Tony Perry had a scoop! It was 1982, and as City Hall reporter for The San Diego Union he revealed that Police Chief Bill Kolender wasn’t running for mayor, “a big deal at the time.”
Marcia McQuern, his editor, called Perry into the office. Instead of an anticipated attaboy, he was read the riot act.
Perry, who last week exited daily journalism when he took a buyout from the Los Angeles Times, recalls McQuern’s words: “[Editor] Jerry Warren says you are putting secret messages in your stories to embarrass him in front of his friends — and you have to stop it!”
In a wink of sympathy, McQuern added: “Now you see what I’m up against?”
Perry replied: “You can tell Jerry there will be no secret messages in any story I do.”
This week, Perry shared memories of a storied 44-year career that took him from a tiny Davis daily in the early 1970s to Riverside and then the morning San Diego Union until his final move to the Los Angeles Times in June 1987, where he won a Pulitzer and became a frequent guest on the KPBS “Editors Roundtable.”
Like dozens of others in the Tribune Publishing family of newspapers, Perry left on his own terms. But he also was prepared for a return to Mission Valley and his former employer.
“I talked to [U-T Editor] Jeff Light for a half-hour on the phone,” he said Tuesday in a lunchtime chat at a deli in his longtime home of Encinitas. “Found him to be very cordial.”
He also spent a couple hours one Sunday at Saint Tropez Bistro & Beyond on Highway 101 talking with “delightful” U-T topic editor Hieu Tran Phan about what kinds of stories he’d be doing at the Union-Tribune (but with L.A. Times pay and benefits).
“I was kind of excited,” Perry said. “I had some ideas in mind. But I had to wait to see what the buyout was.”
The terms were too good to ignore: a year’s severance pay for his 28 years of service. Since he was planning to retire at 70 anyway, the “voluntary separation” deal put him only a few months short. (Perry turns 69 in February.)
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How did he manage to survive earlier layoffs and buyouts at the Times, which struggled through bankruptcy and roller-coaster management?
“Some of it was dumb luck,” he says. “Some of it was productivity.” But his reputation as a general assignment reporter showing up for work every day and able to take any assignment was key.
He called it “willingness to do windows,” even covering the Chargers in their 1-15 season of 2000.
“You’d be surprised — still to this day — there are some people who think [that] unless they’re doing a 60-inch feature story, they’re being abused,” he says.
Perry also may have benefited by avoiding headquarters combat. “I don’t think I’ve walked through the doors of the Los Angeles Times two dozen times in 28 years.”
Donning a helmet and flak jacket
Instead, Perry went to war on a different front.Over 10 years, starting in 2002, Perry reported seven times from Iraq and seven times from Afghanistan, usually joining the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division.
“When 50,000 people from your community … get up, move halfway around the world and get involved in the most important story in the world — if you don’t go with them [as the local bureau chief], what the hell are you in business for?”
His Mideast separations from his journalist (and later CareFusion copywriter) wife, Ann, and their two sons averaged six weeks. They included a three-month trip on the eve of the Iraq invasion (“jumping from 5-star hotel to 5-star hotel”).
In his late 50s and early 60s, he was one of the world’s oldest journalists in the Mideast combat zones.
“I was ‘embed’ before it was cool,” he says, “as Dolly Parton did not say.”
Living in tents in brutal conditions and operating near insurgents, Perry “handled” himself correctly and became a “piece of furniture” among the young Marines. “They’ll say anything in front of you.”
He suffered as well — spending a week at an Iraqi field hospital in 2004 where he was treated for exhaustion and heat ailments. (He blames himself for not walking 100 yards to fetch a bottle of water.)
Most of all, he told the stories of young men experiencing combat, interviewing them one day and writing about their deaths the next.“Every time I could quote one of those young men (and women), I considered it: That’s what I’m there for — not to parcel out the [geopolitics].” He traveled to hometowns across the country, sometimes talking to grieving families as well.
Then and now, Perry says he’s been “absolutely agnostic” on the Iraq War — whether it was justified. “I dodge it when it comes up at parties.”
Declining to take sides
That applies to his views on other issues. Even when given the opportunity to vent on current events, now that he’s a civilian, he declines.
“You do [journalism] for as long as I did it, your opinions are of no significance — and also there’s corporate rules against it,” he says. “You boil it out of yourself.”
On politics, “my opinions are just as ill-formed as everyone else’s.” (He’s been a registered Republican, he says, since changing parties in the 1980s to vote for a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate he liked. But he voted for President Obama in 2012 after casting a ballot for John McCain in 2008.)
Or he simply begs off.
On who’s to blame for ISIS, he says: “The woods are full of people who think they know the answer. I’m not one of them.”
But in helping the Times win a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2003 San Diego County wildfires, he had crucial insights. The story that “put us over the top” was one in which he laid out the “when, where and how” of the firestorm and how warnings of exactly such a disaster had been ignored.“Our friends in Mission Valley [the Union-Tribune] knew that, too — or had access to that thought,” says Perry, who suggested that had he been working for the U-T “I might have known it so well I didn’t think it was news.”
Perry didn’t share toasts the day the prize was announced in April 2004.
He was in a graveyard outside Fallujah, Iraq, when he learned via satellite phone that, many hours earlier, his team had won the Pulitzer for breaking news.
A year earlier, he contributed to a Times series on “widow-maker” Harrier jump jets that won two of his colleagues a Pulitzer for national reporting. (He provided some military quotes from Kuwait, he recalls.)
Also in 2004, he used a calculator to tally unbubbled ballots that might have elected Donna Frye the mayor of San Diego, instead of Dick Murphy, had a judge allowed the ballots to count.
“It was a real mess, legally and politically,” Perry says. “I didn’t care who won. But I thought the public deserved to know the tally so the LA Times waded in.”
His reputation as a jack-of-all-trades newsman may be his legacy, however. He recalls his first Union story being about a disabled Boy Scout earning Eagle rank. His first Times story, after joining the San Diego bureau led by Dale Fetherling, was about outdoor trompe-l’oeil artwork in the Gaslamp Quarter.
And then there’s the zoo.
He fed the L.A. appetite for rare animal news with many yarns about the World Famous Zoo and its sister Safari Park. Perry’s last Times story, in fact, was about Nola the white rhino, whose death brought her species closer to extinction.
Falling in love with news biz
Perry, an endangered species of journalist himself, might never have joined the newspaper game had he not taken a sabbatical from collegiate studies.
Born in Santa Rosa, Anthony Lee Perry grew up in Menlo Park south of San Francisco. He attended the University of California at a time of student strife over Vietnam (“Look out the window and armored personnel carriers are going by.”)
With a draft deferment, Perry studied English literature. “I did my senior thesis on Walt Whitman, and also got heavily interested in Keats, Joseph Conrad and Tennyson.”
After graduation in 1969, he moved to UC Davis, where he began work on a Ph.D. He was writing a doctoral thesis on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” when he decided to “step out” of academia for a year or two.
“Maybe I’ll work at that little newspaper down the block,” he recalls thinking. “And I did — and that was 44 years ago. I never did get back to the thesis.” He laughs.After three years at the afternoon Enterprise, one of the smallest dailies in the state, Perry moved to the Riverside Press in 1975, where he met Ann, his future wife — a Stanford grad and summer intern from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In 1979, after his wedding, the Perrys moved to North San Diego County where he started work at the Union and Ann taught at San Diego State before getting jobs at the Escondido Times-Advocate and eventually the Union-Tribune, where she was a business writer.
Their unmarried sons — Wesley (now 28 and an aspiring actor in Chicago) and Michael (24, a rock musician in Boise, Idaho) — were born at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
His mentor McQuern eventually wanted to move Perry to San Diego City Hall coverage, replacing an old hand named Bill Parry. But to make the switch, she found it necessary to hide his Oceanside byline from then-Editor Gerald “Jerry” Warren.
“I was ordered to go home from the [North County] bureau and stay there” — in Solana Beach — “and not write anything.”
For six weeks, he says, he walked on the beach, read paperbacks and played basketball. A courier would bring his paychecks.
Eventually, he moved to City Hall — and came to appreciate Warren (“a good editor”) despite his quirks. He credits Warren for defending him and others when they made mistakes — or “flubbed up.”
“That’s my idea of an editor,” says Perry, who eventually became assistant city editor for government, politics and courts. “Anyone can pat you on the back when you’ve done really well. That’s easy. But standing behind you when you flub up — Jerry did.”
But he never got a merit raise. (It didn’t help that on the eve of a possible Newspaper Guild strike, his wife was photographed by the Times on a picket line with a baby stroller and a sign saying “Copley Unfair to Families.”)
Catching up with the Times
Perry also wanted to join a team that had “higher standards.”
He decided to inquire at the Times’ San Diego bureau in 1987, first calling an editor named Richard Kipling.
“Got anything for me over there?” he said.
“You know, I think we have something for you,” Kipling replied.Within six weeks, he was offered a job at what he called the Velvet Coffin. But Union Editor Karin Winner tried to dissuade him from defecting.
“There’s more to life than money,” he recalls her telling him — “this from a woman who had inherited money.”
Perry took the job, with a $100-a-week raise, in June 1987. He started as North County bureau chief. In 1988, he began writing the San Diego-at-large column, “a poor man’s Tom Blair” as he put it, referring to the longtime three-dot columnist for the Union.
In December 1992, the Times closed its San Diego County edition, operating out of the Imperial Bank building downtown — known to some as the Darth Vader building for its dark facade.
But the Times left Perry in place.
In the early years, he says, he came up with 98 percent of his own stories. Space was plentiful in the profitable paper. In the last few years, amid the industry’s collapse, a “dramatic shrinkage” of space led his L.A. editors to dictate more of what Perry covered.
Dissecting sacred cowism
Still, his freedom to report sensitive stories expanded.
“Times has issues, but sacred cows is not one of them,” he said. In 1988, for example, he did a story on Roger Revelle that angered the famed oceanographer and UC San Diego founder.
“If you did a story at the Union and Roger Revelle didn’t like the story, the hair on the back of my arm [would] stand up,” Perry says. UCSD was “no longer sacred” at the Union, but it “mooed a lot louder than the other cows. Had to be careful around them.”
Times editor Fetherling learned Revelle could find no factual errors. So end of story.
“What [Revelle] didn’t like was we would allow people to criticize him,” Perry said.
Showering praise on competition
Perry has plaudits for many of his San Diego journalism colleagues — including those in television.
Asked to name his top rivals — or reporters he admired the most — Perry ticked off NBC 7’s Gene Cubbison and J.W. August — and August’s wife, Lori Weisberg, a longtime U-T business writer. Perry called John Wilkens the U-T’s best writer and also admires the U-T’s Peter Rowe.
Perry called KUSI’s Steve Bosh “awfully good” and likes KUSI colleague Ed Lenderman — “he’s up every morning. At it forever.” He saluted the City Hall media work of Scott Robinson and Scott’s late father Bill Robinson, the famed police spokesman.
Perry admired the consumer advocacy of KGTV “Troubleshooter” Marti Emerald, her job before being elected to the San Diego City Council.
But he reserved especially kind words for Michael “That Ain’t Right!” Turko of KUSI.
“I love Turko,” Perry said. “He does reporting, sourcing. Before he sticks his thumb in somebody’s eye, he goes to them and says: ‘I’m going to stick my thumb in your eye. Give me your side.’ And sometimes, foolishly, they do.”
Perry says it would be wise for the U-T to watch Turko — and occasionally follow up on stories he brings to light.
Even with reporting on San Diego for 36 years, he regrets not having told some stories — a housing project in Carlsbad, a “deeper story” on Mayor Kevin Faulconer (“where he fits”) and the Chargers stadium issue.
But his biggest missed quarry is the majority of current war veterans who “go, serve, come home, shake it off and move on.”
He says media are fixated on the pathologies — suicides, divorces, amputations.
“Let’s not do to this group of veterans what we did to the Vietnam guys,” Perry says. “We’re doing it for a different reason, but we’re doing it — [depicting the returning vets] as a bunch of psychos.”
Blitzing the links and Marine history
In retirement, Perry hopes to resume golfing — he likes courses at Rancho Bernardo Inn and Oceanside’s back-9 (“watch out for rattlesnakes”). But “you can’t beat Torrey Pines.”He’s on the hook for Friday’s KPBS lookback on the news. He’s also looking ahead to possible freelancing.
And he’s started research on a book devoted to one or more local military legends of the early 20th century — Marine Generals Alexander Vandegrift (whose name graces the main artery at Camp Pendleton) and Smedley Darlington Butler. On someone’s advice, he’s also looking at Oliver Prince “O.P” Smith, the Marine who during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir said: “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”
Perry looks at the cratering newspaper business and rues its retreat. He notes how the editorial staff at the Times has declined from 1,350 in 1987 to about 525 today.
“It used to be a heavyweight, then a light heavyweight,” he says of his last employer. “I guess we’re on our way to welterweight. But pound-for-pound, still a champion.”
Of the Times and U-T: “I presume both papers will get smaller. The trick will be to make sure the quality doesn’t decline as the quantity does. And I think that can be done with the right kind of management.”
He says the opening line of his journalism lectures is: What’s the difference between a bulletin board and a newspaper? Both have information, he says, but “the newspaper creates community, if it’s done right.”
Perry says every big city in the country is a reflection of its daily newspaper.
But the twin “headwinds” of technology and the market are stiff. “All news is the same, no matter who wrote it,” he quotes one toxic belief. “It all ought to be free” is another.
The best his industry can do at this point, Perry says, is buy time for a monetizing formula.
“They’re looking. High and low, they’re looking,” he says. “I hope they find it.”
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