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A San Diego CityBeat news stand in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

While the media continues to struggle to survive, reporters in 2019 still managed to expertly tell the stories of San Diego – the good, the bad and all the rest. Here’s just a sampling of the best journalism we read, watched and heard over the past year:

Exposing the Deadly Dysfunction of Local Jails

It’s no secret that San Diego County’s jail system is deeply troubled. But just how bad is it? The Union-Tribune detailed its deadly dysfunction in a six-month investigation that revealed “the county’s jail mortality rate is the highest among California’s largest county jail systems” and “the grim history shows no sign of waning.” As reporters explained, “over the past several years, the department has improved training, changed health care providers and brought in new equipment. But it has been slow to make more obvious fixes, like installing fencing to prevent suicidal inmates from jumping, or bolstering its mental health staff to provide around-the-clock care.”

Government Gone Rogue: Secretly Tracking Americans

NBC San Diego exposed how “the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.” Their findings validated claims from journalists and others who “said they felt they had become targets of intense inspections and scrutiny by border officials.”

They Spoke Up. But Were They Heard?

At Salk Institute, Allegations of an ‘Old Boys’ Club’

Few institutions are more prestigious than the Salk Institute. But its reputation took a battering this year amid allegations from women of “a culture of marginalization and hostility.” The New York Times Magazine dug deeply into the claims and painted a picture of a deeply dysfunctional institute. Now, women are speaking out. “Often these situations which go on in a woman’s career — workplace situations — they don’t seem big,” a former president, a woman, said. “But I heard someone say a marvelous thing in this context: ‘A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.’”

‘Stop Talking’: Navy SEALs and the War Crimes They Unearthed

  • “Stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death. Picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost. Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.” Seven Navy SEALs based in Coronado reported these seeming war crimes by platoon leader Edward Gallagher, The New York Times reported, but two comrades sent them a message: “stop talking about it.” Later, the president cleared Gallagher. The Times followed up in a Dec. 27 article, describing “anguish and anger” in those who turned Gallagher in.
  • In an unrelated story titled “Fight the Ship: Death and Valor on a Warship Doomed by Its Own Navy,” ProPublica chronicled disaster on the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald that killed seven, including two local sailors.

Still Among Us, Still Vulnerable

‘The Suffering Is Unspeakable’: San Diego’s Senior Homeless

KPBS chronicled the challenges facing the growing number of senior homeless and profiled 71-year-old Carl Russell. “After a night of fitful sleep, Russell said he wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and walks blocks through some of downtown San Diego’s most squalid homeless areas — thick with the stench of human waste — to use the bathroom. ‘The hardest thing is finding a place to go number two,’ Russell said.”

On the Street, in a Van, Facing a Compassion Gap

LaVonne Ellis, a former ABC Radio News Networks correspondent, wrote for the Los Angeles Times about living in a van on the streets of San Diego, driving onward every morning to avoid breaking the law “after washing up with baby wipes and donning clean clothes.”

“For many of us, vehicle habitation is not a problem — it’s a solution,” she writes. “Those RVs and vans that litter your view aren’t going away, not until the people who live in them can find homes without wheels that are within their reach.”

Career Ends for a Crooked Congressman

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter won’t be on the job much longer thanks to a guilty plea to a federal crime … and a persistent U-T reporter. “The fact is … the case began when Morgan Cook published an article in the U-T,” a federal prosecutor told reporters.

It was, as Times of San Diego notes, a 364-word story that mentioned Hunter’s campaign spending on video games — followed by revelation after damning revelation — that helped expose him. “The amount of pushback that she got, personally, from this member of Congress was inexcusable,” declared her colleague Jeff McDonald. “The denials and the fake news arguments that he put forward were nothing short of despicable. And I think it’s nice that the system does work.”

The Shooting That Transformed Southeastern S.D.

More than 15 years ago, “a gang shooting in Lincoln Park killed two women on their way home from church.” In a 2019 podcast, KPBS reports what happened next: a transformation, of sorts: “After the shooting, some people said the police department flooded the streets with officers arresting everybody. Others became more willing to work with police.” Now, residents “want the government and police to change.”

Revealed: Investigative Reporters at Work

  • NBC San Diego investigated a local porn company accused of “accused of coercing and/or tricking women into having sex on camera” and uncovered “its ties to offshore shell companies later linked to Russian arms smuggling and drug cartel money laundering.”
  • “Three years after San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to boost money to fix roads, sidewalks and storm drains, funding is falling far short of projections and is expected to run out by the summer of 2022.” (inewsource)
  • “An anonymous whistleblower is claiming that UC San Diego, one of the top research universities in the world, is putting at risk thousands of people each year because it’s not following basic rules meant to protect human research subjects and values grant funding over safety.” (inewsource)
  • “A recent leak of more than 200,000 online chat logs from a white supremacist group reveals how local members are targeting students on San Diego college campuses and trying to project a respectable image even as the group’s members privately espoused Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and racist views.” (U-T)
  • “Late last year just weeks before he retired, former San Diego County Assistant District Attorney Jesse Rodriguez ordered a secret investigation — using district attorney staff — into the ex-boyfriend of his daughter, who was locked in a contentious custody dispute over their infant son.” (U-T)

The Death of a Newspaper That Mattered

San Diego CityBeat — an alternative weekly newspaper that once specialized in investigative reporting, provocative commentary and prime arts coverage — died in 2019 when a new owner bought it and destroyed it. Former journalist Ryan Bradford, a friend, revealed the sad and tragic inside story of its demise. He may have revealed more about himself: “journalism is also a beautiful and transcendent when it clicks. The moment when a story comes together or change actually does happen, it’s art. My time at CityBeat was defined by those moments.”

The Lighter Side: Burger on the Lam, Rhino Robot

An In-Depth In-N-Out Investigation

How did a “fully intact Double-Double” In-N-Out burger end up near a bus stop in Queens, New York City, lying face up on the street on a summer’s day at 6:29 a.m.? A BuzzFeed writer demanded to know the answer. His quest went viral. Turns out the burger had Encinitas roots and flew cross-country before making a perfect landing on Sutphin Boulevard.

Yeah, yeah, but was it animal style?

Assisted Rhino Reproduction: At Their Cervix!

Rhinos make more rhinos. After all, it’s the cycle of life. But it ain’t easy. “Specifically,” as Wired explains, a female rhino’s cervix, a long canal leading into the vagina, swerves and squiggles all over the place.” It’s like San Francisco’s Lombard Street, says San Diego Zoo’s director of reproductive sciences.

Meanwhile, northern white rhinos are nearly extinct. But the zoo is working on a solution: “a snakelike robot to navigate that chaotic cervix and deposit an embryo in the uterus. If it works, it could mean the salvation of the northern white rhino.”

And a story to tell the rhino grandkids.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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