By TOM ROBBINS
(Editor’s Note: After 29 years as a columnist for the New York Daily News, Juan Gonzalez retired from the paper in April to teach at Rutgers University. He will continue to write an occasional column. We asked his colleague and kindred spirit Tom Robbins, a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of violence in New York’s prisons, to reflect on Gonzalez’s contributions to our city and to the craft of journalism.)
In the fall of 1987, Juan Gonzalez came up to New York from Philadelphia where he had been working as a reporter for a few years. He came at the invitation of an old editor, F. Gillman Spencer III. The son of one of Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line families, Spencer was a true traitor to his class. As editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, he had loved the way Gonzalez, a former street organizer from East Harlem and East New York by way of Ponce, Puerto Rico, went hell for leather after miscreants of all variety in his stories. Now the top editor of New York’s largest tabloid, Spencer wanted Gonzalez to show New York’s poohbahs the same respect he had shown them in Philly. Gonzalez, whose last job in New York had been leading a crew of revolutionaries in seizing churches, schools and health clinics as protests, was game.
Doing his job, fighting injustice
Spencer pointed him to a seat in the Daily News’s cavernous old news room on East 42nd Street. Suffice it to say that there were not a lot of people who looked like him at the time in that news room. A discrimination lawsuit filed by the few minority reporters had only recently been settled. Some of the paper’s old guard looked askance at the newcomer. Gonzalez, a proud Puertoriqueño, ignored it. He sat down and began to type. Except to go on strike for five months in the fall and winter of 1990-91 and to write a few books, he did not get up for the next 29 years.
All that time, he churned out columns at the rate of two a week. The results were keenly felt on backsides at City Hall and its attendant bureaucracies as well as by scoundrels both public and private throughout the metro area. Unlike many in the journalism trade, Gonzalez recognized no safe harbors for those whose deeds rated tough scrutiny. Some columns landed so uncomfortably close to home that they made his publisher, a real estate tycoon of great wealth and lofty connections, wince. This caused a few editors to make the mistake of asking the militant-turned-reporter to back off. Gonzalez grinned and shrugged. He was doing his job, he said. This immediately ended any debate. Editors at the News understood that their own jobs came courtesy of Office Temporaries; Juan Gonzalez, iron man of the news room, endured.
At the end of April, Gonzalez finally got up from that seat so that he can write more books and teach. In what has become a rarity in the journalism business, he alone decided the timing of his exit. “It’s time,” he said simply.
He has surely earned that break many times over. But his absence is going to be keenly felt by New Yorkers, especially those who must work for a living. The fact is there has not been a New York City newspaper writer who identified so completely with the struggles of working men and women for many years, maybe since the days of Heywood Broun, the great newsman who, in the 1930s, founded the Newspaper Guild while covering the fierce labor battles of his era.
New York is still a town of many wonderful writers and reporters, women and men who lean so deeply into their stories that you see and feel the subjects they describe. Yet it takes nothing away from their fine skills and accomplishments to say that Juan Gonzalez has been the most essential reporter in New York these past three decades. Essential in the sense that, if not for his passion and hard work, many vital facts might never have come to light.
Exposed CityTime scandal
To cite just a few:
We would not have known, in the desperate days immediately after the fall of the Twin Towers, that deadly toxins from the smoking pile were dangerously fouling the downtown air. Gonzalez not only insisted this was true, citing federal air studies that City Hall was ignoring, he refused to stop saying so, even as everyone from the mayor to his editors denounced him.
We would not have known that, as panicked undercover cops fired 50 shots into a car holding Sean Bell and his friends on the night before his wedding in the mistaken belief that they were armed and dangerous, their bullets went so wild they nearly felled transit riders and Port Authority police standing on the Air Train’s elevated platform half a block away.
We would not have known that a multibillion dollar city effort to create a computer program to track the comings and goings of the city’s vast workforce had become the highly profitable plaything of a score of politically-connected and corrupt consultants.
We would not have known about the outrageous way in which the leaders of New York’s charter schools carried out their territorial expansions, changing locks in public schools at whim, and tossing away computers and desks to make room for their own high-cost programs, all while enjoying a direct line to the city’s top education officials.
Forged a bond with his readers
We learned all these things and much more because, first and foremost, Juan Gonzalez has always been a reporter working his beat. And as Gonzalez would be the first to tell you, reporters are only as good as their sources. In his case, this is absolutely true and it is testament to his greatest achievement – forging a bond with readers who trusted him enough to share secrets from their jobs. These were tales they were not supposed to spill but which they knew the public deserved to know.
Being a crack investigative reporter myself, as well as a shrewd reader of Gonzalez’s work, I am willing to bet that many of those brave reader-whistleblowers came from the ranks of your own unions. If so, those of you who stepped forward deserve a good part of this applause.
Here’s hoping that new reporters will emerge to earn that same faith and trust. In the meantime, here’s a salute to Juan Gonzalez, the essential man of New York journalism.
Tom Robbins has been investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism since February 2011. He was a columnist and staff writer at the Village Voice, the New York Daily News, and The New York Observer.