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 nationally televised 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 winning 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 were unique talents, and that cultivating these gifts was a legitimate option for women who possessed 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 there 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 by the story; one of them, I was not told who, asked one of our 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 a role in the pageant.

Another incident that caused trouble for us began innocently enough. Paula Moore, an astute editor, suggested that I requested 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 obtained 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 chime in. This was before the era of social media. It was a great idea!

The pageant people went ballistic. I was accused of using trickery in obtaining the contestant photos for the purpose of the newspaper's own contest. 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 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 Times.

Then, after entering the facility, I encountered one of the local women that worked to assist the contestants. I identified myself and asked about the 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 wannabees.

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 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.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

When Subcomandante Marcos came to the border

Diana Washigton Valdez in Juarez, Mexico, during 2006
visit by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas.
Marcos spoke out against the femicides in Juarez, Mexico

Yoko Ono donated a painting to the 2010 ArtMarch in Phildadelphia in solidarity with the Juarez femicide victims. Yoko Ono easily can command thousands of dollars for a painting of hers.

The 2010 ArtMarch included a traveling exhibit. Back then, asked the ArtMarch organizers if they were willing to bring the exhibit to El Paso, where it made sense to display the artwork with such a theme.

The gentleman at the other end of the line said, paraphrasing here, 'we offered the exhibit to the el paso art museum but the (official) rejected it, saying it wasn't needed in El Paso.'

I wonder who will give the Norwegian visiting artist Lise Bjorne Linnert the cold shoulder because her artwork puts a spotlight on what has become an unpleasant topic for some. I am eager to see how community leaders react to her interactive Proyecto Desconocida exhibit, artwork that lends solidarity and invites the community to participate. I suggested to an El Paso elected official that he greet the distinguished international artist and perhaps give her one of those plastic "El Paso" pins that politicians typically hand out to visitors.

Philadelphia's mayor actively supported the ArtMarch project in his city. I saw him then, Michael Nutter, who served as mayor until January of this year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reporting on the selection of UTEP President Diana Natalicio

Add caption
The newsroom circuit

In 1988, I was reporting for the features section of the El Paso Times. Josie Weber was the section editor. Tom Fenton, a former Associated Press newsman, was the new publisher and editor of the El Paso daily. The features section was different from the paper's successive lifestyle sections, because back then, in addition to softer lifestyle articles, features reporters also worked on hard-hitting, investigative stories.

 Anyhow, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) was in the middle of the process to select a new president, and it was believed that Diana Natalicio, a linguistics professor who had worked her way up the ranks, was an applicant.

Fenton told the newsroom's senior editors that the El Paso Times should be reporting on the process and identifying the candidates who were seeking the position. Ramon Renteria was the education reporter. I was yanked out of the features section temporarily to work with Renteria on the story that Fenton wanted, and Burt Wittrup, another former Associated Press newsroom and a talented editor, was assigned to work with me. Burt was kind in that he did not place an expectation on me that I would be able to find out the identities of the presidential contenders. He said we simply would do our best to advance the story. The university was relying on a search committee that included community leaders to help hire the new president.

The initial story that I helped with was more or less a process story, and we were given the list of all the applicants, not the finalists. I felt that it was my job to work to get those names. This involved old-fashioned reporting, such as hounding members of the search committee and others associated with the process to come up with the information. Since I was not the education reporter, I did not have ready sources for this in my Rolodex. At some point after the initial story, I stopped seeing Renteria in the newsroom. I asked what had happened to him, and was told by an editor that Renteria was on vacation. I exclaimed, "What!" And the editor just laughed. The pressure was really on me now to produce. That's how I saw it.

As with most such "search committees," there are members who are insiders and those who are appointed to serve as tokens. The insiders will have the inside track while the rest will follow the procedures to the letter trusting that the process will work itself out somehow.

The first breakthrough occurred when I came up with the names of the six finalists. It's not like someone had handed me a list. Different sources provided the names of different finalists. We did not have Internet in those days, and I consulted the original list of all the applicants to glean something about their possible current employers and or hometowns, and then I consulted other sources by telephone to gather further background. I bugged search committee members, knocked on their doors at their homes late at night, parked myself outside the board room were the committee members held their closed-door sessions. They were all sworn to secrecy.

The search committee took its job seriously and worked nonstop at the selection process, which was national in scope. Burt and I worked on the story about the finalists, which was published and beat the competition. Our competitors in those days included the feisty El Paso Herald-Post and the television and radio stations; it was a great time.

Barbara Funkhouser, the editorial page editor, a post she was named to after Fenton replaced her as the top editor, called me into her office after the story ran. She told me that one of her sources contacted her about our story on the six finalists to confirm that we had the right information. She said her source told her that it was uncanny how my story had named the finalists in the same order that the search committee had interviewed them. I recalled that two of the community leaders who were involved in the process somehow, were former El Paso Mayor Judson Williams and Patricia Roybal Caballero, a social justice advocate who later became a state legislator in New Mexico. I recalled overhearing Williams state that he would not support any candidate except Natalicio. 

Soon after the story naming the finalists, insider sources told me that Natalicio, the vice president for academic affairs, was going to be UTEP's next president period. The search committee chairman was not one of those sources. I tried interviewing Natalicio about this at the campus, but she would not comment. I reported this development to Burt Wittrup and he advised the senior editors, among them Paula Moore, the managing editor. When I was in high school, Wittrup's wife, Carolyn, had been my freshman year English teacher.

Paula Moore appeared willing to go with such a story using unnamed sources until the search committee chairman called her and pleaded with her for the paper not to run the story. The chairman conveyed that it was his view that Natalicio's selection was not a done deal. Paula Moore honored the request to hold the story, especially since we would have to rely on unnamed though credible sources for the information. Later, university officials announced to the world that Natalicio was the search committee's recommended applicant for the position.

Ramon Renteria returned from vacation, and the paper flew him to cover the UT meeting that confirmed Natalicio as the new president of the university. I was sent back to my corner of the newsroom. Under Natalicio, an enormously successful academic, the campus grew exponentially. She was named to important national boards, and her leadership helped put UTEP on the map. She also thrived in a world that until recent years was dominated by men, and when many university or college presidents did not last long in their positions due to an array of academic and community politics. Over the years, she has served as a model for success to other women. After leaving the El Paso Times, Fenton started his own newspaper, the weekly El Paso Inc.

One of my next anecdotes will be about my coverage of the Texas beauty pageant that yielded a threatened court injunction against me.