Half a Century of Chasing the News
Election season for California political writers is well under way; last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on the nagging question of whether U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will run for governor next year. Among the droves of journalists who will be writing about the 1998 contest in coming months, one has a historic perspective on California state politics that can't be rivaled. For Mary Ellen Leary, now California correspondent for the Economist magazine, 1998 will mark over a half-century of writing about this state's politics.
Leary covered her first session of the California Legislature for the San Francisco News in January of 1945, five years after her first reporting assignment. Women in positions of power were scarce in the Capitol. Leary chose to capitalize on her outsider status, referring to the legislative press corps as "the boys" and addressing her stories to "Mr. and Mrs. Citizen." More than 50 years later, Leary, age 84, is still writing about California politics and issues of the day for the more sophisticated audience of the Economist, the 600,000-circulation, London-based weekly news magazine.
Leary got her first newspaper job in 1937 at the age of 24, after earning a master's in English at Stanford University. It was at the News, then San Francisco's fourth-largest daily. At that time, she says, women who wanted to write were "shunted into the women's department." Instead, Leary opted for a non-reporting job as secretary to the city editor.
It turned out to be a valuable introduction to newspapering. Leary observed editors plan the paper and react to reporters' stories. "They were quite vocal," she says.
Leary's break came three years later, in typical Front Page fashion. A murder took place near the paper at a time when the city room was empty of reporters. She convinced her boss to send her out. The mounted policeman at the scene was the same officer whose horse Leary regularly plied with sugar cubes. He took her aside and gave her all the gory details, and she literally stepped over the body to phone in the first, and most complete, story on the slaying.
When she wrote for a daily, Leary says, she considered her audience to be the streetcar motorman, someone who felt himself a part of the city, and knew its values and people and actually traveled among them. Also, she knew, the motorman would be tired at the end of the day, so she'd have to work to catch his interest.
To do so, Leary pulled off a number of journalistic stunts. She posed as a penniless, single woman who'd just hitchhiked into town and recorded people's responses to her requests for aid. For the most part, people just shooed her on.
After a number of women died from abortions, which were illegal in California then, Leary posed as a pregnant woman and secured appointments for abortions from some of the better-known underground practitioners in the city.
Leary included the abortionists' names and addresses and reported how the police were taking protection money from some of them. Raids ensued, and those places were closed down, but Leary says nothing substantial changed as a result of her story. Abortions remained illegal and available from practitioners willing to break the law.
Leary recalls a few "crusades" she and the News embarked on over the years. Although it was owned by the not particularly liberal Scripps-Howard chain, the News' editors had been permitted to fill the pro-labor niche in what was then a strongly labor city. When a strike shut down the large department stores, a major source of advertising revenue for newspapers, the News broke rank to write pro-labor editorials. The department stores pulled their ads for a time in retaliation.
Back then, the San Francisco Chronicle was strictly Republican, Leary notes, and, along with the Oakland Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, constituted the Republican Party in California. The Hearst-owned Examiner and Call-Bulletin were almost as conservative.
Perhaps the bitterest News crusade involved the building of the Embarcadero Freeway (the first section of which opened in 1957). The Chron said the city would wither away without it. The News railed that it would blight San Francisco, prompting the News editors to be dubbed "pansy planters."
Leary felt so strongly on the subject that she visited some top-level Chronicle editors on the sly, hoping to persuade them to soften their stand. "It was the only time in my life I ever did this," says Leary, who was a mere reporter at the time and never told her bosses of her trip. The Chronicle, of course, spurned her suggestions.
"LUZON SHELLED," screams the headline on the Jan. 8, 1945, front page of the News, which led with a story about the war in the Philippines. Just below it is a story, under Leary's byline, about the opening of the legislative session in Sacramento. Gov. Earl Warren was expected to ask for "sharp advances in state responsibility towards the people." Those advances, which would include government-funded medical insurance, would "bite into the succulent surplus" the war economy had created, Leary wrote.
When Leary arrived at the Capitol, she'd been a reporter for five years. She'd never covered state politics before. Her competitors, she recalls, had been on the beat for 10 or 15 years and "wrote for the politicians."