Friday, November 29, 2013

Remembering Raul Ramirez

Raul Ramirez was one of those rare individuals who decided he could make a difference in people's lives for the better and then he went out and did it. Although I knew him only for a short time -- I met him through my wife Flo -- I was grateful that I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with him. Flo and Raul worked together on many projects in the cause of excellent journalism, of using media and technology on behalf of people who might otherwise not have such access, and always against a backdrop of striving for justice. Que en paz descanse.

I'm sharing two articles from the KQED website: an obituary and a transcript of the final words he wanted to pass on to his colleagues. Please note the opportunity to honor Raul by supporting the Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund at San Francisco State University.

Raul Ramirez: 1946 - 2013

By David Weir and Patricia Yollin

Raul Ramirez, executive director of news and public affairs at KQED Public Radio and a remarkable journalist, teacher and mentor known throughout the Bay Area journalism community and beyond, has died.

Ramirez had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late July and died this morning (November 15) at age 67 at his home in Berkeley. He was born in 1946 in Havana. In April 1962, more than three years after the Cuban revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Ramirez’s parents — disillusioned by what they perceived as Fidel Castro’s failed promises — sent him and his sister to live with relatives in South Florida. He first started to explore journalism as a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville; he once told a colleague that he had studied it to improve his English. In the process, he discovered his calling.

Ramirez’s newspaper days began in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, when he reported for the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner. He gained a reputation for immersing himself in the subjects that he covered, always seeking to gain in-depth understanding before publishing. In 1970, he wrote a prize-winning series for the Wall Street Journal about farmworkers in Michigan after working in the fields alongside them. At the Miami Herald, he accompanied undercover agents on raids of suspected heroin dealers. And for a San Francisco Examiner article on jail conditions, he worked several days as a deputy sheriff.

In May 1976, after months of investigation, Ramirez and freelance journalist Lowell Bergman broke a story for the Examiner about a Chinatown gang murder case titled “How Lies Sent Youth to Prison for Murder.” The article detailed how an assistant district attorney and two police inspectors had pressured witnesses into lying, resulting in the conviction of Richard Lee. The three law enforcement officers sued the Examiner, Bergman and Ramirez for libel, seeking $30 million in damages.

When the Examiner, then owned by the Hearst Corp., refused to provide counsel for the freelancer Bergman, leaving him without representation, Ramirez as a matter of principle and conscience refused to be represented by the Examiner’s lawyer and joined with Bergman to seek outside counsel. A group of journalists and lawyers rallied around the two reporters and raised enough money to hire a lawyer and fight the case. Though they initially lost in Superior Court and were ordered to pay $4.56 million in damages, Bergman and Ramirez spent the next decade fighting the verdict. Ultimately, the libel ruling was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1986. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision, ending the matter once and for all.
Ramirez in his office at KQED.
Ramirez in his office at KQED. (Ian Hill/KQED)

Ramirez has long been a central figure in many Bay Area journalism institutions. For many years he served as president of the board of directors of the Center for Investigative Reporting during a difficult period in the 1990s, when the organization had to rebuild after losing staff and funding. He was also a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, as well as at the University of Hawaii’s School of Pacific and Asian Studies.
He taught for many years at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, where he inspired students with his classes in introductory journalism and investigative reporting. Many have gone on to successful reporting careers at KQED, NPR and other media outlets.  He also led investigative reporting and civic journalism training workshops in the Netherlands as well as training workshops in several Ukrainian locations.
Ramirez ventured into broadcast journalism for the first time in 1991 when he was hired as news director for KQED Public Radio. He was later promoted to executive director of news and public affairs. In his 22 years at KQED, he was instrumental in building it into a top-rated public radio station and leading its award-winning state and regional news service. Today, KQED’s broadcast and online coverage includes KQED News,, “Forum” and “The California Report.” Its statewide service operates news bureaus in Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles.

He also was executive producer of “Pacific Time,” a program that explored the ideas, trends and cultural patterns flowing between Asia and North America. “Pacific Time” aired for seven years before ending in 2007.

During his career, Ramirez received many honors and recognitions, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, and most recently from the same organization the 2013 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award. He was deeply committed to preserving the high standards of journalistic integrity, public service and investigative reporting, and diversity in journalism. Recently, dozens of KQED colleagues sent Ramirez a tribute honoring his great breadth of ideas, his commitment to journalism ethics and his kindness as a colleague, supervisor and friend.

Raul Ramirez is survived by his husband, Tony Wu; the couple married on Oct.18, 2013, in San Leandro. He is also survived by his sister, Miriam Gargiulo of West Palm Beach, Fla.; two brothers, Michael Greenhill of Wellington, Fla., and Eduardo Ramirez of Reddick, Fla.; three nephews and three nieces.

As one of his final acts, Ramirez established the Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund at San Francisco State University. The fund will be administered by the Journalism Department, where Ramirez taught for 30 years. Ramirez told department leaders that he wanted the money to be used to honor a journalism student whose work demonstrated the importance of promoting diversity in journalism.

In lieu of flowers or other tributes, Ramirez hoped that those who wish to honor his memory will contribute to the fund. (Select “Other” from the drop-down menu of “I Would Like to Support” and type into the text box. Enter Designation: “The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.”) Plans for a memorial service are underway and will be announced at a later date.

Final Words From Raul Ramirez: ‘Journalism Has Always Been About the Power of Voices’

Raul Ramirez in his office at KQED. (Courtesy Peter Borg)

Tonight (November 19), Raul Ramirez, the executive director of news and public affairs at KQED Public Radio, is being posthumously awarded the 2013 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, in San Francisco. Last week, Ramirez prepared the following remarks in anticipation of tonight’s ceremony. His speech will be read tonight by San Francisco State University Professor Jon Funabiki.

Raul Ramirez passed away last Friday at his home in Berkeley, at the age of 67.

Dear Colleagues:

In my four decades as a journalist, the power of people’s voices has shaped my work. To me, journalism has always been about the power of voices.

My earliest adolescent writings were inspired in part by a graphic sticker I plastered on buses and doorways as a young teenager in another country and in another time. Above a drawing of a firing squad executing a man, it proclaimed: “Ideas are to be debated, not assassinated.”

My first true lesson on the power of voices came when I signed up for a journalism course at a South Florida high school. As a native Spanish speaker, I was hoping to learn enough English to end the streak of failing grades that had littered my short scholastic path in the United States.

For this class I interviewed a fiercely taciturn school crossing guard then approaching retirement, and wrote a story about him. The day the interview was published, an amazing transformation occurred in the crabby guard, who had long terrorized students who defied his mandates. Students gathered around him. They asked him about anecdotes in the story. He smiled and smiled. At one point, he bowed in response to the students’ good-natured ribbing. He seemed pleased, and happy. At the end of the school day, he pointed at me, raised his hand to stop traffic and, with a grandiose and comical sweep of his arm, invited me to cross as he might have done for royalty.

For a neophyte reporter with linguistic challenges, this was a lesson to learn: Give a man his voice and wonderful things can happen. The crossing guard finally had his voice. And I had found mine. I was hooked on this power of journalism to give someone a voice.

It would be a while before I reflected on another aspect of that power: The power to deny a voice to  those whom journalists ignored.

In my early newspaper years, covering poverty, immigrant communities and the criminal justice system, I was very aware of the power of human stories to change the perceptions of readers and, sometimes, to influence the powerful. I thought of my role as that of a storyteller, without whom people and even entire communities would remain in obscurity, marginalized and ignored.

I came to see that I did not give voice to others, but that my role was to amplify authoritative voices that lacked only access to the means to spread their messages.
But as the years passed and my journalistic experience grew, I gradually realized that the power of words was not something that I, the journalist, bestowed on the people and communities I covered.

The power, I came to understand, was in the stories that people chose to share. I was merely a conduit for the dissemination of those stories. I began to see how journalists could frame the story, to give it context and depth, but that we could not own the story. I came to see that I did not give voice to others, but that my role was to amplify authoritative voices that lacked only access to the means to spread their messages.

This became a master narrative about my work. And I came to feel that journalists must also be generous, thoughtful, civic-minded and caring. Even now, with an Internet explosion that gives every voice more power than it ever had and raises new and vexing questions about the true role of a journalist, it is these values I hope to encourage with the creation of the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism at San Francisco State University. I have endowed this fund to promote the journalistic values — diversity and excellence  — that have been at the core of my entire professional career, and to do so long after l am no longer able to personally advocate for them.
Journalism is sometimes described as a mirror that society holds up to itself. When the public looks in that mirror, it is important that it see faces that reflect the diversity of the community. But it must see more, much more. lt must see that the stories we tell, the experiences we illuminate, the public policies we explore, the communities we describe — the entire body of the very work we do — reflect those same diverse realities.

To do that, we cannot be mere stenographers to the powerful. Journalists must be agents of the truth in all its forms, wherever it resides, and we must work harder and more consciously to seek out the stories that don’t come to us because they lack the resources to bring them to our attention.

I am very grateful to the Society of Professional Journalists for honoring me with this award. There is something special about recognition from one’s peers. To have the respect of so many whom I admire is humbling. Thank you.
— Raul Ramirez

To contribute to the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism Fund, follow this link and select “Other” from the drop-down menu of “I Would Like to Support” and type into the text box. Enter Designation: “The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.”


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