When my friend McGaffin went on television to read the names of people who were paying Seattle cops to let them get by with illegal gambling, it wasn't all that remarkable. In the 1970s, you sort of expected Don to do that kind of thing.
Then in 1974, he got hold of the list of some people who were spied on by the police chief—the one who had been brought in to clean up the police department after the gambling scandal. McGaffin read the names—honest citizens tailed by their police chief. They included staff members of Mayor Wes Uhlman and KING-TV reporters Charles Royer and—Don McGaffin.
That created quite a stir, but it should have been no surprise. This was reporter's work as McGaffin saw it, getting hold of secret documents, broadcasting their contents, daring those in authority to respond. Journalism was, and still should be, the craft of publicizing stuff someone doesn't want you to know. It was what reporters were supposed to do.
McGaffin, who died May 29 at age 78, was the grittiest, hardest-working reporter I ever knew. There's no one like him in television news and hasn't been for years. Sad to say, there's no place for the likes of him.
Not that there aren't TV reporters with the courage and ability to work like McGaffin. But they aren't allowed to. It's expensive to have a TV news reporter do only one story a day, and it's terrifically expensive to have a reporter take a week or two on one story. Station managers and news directors say they lack the money, and maybe they do. What they seem mostly to lack is news sense and the backbone to use it.
McGaffin was lucky enough to have worked for an owner, King Broadcasting's Dorothy Bullitt, and a company president, Ancil Payne, who loved controversial stories and understood how gutsy journalism could cost the company friends in the short run but bring success in the long run. He outraged the powerful, got his bosses in a ton of trouble, and most of the time they loved it.
He enjoyed talking about his run-ins with police and politicians, but the story that brought him lasting pride had to do with little kids. Burned kids, dead or disfigured because the synthetic material their pajamas were made of tended to explode and stick to their skin when it caught fire. With the help of Dr. Abe Bergman at Harborview Medical Center, McGaffin got U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson interested. The result was legislation regulating the flammability of clothing.
It was no surprise that McGaffin fought back from a 1985 stroke that temporarily took his speech and paralyzed his right side. He learned to talk, then walk, then to write with his left hand, tie his shoes and necktie. He went back on the air, at KCTS-TV. He made speeches urging stroke victims not to give up. A second major stroke wrecked his speech and left part of his face paralyzed.
After the strokes, he went back to work on a book about his life, KING, and the news business. His partner of 18 years, Mimi Sheridan, plans to get it published. Someone will be outraged.
Bob Simmons is a freelance writer and former KING-TV commentator and political editor.