A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best Reporter That Ever Was

(Photo by Richard Koci Hernandez)

It was a blue Christmas for many members of the Bay Area journalism community because Paul Grabowicz died from cancer the day before.
I've had the privilege of working with some great reporters, including Kevin Fagan and Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle and Harry Harris, the great crime reporter for the Oakland Tribune. But I think Kevin, Henry and Harry would agree that Grabs, as we called him, was the best of the best. He was our hero as well as our friend.
If you were a politician on the take, or a developer who was covering up the fact that he was building on a dangerous earthquake fault, or someone in power who was abusing his authority, Grabs was your worst nightmare, a guy who would never rest until he unearthed the truth.
But if you were an ordinary Joe getting screwed by the system, or a younger reporter in need of guidance, or one of his students at the UC Berkeley journalism school, or a homeless kitty cat, you never met a sweeter, kinder, more generous person in your life. And you never will.
Grabs was a reporter of the old school: funny, profane, cantankerous, hard drinking, irreverent, necktie askew, typing with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, and a cuss word for everyone and every occasion. But his grouch persona was just a mask, and we all saw through it to see the abiding love - there's no other word for it - that lay barely below the surface.
"The UC Berkeley School of Journalism had no higher honor than Grabs flipping you off as he passed you in the hall, which somehow always felt like being bathed in warm light," said former Express reporter Kara Platoni, who taught with him at the J-school.
Whenever I saw him, the first words out of his mouth were always "(Bleep) you," which felt like a love letter.
Grabs worked at the Tribune for 20 years, then spent the next 20 years teaching journalism at Cal, although he refused to call himself a journalist. True to form, he preferred the old-fashioned, working class term, "reporter."
Paradoxically, for someone who was the embodiment of the old school, he was the first to embrace the new school. At a time when most journalism professors were pooh-poohing the Internet as just a passing fad, he recognized that his duty was to prepare the next generation of reporters for the digital age.
He taught the J-school's first course on blogging and created a training program, the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, to help reporters learn digital skills.
"Without him, the school would not have entered the 21st Century," said former dean Tom Goldstein.
In 2013 the graduating class asked him to be the keynote speaker at their graduation, and he advised them to keep digging but not to forget to have fun. "Journalism that only seeks to entertain is frivolous," he said. "But journalism that is only high-minded is a bore."
My deepest sympathy to his wife Anne, to his beloved kitties, and to all of us who now have to live in a world without him in it.
(Bleep) you, Grabs. There will never be another one like you. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. (Grabs would have used a different word.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Christmas Jeremiad

"How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep holidays than commandments." – Ben Franklin
Ever since I was a little kid, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. The presents were nice, but that's not what really attracted me.
It was the Christmas story itself. I loved the irony of those innkeepers turning away Joseph and Mary, not realizing that the baby she was carrying would turn out to be the most important person in history.
How I enjoyed looking down at those innkeepers! What fools they were, I sneered. We would never do that, would we?
Yes, we would. We do it with regularity, especially this year, when thousands of refugees desperately fled the Syrian civil war, only to knock on our door and find there's no room at the inn.
Remember that photo of the dead body of a little boy lying face down in the sand? That little boy was Jesus. And we crucified him all over again.
Ben Carson calls the refugees "rabid dogs." Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush say we should only admit Christians. And Chris Christie says even three-year-olds are too dangerous to take in.
But our bigotry isn't confined to Muslims. Last year, when children from Central America crossed the border to escape drug lords who were killing and raping them, they were met by mobs of American "patriots" screaming and spitting hatred and vituperation. Donald Trump went so far as to say that they are the rapists.
For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my country. One doctor dies from Ebola, and we panic and blame the victims. After terrorists attack Paris and San Bernardino, we try to bar all Muslims from entering the country.
By contrast, France, the country that was attacked, is set to take in tens of thousands of refugees. Canada, with one-tenth the population of the U.S., is going to take in more than double what even President Obama is calling for. Prime minister Trudeau welcomed the first refugees at the Toronto airport, handing out teddy bears to the children, who have been traumatized beyond what we can possibly imagine, and saying, "Welcome to your new country." But we freak out and chicken out.
Whatever happened to the home of the brave?
And for Muslims who already live here, this year has been a nightmare. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims have tripled. Mosques have been firebombed. A sixth-grade girl in the Bronx was attacked by three boys who punched her, stripped her of the hijab she was wearing, and called her "ISIS." In Pittsburgh, a passenger in a cab shot the driver, who was Muslim. In Anaheim. a bullet-riddled copy of the Quran was left outside an Islamic clothing store. In San Bernardino, a man pulled a knife on a Muslim woman at a carwash and threatened her. And politicians are calling for a national surveillance system to spy on Muslims or even round them all up and imprison them, as we did to Japanese Americans in World War II.
Whatever happened to the land of the free?
God is watching us, folks. And as Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
Merry Christmas anyway.