Rediscovering a journo legend

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Frank McCulloch was, briefly and long ago, the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times when Otis Chandler was the fresh-faced young publisher intent on making the partisan Republican paper a serious journalism force. Now 84 and living in a retirement community in Santa Rosa, McCulloch is the subject of a piece in the current American Journalism Review. He gets credit for defying Bobby Kennedy to investigate Teamster holdings in the Hollywood Hills and for running in 1961 a five-part exposé of the ultra-right John Birch Society. Chandler followed with a front-page editorial denouncing the society; 30,000 subscribers cancelled, but the word was out that old Chandler family sacred cows were no longer sacred. [Richard Nixon was still mad about this the following year when he whined to the press, after losing his race for governor, "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."]

McCulloch didn't stay long at the LAT, leaving in 1963 to cover Vietnam for Time-Life. He later led the Sacramento Bee and was managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner.

McCulloch's largely unsung career spans a half-century during a pivotal era in journalism. As an investigative reporter, he exposed political connections to the mafia and brushed off death threats from mob bosses. During the Vietnam War, he aggravated President Lyndon Johnson. His editorial leadership transformed the Los Angeles Times, where he went toe-to-toe with Robert F. Kennedy over reporting on the Teamsters. He fought and beat a dozen serious libel actions, establishing legal precedents that still protect journalists. Along the way he cultivated millionaire Howard Hughes as a source, wrote the first cover story on Thurgood Marshall--before he was a Supreme Court justice--and helped bring down another member of the high court.

McCulloch is most remembered as "a journalist's journalist." Completely bald since his 30s, he looked like the former Marine he was. McCulloch was tough but at the same time showed a decency and easy laughter that made him one of the most well-liked and respected men in journalism.

For all this, the name Frank McCulloch probably doesn't ring a bell for most journalists under 40. After an extraordinary career that shaped investigative reporting, war reporting and First Amendment protections, he may qualify as one of journalism's least-known legends.

The piece is by Jason Felch, a fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Marlena Telvick, an independent reporter in San Francisco.

Edited to correct my misspelling of McCulloch's name


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