Retired – Former Associated Press Special Correspondent Trial Reporter.
When AP trial reporter Linda Deutsch retired in December 2014, First Amendment lawyers and judges called her an iconic figure and champion of press freedom. One award said her “clear, concise reports have connected millions of readers around the world to the inner workings of America’s courtrooms.”
Few awards and plaudits told how Deutsch blazed such a trail in the Mad Men era, when men ruled the roost – and the media – and where there were no blueprints and few role models for an ambitious female reporter.
She had big support from her father, who gave her a typewriter at age 10. She wrote a lot, early on. When she was 12, she heard “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio and soon after started one of the first Elvis Presley fan clubs. She began an Elvis newsletter, mailing it to more than 300 subscribers here and abroad. Today, she realizes that made her a publisher.
She thought about becoming a poet or novelist but an uncle, who edited a newspaper in California, steered her toward reporting, saying she could support herself and, besides, he thought she’d like it.
But that didn’t mean doors were open.
“I did not think about whether it was a man’s or a woman’s profession because there were some women already doing it,” she said, and she read their stories in the New York papers her father had brought home each day. He also told her “you can do anything you want in this life, just pick what you want to do.”
Deutsch worked part-time at New Jersey newspapers while in college, she became an AP stringer for one of them. She lobbied editors to cover big stories. She walked away from dead-end jobs. She saved her clips and got herself hired on the strength of those. She got along with the cigar-smoking guys at the AP bureau in Los Angeles and, looking back in a recent interview, says, “they were very accepting of me. And I was able to forge my own way.”
She found mentors. She met two of them, White House reporters Fran Lewine of the AP and Helen Thomas of UPI, at the Western White House when President Nixon visited. They took her under their wings and gave her an insider look at national politics.
She met legendary court reporter Theo Wilson and they became fast friends. Wilson was an invaluable go-to resource on how to cover these courtroom dramas. She was nearing the end of her career and more than willing to share insights with Deutsch, at the beginning of hers.
“Theo was a big influence on my career. She told me how to cover a trial, how to fight for your rights because you’re entitled to be there. And you have to be unbiased. You can’t listen to a lawyer’s spin because they’ll always tell you what they want for their clients. They’re salesmen but you don’t have to buy what they’re selling.”
Deutsch also learned from the legal experts, including a maritime specialist when she was sent to Alaska to cover a landmark environmental damage trial of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She also learned from celebrated AP writers sent in to cover high-profile trials. She had been on the AP overnight desk when Robert Kennedy was killed by Sirhan Sirhan and had done much of the reporting leading up to the trial. Two mega East Coast writers were sent in to cover the trial; she did the sidebars.
A few years later, she had been the key AP person covering the Charles Manson cult, including multiple murders of movie stars and their friends, but when it came to the trial, AP again brought in a big-name Eastern writer.
“They decided I was too young to cover it alone.” She didn’t take it as an insult. She outlasted him. He left on vacation soon after the craziness escalated outside the courtroom and within it. “So that’s how I got to cover the biggest trial of my life. It lasted over a year.”
She went on to cover celebrated courtroom dramas of Angela Davis, Patty Hearst, Daniel Ellsberg, Exxon Valdes skipper Joseph Hazelwood, William Kennedy Smith, John DeLorean – and, of course, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson and the sexual molestation trial of Michael Jackson.
Deutsch says today that, at its core, journalism is still about telling a story. But the process has changed enormously. It is much more difficult today to find a job that gives a reporter the space to tell the story in depth as Theo Wilson had done or to spend every day in a courtroom trial to convey the drama there, as Deutsch did most of her life.
Reporters today may find their niche in trade journals or podcasts. They might become an entrepreneur and nurture a new form of media.
“I think you have to prove that you are so good that the news business can’t live without you,” she says.
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