Magazine article American Journalism Review

Unsung Hero: With His Ahead-of-the-Curve Reporting from Vietnam for Time Magazine and Influential Management Stints at the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner, Frank McCulloch Was One of the Great Journalists of the Past 50 Years. Unfortunately, Far Too Few People Know That

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Unsung Hero: With His Ahead-of-the-Curve Reporting from Vietnam for Time Magazine and Influential Management Stints at the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner, Frank McCulloch Was One of the Great Journalists of the Past 50 Years. Unfortunately, Far Too Few People Know That

Article excerpt

Over the past year, as the conflict in Iraq slid from a quick victory into an uncertain quagmire, Frank McCulloch watched closely as a new generation of journalists began questioning the country's justification for war. Thirty-eight years earlier, McCulloch had seen his own generation reach a similar turning point.

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At the time, McCulloch was Time magazine's Southeast Asia bureau chief. He had come to Vietnam in 1963 at the request of Time Editor Henry Luce to "sort out the mess we're in over there," as Luce had put it to him. A former Marine who had missed action in World War II due to a heart murmur, McCulloch arrived in Asia hungry to witness combat and confident that America's preeminent military could get the job done quickly. By 1966, however, a deep skepticism was sinking in, and he began openly doubting his country's presence in Southeast Asia. Evidence of real progress was hard to come by, casualties continued to mount, and McCulloch had come to realize that the government's assessments could not be trusted.

"The similarities between Vietnam and Iraq are damn few, but that's the big one," McCulloch says with trademark bluntness. "The real difficulties of the Iraq endeavor--not to mention the motives for going to war in the first place--were largely ignored. It points to a fundamental weakness in American journalism. Why didn't it occur to somebody to challenge these assertions early on?"

His skepticism about Vietnam, at a time when the nation, his editors and many journalists still thought the U.S. was winning the war, set McCulloch apart, and made him, according to fellow Vietnam reporter David Halberstam, "a legend ... one of its best reporters." He was willing to let the facts overrule his personal bias and the conventional wisdom of the day.

Today McCulloch is 84 and lives in a retirement community in Santa Rosa, California, an hour north of San Francisco. His modest apartment is decorated with relics from his years in Asia, including a bust of the Buddha from Vietnam's Cham dynasty, unearthed by bombs dropped from a B-52. The large bookshelf that dominates his living room holds histories of the news organizations--Time-Life, the Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy papers and the San Francisco Examiner--that he played a key role in shaping.

McCulloch's largely unsung career spans a half-century during a pivotal era in journalism. As an investigative reporter, he exposed political connections to the mafia and brushed off death threats from mob bosses. During the Vietnam War, he aggravated President Lyndon Johnson. His editorial leadership transformed the Los Angeles Times, where he went toe-to-toe with Robert F. Kennedy over reporting on the Teamsters. He fought and beat a dozen serious libel actions, establishing legal precedents that still protect journalists. Along the way he cultivated millionaire Howard Hughes as a source, wrote the first cover story on Thurgood Marshall--before he was a Supreme Court justice--and helped bring down another member of the high court.

McCulloch is most remembered as "a journalist's journalist." Completely bald since his 30s, he looked like the former Marine he was. McCulloch was tough but at the same time showed a decency and easy laughter that made him one of the most well-liked and respected men in journalism.

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For all this, the name Frank McCulloch probably doesn't ring a bell for most journalists under 40. After an extraordinary career that shaped investigative reporting, war reporting and First Amendment protections, he may qualify as one of journalism's least-known legends.

McCulloch was born the son of pioneer cattle ranchers in Nevada's Fernley Valley in 1920 and might have become a professional baseball pitcher if journalism hadn't caught his attention in college. …

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