Thursday, September 29, 2016

The White House blacklisted journalist

George W. Bush on the presidential campaign trail in New Mexico with

Diana Washington Valdez, then a reporter for the El Paso Times. Photo by

Ruben Ramirez, circa August 2000.
Encounter of the unpleasant kind with a presidential candidate

Mesilla, N.M. - I can't help but recall each time I visit Old Mesilla the encounter I had with George W. Bush during an interview with him while he was campaigning for president in 2000. Bush, the Republican Party's nominee, was governor of Texas at the time.

The interview included only a handful of journalists: myself, El Paso Times Photographer Ruben Ramirez, and two other reporters from New Mexico newspapers and their photographers. 

Dick Cheney, the vice presidential nominee, was with and sat next to me at the table. It truly was a privileged opportunity as far as interviews with powerful people go. Several years before this, I was at the White House for a Hispanic journalists' round table with the younger Bush's father, George H. Bush.

Knowing ahead of time that Ruben and I might actually get this close to George W. Bush, I asked a senior editor for permission to ask questions about information related to some of the controversies that were "out there." Everything else we could talk about would be predictable, along with the responses. He paused briefly, and then said OK.

This was not necessarily to broach subjects about which we would write about and publish; it was a chance to get their (Bush and Cheney's) views about certain matters. If the opportunity presented itself, I would approach Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the same manner.

Later on, I will provide more details in this blog about the encounter that led Bush to stand up and point his finger at me and threaten to sue me if I ever published 'any of that.' One of the questions I asked was directed at Cheney and had to do with the Halliburton controversy. Cheney also got upset. As a result of Bush standing to scold me, he inadvertently caused my tape recorder to fall to the floor.

Ruben told me after the encounter that the Bush staffers standing against the wall began walking toward me when Bush stood up to scold me. Ruben did not wish to revisit this meeting for many years. He was probably smarter and more sensible than I was about such things. His view was that you don't mess with powerful people. The tape recording of that brief session with Bush and Cheney will be transcribed in the future here.

There were lessons to be learned, and in some respects, I believe that editors could take time out to explain to reporters and photographers that some of the information that is "out there," these days on the internet, is mere propaganda or near impossible to prove. Political rivals engage in information wars, at times mixing facts with bizarre and outrageous narratives.

Then again, if someone, whether known or unknown to me, was circulating wild stories about me, and I was running for office, I would appreciate the opportunity from the press to set the record straight. Or, I would address the wild stories through my campaign staff and or websites.

Needless to say, as a result of this encounter, I was blacklisted by the White House press office. No one ever returned my phone calls again from that office during the two Bush terms. Fortunately, I was not assigned to the White House press corps, where access is essential.

I'm thankful to Ruben for wanting to watch our backs. He can breathe easy now. Hopefully, I can, too.

More on this later ...

Diana Washington Valdez is a veteran journalist and Digie Zone Properties publisher. She is a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) and the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS).The Digie Zone principals are based in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.

Friday, September 9, 2016

California dreaming didn't last long for Hispanics

City of Turlock (Courtesy photo)
California is such a vast place that you best can describe it in its extremes. It possesses a richly varied topography. Tall pines and cool temperatures in the north, a middle area with once-rich farm lands, and a picturesque desert and beckoning beaches in the south.

I did a short stint (about 11 months) at the Modesto Bee in Modesto, California, and after leaving the Bee, I was fortunate to be hired on again by a Gannett property, the Desert Sun in Palm Springs.

The same media company owned the Sacramento Bee, Modesto Bee and the Fresno Bee. I had hoped to work my way to the Sacramento paper to live in a city that had two large rivers and a central park with fragrant eucalyptus trees. The Tule fog season and the slow pace of the Modesto paper changed my mind: I wanted to leave.

My stint at the Bee's bureau in Turlock did not last long. I wrote stories and did a column for the paper. For some odd reason, I ended taking a photograph of kids with a cardboard toy train that ran on the front page. The paper issued cameras to all its reporters in outlying bureaus, so the multimedia roles came early then.

There were two things that surprised me during my time in the Modesto area, the presence of an active Ku Klux Klan organization (I interviewed its "cyclops" leader), and the oppression of the Hispanic farm workers. I guess the two go hand in hand. The KKK cyclops told me then that his organization was part of a "political movement."

Migrant farm workers who worked the harvests in "America's Breadbasket," as the Central Valley region was known, experienced great hardships in their housing and working conditions. I recalled that several of them lived with their families in automobiles along the farm country's waterways.

A man from a South American country acted as a spokesman for them before Modesto local politicians. The workers' greatest need was for decent housing. It was either city or county-level elected officials that responded to such petitions by making fun of the Hispanics' accents. The migrant workers also included Asians, and they all seemed powerless.

I did some personal research into the region's history, something I've done wherever I went, and learned that several of the white American settlers and or pioneers also discriminated against Native Americans.

The settlers included the ancestors of contemporary financial institutions and media leaders. I shared my findings with some of the reporters who wanted to know how I found out about certain things in the backgrounds of the local media companies. Short answer - the public library!

When I met a banker in Modesto that had a Hispanic surname, I thought he was Mexican-American. He said he was Portuguese, as were many of the middle-class residents with Hispanic surnames; they did not speak Spanish and did not identify with the migrant workers.

I observed a big difference between the Mexican-American and Asian migrants. A particular group of Chinese farm workers decided to pool their earnings until they made enough to buy their own tract. They planted the kind of crops that grew in the area and sold them after the harvest. They became business owners.

The Chinese families also placed great importance on the education of their children. Through the Modesto Bee staff I heard that the parents, who didn't speak or understand English, would sit their children at the dinner table until their homework was finished.

Although the parents could not help with the homework, they made it clear to their children that getting an education was crucial to their future success. How I wished at the time that Hispanic migrant workers could learn to work together in this manner so they would not have to depend on the whims of growers and ranchers who wanted their labor but did not want them living in their neighborhoods.

I was unable to adapt to driving in the thick Tule fog conditions, and for this and other reasons opted to find another newsroom. The moment I stepped off the plane in Palm Springs for my job interview, I knew I had to be there. Like others, I harbored stereotypes about Palm Springs, which was portrayed in publications as a playground for the rich and famous. What I discovered was a stunning countryside with a natural oasis park and orchards of date palm trees that transported you to another part of the world.

Indio (California state tourism photo)

It got pretty hot in summer, about 116 degrees while I was there, but you could take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to a mountain station (at 8,516 feet elevation) with much cooler temperatures. The ride that can transform your environment so dramatically lasts only a few minutes.

There was a series of smaller communities next to Palm Springs, close to each other, that included Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indio and Coachella. From the farm fields in the Coachella Valley, one could catch a breath-taking view of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains in the distance.

I was an assistant city editor (called an "ace") assigned to the bureau in Indio; my official title was East Valley Editor. Once again, as in Modesto, I encountered Hispanic workers who were mostly all at the low end of the economic spectrum. Many of them worked in the resort hotels, restaurants and golf courses. Two Native American reservations, some Indians (from India) and a small black community made up most of the rest of the non-Anglo population.

The newsroom had one of the most creative and energetic staffs I had ever worked with. Joan Behrmann, formerly of USA Today, was the executive editor at the time. Tom Tait was the managing editor. It was the best news job I ever had in terms of work and place. The other aces and I worked long hours, shuttling between the bureaus and main newsroom, supervising reporters and writing stories ourselves. I recall working some 14 to 16-hour-long days, but I never felt it.

Among the stories I got to work on was a paternity lawsuit by a local woman against Prince Albert II Grimaldi of Monaco, which attracted lots of obnoxious paparazzi. The prince did not show up for the proceeding in Indio, but years later, after he became the ruling monarch of Monaco, Grimaldi apparently settled the claims of two mothers. "He keeps in touch with all of his children from previous relationships, and has come to legal agreements to pay their mothers," according to a 2015 article in the Daily Mail Prince of Monaco settles paternity claim.

What on earth is a royal doing in the Palm Springs area? Well, Indio is a traditional favorite of royal polo players. Former President Gerald Ford was one of the paper's readers, along with other famous people. "Glitz" was one of the paper's news beats, and for this reasons, the photographers had to keep a tuxedo handy in case they were assigned to cover one of the many posh events that came up.

Other stories I worked on included one about a local prosecutor trading deals for golf privileges (really), and an in-depth article on how beer companies targeted Hispanics during popular cultural events like Cinco de Mayo.

Apparently, I was told later, that one of the advertising executives felt the story was too controversial to published. During my stay at the Desert Sun, a local radio talk show host insulted Chinese listeners who objected to the use of the term "chinaman" when referring to Asians in the community. The talk show host did not accept that this was an offensive term, and kept repeating it on purpose ....

I found it revealing that the editors at the Desert Sun could not decide whether to endorse the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They were honest in acknowledging that they didn't know much about it, much less whether it was going to be good or bad. Ultimately, the free trade accord involving the United States, Mexico and Canada was approved and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994.

Once more, as in Modesto, it was a non-Mexican Hispanic, a lawyer of Peruvian background, who acted as a spokesman for the Hispanics who were complaining about discrimination. I may have been the only Hispanic on staff at the Desert Sun at the time, and this lawyer and other Hispanic community leaders expressed disappointment when I told them I was leaving Palm Springs.

I wondered out loud why California was not a better place for Hispanics and other minorities in general. After all, wasn't the state at the vanguard of the Chicano Movement? In summary, the responses I received were that not much had changed in everyday life for minorities in the Golden State. In my short time, I was proud of having had a hand in getting the Desert Sun to hire another minority journalist, a young Asian reporter from a Central Valley newspaper.

Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers Union who inspired the Delano grape boycott, died while I was at the Palm Springs paper. I spoke Spanish so I was asked to interview farm workers in Coachella for their reactions. By the time I arrived in the fields, the news had reached us that Chavez, who had received death threats and was nearly poisoned once, died of natural causes on April 23, 1993.

Several farm workers gathered at a center to talk to reporters. Something came over me when I approached the first two farm workers: I started to cry before I could finish asking my question about Cesar Chavez. So much for being a professional journalist. [A grandson of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union and Chavez's right hand, married one of my nieces in California.]

Palm Springs had great restaurants, beautiful scenery, and not all its visitors were royals or movie stars. A group of Hell's Angels bikers once sat two tables from me at an outside cafe. They wanted someone else's table and asked for it. Once I realized who the bikers were, I asked them if they wouldn't mind being interviewed by a reporter. They did. Their smiles turned quickly to scowls and they became hostile. I finished my meal and returned to the newsroom.

After I returned to El Paso, Texas, I learned that the dream newsroom that was the Desert Sun at the time fell apart. The paper got a new publisher and editor, and just about everyone who was there was forced out or quit. The upheaval led to the later removal of one of the new top editors. To use a cliche, nothing lasts forever; the talented staff that I had worked alongside scattered.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Politics, drug trade, corruption discussed on KTEP Radio

KTEP's Louie Saenz with Diana Washington Valdez at the

University of Texas studio.
Diana Washington Valdez and Louie Saenz talk about journalism trends, The Digie Zone and The Digie Zone Express and other interesting topics like politics, the drug trade and government corruption on KTEP Radio. 

Listen to the KTEP interview

Monday, July 18, 2016

The beauty pageant from hell

Courtney Gibbs, Miss USA 1988
The beauty pageant from hell

El Paso, Texas became the host city of  the Miss USA beauty pageant in 1988. This was a big deal because of the kind of televised national and other publicity and money that the event would bring to El Paso. 

The credit for the pageant being held in the border city went to El Paso beauty pagent gurus Richard Guy and the late Rex Holt. The two talented men (GuyRex Associates) were responsible for helping five contenders in a row win the Miss Texas USA crown, an unparalleled achievement by any standard.

I was assigned to the El Paso Times features section working under Josie Weber, the section editor, and the late Paula Moore, who was the managing editor. Josie and Paula were capable journalists in their own right, which is why we made history with this particular pageant. 

At the time, the features staff rotated the beauty pageants as assignments, and this one fell on me. Personally, I did not care much for pageants because I believed they were trivial pursuits that exploited women. Over the years, I gradually changed my mind and accepted that beauty and poise are unique talents, and that cultivating these gifts is a legitimate option for women who possess them.

The 1988 event presented an opportunity to gain behind-the-scenes insights into the industry of glamour and report on a national beauty pageant taking place in our own city. Hollywood stars Alan Thicke and Tracy Scoggins were to be the headliners for the televised pageant that would ultimately select as its winner Miss Texas USA Courtney Gibbs, a Fort Worth native and another winning GuyRex product.

The distrust between the local pageant organizers and our coverage began almost immediately. The preparations for the big moment took place over several weeks, and the contestants were housed in a motel near Hawkins Boulevard, in which one of El Paso's elected officials held an interest.The motel no longer exists.

First, as I learned later, the pageant organizers questioned why I was assigned to cover the pageant. Although I worked for the features section, I had the reputation of being a hard-news investigative reporter. The suspicion was that I was sent to "dig up dirt" on the pageant. And, while I was not excited about having to cover the pageant, I approached it like all my other assignments; find out what's going on and report it.

One of the first things I observed and questioned was the use of Fort Bliss soldiers as escorts for the pageant contestants during the weeks leading up to the winner's coronation. The Army regulations I looked up seemed to indicate that this was a misuse of military personnel. If so many soldiers could be spared to escort the women each day, then it meant that their military jobs were not critical or important. The story ran with a picture. The officials at Fort Bliss were upset at the story; one of them, I was not told who, asked one of our news staff members, 'what's up with Diana?' I was also told in the newsroom that the Fort Bliss commander was very eager for the Army post to have an active role in the pageant.

Another incident that caused trouble for us began innocently enough. Paula Moore, an astute editor, suggested that I request the head shots of all 51 beauty contestants so we could have them before the final pageant. She wasn't sure at first how we would use them, and we did obtain the photos. Then, Paula got the idea of having the El Paso Times conduct its own contest by having readers vote on who should win; the paper would publish all the contestant photos and readers would weigh in. This was before the era of social media, and it was a great idea.

The pageant people went ballistic. I was accused of using trickery to obtain the contestant photos, and that our ultimate goal was for the newspaper to hold its own contest. A vote by readers in a separate poll could be viewed as undermining of the actual pageant.That's not how things occurred, but at their end, that's how the pageant people saw it. Discussions over this issue began in earnest between the editors and the pageant people who opposed the use of the photos for a local newspaper contest.

During one of my trips to the civic center, where the pageant events were being held, I arrived early and was greeted by a female sheriff deputy assigned to the facility's security. After I identified myself, she nodded her head and told me that the first thing she heard in the mornings when she reported for work was someone with the pageant cursing me over something I had written in the El PasoTimes.

Then, after entering the facility that same day, I encountered one of the local women that assisted the contestants. I identified myself and asked about the highlight events of the day. She came up to me and without a word simply gave me a hug and walked away. I was dumbfounded. Burt Wittrup, one of our editors, compared the women who helped beauty pageant contenders with men who liked hanging out with athletes in locker rooms, sort of a vicarious experience for the wannabes.

Back at the newsroom, next thing I knew, I was called into Paula Moore's office and was told that El Paso lawyer, the late Sib Abraham, had written a letter threatening to file a court injunction against me if I was not kept away from the pageant, particularly away from Richard Guy and Rex Holt, who were freaking out over my coverage. Paula wanted to assign a different reporter to cover the remaining big pageant events in case I had to be taken off. With all the near daily complaints, you'd think that we were covering the Watergate hearings.

Finally, the pageant staff agreed to let the El Paso Times publish all the contestant photos but only until the day of the big pageant finale. I was able to interview the winner, Courtney Gibbs, I believe it was the day after she was crowned. In person, she epitomized what judges look for in a contender. Courtney Gibbs, no doubt, possessed an incomparable combination of beauty, poise and intelligence. She was the clear winner. I wished her well.

1988 Miss USA hightlights Miss USA 1988 highlights


Friday, July 1, 2016

The '666' man in the El Paso Times newsroom

Call security!

It was the late 1980s when a stranger with "666" written on his forehead showed in the newsroom of the El Paso Times. I was still assigned to the features section, and Josie Weber was my editor.

After this man, I can't recall his name although I can describe him as Anglo, thin with beard and mustache and scraggly hair. It fell on me to interview him for a possible story. He said he wanted to complain that he was being harassed by law enforcement over his lifestyle. Apparently, he lived with his family others commune style in what must have been an old school bus. They were camping in El Paso temporarily, and planned to move on.

Of course, the first thought that came to our minds when we saw him was Charles Manson. And we all knew that '666' was a symbol that is generally associated with the anti-christ mentioned in the Bible in the book of Revelation. Was he a Charles Manson clone or fan? Appearance-wise, he fit the look that elicited some concerns. We did not encounter any issues with him and his family, and a story with a picture of him was published in the El Paso Times.

I remember that it was December because then editor Tom Fenton was somewhat perturbed that we had published a story with picture of this man so close to Christmas. Former assistant features editor, the late Dave Brown, said he told Fenton that the story was the most read that day. Of course, and this was before the advent of social media. In today's terms, the story would have gone viral.

The bigger issue for me was how did the '666 man,' as we called him, get into the newsroom without any advance warning from the security guard at the front entrance. I took the elevator down to the first floor to check with security. The guard simply responded, "He asked to speak to a reporter, and I told him they were all upstairs."

We never heard anything else about the man or his group of followers.

Another incident

During the 1990s, when the El Paso Times was in a new building at Campbell and Mills, another man walked into the newsroom yelling at the top of his lungs. He was clean-cut. Everyone froze. The security guard was nowhere to be found.

My knees grew wobbly. Was he here to shoot up the place? Was he going to attack a staff member over a particular story that upset him? Finally, I made myself remember my military training and shook off the jitters.

Seeing that he had no weapon in his hands, I approached him and asked if we could do anything to help him. The situation was diffused immediately. In a lowered voice he stated his complaint, which had nothing to do with the newsroom. Security finally came upstairs to check on the encounter, and he was led away elsewhere to speak to someone about his complaint.

This was not the first time my military training served me well in a pinch. Someone on the staff asked me that day if I was scared as I walked up to the screaming man, and I said, "yes!"

Me during desert training with the ANG.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Digie Zone : Muhammad Ali's greatest legacy

The Digie Zone : Muhammad Ali's greatest legacy: From Muhammad Ali's Twitter page Muhammad Ali's legacy Column By Diana Washington Valdez The Digie Zone The "Greatest...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mayor sold interest in property rented by adult business

Memoir continued ...

Mayor Jonathan Rogers (El Paso County

 Historical Society)
Jonathan Rogers was an impressive politician and businessman

Jonathan Rogers served as mayor of El Paso, Texas from 1981 to 1989. I first met him when I was a reporter for the University of Texas at El Paso student newspaper, the Prospector. One of the university officials invited me to interview Rogers, a candidate for his first run as mayor.

City elections are non-partisan, candidates do not run according to a political party, but it was well known that Rogers and his strongest supporters were Republicans. A meeting for him took place at a home on Crazy Cat Mountain, where several elites and other well-to-do El Pasoans lived.

I still recall the quiet tone of the people gathered around him; they actually did not expect him to win. To the surprise of the entire community, Rogers won the race handily, and would be reelected to several successive terms. His accessibility and civility impressed me then and later over the years. I was invited to interview him about what he planned to do as mayor. His office was neat and tidy, and his desk cleared. He was impeccably dressed in shirt and tie. I was only a campus newspaper reporter, yet he gave me his undivided attention, as though I were an established journalist from a major media outlet. I will never forget that. And, although others may strongly disagree, I believe that Rogers was the right mayor at the time for the city.

Once in a while, I had occasion to interview him on various topics. I was not a city hall beat reporter so I did not have regular contact with Rogers, a businessman and a banker. I had to call him during the El Paso Times  sex-for-sale series. The focus of the series was on who was profiting from the city's sex industry: topless bars, adult video arcades, pornography and prostitution, including the owners of properties that leased/rented to such businesses. It turned out that Rogers owned an interest in one such property in East El Paso, and it was among the many facets that the series disclosed.

Rogers promptly announced that he was going to sell his interest in that property and donate the proceeds to a charitable organization.

Sex for sale

El Paso Times Managing Editor Paula Moore oversaw the news project. I was assigned to the features section at the time, and Josie Weber was my section editor. Paula Moore was a real work horse; no one could keep up with her. We spent an entire night at the newsroom during the production of the series; the dates for publication had been publicized and we had to meet the deadlines no matter what. One of the main stories for the series, each day featured a main "bar "as it's referred to in journalese, was 40 column inches long. Paula said it was too long, and asked me to cut it down to 25 column inches. As painful as that sounded, the trim made the story better, and so it went.

During the research for the series, I was able to interview a prostitute (today we call them sex workers), who showed me her address book of clients. The address book included prominent El Pasoans, including elected officials. The prostitute said she used her revenue from her work to pay for her daughter's education at a Catholic boarding school. Another woman, who worked at the former Popular Department Store, confided to a close acquaintance that she moonlighted as a prostitute.

The series also involved a look at establishments that were reputed to be brothels, in particular a placed that some called "Anita's" on West Overland. Today that building sits empty. We had to prove prior to publication that the place was indeed a brothel, and that required that a man go in there and attempt to procure a sex worker. El Paso Times Assistant City Editor Robert Halpern was persuaded to help with that particular story by going undercover. After he went inside and requested a woman, he was led to a room that had a bed and where a woman waited for him. Halpern, who ended the session when she began to undress, wrote about the experience for the series.

An alleged bribe;
a question that angered a politician

Not everything we learned along the way about El Paso's sex industry was published because not everything could be proved during the period of time that the paper had allotted for the series. For example, a former assistant city attorney made several allegations about why the city did not close down adult businesses that could be in violation of an ordinance that restricted them if they were near homes, schools, churches and day cares. Other cities in the United States had adopted and applied ordinances that withstood constitutional challenges. This particular assistant city attorney alleged that someone in the city's legal department personally objected to such restrictions, and because of that found ways to make it difficult (giving certain legal advice) for the City Council to apply the ordinance that applied to adult businesses. He also alleged that a City Council member had received a $10,000 bribe for his vote against the restrictions.

In an interview about out-of-state owners of a certain adult business, a lawyer in East Texas who represented the owners warned against taking on his clients. He indicated that they were dangerous people that we did not want to mess with. Another interesting allegation that surfaced came from a resident who claimed that a former elected county official was a silent partner in a topless bar in East El Paso. I called the former official to ask about this, and he proceeded to angrily curse at me. I informed the editor about his reaction, and the editor told me, "It's probably true then. Don't worry about it."

Another caller challenged us, saying we had conflicts of interest because the newspaper published ads over the years purchased by topless clubs. That was true. Barbara Funkhouser, an editor at the El Paso Times, said she didn't know why the paper insisted on running the ads. She was not a prude or anything like that; she just wondered considering that the paper reportedly was aimed at "families." Barbara said she was familiar with the newspaper's budget, and knew that "these ads are just a drop in the bucket - the paper doesn't need them."

Another caller raised a more  pointed issue. He worked at one of the adult businesses that included a downstairs room with pornographic videos that could be viewed privately inside the stalls. The employee said the stalls were used by some clients for sexual trysts. He alleged that several of our newsroom staff members, including a section editor, were regular clients of the downstairs section. Later, the manager of another such business at the other end of the city called to allege that a well-known law enforcement official used the stalls there to have sex with younger clients. In both of these cases, the businesses had videotapes of the encounters - as insurance?

The 1986 sex-for-sale series garnered the El Paso Times a Texas Associated Press Managing Editors Feature Series First Place Award.