By Ken Stone
Duncan D. Hunter is now an ex-congressman, but the newspaper that sparked his fall from grace is gearing up for another bite of the apple.
Six bites, in fact.
Next week in Escondido — two months before Hunter is sentenced in his political corruption case — The San Diego Union-Tribune will premiere a movie called “The 50th: A Scandal. A Dynasty. An Election.”
“We’re producing this as an episodic documentary, so it will be broken up essentially into chapters,” says U-T photojournalist Sam Hodgson, who conceived the project and acts as director, editor and cinematographer.
The first five episodes were in postproduction when Times of San Diego quizzed him recently, but chapter 6 remains a blank slate.
“It’s an exciting, experimental and pretty daunting way to go about reporting a story like this one,” Hodgson said. “We have no idea what will happen between now and March 3 when voters cast their ballots in the primary, but we do know that whatever shakes out will be fascinating.”
So visitors to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, on Jan. 22 will be viewing a doc-in-progress. An hour-long version of “The 50th” is set for 1 p.m. Jan. 26 on Cox Cable and Spectrum Cable in San Diego, and episodes will air on the U-T website and YouTube as well, he said.
Hodgson, 35, expects Part 6 to be released after the primary.
“From there, we’ll see who’s still in the race, how the story is unfolding and determine the resources we put into documenting the general election,” he says.
Let go by Voice of San Diego in 2012, Hodgson landed with The New York Times and covered Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election. But he’s a film-making rookie, having made only shorter videos of the 7- and 8-minute variety.
The graduate of La Jolla Country Day School and San Diego State says the story inspired him to pitch this project.
“I saw Carl DeMaio jumping into the [50th District] race, former Congressman Darrell Issa eyeing the seat,” he said. “I saw what looked like at the time as Duncan Hunter headed to trial while he was running for re-election. I saw a formidable opponent in Ammar Campa-Najjar, who was being pointed to by Republicans as a threat to the district’s conservative legacy.”
Hodgson — who grew up in Escondido and still has family there — says he saw a district in California that wasn’t the California “you always see on TV.”
“I thought to myself: ‘Someone has to make a documentary about this.’ And in that moment, I realized that there was no person better situated to make that documentary. I grew up in the congressional district, I had access to the reporters who broke and unraveled the story, I had a lot of experience covering politics at both the local and national level (which is the exact blend of politics you see in congressional races) and I had editors who were supportive of me taking the time I need to take to do a story right.”
When he pitched the piece, he said: “I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but all of the possible outcomes are fascinating.”
In August, Hodgson began shadowing U-T colleague Morgan Cook, the 2017 San Diego Journalist of the Year who broke the first Hunter story that led to a federal investigation. He soon began interviewing subjects — at least a dozen so far.
Republican Hunter declined to be quizzed. Issa also has yet to do a sit-down interview, “though he is filmed and featured in the documentary,” Hodgson said. (DeMaio didn’t respond to a Times request for comment, but he was interviewed for the documentary as was state Sen. Brian Jones, a fellow Republican.)
But Campa-Najjar — the Democrat who was runner-up in November 2018 and running again — says he was interviewed about half a dozen times.
Why take part?
“Because I want folks in East and North County to see I’m out there meeting voters in their homes and businesses, that I’m a regular East County guy, and my life’s an open book,” Campa-Najjar said, adding that the documentary “will help voters get a small sense of who I am and why I’m running.”
A late entry in the race — Marisa Calderon, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals — also sat for a Hodgson interview.
“Can’t recall how long it lasted, but there was a lot to catch up on, so it was fairly substantial, covering just what you’d imagine: her background, positions, some race dynamic. Pretty straightforward,” said Grigs Crawford, Calderon’s campaign manager.
Not contacted was independent candidate Helen Horvath — although she made an effort to insert herself.
In a 1,200-word response to Times of San Diego, she said she was “clued in” by a U-T staffer that the video project was ongoing in December.
“I contacted Sam Hodgson immediately, and he said he would speak to his ‘boss’ about the video project, requesting that my campaign be included,” Horvath said. “I called him last week again. He stated that he was interviewing based upon when the candidate announced their candidacy.”
Horvath said she entered the race before other interviewed candidates had.
“His plan was to interview me after the March primaries,” she said. “My question is: Why? What effect will that have on my campaign when he is interviewing all the men in the campaign and party affiliated candidates?”
Hodgson says in response: “We selected interview subjects for this series based on their relevance to the storyline, considering factors like candidates’ polling numbers, their fundraising abilities and their prominence in the region.”
Watchdog reporter Cook — who will appear with Hodgson for a Q&A immediately following the Jan. 22 Escondido screening — admits to being a little camera shy in general and also hesitant about talking about herself or her work in public.
“But I have known Sam a long time and I trust and respect him as a journalist,” she said, “so I knew he would try to tell the truth about who I am and what I do.”
Cook, 37, says she didn’t want a say in editing for concerns about a conflict of interest.
“Sam eventually asked me to watch his final draft of the episode in which I appear,” she said. “My only note was technical, regarding a little glitch where footage had been cut together.”
Hodgson sums up the purpose of the project: “It’s an interesting story and it’s important for our readers to know more about the people who represent them, or are trying to represent them, in one of the most powerful institutions in the world.”
On Wednesday, a Center for the Arts spokeswoman said 79 tickets had been sold — but a sell-out is hoped for at the center’s 404-seat theater. (The premiere is a first for the Escondido venue.)
“San Diego tends to be a last-minute city,” said Ely Ramos,* the center’s public relations manager. “Typically, we see that a lot of people purchase tickets a week or two before the show.”
Hodgson and Cook were interviewed this month via email.
Times of San Diego: Did Sam work around your sked as he shadowed you? How did you coordinate shoots, given your uncertain sked?
Morgan Cook: Sam mostly shadowed me when I was going to scheduled court hearings, media appearances or working in the office, so we knew ahead of time where I would be and when. I would just tell him the hearing dates or when something was likely to happen in the office, and he would plan to be there.
Does “The 50th” do justice to the grunt work of reporting? Overglamorize at any point?
I have seen most of the (almost) finished product. I don’t feel like I can offer an unbiased opinion on whether it does justice to the grunt work of reporting or overglamorizes myself or the work, so I’ll leave those determinations to viewers.
In fire departments, it’s typical for firefighters who get media exposure to feel obligated to buy ice cream for everyone in the station. How do your newsroom colleagues regard your celebrity? Envious? Happy for you? How do you deal with being the story?
To my knowledge, my colleagues are genuinely happy for me. I think they know, just as I do, that the praise and accolades I have received are really for the paper and that means all of us. It’s easier to accept criticism and praise when you understand that it’s rarely personal. Understanding that has made it easier for me to enjoy the huge honor of being a standard-bearer for our craft, for local news, at this moment in history.
Have you been in touch with any reporters, such as at The New York Times, who have “starred” in docs? Heard any advice on how to handle the attention?
Luckily, I am not starring in this documentary. The candidates and the 50th District itself are the stars, in my opinion. I only appear for more than a few seconds in one of the five episodes. The advice I have received about how to handle the attention has been sort of nebulous, but the gist of it is to try to remain calm and not to worry because I know this subject cold and if I stumble, it’s OK, because this, too, shall pass. All I have to do is outlive it.
What are your hopes for “The 50th”? What can it say that your stories haven’t?
“The 50th” is about the race in the 50th, so it says a lot of things my stories haven’t. My work has been focused on rules and laws, so I have not written about what the candidates are like as people, what the 50th District is like as a place, or how voters in the district feel about key issues. The documentary gets into all of those things.
My hope for “The 50th” is that it informs people in a fair, meaningful way so that when they cast their ballots in March, they can feel confident that they are voting for the person who they feel will best represent their priorities, values and hopes for our country and its future.
What are you telling friends and family about the doc?
I think, mostly, I’ve been telling them how cool it is to get to work with Sam on a project that will, among other things, document this remarkable time in my life. I don’t expect to ever break another story like this, to have another experience like this, so having a record of it crafted by a journalist as accomplished and respected as Sam is such a cool thing.
Times of San Diego: Who will be listed as producer, director, editor, writer, videographers, etc.?
Sam Hodgson: I directed, edited, shot and produced the bulk of the series with a lot of help from colleagues all around the newsroom. Beto Alvarez, who is the creative director of The U-T, is the executive producer. Alejandro Tamayo is senior producer and Jarrod Valliere and John Kelley are co-producers and all of them had a role in helping shoot or providing edits and technical guidance. Ricky Young is the senior editorial consultant and he helped us navigate a lot of the Hunter backstory and helped us align the documentary to our newsroom’s reporting standards.
What is “Studio Productions” — mentioned in the trailer?
At the U-T, we have a whole department called the “Studio.” It encompasses the photo, video and graphics department. “U-T Studio Productions” is how we’re billing our more in-depth feature productions.
Who made the trailer?
I cut the trailer with help and guidance from all of the aforementioned people.
How many people interviewed for the doc?
In terms of sit-down interviews, it was probably about a dozen or so. You can only introduce so many people to an audience before they get lost and you’re bouncing around too much. But I spent a lot of time in the district and had a ton of more informal discussions with voters, candidates and other politicians and political observers about the race for The 50th and Duncan Hunter’s family dynasty and legal saga.
How long will it be?
Total run time for the first five episodes is currently about 1:10, but we’re still finalizing some things so that might change by a few minutes give or take.
Does doc have a budget?
There was never anything specifically outlined. There have been very few hard costs. Most of it is just my time and the time of colleagues in the newsroom, for which I’m eternally grateful the U-T has encouraged us to take to make this all possible.
How many hours did you film?
It would take me at least an hour to get you a solid answer to this question combing through all my footage, but I have to imagine it’s in the area of 100 hours of footage.
Is this first doc made by U-T?
The Union-Tribune’s made a lot of efforts in the video space over the years and has told some great stories in this medium and racked up a ton of regional Emmys along the way. But “The 50th” is definitely among our most ambitious efforts to date, both in its scope, its rollout and in the amount of original reporting that went into producing it.
Whose idea was it to make this doc?
I pitched this idea to Beto Alvarez and Alejandro Tamayo, our new director of video, back in August.
Did the various “inside the NYT” docs inspire you or U-T to do this? Anyone at The New York Times give you advice?
I don’t think any other documentaries necessarily inspired me to do this. The story inspired me to do this. But I did watch a lot of documentaries while working on this and drew inspiration from them. That includes episodes of The NYT’s “The Weekly” but also documentaries like “Knock Down the House,” “Street Fight” and other political documentaries.
I have a lot of close friends and colleagues still at The Times and from time to time would talk to them about what I was working on and my excitement for it but never sought or received any advice from them. This very specifically was done in-house with the brainpower, technical abilities and institutional knowledge of The San Diego Union-Tribune and we’re very proud of that. We did have our colleagues at the Los Angeles Times provide assistance and guidance from time to time and they’ve been great partners and supporters of this endeavor.
Does U-T have plans for other docs? What might topics be?
I’m definitely hoping to make more docs after this and I know a few of my colleagues have expressed excitement about doing that, too. No specific plans yet — we’re just working to get this one out the door and in front of as many eyeballs as possible. But I’ve got a few ideas in the back of my head.
Can “The 50th” make money for U-T? If so, how?
I stay clear of the business-side decisions so I can focus on the journalism. I’ll say this: Newspapers have incredible institutional abilities built in that make them primed to create documentaries. In our case, I was able to tap other reporters for information, use our extensive archives to bring historical depth to the film, turn around to ask a graphic designer for help with fonts or a second opinion on coloring, work with other people in the video department to fine-tune the edits.
So I think newspapers, particularly if there is institutional support for spending the time, can tell great stories in this format, just as they’ve told great stories across platforms for generations. And if you turn on any streaming service today, you can clearly see there is a market for documentary filmmaking and real stories. So I do think there is potential for products like “The 50th” to turn profits, and I’m hoping this project is a jumping off point for our business team to explore all those possibilities.
What challenges or roadblocks did you or U-T encounter?
Politics is messy, so it’s always challenging when you start to wade into those waters to establish mutual trust with the subjects of your work, whether it’s a candidate or one of their staff members or a voter. Congressman Hunter declined to be interviewed for the series, but he still appears on film a decent amount.
At one point, I did have the opportunity to introduce myself to him, without cameras or microphones rolling, and told him who I was, what I was doing and said that if he ever had a change of heart and wanted to be interviewed, the door was always open. Congressman Issa also has not yet agreed to a sit-down interview, though he is filmed and featured in the documentary.
What efforts does “The 50th” make to show journalistic balance or fairness to the Hunters?
So as I said, I reached out to his team to try to offer him the chance to give his side of the story in his own words. He declined that request. With that said, there are moments in the documentary series when even my own assumptions and knowledge about Hunter and his work are challenged and I learn from voters — even those who don’t plan to vote for him — about some of the good work he and his office did in The 50th.
There are also sections that get into the backstory of his and his father’s time in office and make it clear just how beloved they’d been to many constituents over the years.
Will “The 50th” be entered in any film festivals?
I hope so, but we haven’t got that far down the road yet.
Does “The 50th” reveal any new info on the Hunter case?
It doesn’t reveal any new info about his case, but I do think that when all the information about his case, his legacy and the race to replace him are put into one place and organized, it all takes on a whole new life. That’s my hope at least.
How did you work around Morgan Cook’s schedule in the making of this film?
Just as with my still photography, a lot of this work is done fly-on-the-wall style, so there wasn’t much need for Morgan to carve out time in her schedule. She is featured prominently in Episode 5 as we see Hunter take his guilty plea and the [assistant] U.S. attorney acknowledge her work as the catalyst for beginning an investigation. We spent several hours on camera the day after the plea change as sort of a debrief about everything that happened.
Could “The 50th” have been made without [U-T owner] Patrick Soon-Shiong support — either financially or via newsroom culture he’s fostering?
“The 50th” could never happen in a lot of newsrooms. When I joined The U-T a bit over a year ago, I stepped into an organization dedicated to serving its community with its eyes turned to the future. I don’t know our owner personally but everything that’s relayed to me is that he values quality and views newspapers as valuable civic institutions. That’s a powerful message to send to your newsroom and one that I heard loud and clear.
The fact that our editor and publisher Jeff Light has given me the time and resources to pursue something like this is pretty remarkable, especially in a 2019 newsroom environment. He’s encouraged our journalists to take chances on big, ambitious ideas. That’s why you’ve seen the amount and the caliber of in-depth reporting coming out of The U-T.
What video equipment did you use? Who else on U-T photo staff contributed to doc?
I shot most of the doc on Canon 5D Mark III. I had some experience in making shorter videos, but not a ton. Alejandro Tamayo and Jarrod Valliere did some other camera work and I also pulled extensively from our video and photo archives. I think just about every member of our photo staff has an image or video clip in the credits.
Did covering Sanders, Clinton and Trump in 2016 help prepare you for this project?
I think it helped in a lot of ways. In 2016, I traveled to 20 different states over more than 150 days covering the election as a photojournalist for The New York Times. Spending that much time up close with politicians vying for the most powerful job in the world is a potent reminder that they are just humans.
A lot of my interviewing style is pretty casual — I’m just riding along in the car with a lot of these candidates, just talking. They give a lot of lines that are kind of rehearsed and polished and I don’t blame them for that, but occasionally, that interviewing style allows real human moments to come out.
I think that style evolved from recognizing that these candidates all put their pants on one leg at a time, just like us. It also helps establish credibility with some of these folks as I ask for access and taught me how to deal with voters or candidates who are hostile to or skeptical of the press.
A fun anecdote: There is a tile wall at the California Center for the Arts called something like the 1994 Escondido students tile wall. I painted one of the tiles there as a child and believe it’s still there, though haven’t checked in a few years. As far as I know, that’s my first piece of published art! And now the doc will screen at the same site.
*An earlier version of this story attributed comments to the wrong person.
Updated at 11:56 a.m. Jan. 16, 2020
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