In his cubicle-sized jail cell, the teen-age boy took the news that his hero had been killed like a knight avowing to avenge the death of his King. Luis J. Rodriguez, behind bars protesting police brutality in Los Angeles when Latino reporter Ruben Salazar was killed covering the story of his peoples' suffering, made a commitment to follow in Salazar's footsteps and become a journalist. Rodriguez came to Berkeley in pursuit of the dream and and Friday, 10 years later, it was realized.
I saw Luis Rodriguez for the first time the other day, when he stepped up to get the diploma of the Summer Program for Minority Journalist, his face a honeyed shine: "This day has made up for the 10 years with me trying to become a writer," he said.
Like his 18 classmates from across America, he underwent three tough months of intensive training in a unique program that transformed them into beginning reporters. All soon will go to work for daily newspapers around the country.
While Rodriquez's face was new to me, I'd heard variations of his story for the four years I've been associated with this program that exists to change the complexion of U.S. newsrooms that in far too many cases are largely white. The job of the blacks and browns who have graduated here is to change America's vision of them to diverse human beings with a variety of life-styles, contributions and needs.
"It's more than a job," Rodriquez said. "Our commitment is to be a presence in the newsrooms. This program have given us a way to begin to do something for our community within a newspaper environment."
Fashioning a program with a unique mission has called for an unprecendented approach:
The program is just three months long, a brief time for training a journalist. But the prospective journalists work an average of 18 hours a day, seven days a week, covering the news and publishing a newspaper. The program's directors say the intense concentration equals 14 months of class time in a typical graduate school of journalism.
Orchestrating this grueling discipline is a faculty whose demands make the cliche of the tough city editor seem as pliant as Edith Bunker. The multiracial faculty is made up of reporters and editors from the staff and newspapers across America.
The students who won their paper from national competition, are guaranteed jobs after they graduate. Before they come to the program's headquarters at the University of California at Berkeley, newspaper editors meet them and agree to hire them on the strength of the program's reputation for turning out the best trained beginners in the business.
Blacks, Hispanics and Asians (this year's class had nine blacks, five Hispanics and five Asian Americans are not fighting over this small piece of power and prestige but are working together, identifying their common needs and advancing their common interests.
Emerging reporters are not only taught skills, but the politics of the newsroom, how to survive and advance.
I am a board member now of the sponsoring Institute for Journalism Education, but a few summers ago I taught. The group moaned often in fear, anxiety and anger as we pursued our arduous journey. We separated them totally from their families, drove them mercilessly. But they were sustained in difficult moments by the knowledge they soon would be reporters and when the true transformation came, they were deeply grateful. The diversity and energy stimualtes the faculty, too. One tearful teacher told the group at graduation Friday, "I just had the best summer I ever had in my life."
It was in 1968, when blacks trashed 110 American cities in their fury after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Kerner Commission laid a lot of the blame for the uprising on the press, that the summer program for minority journalists was begun at Columbia University. The Kerner Commission said the press had excluded blacks from the story of America and labeled its hiring and promotion policies "shockingly backward."
Many newspaper editors answered that they couldn't find anybody qualified. The program has tried to find the way to eliminate that phrase from the lexicon of American journalism. In 1974, by the time the number of minorities had crept to 1 percent of the 40,000 daily reporters in America, the Ford Foundation and Columbia cancelled the program. But the minority journalists comprising the faculty that year thought the program's death was premature. They exhumed the body by raising $250,000 and finding new shelter: the Berkeley School of Journalism. In the past five years, 85 new journalists have graduated from this program, and this summer, the group added a new program for training editors at the University of Arizona.
Today, the number of minority journalist working on the 1,700 dalies in America stands at 5 percent, so the 19 graduates who walked off with diplomas Friday will be necessary additions to papers across America. Jonathan Hicks, 24, of Washington, will be the only black when he reports to the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
About 60 percent of the U.S. daily newspapers employ no minorities, so the black or brown perspective on the news in these papers is as foreign as if they occupied another galaxy.
Friday's graduation speaker, John L. Dotson Jr. of Newsweek magazine, is one of the six minority journalists who raised the money to keep the program going in 1974. He bequeathed a bigger vision for Luis Rodriquez and the other 18 graduates.
"We want you to excel as journalists . . . but we want most of all for you to excel in life." They just finished round one, but seemed eager for the difficult match to begin.