They don’t teach the shit list in journalism school. That’s one of those things you figure out on your own. This picture would result in my first trip to the shit list. Not for shooting the photo, but for what I did with it afterward. But first, a little bit about the aforementioned list and how it worked. You landed on it when you screwed up a story, embarrassed the newspaper or seriously pissed off the bosses. If it sounds awful, actually, in retrospect and compared to today’s corporate mindset where newspaper executives consider journalists as disposable as the paper cup their morning Starbucks comes in, the shit list wasn’t too bad. It was a rite of passage, and you proved your worth, your toughness and your mettle with how you handled your time there. You were an investment to your newspaper, they spent a lot of money on you, and back then, newspapers did not readily terminate employment. Eventually, you’d get off the list. I got to be pretty good at both landing on it and working my way off of it. Of course, the bosses didn’t actually tell you that you were on the shit list. They couldn’t, we were a union newspaper. So you learned to figure it out on your own. If you were a features reporter working 9 am to 6 pm and came to work one day and found out you were now a night cops reporter working 4 pm to 1 am, you were on the shit list. If you were a mid-level editor and came to work to find that you are now a reporter, you were on the shit list. For a photographer, if you suddenly found yourself shooting a steady stream of pet-of-the-week assignments, studio mug shots and being assigned to a whole lot of lab duty, you were on the shit list.
I took this picture most likely in the spring of 1982. I was cruising – that’s what we did when we did not have assignments – and heard a police scanner report of a truck crash and explosion in a residential neighborhood. I got there fast, before most of the emergency responders, photographed this woman tending to one of the accident victims, and learned from a neighbor that she was an off-duty nurse who came out of her house to help the victims. After the injured were taken away, I asked her for her name. She declined to give it, saying she didn’t want any publicity. Now this is where the whole subject’s wishes vs. news value and importance debate comes in. Most of the time, we would honor a request if a person asked not to be in the paper. But not always. The nature and magnitude of the news event, the public interest, all play a part. Trucks don’t blow up in residential neighborhoods every day. Off duty nurses do not come out of their houses and tend to the victims of crashes every day. So I submitted the picture. The night duty editor immediately said “no way,” not if the woman said she didn’t want to be in the newspaper. He went on a rant about how we could be sued for invasion of privacy (we couldn’t, not a chance.) The only thing more frustrating than arguing with an editor is arguing with an editor who has no idea what he’s talking about. But I wasn’t going to win this one. So I did what any self-respecting news photographer does when one of his photos is rejected. I moved it to the Associated Press.
The next morning, the picture ran on the Metro cover. Not our Metro cover. The Metro cover of The Los Angeles Times. And, oh baby, did all hell break loose. The editors were furious. The CEO was furious. The publisher was furious. This stunt really got my ass in some serious trouble. Hello, shit list! But hell, the picture got published in the Los Angeles Times!