It’s been 40 years since four Fresno Bee newsmen went to jail to protect a confidential source, and they would do it again if given another chance.
“We upheld the best traditions of journalism,” said George F. Gruner, former executive editor of The Bee and one of the four sentenced.
Reporters Joe Rosato and Bill Patterson, city editor James H. Bort Jr. and Gruner, then The Bee’s top editor, served 15 days at the Fresno County Jail’s industrial farm in 1976 after they refused a Superior Court judge’s order to give up the identity of a confidential source.
The demand stemmed from a series of articles that cited Fresno County Grand Jury testimony by Fresno City Councilman Marc A. Stefano, saying he was paid $5,000 and would be paid an additional $20,000 by a company vying to take over the city’s garbage removal services. The testimony had been sealed after Stefano and others involved were indicted on conspiracy and bribery charges.
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Judge Denver Peckinpah, brother of film director Sam Peckinpah, questioned Rosato and Patterson when the stories ran in January 1975. The newspaper had held onto the stories, fearing they could keep Stefano from receiving a fair trial. It finally published them once Stefano’s case was moved to Alameda County and the Fresno City Council was due to vote on the garbage contract.
Today, Gruner, 91, lives in Fresno and Rosato, 74, resides in Clovis. Patterson, 89, lives in Fresno. Bort died in 2010.
“The public interest was my main concern,” Gruner said in an interview. “The public was entitled to know that the councilman was being paid by an applicant.”
After the reporters refused to divulge the source, Peckinpah called in Bort. Gruner said the judge hoped to use Bort to force the reporters’ hands. When Bort refused, Gruner was called in. Peckinpah cited each for contempt of court every time they refused to answer a question. The four racked up 73 combined citations. After a year and a half of exhaustive legal action aimed at reversing the citations, the men were ordered to report to the farm on Sept. 3, 1976.
When the call to report to jail came in, Gruner and Bort were golfing.
“I had hit two long shots,” Gruner said. “But I missed the putt.”
Rosato was at a bar.
I was the most contemptible. I think I had 28 counts against me. I’ve got two numbers in my head: 28 and 15. Fifteen was the number of pounds I gained in the 15 days in jail.
Former Bee reporter Joe Rosato
“I was the most contemptible,” Rosato said. “I think I had 28 counts against me. I’ve got two numbers in my head: 28 and 15. Fifteen was the number of pounds I gained in the 15 days in jail.”
Apparently, the jail’s cook was not very health conscious. “The food is tasty and more than ample,” Rosato and Patterson wrote in a story dated Sept. 5, 1976. Because they were civil prisoners, they were allowed to write and keep in close contact with The Bee. “Our first meal consisted of chop suey, rice, homemade bread and cake, two large pitchers of coffee and punch.”
“The industrial farm was very heavy on starches,” Rosato remembered. “You could tell whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner by the color of the icing on the white cake that we had. It was either chocolate, vanilla or strawberry.”
The four had to stay in a bunkhouse segregated from the criminal prisoners. The quartet’s work detail consisted of feeding ducks at a nearby pond.
Gruner also had a funny food story from his time served. The newspaper was committed to running a front-page story every day its employees were in captivity, Gruner said. On a particularly slow day, the headline said something about the four eating steak dinners during their punishment.
“He (the cook) said we would be getting bologna sandwiches that night,” Gruner said.
While the Bee Four were behind bars, the McClatchy Co. was fighting for their release. Gruner recalled that C.K. McClatchy, grandson of the founder of the newspaper corporation, told him early on that the company would cover all legal costs but “couldn’t go to jail for us.”
The company spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring lawyers up and down the state and in Washington, D.C., Gruner said. Eventually, its legal team was able to convince Judge Hollis Best, who had taken over the case after Peckinpah retired, to release them.
Gruner said he still has no idea who the source was. He did not require the reporters to tell him. He only asked if the source was a good one, meaning the information provided was accurate and authentic.
It became a matter of pride for me that I trusted the reporters.
Former Bee Editor George S. Gruner
“It became a matter of pride for me that I trusted the reporters,” he said.
During their 15 days in jail, virtually all major media outlets in the country spoke out in their defense, as did longtime U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. United Farm Workers co-founder César Chávez visited them and shared memories from his time in jail.
Around 1,000 members of the Peoples Temple Christian Church, led by their minister Jim Jones, marched on behalf of the Bee Four. Just over two years later, Jones and more than 900 of his followers committed suicide at the Jonestown compound in Guyana.
When asked about the legacy left by their stint in jail 40 years ago, Rosato and Gruner had starkly different answers.
Rosato said a lot changed the day he was released. Potential sources knew they could trust him. Rosato left The Bee in the early 1990s for a public relations job. His son, Joe Rosato Jr., is a reporter with NBC Bay Area.
Shortly after his release, Rosato remembered taking his kids to Roeding Park. When Joe Jr., who was about 8 at the time, saw a police officer, he thought the cop was there to take his father away. To calm his son down, Rosato had to ask the officer to explain that wasn’t the case.
But Rosato doesn’t believe there is much of a legacy from the jailing. He only gets asked about it on anniversaries.
Gruner also isn’t asked about the event much these days, but he believes it left a mark.
California’s shield law, which protects journalists who are asked to give up sources, was beefed up after the Bee Four case and a similar one involving Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr in 1972, Gruner said.
Eventually, Gruner became friends with those who put him in jail. Max Robinson, the deputy county counsel who prosecuted the Bee Four, moved into Gruner’s retirement complex.
“We became good buddies,” Gruner said. “We came to this understanding that he was doing his job, and we were doing our jobs. There was never anything personal about it.”
Gruner also befriended Judge Best, whom Gruner called “Hollie.”
33Number of years George Gruner spent at The Fresno Bee before retiring in 1988
Gruner retired from The Bee in 1988. He has been asked to speak multiple times at media and law events over the years. The George Gruner Awards were established shortly after his retirement and recognize meritorious journalism with an emphasis on aiding the public interest in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Both Gruner and Rosato believe targeting reporters during investigations is wrong. One judge later told Gruner that he would “go after the money” by instead fining the media corporations themselves, which has happened a few times in the last four decades.
However, the trend of jailing reporters for refusing to name sources continues.
In 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller served several months for refusing to give up a source who identified covert Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame. She eventually identified her source, with his permission, and testified against him in federal court.
In 2006, freelance journalist Josh Wolf went to prison for refusing to release video footage shot at a San Francisco demonstration. He served more than seven months before he released the footage.
James Risen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, fought a seven-year legal battle to keep from testifying against confidential sources who contributed to his book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” In 2015, Risen said he no longer was being asked to testify.
Gruner believes what happened to the Bee Four and other reporters over the years likely will continue until the federal government adopts a shield law similar to California’s.