Raul Ramirez, 1946-2013

Raul Ramirez, reporting from a Honduran refugee camp, circa 1984. The children had fled mass murders in a Salvadoran village. Raul not only wrote their stories, he helped guarantee their safety by helping them return home. (Photo courtesy Adam Kufeld)
Raul Ramirez, reporting from a Honduran refugee camp, circa 1984. The children had fled mass murders in a Salvadoran village. Raul not only wrote their stories, he helped guarantee their safety by helping them return home. (Photo courtesy Adam Kufeld)

By David Weir and Patricia Yollin

Raul Ramirez, executive director of news and public affairs at KQED Public Radio and a remarkable journalist, teacher and mentor known throughout the Bay Area journalism community and beyond, has died.

Ramirez had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late July and died this morning at age 67 at his home in Berkeley. He was born in 1946 in Havana. In April 1962, more than three years after the Cuban revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Ramirez’s parents — disillusioned by what they perceived as Fidel Castro’s failed promises — sent him and his sister to live with relatives in South Florida. He first started to explore journalism as a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville; he once told a colleague that he had studied it to improve his English. In the process, he discovered his calling.

Ramirez’s newspaper days began in the tumultuous 1960s and '70s, when he reported for the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner. He gained a reputation for immersing himself in the subjects that he covered, always seeking to gain in-depth understanding before publishing. In 1970, he wrote a prize-winning series for the Wall Street Journal about farmworkers in Michigan after working in the fields alongside them. At the Miami Herald, he accompanied undercover agents on raids of suspected heroin dealers. And for a San Francisco Examiner article on jail conditions, he worked several days as a deputy sheriff.

In May 1976, after months of investigation, Ramirez and freelance journalist Lowell Bergman broke a story for the Examiner about a Chinatown gang murder case titled “How Lies Sent Youth to Prison for Murder.” The article detailed how an assistant district attorney and two police inspectors had pressured witnesses into lying, resulting in the conviction of Richard Lee. The three law enforcement officers sued the Examiner, Bergman and Ramirez for libel, seeking $30 million in damages.

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When the Examiner, then owned by the Hearst Corp., refused to provide counsel for the freelancer Bergman, leaving him without representation, Ramirez as a matter of principle and conscience refused to be represented by the Examiner’s lawyer and joined with Bergman to seek outside counsel. A group of journalists and lawyers rallied around the two reporters and raised enough money to hire a lawyer and fight the case. Though they initially lost in Superior Court and were ordered to pay $4.56 million in damages, Bergman and Ramirez spent the next decade fighting the verdict. Ultimately, the libel ruling was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1986. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision, ending the matter once and for all.

Ramirez in his office at KQED.
Ramirez in his office at KQED. (Ian Hill/KQED)

Ramirez has long been a central figure in many Bay Area journalism institutions. For many years he served as president of the board of directors of the Center for Investigative Reporting during a difficult period in the 1990s, when the organization had to rebuild after losing staff and funding. He was also a fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, as well as at the University of Hawaii's School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

He taught for many years at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, where he inspired students with his classes in introductory journalism and investigative reporting. Many have gone on to successful reporting careers at KQED, NPR and other media outlets.  He also led investigative reporting and civic journalism training workshops in the Netherlands as well as training workshops in several Ukrainian locations.

Ramirez ventured into broadcast journalism for the first time in 1991 when he was hired as news director for KQED Public Radio. He was later promoted to executive director of news and public affairs. In his 22 years at KQED, he was instrumental in building it into a top-rated public radio station and leading its award-winning state and regional news service. Today, KQED's broadcast and online coverage includes KQED News, KQEDnews.org, "Forum" and "The California Report." Its statewide service operates news bureaus in Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles.

He also was executive producer of "Pacific Time," a program that explored the ideas, trends and cultural patterns flowing between Asia and North America. "Pacific Time" aired for seven years before ending in 2007.

During his career, Ramirez received many honors and recognitions, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, and most recently from the same organization the 2013 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award. He was deeply committed to preserving the high standards of journalistic integrity, public service and investigative reporting, and diversity in journalism. Recently, dozens of KQED colleagues sent Ramirez a tribute honoring his great breadth of ideas, his commitment to journalism ethics and his kindness as a colleague, supervisor and friend.

Raul Ramirez is survived by his husband, Tony Wu; the couple married on Oct.18, 2013, in San Leandro. He is also survived by his sister, Miriam Gargiulo of West Palm Beach, Fla.; two brothers, Michael Greenhill of Wellington, Fla., and Eduardo Ramirez of Reddick, Fla.; three nephews and three nieces.

As one of his final acts, Ramirez established the Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund at San Francisco State University. The fund will be administered by the Journalism Department, where Ramirez taught for 30 years. Ramirez told department leaders that he wanted the money to be used to honor a journalism student whose work demonstrated the importance of promoting diversity in journalism.

In lieu of flowers or other tributes, Ramirez hoped that those who wish to honor his memory will contribute to the fund. (Select "Other" from the drop-down menu of "I Would Like to Support" and type into the text box. Enter Designation: "The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.") Plans for a memorial service are underway and will be announced at a later date.

Remembering Raul

Since he joined KQED in 1991, Raul has played a central role in expanding and shaping KQED news and public affairs. Raul’s commitment to journalism ethics was a major influence on all of the work we’ve done at KQED. He insisted on fact-based, accurate reporting that avoided the sensational and, instead, told meaningful stories about the impact of news and issues on the lives of ordinary people. Raul was a man of ideas, and he had a huge heart. He cared deeply about colleagues and friends he worked with. Our reporters and producers, hosts and news anchors loved talking with him about stories, ideas and coverage they wanted to do in the future. He directed the newsroom day to day, and he mentored and taught his staff to become better journalists. He will be missed extraordinarily by all of us at KQED.

— Jo Anne Wallace, VP and General Manager KQED Public Radio

We at KQED Radio have lost our leader, our guide, our moral compass. For those of us who knew him and had the privilege of working with him, the loss is profound. Raul was also one of the finest human beings I have ever had the good fortune to know. Raul had more integrity, humanity, decency, strength of character and goodness in him than nearly anyone I have ever known. He was beloved by many of us who worked with him, and if you are fortunate enough to meet someone in your lifetime who even comes close to having the qualities Raul had, then you, too, will remain filled with reverent memories of that person to your dying day. Many of us will always remember Raul for his inimitable spirit, and the passion and excellence he brought to his work and to our lives. We admired him for his wisdom and compassion, high-minded principles and grace. We have learned from him – for, of his many gifts, perhaps the most precious was his ability to live an exemplary, inspirational and honorable life. We will miss him far more than words can ever say.

— Michael Krasny, Host of "Forum"

Raul Ramirez had a terrific mix of characteristics that added up to one amazing talent.  He had an unwavering sense of outrage over people who had been wronged, along with a healthy skepticism of those with power and influence. He had all the skills of a sensational reporter: a tremendous curiosity about everyone and every place, the ability to listen, and the tremendous talent as a writer. He had friends all over the world. He was living proof that it was a profession with a higher calling, but one that you could fall in love with while at the same time making a difference in the lives of everyone you touched. Because that's what he did. Despite having the skepticism of a great journalist, he somehow managed to be an eternal optimist.  He loved life and worked hard to enjoy it to the fullest.

— Larry Kramer, President and Publisher of USA Today

(In 1975) in the stark fluorescent-lit newsroom of the old San Francisco Examiner, Raul turned to me and reported: “I have been told not to talk to you anymore.” But (he) refused to abandon our story. ... Raul threw his own job to the wind and refused to accept the company decision ... to abandon me. He joined me in defending our story. Raul’s willingness to stand up not only led to a lifelong friendship; it provides an example of selfless dedication to principle that never ceases to inspire me. Whenever I waver, whenever I need to stiffen my backbone about whether to do what’s right, I say to myself, “I am Raul Ramirez!”

— Lowell Bergman, Graduate School of Journalism UC Berkeley.

A conversation with Raul Ramirez was the equivalent of reading a great book. His passion for and knowledge about societal issues, journalism, ethics, cultures — really about all things important in life — amazed me every time. Raul's voice was steady and strong, helping make the rest of us smarter and better.

-- Robert M. Steele, DePauw University

Raul was on the forefront of the movement to promote diversity in journalism. He insisted that journalism students think about the people and communities who were most often left out of news stories. In 1994, Raul was part of a team of journalists who helped me conduct a national study into how news media coverage of communities of color was flawed by stereotypes and other problems. The San Francisco State University study was released at the historic Unity '94 joint conference of African-American, Asian-American, Latino and Native-American journalists. Raul’s thoughtful analysis contributed to the success and credibility of the study. Because of his stellar reputation, Raul was often asked to review journalism schools seeking accreditation, and he used that position as another way to stress the importance of diversity in journalism. We have lost a powerful and important voice in journalism, but I believe that Raul has left an important legacy by developing and shaping young new journalists.

— Jon Funabiki, San Francisco State University

Raul knows Asia and Asian-American affairs. He gets it. It was reassuring to work with such an editor. At a cafe, on a ride in his car, at a small restaurant, on the phone at 2 a.m., as well as in the office, Raul always made you feel like you were doing something right. Without Raul, no "Pacific Time." We all worked at it, and many made it possible. But "Pacific Time" was what it was because Raul was firmly behind it. "Pacific Time" is grateful to Raul.

— Nguyen Qui Duc, Host "Pacific Time"

Raul was a natural teacher. He loved journalism and was eager to share his experiences and his skills with his students. His classes were an exchange more than a lecture. An atmosphere of respect permeated his teaching — respect for what journalism could be when practiced at its best, respect for the students’ insights and for their potential. He set high standards and gave critiques that helped them achieve high levels many didn’t think they could reach.

As with his colleagues in all the places where he worked, Raul’s students came to know and like him. Inevitably, they learned from him not only the basics of journalism, or the skills of investigative reporting, but also from observation of him as teacher and journalist many of them learned what it is to be a good person, a person of integrity.

-- Betty Medsger, journalist and educator, former chair of SFSU's Department of Journalism

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