Thursday, May 04, 2006

Harry Bernstein, One of LAT's Most Prominent Reporters, Is Dead

Harry Bernstein, the man who introduced coverage of organized labor to the Los Angeles Times, and an unabashed exponent of the American labor movement, died Tuesday at 83.

I had several kinds of relationships with Harry. We agreed certainly on labor issues at the Times itself and often joined together in attempting to advance reporters rights. Harry was always encouraging to me in my talks with management, and he pursued his own vigorously.

But there were also strains in our relationship. Harry was liberal and I was either conservative on some matters or at least independent. Harry, for many years, was a strong Democrat while I was a moderate Republican. We socialized together, me often going to wonderful parties given by him and his wife, Joanne, and the two of them coming to my house. But we also often expressed our conflicting political views to each other behind the scenes.

In 1971, when Harry was in his heyday as a reporter and I was Southern correspondent for the paper, Ed Guthman, then national editor, sent me to Miami to assist Harry in covering an AFL-CIO convention.

I went up with Harry to the suite of the head of the Sailor's union, and while I can't remember the man's name for sure (I think it may have been Paul Hall), I do remember his telling an aide in a loud voice, "Get me ten pounds of filet Mignon." This to me symbolized the high living style of many labor leaders. Harry was more sympathetic.

Also, at the same meeting, I overheard AFL-CIO head George Meany, telling someone in the hotel lobby that then-President Richard Nixon was "a weak man and weak men are dangerous." I wrote a story about the telling remark. Harry was uncomfortable that I had quoted Meany. He was probably right when he said the labor leader would not have made the remark had he known a reporter was listening.

By the time, Harry began writing a labor column, for the paper it was highly predictable.

Yet I always admired Harry for his diligence. He was a hard worker and knew everyone who was anyone in the labor movement. A great newspaper like the Times thrives on having reporters who are well plugged in in a whole host of areas, and Harry represented the paper well in the areas of his expertise.

Bill Thomas, the editor during much of the time Harry was labor reporter, sometimes was privately a little impatient with him. But Thomas and Otis Chandler often listened to Harry on matters of employee relations, and the Times was a happier family because of his presence. What a difference between then and these days of Tribune control, in which the staff is treated with less understanding.

It is with sad emotions that I read of his death this morning. Harry had been in declining health for a long time, and at recent meetings of the Old Farts, the Times retired employees association, he was present but really unable to speak.

What he represented at the Times was important. It was important that the Times proved its fairness to a segment of society, organized labor, which it had for so long been unfriendly to, and Harry stood for the desire, on the part of Chandler and Thomas, to be fair across the political spectrum. These days, the Times has dropped its fulltime labor coverage and that is too bad.

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