesn’t…he pronounces his name Făv…yeah, he pronounces his name right. And he grew up in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi and Bill Endicott grew up in Kentucky and Eric Rosell grew up on the other side of the tracks in Salinas and you know, why were these folks attracted to me, why did they take me under their wing and I think it’s because we share the same values, the same principles, building blocks. We cared about people, we had passion for the business and had a lot of principles ingrained into us by our folks and we’ve talked about—to each one of them, all of them had their real ethical values set in their young childhood which was, I think the same way that we’ve been honed by the people you hung around.
INTERVIEWER: There’s one thing I was curious to ask you is, the situation is that you either were involved in as a reporter or an editor or things that you observed on the sidelines when you’re watching somebody else handle the situation where there was some real ethical—some decisions to be made, some dilemma presented itself—things that you recall that somebody handled it well or somebody handled it poorly, made the wrong decision—either way—paragons and also people who sort of chickened their way out.
RODRIGUEZ: You know, I think some of the things that are happening today with new media, the evolution of ethics online is still being shaken out, I don’t agree with some of them. There was one guy that ended up tweeting something that wasn’t accurate and he got suspended, by a major newspaper—The Washington Post—he got suspended, but if you would have intentionally written something in the newspaper, the penalty would have been harsher. And so you started looking at that and I started thinking about okay, are the standards changing for online? The hardest things for me to deal with were a series of fabrications and plagiarisms.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask you about that.
RODRIGUEZ: It’s a very difficult situation because the people that generally got caught were extremely talented. And when you started looking at, we built a very talented staff and the folks—part of it is they don’t live up to their own standards and part of it is being lazy and part of it is being basically something—ethical values that we talk about…the hardest one, one of the hardest ones I did was Diana Griego Erwin who was a Pulitzer prize winning reporter who then became a columnist. She won a Pulitzer as part of a series of stories of public service done by the Denver Post looking at kids—missing kids whose pictures were put on the milk cartons. She then went to the Orange County Register as a columnist, won an ASNE writing award and then came to the Sacramento Bee. And we had a really difficult time. Diana was hired by Gregory Favre and Peter Bhatia who was the managing editor of the Sacramento Bee at that point, now he’s editor in chief at the Portland Oregonian. And Peter’s a dear friend as well, but they hired her and the system was that she reported directly to Gregory and so she got used to having him edit all of her stories, Gregory was a real hands-on editor if he was in Egypt he would have stories faxed to him so he could edit them. And so, edited very closely with Gregory, when I became editor, ultimately, I would look at Diana’s columns but I didn’t think that that was the right structure so I had her report to the metro staff, she was a metro columnist and the metro editors would read her stories and edit her stories. One day the editor in charge on a weekend was reading her Sunday column and she had asked Diana in editing—I said edit it hard, ask lots of questions. And this editor did the right thing and she asked Diana, can you tell me the name of a bar where this bartender that she had quoted worked at. And Diana say, well I can’t remember and she says well, you don’t remember the bar? You didn’t write it down? She says no I didn’t write it down I was in a rush. She says, well can you tell me what area it is in town…she says well, I don’t see any bars in that area, could it have been this bar or this bar? She said no, it wasn’t that bar. The whole story seems fishy, so the managing editor calls me up after this line editor had called the managing editor so I say let’s hold this story. So then I started thinking, I said oh man, this may not be good so let’s find the bar, did she fabricate it? So I sent the assistant managing editor from metro out and he spent like 3 days going to every bar in the area that she said she went to, asking did anybody work here by this name and did we talk to you, do you remember this? Couldn’t find anything. Call in Diana, she swears she did that. So I kept her on with pay but I held the column. So, long story short, we ended up ultimately looking in her columns all together, found out there were cases where she could authenticate and led us to believe that she fabricated many columns, from the beginning when she arrived to the time that she ended. She never admitted to it, so I often question myself because during most of that period I was either managing editor or editor. Should I have questioned the relationship between Diana and her editors earlier? Should we have edited her harder? Did we give her star treatment in a way that allowed this to happen and what does that say to other folks on the staff? I think ultimately we did the right thing but probably several years too late, that we didn’t edit hard enough, that there was, in fact a star system that we allowed to happen. I think in the end we probably handled it right but in the beginning we handled it very poorly and we allowed that to happened and allowed that to fester and allowed her to feel that comfortable that she felt comfortable enough to make up stuff and not being able to be held to the same standard. Interestingly, I had readers call me up and say, Peter Bhatia’s mother-in-law, one of them, I went to her house and she said, you fired Diana. I said, yeah I did. She said she was my favorite writer. I said well she fabricated. She said, I don’t care, I wish they would have fired you. So, she had made a connection with people and they didn’t care if she was telling false stories—didn’t care. They just, they liked her, and they’ve connected with her.
INTERVIEWER: Nobody objects to novels.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, that’s what it was. But that’s not what newspapers are about. Obviously to me, fabrication is the ultimate you know, kind of like transgression. Plagiarism, there are degrees, if you lift a paragraph and you don’t attribute it, it’s your first offense, you’re going to get suspended and warned not to do it again. If you do it multiple times you’re going to get out. But for me, when you’re making stuff up and I don’t have the trust that I’m sending you out and I can’t trust your report—this whole business is based on trust, something I’ll be talking about tonight. This whole business is based on trust. And you know, what we have to sell as journalists to the public is credibility. And if they can’t trust what we write and we can’t trust our sources, if we can’t trust that the government officials are being fair and accurate in what they’re reporting, if we can’t trust that in general that the cops are going to have society’s back, then the whole democracy we have in the United States breaks down. And we’re seeing that right now in Mexico. That whole system is breaking down in Mexico, it’s right there before your eyes. So for me, when you’re fabricating and as an editor, I cannot trust my reporter—you understand what I’m saying—and it’s the same thing. You know at some point if you know, in this whole shakeout, if the publisher or the editor don’t get along or if editors refuse, don’t want to cut and the corporate folks say well I can’t trust them to cut; hey, it’s time to make a change. And there’s different things this whole system develops on a system of trust and that’s what we’re about.
INTERVIEWER: I have a couple of questions about Diana’s situation. One is, my impression is she did a lot of columns about illegal immigrants and there had been fairly highly publicized cases where the exposure of somebody’s name led to INS agents swooping in and deporting somebody. You could see where there would be a lot of sensitivity about not wanting to reveal the names of sources in those kinds of columns.
INTERVIEWER: Did that become an enabling device for her?
RODRIGUEZ: Perhaps. I think anonymous sourcing is scary. When I was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors I actually had a national conference trying to get together a national standard for anonymous sourcing. It didn’t go anywhere of course, cause nobody could agree but I think anonymous sourcing is dangerous. You can make up quotes; you don’t have to tell anybody anything. On the other hand, you are right. If you’re trying to write about illegal immigrants and you’re afraid of being deported or if in the case of Mexico you’re interviewing people and you’re afraid that the drug cartels might execute them, you look at anonymous sourcing in a different light. Did that probably enable Diana? I don’t know because a lot of the stuff she did—there was one of them that she did I just…the one that sticks in my head and I still remember talking to her and she ended up writing about a woman who had allowed a homeless person to live in an add-on to her house, it wasn’t actually another room. It wasn’t actually a garage but it was like a storage room that she had allowed a homeless person to do that. She described the house, she described the area the house was in, she described a cat curling the cat’s tail around the coffee maker as she was interviewing. So I said, Diana take me to the house, just drive me to the house. It’s only few blocks from here; we’ll drive up and down Blvd Park until we find this house. She says, well I did the interview by phone. I said so how could you describe the cat curling its tail around the coffee maker?
INTERVIEWER: Kids would say, busted.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, yeah, kids would say busted. She didn’t cop to it she says, well the woman was describing things to me and I said so you’re telling me during a conversation, the interview, that you’re saying, what’s your cat doing now, it’s curling it’s tail? You know, busted but…never willing to do that and so with 100% certainty am I sure that every case that we thought she fabricated, she fabricated? Probably not 100 but 99.5. But doing stuff on illegal immigrants, using anonymous sources gives you the potential to make stuff up and that’s why I like putting names by it. Again, it goes back to that whole idea of trust and credibility. But there are certain situations—Watergate. You know, you needed to protect that anonymity but again it goes back to, do you trust your reporters? Does it bind…have they given you a reason to trust them. And does the public have a reason to trust you? One of the things that scares me about the future, are we going to erode that trust? Has accuracy given a way to immediacy? It’s a big issue. People now, when I talk to editors you know…I had one of the folks at McClatchy one time said, you’re not getting on the web fast enough, I said I want to be accurate. And he said well, my new motto is instead of ‘ready, aim, fire’ it’s ‘fire, ready, aim’. And I said, well it’s not mine. And I think that ultimately we will damage ourselves as we’re trying to differentiate ourselves on the web as established institutions as the credible news organizations, I think we will damage ourselves by taking approaches like that.
INTERVIEWER: The only real follow-up I wanted to ask you about this is, what did you do in terms of preventative measures after these fabrications were uncovered?
Rodriguez: Yea, we had Bob Steele come in from the Poynter Institute to do a series of stuff on ethics. We wrote policies, very explicit policies and handed them out to everybody who is on staff. Everybody I interviewed for a job from that point on, I talked to them about fabrication, plagiarism, made them sign before they started something that said, with every fabricator we understand that fabrication or plagiarism is not part of the DNA at the Sacramento Bee and anything like that could lead to, up to including termination. So I took some really strong, both reactive steps to go back. See, this is the kind of thing that was weird because, I didn’t think I had to explain that to people. I thought it should be part of the reporter or the editor’s DNA. I thought this should have been engrained in us through our careers or through journalism schools or from my own perspective, through your own childhood. I thought that’s what you came to journalism about is to be about, try to tell the truth as close to it as you can get.
INTERVIEWER: Yea, you know when people ask me when I was a reporter were you ever tempted I said you know, in a way the challenge of the job is to write a good story with what you have and no more. It’d be like trying to write a fourteen-line sonnet in fifteen lines it’s like no; the challenge is to write it in fourteen lines you know.
Rodriguez: I was never tempted but what I ended up doing is I always told myself, I’m a good enough writer if there’s a hole I’m going to write around it. And so if I don’t have it, I’m going to write around it. In a way I was still lazy, but I wasn’t dishonest and lazy. It just appalled me. I was just surprised how many people did…before I was still editor, I had the dean of one of the journalism schools, a real prestigious journalism school in the country called me and said, students these days don’t see anything wrong with lifting stuff from the Internet without attribution.
INTERVIEWER: The remix man.
Rodriguez: Yeah. And I’m saying oh wow. I mean, teaching ethics now is more important than ever. Because it’s so easy in this Internet age. You have so much information at your disposal. You say okay, I’m going to lift it, no one’s ever going to find it. Interestingly enough it’s easier to find stuff too cause you can run all kinds of programs to look for plagiarism too and so students or journalists who are thinking they’re being clever might end up wrecking their careers. Once you do something like that, you’re pretty much blackballed. I mean, once you’re fired for plagiarism or fabrication, you’re gone. You could be one of the best writers in the country; you could be whatever, time to go into fiction. You’re not going to get back onto an organized journalism site. I’m not sure though, is that going to change with the Internet? Is that going to change with self-publication? Do the standards change nowadays and so it’s a challenge that I think we as educators now and the current crop of editors and reporters and bloggers and people who are doing their own sites is a challenge, that discussion needs to be had.
INTERVIEWER: Do you issue any decrees like, from now on everybody’s got to list all their sources at the bottom of the story with contact information?
Rodriguez: No because I did not want to say because I didn’t trust one reporter, that I don’t trust the rest of you. I think as a leader if you do something like that, you’re going to lose cred[it] within your own department. They’re going to say everyone, just because Diana did it and they didn’t catch her for ten years doesn’t mean I did it, how dare you accuse me.
INTERVIEWER: But then you never really know right?
Rodriguez: You know, you have to trust. And that’s in the hiring process and I do all the hiring myself but as a leader I think people are looking to you and if you keep your own standards high, they generally will. I think it’s really important and I don’t see people putting as much emphasis now with this Internet age of being accurate and thorough. I see too much on being first, and that worries me. That worries me.
INTERVIEWER: So I really do want to let you go but can I ask you, I’m going to make this my last question, I just want to know, once you moved into upper management, you start to get into the crossfire of, things that are good for the newsroom aren’t’ necessarily good for the boardroom.
INTERVIEWER: Those pressures, were there any real pressures exerted on you that resulted in ethics problems for the paper?
Rodriguez: Certainly. Yeah there were, and I’m not going to go into the specific ones but I think the role of the editor over the last ten years has changed. When I became editors and the editors who trained me, Gregory Favre, I think the role was more of a journalism rule, protecting the newsroom, being the watchdog for the community. As finances got worse in our industry and the finances, the models started changing, I think the role of the editor became more, instead of working with a publisher but also, the old editor would butt up against the publisher. You would challenge the publisher and say no, we can’t do that. What happened I think, what has happened is the editors now have become—in many cases, not in all case but in many cases become an extension of the publisher. And so what’s good for the business sometimes takes precedence over what’s good editorially or what’s good maybe even ethically and I think that that’s a challenge. When you’re looking for a new model and you’re looking to finance, and you’re maybe even on the verge of, how do I survive this period? When’ you’re pushed to survive it changes things. And I think it’s changed the role of the editor. I think the editor has become more of a marketer. It’s become more of a cheerleader instead of a guardian. I saw my role really as being the guardian of the soul of newspapers. That was what I called a part of my speech I did for ASNE. I think we were the protectors of the soul, the principles, the ethics, the community. What the community needs to do and they…we were supposed to push up against what the business side wanted to do and challenge them and have those discussions. Now I think because of the pressures people are under, editors are expected to acquiesce automatically instead of raising questions. And I think that that, over the long-term, will erode credibility, the credibility and the trust. Hopefully that will return to that. That we’ll be able to do that when the financing and the economy stabilizes and people get back on the road but I think we’ve gone down a different road. We’ve gone down a different path. Could great editors of the past now who were old curmudgeons who ended up fighting back against publishers and say I’m not going to do that, could they do that today? In some organizations, yes, certainly but in others, that’s not the model.
INTERVIEWER: So should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of ethical journalism?
Rodriguez: I’m always optimistic just because—what’s giving me optimism right now is the students I work with. They’re great students, the cream of the crop. I get grad students and seniors that are really committed to journalism but I am blown away at how principled they are, how they understand what the legacy of ethical journal is and what they need to do to preserve that. When I first went over I said, I’m going to go take a couple of years, go teach, and then I’m going to go back into the trenches. I’m not sure I want to anymore. Here we’re building the future, we’re establishing the future of journalism schools like Penn State and Arizona State and other great journalism schools across the country and we have the ability to pass on what is good about journalism, and what has been good about journalism. And these students have the ability to translate it and to deliver the news in ways that we never even dreamed of so, that makes me optimistic. Do I think there are challenges? Yeah. I worry a lot. I worry about standards slipping. I worry about the pay wall between editorial and the business side slipping and crumbling and ultimately eroding. But the people—which journalism is really about people—you ask people to do extraordinary things and to write about people and the people that I’ve worked with are giving me hope for the future.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.