Tuesday, June 10, 2008

One Journalist Went Bad, The Other Became Good

Reading back issues of the L.A. Times upon returning from my African cruise, I see that two journalists I knew very well died in late April besides the late, great Chuck Hillinger. (I did Hillinger's obituary blog on April 30 from my ship).

DeVan Shumway, bureau chief in Sacramento for United Press International part of the time when I worked there in 1962-63, died at 77 on April 23. He provides a striking example why journalists, if they can avoid it, should seldom go to work as PR men, or flaks.

Shumway was a conservative, but serviceable bureau chief for UPI. Although he was no comparison to Morrie Landsberg or Bill Stall over at the Associated Press bureau across the hall in the state capitol, he still employed some good people, including George Skelton and Bob Fairbanks.

He was ambitious, and he eventually went to work first for a Nixon cabinet member and former California lieutenant governor, Bob Finch, and then at CREEP, the Nixon relection committee in 1972, the Watergate year. It fell to Shumway to deny the stories in the Washington Post and other news outlets about the crimes of Mr. Nixon and his unsavory associates.

When the Post reported the FBI had linked the Watergate burglary to political spying and sabotage by other CREEP employees, Shumway called the story "not only fiction, but a collection of absurdities" He reacted to a New York Times story that detailed the connections between the Watergate burglars and CREEP by terming it "outrageously false and preposterous." Both stories, as the Times short obituary noted, were eventually established as true.

Shumway died in obscurity in Baltimore. During his career with Nixon, be also engaged in the "non-denial, denial," in which he denied things off the record, which also turned out to be true. Nixon had some semi-honorable spokesmen, like Herb Klein and Sandy Quinn, but Shumway and Ron Zeigler were not among them.

It is, however, barely conceivable that Shumway did not know he was prevaricating when he made his Watergate denials, just as it is barely conceivable that Sam Zell did not know he was lying when he said he would invest in the papers of the Tribune Co., rather than sell or downsize them. But it is not even barely conceivable that Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton did not know he was prevaricating when he said recently that Los Angeles Times employee morale was high.

The same day, the Times published the Shumway obituary, it also ran a paid obituary for the paper's longtime letters editor, Bob Jensen, who died April 27 at the age of 82.

Jensen was one of the distinguished group of writers and editors that the late Tony Day assembled around the editorial pages of the L.A. Times in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was a thoroughly outstanding editor, with whom I had a great many pleasant exchanges and dealings.

As a young Army lieutenant during World War II, Jensen was enraged by indignities he saw heaped on America's Negro soldiers, but he lived so long as to be able to see the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.

After the war, Jensen finished his education, and embarked on a journalistic career which took him to the Associated Press in New York and to the Washington Post and Buffalo Evening News in Washington, D.C. He also served (but not dishonorably) as press secretary to Sen. Hubert Humphrey for several years, before joining the Los Angeles Times in 1971, where he became the letters editor until he retired in 1987.

During these years, the Times was at its height in circulation under Otis Chandler and Tom Johnson, and letters came in by the thousands. Jensen could always be found going through the stacks of letters for those he would publish. Day nearly never interfered with his judgment.

He had an excellent sense of humor about some of these letters. After all, President Truman had once said that he believed that "half the nuts in the world could be found within a 100-mile radius of Los Angeles," an assertion a Times editorial suggested that the newspaper would not rush to challenge, and of which Jensen saw daily proof.

Jensen, in short, was the commensurate professional, everything that Shumway, Zeigler, Zell and Stanton were or are. Of course, in those days, you could be a professional and not get fired for it, as Tribune Co. lackey David Hiller later did with the courageous Dean Baquet.



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