2009 First Place Writing Winner

In their own words…

When I got the call that I would be going to San Francisco to compete in the Hearst Journalism Championships, I was ecstatic, but mostly just nervous. I imagined five days of cutthroat competition, little sleep and a serious test of wit and will. I found all those things, but I also found friendships, insight from industry professionals and the opportunity to explore San Francisco by immersing myself in one of the city’s great treasures.

After receiving our assignment—go to Golden Gate Park, find a story and write it—my fellow contestants and I experienced a mixture of dread and excitement. Dread at the thought of researching, reporting and writing the story in one day, but excitement about the freedom to choose what we would write, and how. In the end, the prompt led to a vast array of stories about everything from homelessness, to park gangs, to community programs within the park.

Our other two stories centered on an interview with enigmatic author, writer, actor, musician and jack-of-all-trades Peter Coyote. Again, the wide range of Coyote’s talents and interests led to differences in our stories, despite their focus on an identical subject.

Although the intense competition is something I’ll remember forever, the most valuable part of the program was the chance to interact with passionate young journalists from across the country, hear how their schools are dealing with a rapidly changing industry, and speak with industry professionals about what we can expect when we enter that industry. I look forward to the day years down the road when I open a newspaper—or turn on the television or radio—to recognize a fellow competitor’s name and see where their career has taken them. I’m sure we’ll all do fine.

News Story

Coyote News Article

He’s an actor, author, narrator, poet and musician. Now Peter Coyote has another quality to add to his resume: citizen journalist.

Coyote earlier this year traveled to Syria to investigate the October 2008 slaying of seven civilians in the province of Sukkariyeh. The U.S. government claimed the Special Operations unit that conducted the raid also had captured terrorist operative Abu Ghadiyain in the process, but Coyote suspected there was more to the story.

“When I read that story, it didn’t pass the smell test,” Coyote said. “All the Associated Press stories were datelined ‘Washington,’ there were only unnamed sources quoted and there were no photos.”

During his trip, Coyote met with surviving victims, witnesses and leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah.

When they returned, Coyote and a journalist friend sold the story to Esquire magazine, but it still hasn’t been published. Coyote said editors told him they don’t want to print a story without interviewing government officials directly associated with the raid.

Now, he’s putting on a different hat: that of a reformer, fighting to have the story published and calling for changes to a profession he believes has become preoccupied with the myth of objectivity.

“If you don’t report the story because you can’t get an official source or a European or white skinned eyewitness, you’re offering de facto censorship to the government,” he said.

Isabel Macdonald, a spokesperson for journalism watchdog group FAIR, said Coyote’s complaint represents a real issue in modern journalism. Although there is a strong desire to hold public figures accountable, it can be compromised by the influence of advertisers, corporations and the government.

“It’s a pretty common trend where journalists will actually know something to be the truth, but will not report it unless they have an official on record,” she said. “ And conversely, where there is misinformation and journalists will say it just because an official is saying it.”

Coyote cites journalists who have challenged government, such as Mark Danner and the late Gary Webb, as his role models.

“That’s the tradition of journalism that I identify with,” he said. “Those are the people, to me, that are really maintain the standards of journalism and the high watermark of keeping an electorate informed.”

Coyote’s friends said his role as a journalist watchdog fits in with his history of fighting for issues he believes in.

“Back in those days, we activists saw ourselves in one frame of mind: preparing for millennial changes in America. We saw ourselves prepping for an economic collapse,” said David Simpson, a comrade of Coyote’s during his days as part 1960s counterculture.

Several months ago, Coyote also began blogging for the San Francisco Chronicle and said with fewer acting roles coming his way, he hopes to return to writing as his main occupation. And he hopes that in the process, he can shake up the way newsgathering is done.

“They’re never censored because they never cross the lines,” he said. “I think we need to bust through the envelope.”

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Personality/Profile Article

People’s impression of Peter Coyote seems to change depending who you ask. It represents a generational shift between those who are old enough to remember his counterculture involvement in the 1960s and 70s and their younger, pop culture-loving counterparts.

To the former, Coyote embodies the radicalism that defined their generation. To the latter, he is a Hollywood man who is recognizable from his film roles and voiceover work, and only slightly known as an activist and writer.

But Coyote thinks of himself as neither. And he doesn’t care how everyone else sees him.

“There’s an old saw among actors that if you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones,” he said during an interview Friday in San Francisco. “I don’t read reviews.”

Instead, he said, he tries to live authentically, and his primary concerns are learning and teaching.

Since Coyote first gained notoriety as a student at Grinnell College, when he and 11 other students staged a hunger strike to protest the Cuban Missile Crisis, his role as an activist has shone through.

During the 1960s, Coyote became a prominent figure in the counterculture, first joining the San Francisco Mime Troupe as an actor and director, then leaving the troupe to become a founding member of the Diggers, an anarchist group that was “somewhere between self-appointed social workers and rowdy street gang,” according to Coyote’s longtime friend and former Digger member David Simpson.

The group was known for creating the Free Store and helping support the throngs of young people who ran away to the San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the Summer of Love.

Simpson and his wife, Jane Lapiner, another former Digger, remember the Coyote of that era as wonderful physical comic with a great singing voice and a love for rural life.

The pair, who now own the environmentally and socially-conscious theater company Human Nature, said although Peter’s life veered away from using acting as a direct vehicle for activism, he now uses his role as a Hollywood actor to make his voice heard to a larger audience.

“He’s gained notoriety as a film actor, which has its benefits and its liabilities, but nonetheless, within the confines of that state of mind, he does a lot of good,” Simpson said.

Although he no longer is synonymous with a particular movement, Coyote has never stopped fighting for what he believes in—but his mode of delivery has changed.

“What we didn’t understand was there were a lot of people who liked our ideas, perhaps, but they didn’t like long hair, they didn’t like drugs, they didn’t like their children running feral,” he said. “We alienated those people.”

That’s why Coyote changed course after his time with the counterculture, first working for the California Arts Council –where he increased the council’s budget by millions of dollars—and later becoming a Hollywood actor.

Former California Arts Council Deputy Director Juan Carrillo, who had just begun his career at the council when Coyote was elected as its chairman in 1976, said even then, Coyote’s ability to affect change was overwhelming.

During his tenure as chairman, Coyote raised the council’s budget from about $1 million to $14 million and helped reform the council’s philosophy, Carrillo said.

“It was fascinating to watch him work with individuals, in a group or work a larger audience,” he said. “He just had the capacity for pulling things together, conceptualizing, articulating, and some sort of personal power to make people and things move.”

Coyote said he has maintained contact with many friends from his Digger days and most of them are supportive of his career and personal moves since then. But he also has critics among them.

“When people enter Hollywood hey become commercial and make excuses for making a living … they join the establishment’s cultural code,” said Ron Davis, founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. “When a Hollywood actor is called to do a movie, they usually accept and don’t quibble about the material, only the price.”

But Coyote says he shouldn’t be mistaken someone who has learned to accept the Hollywood lifestyle. It’s just the way he makes his living.

“I couldn’t find totally only pure places to work,” he said.

“I’m certainly not pure, but within a contradictory world, I try to make the preponderance of my decisions and the preponderance of my choices consistent with my values.”

Today, Coyote is most involved in environmental activism, lending his voice to environmental documentaries and hosting a Link TV program that examines environmental issues.

He has begun to veer away from acting and reconnect with his writing career, and is working on two books. One of the books, “Toxic Taboos,” examines environmental, political and social issues society is afraid to discuss. The other recreates the 11 years of his childhood spent under the care of an African American family.

Even as Coyote spends his mornings in his office, hammering out chapters on his computer, the radical streak is still present.

“The best you can do is try to consistently pick the most enlightened possibilities,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll fail, but as long as you keep striving toward the most enlightened possibilities, you’re doing the best you can.”

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Spot News

Golden Gate Park forestation specialist Robert Cadwell arrives to work at 6:30 a.m. to water the newly planted elm trees in the music concourse outside DeYoung Museum.

“I come here early because people are gonna come here and do tai chi,” he says as he wanders between the trees with a garden hose.

Once he’s finished here, Cadwell will jump back into his green pickup truck and head to another plot of trees. Reforestation is tricky, he says, and it takes special care for the saplings to grow.

But the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s massive budget deficit soon will leave Cadwell with one fewer crewmember to care for the trees—with more layoffs likely in the future.

As the department attempts to recoup its $11.4 million shortfall, Golden Gate—the city’s largest park and a national landmark—is beginning to feel the effects in scaled back services and increased costs.

The budget woes are shared in every department within Golden Gate Park—from maintenance, to recreational programs, to park improvement and restoration. And they’re nothing new, Recreation and Parks Director of Finance Katie Petrucione said.

“In my nine years (with the department) there’s only been one year we got new revenues; every other year we’ve had to cut,” she said.

Gardeners who once tended to a dozen acres now are responsible for about 40, after hiring freezes have reduced their workforce in recent years. Many park construction projects have slowed or come to a halt. The 2009-10 proposed budget suggests an additional 71 layoffs of recreation coordinators to add to four layoffs of administrators earlier this year.

Golden Gate Park carpenter Jim Anderson and his coworkers already have taken five days of unpaid vacation to avoid cuts. The carpenters’ contract guarantees no layoffs until November, but Anderson said he’s almost certain there will be cuts after that. He fears the reduction in staff numbers will cause facilities and green space to deteriorate without proper care.

“The parks would suffer,” he said, citing the stalled horse stable construction at as an example.

The stables have been in need of repair for years, but after funds dried up, they’re closed indefinitely.

The layoffs would save the Recreation and Parks Department about $4.8 million and officials have proposed recouping most of the remaining $6.6 million funding gap by charging more for services.

Proposals include installing parking meters on the east side of the park, charging a $7 fee for out-of-county residents to visit the botanical garden and raising prices to use sports facilities and enroll in programs. The proposals have drawn criticism from Golden Gate regulars such as Tom Nuckton.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center doctor regularly visits the botanical gardens to decompress after long hospital shifts and write in his notebook. He said if there were a fee to visit the gardens, he’d just find somewhere else to relax.

“They’re kind of splitting hairs. I don’t know how they’re going to make that fly,” he said. “It won’t work, because people just won’t come anymore.”

Nuckton said he also fears that without adequate park workers to maintain facilities, the park could become dirty and unkempt.

“The whole park’s problem is sort of a symptom,” he said. “California is broke right now, the city is in trouble, there’s probably going to be belt tightening everywhere.”

On top of the decreased government money allocated to the park system, private donations have begun to drop, too, San Francisco Parks Trust Executive Director Karen Kidwell said.

“I couldn’t give you an exact amount, but our membership support across the board, whether from foundations or individuals, is down,” she said. “We’re all hurting.”

The lack of private funding can be seen on the north end of the park, where work is continuing to restore the world’s largest windmill, but supporters don’t know how they’ll pay to maintain the windmill once it is rebuilt.

But parks department officials said there is a thin silver lining in their increased volunteer membership, which includes some laid-off park workers who are donating their services while they search for other jobs.

“They want to continue some of their programs, so they’re actually coming back as volunteers,” Recreation Programming and Support specialist Marianne Kjobmand said.

Although no one is happy about the park’s struggles, Anderson said he takes solace in thinking community values the park too much to let it deteriorate.

“Who hasn’t said parks are the lungs of the city? Who in San Francisco doesn’t appreciate that?” he said. “The parks will survive.”

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