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The Prof and the Cons: How He Lost His Faith in Journalism—and Reclaimed it Behind Bars

May 4, 2015
by Glen Martin
People working on the San Quentin News

UC Berkeley journalism professor Bill Drummond once met a nun who counseled Catholic priests bereft of their faith. Drummond was empathetic—with the priests, that is.

“Actually, I don’t think I know anyone in journalism education who hasn’t suffered a loss of faith,” says Drummond, who in a decades-long career covered the White House, worked as the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in New Delhi and Jerusalem, served as an associate press secretary for the Carter administration, and was one of the founding editors of National Public Radio’s news program Morning Edition.

“When I started my career, back when the Earth was cooling, I was something of an exception because I had a college degree,” says Drummond. “Many of the reporters and editors had learned their trade in the armed services—working at Stars and Stripes, for example. But they were tough and pragmatic and highly competent, and they took me down a peg. They had a profound influence on me, and I admired them tremendously.”

“Ac­tu­ally, I don’t think I know any­one in journ­al­ism edu­ca­tion who hasn’t suffered a loss of faith.”

Now, says Drummond, “I teach in a graduate school that gives master’s degrees to kids in journalism, and the emphasis is more on software, on technology, than on the skills you need to get stories from people of all walks of life, to write on deadline, to line edit and copy edit. We’re teaching our students to talk to public relations people and politicians or—worse—each other, but they’re uncomfortable or even intimidated when they have to interview anyone on the street, anyone who doesn’t have a college education.”

In other words, to the trade’s detriment, journalists are ignoring H.L. Mencken’s dictum: The only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down.

“Citizens are alienated by the press because they feel that journalists are no longer part of working America, that they are too friendly with the elites they cover. It’s discouraging.”

Drummond’s reference to discouragement has a larger context than the mere triumph of social media over the Five Ws and One H, or press coziness with pols and their flacks. The general decline of the Fourth Estate, compounded by his wife’s death from breast cancer in 2003, ejected him into a very dark place. He doesn’t use the term clinical depression; an interviewer might be forgiven for inferring as much.

“As far as my career goes, I found myself looking back on 40 years as a journalist, trying to identify a story I wrote, any story, that made anyone’s life materially better,” he says. “I wasn’t able to think of one.”

 Bill Drummond talking to students
Drummond talks with student Brittany Johnson and News writer Kevin Sawyer.

That’s how Drummond ended up in San Quentin. And being behind those stone palisades, he says, changed his life for the better, giving him new hope for both journalism and the human condition. He’s there as an instructor and advisor rather than a prisoner, supervising Berkeley J School students who are teaching inmates working at the San Quentin News on the basics of reporting, writing and editing. But it could have been different; he could’ve been one of the guys identified by a number rather than a name. As an African American growing up in a low-income area of West Oakland, he viewed crime, punishment and a minatory police presence as natural components of the social and psychic landscapes. “Many of my neighborhood peers ended up in San Quentin,” he says. “Later, as a reporter, I toured most of the prisons in the state for an assignment. On more than one occasion, I met guys I knew on the yard, guys I grew up with in West Oakland. I couldn’t help but think that I might have ended up alongside them.”

Drummond didn’t expect miracles when he began working at San Quentin in 2012. He didn’t think anything was going to banish the black dog of melancholy shadowing his heels. He wanted, perhaps, to help out some men who could benefit from his expertise—and also infuse some of his students with a sense of a world circumscribed by walls far different than the ivied ones of academe.

“It all started when I accepted an invitation to teach introductory journalism at San Quentin through the Prison University Project,” says Drummond. “At the end of the class, Juan Haines, one of my students and the managing editor at the San Quentin News, asked if I wanted to lend him a hand with editing. I saw it as an opportunity for J school grad students and undergrads from The Daily Cal to get some real line editing and copy editing experience, to look at a story and help make it the best story it could be.”

Brittany Johnson, a J School student who took the 2013 San Quentin class, says Drummond is a legendary figure at the school, an instructor known to revere the traditional verities of journalism. “There are stories that he used to require students to wear formal business attire, like reporters did years ago in the Los Angeles Times newsroom. It’s not that he’s holding on to the past. He knows a wave has overtaken journalism, and he’s riding it, he’s not resisting it. But he’s also found a niche at San Quentin, something that means a lot to him personally as well as professionally. Traditional journalism is a model that is no longer financially sustainable. But in a way, it still exists at the San Quentin News, where all that matters is the next story, where getting that story is your life. The inmates at the News can give it everything they have—because the News is all they have.”

“That gate slams be­hind you (and soon) there are 200 or 300 in­mates star­ing at you, and all of them look fe­ro­cious, like pir­ates. It’s a real gaunt­let, and it can be deeply in­tim­id­at­ing.”

Still, the fact remains, Johnson emphasizes: Outside of prison, perhaps, newspapers are anachronisms. And J School students taken that as a given. “I can’t think of any of my peers who plan to look for a staff position at a newspaper,” she says. “There are very few jobs, and even if you got one, it would be difficult to support yourself. At one time I wanted to go into magazine writing, but I switched to video when I came to Berkeley. Cal has a great documentary program, and I think that’s a field where I can do important and creative work. And make a living.”

Drummond chuckles as he recalls the responses of many of his students on first entering the prison. As he describes it, it’s definitely eyes-as-big-as-saucers time.

“That gate slams behind you,” he says, “and you’re in a little plaza. Then you walk down a long slope and you’re in the lower yard before you get to the newspaper offices, and there are 200 or 300 inmates staring at you, and all of them look ferocious, like pirates. It’s a real gauntlet, and it can be deeply intimidating, especially for the women. But after a couple of visits, the students realize the inmates are mostly curious. They don’t see new faces often, and many of them haven’t seen an attractive woman for a very long time. So they stare, but they don’t mean anything threatening or menacing by it. I’ve never witnessed any unpleasantness. And despite how the students may initially feel, most of them end the course by telling me it’s the best class they’ve ever taken.”

Drummond has a pile of student essays that back him up. Their prison experiences, most write, made them better reporters and editors—and perhaps better people.

From Byrhonda Lyons: Every Friday before I get dressed, I stand in the mirror and go through my mental checklist. No open toe shoes. No cleavage. All black. Once I realize I’ve met those requirements … We all pile into [Drummond’s] four-door Camry and go across the bridge to one of the most beautiful places in the bay: San Quentin Prison…. When I enrolled in this class, I never knew how much I would learn…. I never guessed volunteering with the San Quentin News would make me a better journalist and a better person…. This semester taught me the power of writing and the importance of listening. Working with the prisoners forced me to stop and think about what I write and how I write it…. Being in this class has taught me a lot about myself and about life. It has taught me how to be a better writer, a better editor, and most important, a better listener.

From Sophie Michielse: Working for the San Quentin News made me realize I can’t take freedom for granted. The inmates made me realize, by working hard as they do and by being so passionate about their work as journalists, that freedom is a huge gift. Freedom has a different meaning when you walk out of the prison after a few hours and look over the Ocean and the mountains from there….

From Spencer Whitney: When the newspaper was finished, reporters would often inquire about what life is like outside of San Quentin Prison and my opinion on political matters dealing with the prison industrial complex. Boston Woodard would often share stories about his past incarceration and the book he wrote while in prison. I assisted Woodard on his article about country music star Johnny Cash’s performance at the prison in the 1960s and his advocacy for prison reform. Arnulfo Garcia lent me the book Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. by former gang member Luis Rodriguez to give me a perspective about the social factors (external and internal) that created the gang lifestyle in East Los Angeles during the late 1960s….

Someone holding a copy of the San Quentin News in London

Over time a mutual respect and fondness develops between the students and the prisoners. Drummond offers an example: Cal student Elizabeth Rainey, who helped edit the San Quentin News last year and went on to study aboard in London, sent back photos of herself holding the prison paper at notable backdrops such the Waterloo Bridge. One of those photos found itself onto the pages of the newspaper.

Perhaps the most striking things about the inmates-cum-journalists, according to the professor, are their work ethic and their determination to get it right, write it well, and meet deadlines.

“Some of the truest journalism I’ve ever seen is practiced at San Quentin. These guys are so conscientious that it’s a real pleasure to work with them,” he adds. “Frankly, it’s a contrast with many of my J School students, who may be distracted by other classes, social media, their private lives. For the inmates at the San Quentin News, the paper is everything. They’re literally there from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., working non-stop.”

Drummond acknowledges that the staffers on the San Quentin News are not representative of the general prison population. They’ve had to demonstrate a willingness to conform to prison policy, and a disinclination for violence, or even disruptiveness. They’ve also had to display an aptitude for intellectual inquiry and an eagerness to learn.

For that matter, San Quentin isn’t the prison it once was.

“It used to be mainly a Level 4 prison—the maximum lock-up, the worst of the worst. But about 10 years ago, the policy changed because it’s an old prison, and it’s difficult to segregate and control violent inmates. It’s mostly a Level 2 prison now. The degree of security is generally reduced—as opposed to Pelican Bay or Corcoran, for example. Being the only state prison adjacent to a metropolitan area, there are hundreds of available educational programs taught by thousands of volunteers. So inmates want to go to San Quentin—and they want to stay there when they get in, so they tend to follow the rules.”

Image of the cover of San Quentin News

That’s not to say they haven’t committed heinous crimes. Shortly after starting his classes in 2012, Drummond gave the inmates an assignment in obituary writing—their own obituaries, that is. He asked them to envision their own deaths, and then write fitting end-of-life summaries.

“Almost without exception these guys were lifers, they had killed people,” says Drummond. “If they had any idea of getting out, they had to undergo serious self-examination, which isn’t easy. I wanted them to step back and look at themselves objectively, from the perspective of the third person.”

Some of the men went into excruciating detail of their crimes. “A liturgy of horror and remorse,” as Drummond describes it. But many others were in almost blithe denial. They saw their ends resulting from altruistic, even heroic, behavior: from saving the life of a teacher attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, for example.

“It showed me varying levels of willingness to accept personal responsibility,” says Drummond, “but that’s not a phenomenon restricted to inmates. I mean, it can be hard for me to look at myself. I’ve given the same assignment to my students at Berkeley, and the results were similar. In fact, the inmates were often more illuminating about difficult personal issues—specifically, what got them into prison. Their crimes are generally the watershed events of their lives. They spend a lot of time thinking about them.”

Drummond walks through San Quentin’s gate three times a week, continuing work that led to his just-announced selection to receive the White House Fellows Legacy of Leadership Award. He feels more at ease in the prison, he says, than he does strolling the UC campus. More people know him, care about him, wish him well inside than outside the walls.

“And every time I’m there—every time—I feel like I’m making a difference,” he says. He cites a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed written by Aly Tamboura and Gary Malachi Scott on Apple Computer’s retraction of a ban prohibiting people with felony convictions from working on the company’s new 2.8 million-square-foot Cupertino headquarters complex.

“It made those guys bet­ter off. I can’t point to much else where I can say that.”

“I was able to help make that happen,” Drummond says. “Gary was paroled in 2013, and Aly will be eligible for parole in 18 months. We worked together on their pieces, they placed them, and they got paid. It made those guys better off. I can’t point to much else where I can say that. It made me happier than anything I’ve done in the past year.”

“Before my involvement with the San Quentin News, I abhorred writing. Journalism has opened a new world for me,” writes Tamboura, who has written for the prison paper for about seven years. “It has provided a mechanism for me to express myself in ways I never thought imaginable. But more than giving me a voice, it has opened my eyes to a world that I would have never engaged in if it were not for my incarceration. I read voraciously, and not just for content. I read to learn style, to learn how certain writers present arguments and how other writers dispel them. I read critically. I can see the difference between pure journalism and the overly opinionated and biased junk journalism that has become the norm in the mainstream media…”

Tamboura observers that writers at the San Quentin News consciously self-censor because they know what administrators will and will not tolerate. “There is, beneath the articles on prison programs and stories of happy lifers going home, the real raw and untold stories which cannot be told while I remain incarcerated. I will continue to write when I am released because there is more to be told that can only be told from the outside.”

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