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ACLU Award Prompts Memories of Being ‘Red Baited’ as a Young Reporter

Kevin Uhrich: In my opinion, one that I still hold, having more information about any given subject — “the other side” of a possible story — was something to be valued, not scorned, even in anti-ACLU Reagan Country.

I’ve always been interested in politics, starting in high school, once even winning the coveted position of Mayor for a Day, part of a government appreciation program run by the local YMCA for two local high schools, which traded off elections every year. That meant juniors ran against seniors at each school every other year, and up to that point I was the only junior at our school to win the race in the 30-some years of the contest. We were The Party Party, and we won on a platform of ending the caste system that existed in the sports program. Here, sophomores were forced to fulfill every desire of their “masters,” the seniors. Being a starter on the football team, I was confident we could end this pernicious practice, and we did.

ACLU Award Kevin Uhrich

Fast-forward 37 years to the Pasadena Weekly, the newspaper I’ve been editing for half of its three decades in business, being honored by the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Branch Sunday as a “Pioneer of Social Justice.”

During the ceremony at the local ACLU’s annual Garden Party at Neighborhood Church, I couldn’t help but think of the time in my life when such a distinction was hardly considered an honor. Rather, it might have been the kiss of professional death for getting ahead in journalism, the career that I chose over politics shortly after graduating from high school.

In 1986, in the middle of conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan’s second term, I had already gained some experience as a journalist by the time I applied as a media person for the ACLU of Southern California. I didn’t get the job, but I did receive a very nice rejection letter indicating I had placed at the top of hundreds of people who had sent in resumes. Thinking this was something to be proud of, I showed this to two editors with the newspaper in Simi Valley where I was now applying for a position.

ACLU Award Kevin Uhrich

Pasadena Vice Mayor Jacque Robinson, Gerda Govine, and Kevin Uhrich

“Just by this letter it’s pretty clear you are extremely liberal,” one of the editors scowled.

Remember, this was Simi Valley, which at the time was predominantly white and Republican. This really was Reagan Country, the place where the former president’s library would actually be placed a few years later. For those who don’t remember, Reagan back then was the arch-nemesis of the ACLU, and vice versa.
“In this community, people want to know who’s writing their news. They will investigate you. Can your character stand up to a background investigation?” the other serious-looking editor asked.

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“Whoa. Wait a minute,” I said. “This is 1986, not 1956. Are you red-baiting me?” I was at once honored and kind of disappointed; proud that they would think me interesting enough to merit such treatment, and disturbed over the idea that they would weed out supposed “liberals” who might present a side to the news that did not square with the status quo.

In my opinion, one that I still hold, having more information about any given subject — “the other side” of a possible story — was something to be valued, not scorned, even in anti-ACLU Reagan Country.

In my opinion, one that I still hold, having more information about any given subject — “the other side” of a possible story — was something to be valued, not scorned, even in anti-ACLU Reagan Country.

Thankfully, the two editors — both Republicans — were really just testing me. I didn’t get the job at that time, but they called shortly afterward, and I ended up working there as a reporter for nearly five years. I soon learned that those same “red-baiting” editors not only wanted “the other side”; they demanded it. As a result, I wrote exposés on such topics as a councilman’s coke addiction that led to him taking bribes; another’s penchant for gambling in Vegas with developers who had projects pending with the city; the head of the county family support unit not paying his own child support; the mayor of a local town indiscriminately using the “N” word; a prominent car dealer selling damaged and repaired cars as new; a prominent landlord exploiting immigrant families in substandard housing ... that list is a lengthy one. Interestingly, two of the five abovementioned people were Democrats. So much for political bias.

Today, we face many of the same apparently timeless issues that existed back then: police brutality, corporate fraud, public corruption, government spying, immigrant bashing, social inequities, human rights abuses … again, the list is long. And, my attitude regarding the writing and delivery of these types of news stories remains much the same as it’s always been; a good story is a good story, regardless of its political implications and any other impediments that might stand in the way of its telling, to paraphrase a wizened friend and former editor. I just thank God that there is an organization like the ACLU to ensure my right to tell these stories.

ACLU Award Kevin Uhrich

From the young man who dreamed of being a politician and somehow grew into a grizzled old news reporter and editor, and on behalf of co-recipients Publisher Jon Guynn and Deputy Editor André Coleman, I thank you, ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Branch, for recognizing PW’s contribution to the public dialogue.

And to the other winners — Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network; Carl Matthes, president of the Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance; the Revs. George Regas and Ed Bacon of All Saints Church; Joe and Ruthie Hopkins, publishers of the San Gabriel Valley Journal News; and Marvin Schachter, described as a “perpetual civil rights activist” who was one of the founders of the Weekly — congratulations. This recognition of your contributions to improving life for us all is richly deserved.


Kevin Uhrich
Pasadena Weekly