Street-Beat Confidential

Journalist Juan González has been writing about wrongs for thirty-five years. What's he got today?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2013
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But González might be better known as the journalist who, a month after the 9/11 attacks, wrote columns on the dangerous levels of contaminants around Ground Zero.

“Everyone was interested just in returning the city to normal, and there was a big push to get people back to working in the area,” González says. “Through my environmental contacts, I got ahold of results from tests that the EPA and the city had been doing that showed there was much more contamination than people realized.”

There was backlash against the paper from the Giuliani administration and Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the EPA. They said González was exaggerating. Whitman contacted the Daily News and was allowed to write an op-ed piece countering González’s claims.

Photograph by Ashok Sinha ’99SEAS“Some of the editors started quashing my columns,” says González. “They killed two of them and relegated the others to the back pages. So I went to Ed Kosner, the editor in chief, and said, ‘Ed, why are you holding up my columns?’ And he said, ‘Well, the EPA says the stuff that you’re writing isn’t accurate, and so does the Giuliani administration, and besides, the Times isn’t writing anything about it.’ And I said, ‘Since when do we decide what we’re going to write based on what the Times decides to write? You have to trust my reporting.’ So we went back and forth, and I finally said, ‘Ed, you don’t know me well. And I don’t know you well because you’ve only been here a couple of years. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to keep writing on this topic. I think it’s important, and when a lot of people start getting sick ten or fifteen years down the line, I don’t want it to be on my conscience that I didn’t do what I needed to do as a reporter.’”

Five years later, as people started getting sick, the paper, under different editors, ran editorials exposing the problem. For this, the Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Early on, I developed a sense about the unjust treatment of people,” González says in his office, when asked what motivates his work. “Even how my own family was treated.”

It’s a Wednesday morning in June. González is dressed in a pale-orange polo shirt and turtle-green sports jacket. This morning’s column reports that the city’s new $88 million 911 dispatch system has crashed four times in its first three days.

“When I was sixteen,” González says, “my father started having pains in his neck. He kept going to the doctor, who told him repeatedly it was nothing. Finally, the doctor said he needed a procedure, but it was August and the doctor was going on vacation and said he’d do the procedure when he came back. The pain developed into a tumor that grew very rapidly. When the doctor returned, he realized it was cancer, and sent my father to Sloan-Kettering. In those days, a Puerto Rican walking into Sloan-Kettering” — the half laugh — “was more like a curiosity.”

González’s father had surgery the next day, and died. The doctors claimed the tumor had gone too close to the brain. When they tried to remove it, it caused a brain hemorrhage.

“I really felt that my father was not treated the way other patients would have been,” González says. “So the sense that people who don’t have any income or wealth are treated unjustly has always been with me. After the Young Lords, I decided that I wanted to use journalism as a way to right wrongs.”

“Early on, I developed a sense about the unjust treatment of people. Even how my own family was treated.”

This morning, González has two pots boiling for his next column. One involves a large, quota-driven increase in inspections and fines against small businesses in all boroughs except Manhattan. The other concerns a curious pattern of disciplinary actions in a powerful, high-performing K–6 charter-school network, a story that González has been developing for more than a year.

“It looks very much to me,” he says, opening a yellow folder on his desk, “that they held this student back because he was going to ruin their test scores.” González thumbs through some papers, and a glint of delight enters his voice: the thrill of the sleuth closing in. “If I’m able to show that this has been a sophisticated operation of rigging test scores,” he says, “it’s gonna blow this thing completely out of the water.”

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