There are certain words we use in journalism that sometimes we have no business using. They are “automatics,” used in a certain type of story, regardless of whether we have any idea if they are true. Granted, television news uses them much more than newspapers, but they find their way into print a little too often for my tastes, too. They’re words like “brave” and “courageous” and “valiant” and they’re automatically included in any story about a person who dies following a terminal illness. A long time ago, I promised myself that I would never use these words in a story or cutline unless I had verified proof that they are, indeed, true.
Today, my friend and former coworker Steve Swenson died following a brave, courageous and valiant 15-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Steve was a reporter at The Bakersfield Californian for more than three decades. Our careers ran concurrently, though he was there a little before I arrived in late 1980. Steve covered the toughest of beats in the toughest of American towns. Crime and the courts. But it was how he covered them that continually amazed me and has assured that he will forever be remembered as a journalism legend. Covering crime is not easy. You try picking up the phone, calling a mother or wife or husband who has just lost a loved one to some senseless act of violence or a horrendous accident, and ask if you can come over and talk to them. Oh, and by the way, can we bring a photographer and take your picture, too? Worse yet, if nobody answers the phone, just going and knocking on the door. I don’t know how he did it, but Steve did it and did it better than anyone. He did it with dignity and humility and a compassion that left his subjects feeling a little better that they spoke with him, that they told this kind stranger a thing or two about the person they were suddenly, unexpectedly mourning, and that he would not betray the trust they placed in him. And he never did. I can’t tell you how many times I was riding in a car with Steve to one of these assignments, especially the “cold calls,” and would say, “There’s no way these people are going to talk to us, Steve.” Steve would say, “We’ll see,” and 15 minutes later we’d be in that house, Steve conducting his interview, me shooting pictures as quietly as I could. We knew how to work together. I would never approach the house with cameras in hand, and would only retrieve them after getting permission to shoot, which remarkably, was almost always. I would shoot sparingly, a few frames at first, then a long interval where I would sit and listen to Steve conducting his interview, then maybe a few more near the end.
What we did sounds ghoulish, and we’ve heard all the words, “vulture” of course being everybody’s favorite. But Steve knew, and most journalists who do this unpleasant work for a living know, that more often than not, those who have suffered loss actually want to talk about their loved one. That’s why they almost always say yes. The unknown, of course, is what will that reporter do with that interview, after he says “Thank you” and heads back to the newsroom. Steve Swenson always did the right thing. He wrote with compassion and fairness, never passing judgment on the departed, some who were innocent victims, others, not so much.
When we worked the streets, especially dealing with police, Steve and I were two completely different personalities. He was a diplomat, a peacemaker, a negotiator. Me, well, let’s just say I was the opposite. We disagreed a time or two – ah, hell, let’s be honest, Steve loved honesty. I almost strangled him a time or two – me explaining that he might have the luxury of getting a comment a few minutes later, or reconstructing what he is seeing back in the office with his words, but that didn’t work for me. A picture comes and goes in an instant, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Those exchanges were rare, and for the most part, we worked seamlessly together. Then there were my all-time favorites, the jailhouse interviews where some poor fool charged with who knows what crime would happily grant an interview, figuring that once his side of the story was told to the media, everything would be OK. Steve would be doing the interview, and as I shot the photos, I’d be thinking, “As your attorney, I’d advise you not to talk to this guy,” a line frequently used by The Californian’s other awesome legal affairs reporter, Mike Trihey. As we’d leave the jail, the poor defendant convinced he would soon be heading home and some defense attorney a few hours away from choking on his breakfast, I would say to Steve, “If I ever get my ass thrown in jail, there’s no f—ing way I’m talking to you. Don’t even try.” And we would bust out laughing.
Steve faced cancer twice. In 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer in his neck. He chose to wage his fight publicly, writing a series of articles – full of humor, of course – about his cancer treatment and recovery. He had Bakersfield enthralled. Even today, I encounter a person or two who talks about those articles. Steve beat that cancer, continued working and left The Californian in I think 2011. Last summer, Steve sent out a Facebook post to his friends, advising that he likely had pancreatic cancer. I had just two words: “Holy f–k.” That’s the bad one, the one you don’t survive, even with all the strides we have made in cancer treatment and research. And Steve did what he did so well. He kept his friends informed every step of the way. Sometimes with even a little too much information. But Steve the crime reporter recounted more than a few gory details in his day. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for him. But he did something else, too. He used social media to calm and soothe his many friends, most who seemed to be having a harder time with the diagnosis than he was. And then, he made sure all of Bakersfield knew, with an October, 2014 article, again full of humor, titled “I’m ‘going to go out’ happy, grateful and comforted.” So that’s why I have no problem using the words “brave, courageous and valiant.” I can vouch for them.
Steve did have a wicked sense of humor, as does most any journalist who saw and covered the things that he saw. He took particular delight in telling the story of what was without question the most embarrassing moment of my career. Sometime in the early 2000s, I think, we were dispatched to Wasco for an awful story. A man involved in a child custody dispute with his ex-wife broke into her apartment in a brazen daylight attack, and executed the child. Even Steve Swenson, the master at getting people to tell their stories in the most difficult circumstances, was not going to get us into that apartment to talk to the devastated mother. But he did. Don’t ask me how, I can’t begin to figure it out, but he did. We assembled in the mom’s bedroom, where she lay on her bed, comforted by family members. And she spoke. Good God, I don’t know how or why she spoke, but she did. The room was small, and I was wedged up against a wall shooting pictures. I needed just a few more inches of space, it was just so tight, and I pushed back against the wall for whatever I could get. But it wasn’t a wall. It was a closet, and in an instant I crashed backward through the closet door, knocking it off its hinges, landing on my butt with the closet’s contents falling all around me. I was mortified. Absolutely humiliated. I apologized profusely, offered to put the door back on, but to the family, it didn’t even register. Could they really care about that? Of course not. The interview continued, and of course Steve did an outstanding job, and all of Bakersfield would not only learn that a deranged father killed his son in a horrific act of revenge, but they would be able to sympathize with the mom, to get a sense of what something like that does to a human being. Call us what you will, but humanizing those stories, incorporating detail and context and pathos connects people to their communities in a way that a sterile, official statement issued by the authorities never can.
But, of course, Steve wasn’t done with me. In the following days, he would needle me relentlessly about falling through that closet door, and would tell the story for years. At my farewell party when I left The Californian, as I was thanking everybody, giving my speech, guess who pops up and shoves me aside? He had his own story to tell and he let them all know about the time I crashed through the closet door in that bedroom in Wasco, a story that I really would rather forget. Some people laughed. Others looked at him like “that’s not too funny.” But he cackled that trademark laugh of his, and then, of course, everybody laughed. That was Steve, and a crime reporter processes things a little differently than others.
I would get even with Steve by reminding him over the years that he was a lousy softball coach when he ran The Californian’s team – oooh, baby, that would get under his skin, he took his softball seriously. I would tell him that I was a much better defensive first baseman than Californian sports writer Jeff Evans. But he would always play Jeff at first base, because Jeff is 6-feet, 3-inches and I am 5-feet, 10-inches. Jeff was a great hitter, but he couldn’t catch a cold if you sneezed in his face. Yeah, that would rankle Steve pretty good. Steve would also get on me about the time Offord Rollins’ father almost attacked him outside the courthouse during his coverage of that murder trial for the ages, and I took pictures rather than come to his aid. I would explain that if he was a photographer, I would have, but he was just a dime-a-dozen reporter who could be easily replaced. And he would laugh out loud, once again, that famous Steve Swenson cackle. Of course, he cherished that picture of him nearly being attacked.
As I write this, almost undoubtedly one of his colleagues at The Californian is finishing off his obituary for tomorrow’s paper. It was probably already written, that’s another reality of the news business, and Steve knew it, but you can bet they’re really going over it to make sure it’s top-notch. Most of Steve’s colleagues will probably soon be thinking of ways to honor him. Not me, I already know. I have a classroom at Bakersfield College. I still believe in the power of journalism and that people still love stories told by good story tellers. Almost invariably, the subject of how to work on extremely sensitive stories comes up. And I’ll tell them how the great Steve E. Swenson did it.