by Karl Grossman
Twenty-twelve marks my 50th year as a Long Island-based reporter. I got to thinking about that when invited recently to speak at a meeting of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations. I put together a presentation, “Fifty Years as a Reporter on Long Island.”
You stay in an area long enough and you learn the territory. Being a reporter results in a concentration of knowledge. Once off the George Washington Bridge to visit my brother in New Jersey, I could be in Romania, I told the group. I don’t know Jersey at all. Indeed, I’m not very clear about neighboring Nassau County, although for 33 years I’ve traveled there to teach journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury.
But Suffolk County I know very well.
It’s quite a different place than when I started as a reporter here in 1962. In recent decades, for example, Italian-Americans have become ubiquitous in elected office in Suffolk. But I recall Leon Giuffreda, who became a state senator in 1966, saying how in the ‘50s he became the first Italian-American to be on the ticket of the omnipotent Brookhaven Town GOP. And he had to wage a primary fight for the nomination for town justice. Brookhaven leadership was most “WASPy” in those days, he noted.
As for Democratic parties on the East End, I remember my first editor, John A. Maher at the Babylon Town Leader, explaining how they considered themselves “Wilsonian.” Conservative, they rejected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The “Suffolk Scandals” of the 1950s were still reverberating when I began. A succession of special state prosecutors had been dispatched to Suffolk and exposed a deep-set culture of corruption. This led to major institutional changes. A Suffolk County Charter was enacted. A Suffolk Police Department was formed. And the office of county executive was created. The first person in that job was the no-nonsense H. Lee Dennison.
He came to Suffolk from upstate in 1927, worked for the Suffolk Highway Department and was dismissed in 1951 for writing a report on a lack of county planning. A political independent, he was asked to run on the Democratic ticket for the new post in 1960. Mr. Dennison held it for 12 years, the finest Suffolk County executive I’ve known.
My first major journalistic crusade was challenging public works czar Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway on Fire Island. For the Leader I wrote not only about how the four-lane road would devastate Fire Island but about the benefits of a Fire Island National Seashore. Whenever I visit the National Seashore, I take pride in my part in the effort years ago that succeeded in saving exquisite Fire Island.
After two years at the Leader I went to the daily Long Island Press where I became an investigative reporter. A big story was exposing — and stopping — a huge sand-mining operation in Jamesport. Under the guise of building “a deepwater port,” entrepreneur George Semerjian of Southampton was gouging out a square mile of Long Island and barging the sand off to Connecticut.
At the Press I broke the story of the oil industry planning to drill off Long Island and elsewere along the Atlantic Coast.
And there was the Long Island Lighting Company’s plan to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants in Suffolk with Shoreham being the first. With the Press ceasing publication in 1977, I wrote on this for Suffolk weeklies and also authored a book on it, “Power Crazy.” Shoreham and the plan to make Suffolk a “nuclear park” were stopped, and I’m proud of my part.
Then there’s Brookhaven National Laboratory which among its disinformation over the years claimed high radioactivity in the Peconic River was caused by fall-out which came here from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Nevada. It turned out the radioactive poisons, including plutonium, came from BNL itself. In the ‘90s, at long last, its nuclear reactors were shut down.
Governmental corruption has, meanwhile, continued in Suffolk, which has been called the “Wild East” for good reason. Having Tom Spota as the DA since 2002 can be seen, I said, as a prosecutorial Camelot for Suffolk. But he is term-limited. What will happen when he departs?
What I thought would be a little talk lasted two hours and I was glad to see the audience — civic activists grappling with issues here — quite interested in my providing some history and context out of (I find this hard to believe) my 50 years as a journalist here.