On the Media: An unlikely duo wins Pulitzer for Bell coverage
There were several great moments in the Los Angeles Times newsroom Monday, as the paper reeled in a couple of Pulitzer Prizes.
You had to love Ruben Vives, just three years into his reporting career, accepting a glass of champagne with a shaking hand, but speaking like a practiced orator about the value of newspapers. Who wasn’t tickled for Barbara Davidson, the winner for feature photography, beaming and threatening to sing the anthem of her native Canada? Times Editor Russ Stanton drew a roar of approval paying tribute to Vives’ journeyman reporting partner. “When you look up ‘grizzled veteran’ in the AP stylebook,” Stanton said, “it says, ‘See also Gottlieb, Jeff.’”
The story of corruption in the city of Bell couldn’t have been led by a more perfectly cinematic duo, a pair of mismatched bookends, both raised in Los Angeles but from worlds apart. The story of Vives and Gottlieb’s wildly divergent paths to the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, journalism’s top award, ought to make even a business renowned for moving on pause for a moment of appreciation.
The unlikely duo led the way for dozens of Times colleagues, who together brought a measure of truth and justice to the downtrodden city of Bell, where corrupt bosses had turned the public treasury into something like their personal ATM.
Born in Guatemala, Vives never imagined he would end up in a headline, or even the byline under one. He was a preschooler in Central America when the only mother he had ever known (his grandmother) packed him in a van for an interminable road trip. He would be dropped in Southern California to be raised by two people, his parents, who at first were little more than strangers.
The journey didn’t always go smoothly. His father left and started another family. Gang members in the San Fernando Valley beat a beloved uncle so badly he died of his injuries. Vives recalls visiting the scene, blood still on the sidewalk. Later, the young immigrant would have to fight to obtain legal status and a green card so he could stay in this country.
A fortunate break came when the couple who employed Vives’ mother took an interest in the struggling family. The couple moved the immigrants away from their sketchy block in Echo Park to Whittier. When Vives graduated high school, the good Samaritans helped him find a job.
Since his angels happened to be then-Los Angeles Times business editor Robert Magnuson and his wife, reporter Shawn Hubler, a likely landing spot for Vives seemed like a job at the newspaper. Vives interviewed and The Times hired him as a copy messenger for the summer.
The teenager hustled and worked extra hours to secure a full-time job. Initially, he was too awed by the reporters and editors who surrounded him to think he would be one of them. That began to change in 2005, with The Times’ investigation into deadly medical practices and racial injustice at Martin Luther King Jr. Drew Medical Center. The paper brought Vives on as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients, work that showed the young copy assistant, firsthand, how journalism “can speak for the voices that often don’t get heard.”
The seed had been planted. When crime reporter Jill Leovy took a book leave in 2008, editors gave Vives the chance to take over the Homicide Report, an exhaustive accounting of the stories of murder victims in Los Angeles. He took the assignment so to heart that sometimes, out socializing with friends, he worried that he should be tending to the city’s dead and, more important, to the stories of their loved ones. A reporter had been born, one who, at 32, burns with fervor for the profession.
Gottlieb, 57, grew up in an entirely different Los Angeles. His parents, a county probation officer and a stay-at-home mom, filled their North Hollywood home with newspapers, books and magazines. They encouraged their children to embrace current events and to read voraciously.
When he left Pitzer College, Gottlieb had no career destination in mind. But he fell in with a group of investigative reporters and writers who had a fascination with JFK’s assassination. He soon got the bug, not for conspiracy, but for research and writing. He enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Over a three-decade newspaper career, he jumped from the Riverside Press-Enterprise to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and eventually to the San Jose Mercury News, where he left a lasting impression, especially with an investigation of Stanford University research projects that grossly overcharged taxpayers for overhead. Stanford’s president, Donald Kennedy, resigned.
Gottlieb joined The Times’ Orange County edition in 1997. He worked first as an editor and then on a variety of reporting beats, including higher education and medicine. Like a lot of other journalists living through the wrenching cutbacks in the industry, he thought about changing careers. In the middle of last year, he worked out of his Hermosa Beach home, manning The Times’ coverage of the South Bay.
When the city of Maywood’s finances and staffing started to come unglued, the call went out for a veteran to team with Vives, who had been assigned just months before to cover the working-class cities of Southeast Los Angeles County — cities filled with a lot of people with backgrounds just like his. The match was made.
Last July, Vives and Gottlieb walked into Bell City Hall. The city administrator, Robert Rizzo, wouldn’t see them, which seemed a bit odd. They instead met with City Clerk Rebecca Valdez. Gottlieb whipped through a list of documents the duo demanded to see. Valdez talked about taking the full 10 days to fulfill the request. Gottlieb talked about suing and making the city pay court costs, when it lost.
Rizzo finally relented and agreed to a meeting. The community room where he joined the reporters was not only jammed with documents but packed with a welter of staff members.
When Gottlieb asked Rizzo how much he made per year, the answer came out with a cough: "$700,000" (actually closer to $800,000). The veteran reporter had to ask a second time, to be sure he heard correctly. When Rizzo confirmed the price tag, which made him the highest paid city administrator in the nation, Vives responded, “Jesus Christ!”
Within days, The Times swarmed the story with a platoon of reporters: Paloma Esquivel, Richard Winton, Kim Christensen, Robert J. Lopez, Scott Gold, Hector Becerra, Evan Halper, Paul Pringle, Corina Knoll, Kim Murphy, Jack Leonard and Christopher Goffard, among others.
Each helped color in an ugly picture: Public officials run amok, impounding cars, taxing citizens, citing business people, anything, it seemed, to swell the city treasury so the administrators and council members could fatten their own bank accounts. Authorities indicted eight people on corruption charges.
At future meetings in the city, the locals greeted Vives and Gottlieb with back slaps and autograph requests. When the City Council once dawdled in what seemed like an illicit closed session, the audience began chanting: “Ruben, Ruben!” They wanted their hero let in on the closed-door discussions.
Times Editor Stanton closed his remarks Monday urging the newsroom to use the Pulitzer win as inspiration to find the next Bell. A couple of weeks before, it appeared Vives already had found the inspiration. Rising from his cubicle near mine one day, he grabbed a notebook and strode toward the stairs. Quietly, mostly to himself, he said: “OK, off to catch more bad guys.”
On days like that one and days like Monday — when a homeboy from North Hollywood and a homeboy from Echo Park made Pulitzer music together — there felt like no better place to be than inside the newsroom at 1st and Spring.