Signal 100 | When reporters run wild

No. 8 in a series of 52 commemorating 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth.”
— William Butler Yeats

There was this Signal editor. Cripes. We had so many of them. I can be excused for not remembering his name because he only lasted 20 minutes. The chap had a resumé mostly based in fact and was from one of those big downtown Los Angeles papers.

It was in the mid-1970s and he was allegedly replacing a war-weary Ruth Newhall who “Had Had It” with “You People.”

That would be us. Editorial.

The Dancing Susan Starbird

The New Guy Editor Man wiggled his behind into Ruth’s chair, moved a box of paper clips from one side to the other and then gave his first, and last, assignment. Susan Starbird was our government reporter and was covering a half-dozen stories, including some tedious affair with the county Board of Supervisors. Or, “Stupes,” as we liked to call them. T.N.G.E.M. had done a little homework and knew the story. What he didn’t know was that all the county supervisors were out cutting ribbons, staying awake at luncheons or tickling their mistresses. There was no business to be reported that day and Starbird had to feed the Great Front Page Beast with other boring watchdog stories involving bureaucratic mouth-breathers.

Marking turf, T.N.G.E.M. ordered Starbird to drive down to L.A. to cover, well, nothing.

This was a test of wills.

The New Editor Guy said: “I’m the editor now, and when I give you an order, you follow it!”

For the rest of us huddled in that cramped office on 6th Street, this was just absolute extra ice cream yummy. Prior to her career writing stories with the word “mitigate” overused, Starbird had been a dance major at CalArts.

That day, she was wearing a Danskin ensemble — flaming red high heels, flaming red fluffy dress, flaming red tight top. She took in a deep breath, let it out, climbed out of her chair, climbed ON TOP of the frosh editor’s desk and did what I’m guessing is The Flamenco while singing out: “No! No-NO! No-No-No-No-NO!!! NO-NO!” and so on. With each “NO!” she spun and slapped the guy in the face with her skirt.

People. This was good journalism.

The rest of us didn’t help, yelling out pretend-Spanish phrases and clapping our hands. Poor guy sighed, walked out, got in his car and never returned to collect his 20 minutes’ severance package from alleged publisher Tony Newhall, whom I’m convinced would have found some devious excuse not to pay the guy the 8 cents.

“I didn’t want to tell Mother I worked as a journalist. She thought I was a prostitute. Locking yourself in a room and inventing characters and conversations which do not exist is no way for a grown man to behave.”
Sebastian Horsley

Clyde Smyth, former pal, superintendent, city councilman and mayor, once referred to Signal staffer Lionel Rolfe as: “A health code violation posing as a reporter.” This was back in the 1960s. Lionel could be a smidge painful to look at. Tufts of unwashed hair erupted from every visible pore of his body and that which was hidden by unwashed clothes I care not to know.

Lionel Rolfe, Eater of Trustee Cookies

Sometimes to cover important suit-and-tie events, Rolfe wore huarache sandals and no socks, exposing two, deformed blue feet.

Smyth told me this one years ago: At a William S. Hart Union High School District board meeting, the gang broke at halftime for punch and cookies. Waiting in the back was a big bowl of punch and a dozen-dozen cookies. Trustees, consultants and interested suits froze en masse at the sight of Rolfe standing there, the 83rd oatmeal raisin cookie being slogged down into his extended stomach by a last mouthful of punch.

Summers in Newhall are hot and no one in their right mind wants to wander about in them.

Rolfe invented a story that kept him in air-conditioned Signal office splendor for about two weeks. Rolfe once told me of a scam that appeared as a divine vision. August is a slow news time, and Lionel innocently called a merchant in sleepy Agua Dulce to ask if he had heard anything about a huge rock concert to be held at Vasquez Rocks, sponsored by the Hell’s Angels.

Then, he called another merchant.

And that’s how a rumor is born.

Soon, Agua Dulceans were calling each other for more details on the upcoming albeit nonexistent rock event sponsored by the pillaging outlaw motorcycle gang.

Rolfe waited a couple days. Under the A/C duct, he made more calls. He asked if people had heard a rumor about some sort of musical event.

People were more than happy to panic and have their hysteria quoted in The Mighty Signal.

Rolfe didn’t have to add firewood, oxygen, gasoline or blow torches to the fire. He asked how everyone, from women and children to the local sheriff’s, would prepare. Markets overstocked with cases of extra beer, soda, toilet paper and potato chips. Ammunition sales increased. Extra police were scheduled. And Lionel Rolfe wrote all about it, including the denouement of asking locals what happened to the musicians and bikers when they never showed up.

“Working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. Everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes.”
Nora Ephron

If I ever could offer my child one bit of advice, it would be to never split a meal check with reporters. You will be taken advantage of without a kiss.

Back in the 1990s, about a dozen of us Signalites went out for lunch. An absolute cancer to the Morris Newspaper Corp., I was the highest-paid person in editorial, on an equal pay scale with towel boys in an Egyptian brothel, Skid Row blood donors and the Untouchables of India. Idiot me, I offered to be the bank, and we’d each divvy up our fair share.

It was a fun lunch. Until the bill came.

It was $135.

Eleven reporters kicked in $63.

Anyone good at math? Counting tip, I ended up paying $89 for a cheeseburger, fries and soda pop. I almost paid $99, but shamed The Signal staff into digging for loose change, pocket lint, watches and IOUs. One reporter, the business editor, a stinking socialist, actually had the gall to complain that he had to kick in $7 for a club sandwich, beer, coffee and pie.

Tell your children.

Separate checks when dining with reporters.

“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”
Mahatma Gandhi

I hope there’s Tim Whyte in my next lifetime. Although maybe as professional baseball players — instead of stinking journalists. You couldn’t have The Signal without him. There isn’t a harder-working soul, pragmatic, kind, questioning, fair and chock full of ethics and morality. For more than a decade, in the old Creekside Road building, we’d play catch with a Nerf football, zinging Tom Brady bullets over the heads of staff, insulting one another and discussing editorial ideas.

Alas. Despite all Tim’s uncountable qualities, the current Signal editor has a dark side.

Tim Whyte, staring off into the horizon

We were once manning The Mighty Signal booth at the most senseless and tedious of community events, Business Expo, or, “Sexpo,” as he called it. I spent most of my shift leaning back in a folding chair, Stetson covering my eyes, as I tried to nap. Tim would be on the lookout for the publisher, Will Fleet.

“I’m telling you, Fleet’s never going to show,” I mumble from under my cowboy hat. “Morris has got him on hourly.”
People would sheepishly meander to our stall and ask for freebies. I can’t even begin to list the corporate logo nonsense we doled out. Whoopie cushions. Key chains. Free newspapers, so they could throw them in the wet gutter themselves when they got home. We gave out free Signal Frisbees, so that when the kids threw them over into the next condo project next door, the neighbors would have the telephone number to both report the crime and phone in a subscription.

A little string bean of a girl, maybe 11, was scouring our table with greedy eyes and asked, “What do I have to do to get a Frisbee?”

It’s a side I dearly appreciate in Tim, one the public rarely sees. Some philosophers call it, “Evil.”

Dryly, Tim nodded five booths down where the McDonald’s display sat. Manning the showcase was a giant Ronald McDonald himself, in giant full-clown regalia. Tim offered the girl a Frisbee all her own, if she could hit the primary-colored circus reject.

“Aren’t the Frisbees free?” the child asked, neener-neener style. “I’m telling.”

My memory isn’t what it used to be. I think Tim threatened to write something bad in the newspaper about her parents that would send them to jail.

Or maybe that was me.

I offered the girl five bucks to do the hit. In my defense, I never expensed it.

Damn if that little beanpole girl didn’t Lee Harvey Oswald nail Ronald McDonald smack dab bullseye in his pancake temple — with one throw. The guy’s orange hair almost flew off. Worse, Ronald’s really ticked off, his head’s jerking back and forth as he’s looking around like the Bulldog in a Sylvester the Cat cartoon, trying to find the mutt who just beaned him. Double worse? Mr. McDonald looking down at our table JUST as the little girl sticks her hand out to Tim to be paid.

Triple worse?

Tim and I, not at all in the camaraderie and spirit of Business Sexpo, are laughing our heinies off at the disheveled burger mascot with the head wound.

An angry Ronald McDonald is not a pretty sight. It’s somewhat counter thematic, the angry face, the hyperventilating, the balling of fists, the bouncing up and down in black-patent leather shoes the size of canoes. The guy obviously had clown anger issues long before we beaned him.

Tim Whyte has written many courageous columns and editorials over the years for this paper. But never have I been prouder of the Saugus High ex-linebacker and hockey player when he nodded at Ronald and yelled so everyone at Sexpo could here: “Yeah. Right, Bozo. Why don’t you just stumble over here in your size 98 shoes, and I’ll knock all the clown white off of you!?!?!”

It was a good day for journalism.

“Newspaper people, once celebrated as founts of ribald humor and uncouth fun, have of late lost all their gaiety, and small wonder.”
Russell Baker

There are so many daft and wonderful Signal souls who have toiled for pennies and byline. Art Beeghley was the business editor at our old 6th Street offices. He’d churn out encyclopedias on local commerce, working 60-plus hours. A solemn, but impish and large man, Art would stop his furious typing, climb onto his chair and belt out like Pavarotti old show tunes and I mean with passion and con gusto. Then, 64 bars of “Old Man River” latter, Beeghley would sit back down and type thousands of words no one would read.

We had a fetching reporter who was sleeping with five different reporters and photographers, and that was just Signal Staff. I counselled her: “Pick one.”

There was a head photographer, beanpole skinny who dressed in outlandish disco outfits. He’d take candid photos of young women and their underwear, rub his hands together in the dark room and slurp, loudly. It made your skin crawl.

Another wrote some sort of mom column. She didn’t like her mug shot and asked we send a photographer to her home as the paper’s an hour from being loaded onto the presses to snap a few beauty head shots.

Well. No. And, on top of that, no, again…

So, she shows up minutes later with a Sharpie. Not a thin one. The thick ones homeless people use to scribble on cardboard. She starts trying to highlight her hair in the mugshot and it doesn’t go well. She ends up drawing a giant football helmet with her eyeballs and nose sticking out.

When the legendary pirate/editor Scott Newhall saw the photo, it would be a perfect ending to say that they never found her body. I do know she got loudly fired in the predawn hours the next day.

There’s so many strange stories about the staff of The Mighty Signal the last century. We’ll return with more in future episodes.

I’ll leave you with one last one that still haunts me. It makes me sigh and reflect on the futility of trying to fix things.

I was editor for 20 minutes. One by one, I called in reporters and staff to coach them on style, reporting and writing. It was easier to convince Jimmy Dean to go vegan. One feature writer’s prose was, to put it kindly, tepid.

Easy to fix.

“Life is happening all around us, in vivid detail,” I told her. “Look around. Describe what you see. Paint a word picture with colors. Describe what people look like in your stories. Observe. Give details. Write! Write with accuracy and truth, but write with drive and passion!”

I waited for her response.

You know what she told me?
“I…uh, can’t. I’m married…”

John Boston earned the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with 118 other major journalism honors. He’s penned tens of thousands of stories, columns, reviews, editorials and features. He is a historian, novelist, best-selling author, humorist and, with a career nearing 40 years, the longest-serving and most prolific journalist in The Mighty Signal’s century and the most prolific satirist in world history.

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