Remembering his days at the Bay Guardian

The death of any newspaper is a sad occasion. But it was personal when I learned that the plug had finally been pulled on the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Midwestern-journalist-transplant Bruce Brugmann founded the paper in 1966, and for several decades the Guardian lived up to its masthead-pledge of "printing the news and raising hell." It was a progressive-leaning thorn in the side of San Francisco's establishment written by a revolving cast of scruffy and dedicated renegades with Brugmann as the master of ceremonies.

I first met Bruce when he was a teaching Journalism 101 at UC Berkeley. A girlfriend at the time urged me to make journalism my second major. "It's easy and it'll look good on your resume," she assured me.

bay-guardian-dan-white-cover.jpgNothing about my introduction to journalism was propitious. Fifteen students - god knows what happened to them! - met in Bruce's early morning class on the top floor of Sproul Hall, the administration building. The room was equipped with a dozen or so desks with battered manual typewriters. I remember struggling with stuck keys, haywire space bars and unpredictable carriage returns. An in-class typed paper often looked like a Morse code signal sent from outer-space.

Bruce's instruction in the basic mechanics of journalism was eccentric, off-the-cuff, informal. Today it would not make it past any rigid syllabus-test and class outline requirement.

Mostly what I got out of the class was Bruce's life-story. After a stint as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal, Bruce came to the Bay Area to rattle the cages of the mighty with his infant Bay Guardian. Class instruction often consisted of Bruce's rants about the monopolistic power of the SF Chronicle and SF Examiner and their joint operating agreement that allowed the two papers to circumvent anti-trust laws and share production room facilities and costs.

I don't remember my grade but I do remember being scolded by Bruce for my overly florid-style of writing. At the time, I also had a magnificent obsession - with words. And the more colorful and arcane the word, the more likely I was to introduce it in the infrequent news-writing exercises Bruce assigned.

It was few years later that I showed up looking for a job at Bruce's ratty Bay Guardian office located south of Market Street. Derelicts and warehouses were the paper's neighbors. Bruce's desk reminded me of a scene from the movie Man on a Flying Trapeze where W.C. Fields, a disorganized klutz, improbably finds a critical note buried under a pyramid of cluttered papers on his desk. I had plenty of evidence during my job-interview that Bruce could not have accomplished that same feat at his own desk.

But Bruce did put me to work doing freelance stories.

My "magnum opus" for the Bay Guardian was a story about the workings of the Central Intelligence Agency in San Francisco. It was largely an account of my efforts to locate the CIA's secret office and obtain an interview with its "agents" about why the CIA even had an office in San Francisco. This was the kind of derring-do journalism that - I later learned with some degree of pride, mixed later with embarrassment - was typical of the juvenile investigative reporting of the 1890's when newshounds like Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis engaged in various subterfuges and disguises to get scoops.

I haven't read the story in years. It's in a box in the garage probably overrun by silverfish. But I do recall how it featured the CIA's assistant station chief handing me a CIA job application during one of our encounters in a coffee shop in San Francisco's financial district and providing me with a personal introduction to CIA boss Richard Colby before Colby gave speech to the local Council of Foreign Relations chapter at the Sheraton Palace Hotel.

It was all in the story, and Bruce ate it up.

Shortly afterwards Bruce hired me to help set up his newly-formed East Bay Bureau, in another dingy office overlooking Telegraph Avenue, near the Oakland border. The Guardian's expansion was financed with Bruce's winnings from a lawsuit he had filed against his antagonists at the Chronicle and Examiner. Within three months, Bruce's experiment with me and with an outlying bureau - which he never got the hang of managing - was exhausted. My future wife and I were also exhausted with the Bay Area about the same time and moved to Los Angeles. So much for Bruce and me. Or so I thought.

Several months later Bruce phoned to tell me the CIA story had won the San Francisco Press Club's first-place prize for investigative reporting. That was my first journalism award, and somewhere in my garage is the award certificate, also probably now providing a nest for silverfish.

I flew to San Francisco, at Bruce's bidding, to accept the award. I don't even remember where the ceremony was held. Bruce was in high spirits and greeted me like a long lost son. It turned out my award was another vindication for the Guardian's editor-publisher. For years he had been railing against the SF Press Club, claiming it was controlled by the Chronicle and Examiner and had blackballed him and his reporters when it handed out its annual awards. Now that ceiling was broken.

I don't remember much about the ceremony and accompanying dinner except that Bruce treated me to a drink and a big cigar. He was puffing on one himself. It was a big deal for him and for me. It was my first journalism award, and it came with a check for $400.
That was the last I saw of Bruce. But in later years, whenever I was in San Francisco, I would pick up a copy of the Bay Guardian. In recent times the paper slipped from its pedestal of being a champion of the underdog and became largely a life-style paper, with extensive listings of what-do-in in the Bay Area.

But even in its decline, the Guardian still retained its masthead pledge of "printing the news and raising hell." I'll never forget that pledge, the Guardian or Bruce. Tonight, my pledge is to go home and dig out my old Guardian mementos from a box in the garage and raise hell with the slumbering silverfish.

John Schwada is a former reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner.


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