Bob Partlow wanted to spin records for the 60’s generation of love.
That was his plan when he “stumbled into” his 40-year career as an investigative reporter.
He grew up in a conservative Republican family where he went door-to-door for Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Then Bob Partlow went to college. He says he “watched his generation being killed” in Vietnam. Within a year, he was supporting McCarthy (Eugene, not Joe) for President and protesting the “establishment.”
The emotion he felt as a young man remains present to this day when he talks about it. On the ten year anniversary of the United States pulling its troops from the conflict, Bob recalled the experience in a piece he wrote for Gannett News Service.
-Bob Partlow “‘All we are saying, is give peace a chance.’ The words to the Beatles song rippled along the parade route down Indian Street in Bellingham, Wash, where I had joined thousands marching to end the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of local residents had gathered to watch. Many stood sullenly. Few offered words of encouragement. “What do we want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW!” It was exhilarating to be young and full of the passion of that passage in life. The causes were clear and the heroes and the villains easy to spot.”
Reading that, I wondered how my daughter and granddaughter, both in their teens, would someday recall the Women’s March of 2017.
Bob’s career change was born out of those protests against the war and the assassinations of civil rights leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. It made him angry. So angry that he voted for Bobby Kennedy for President, even though he was dead.
Bob says growing up in the turbulent sixties ignited a sense of outrage “that never went away.”
He also says, quite emphatically, that ‘investigative reporter’ is a redundant term.
“Outrage, combined with an intense curiosity, fearlessness, a desire to get to the truth and to expose it; those are the essential traits of all good reporters.” He quotes Johnathan Swift, for good measure, “The role of the reporter is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’”
Bob says somebody asked him if he thought he was a crusader. “Thinking back, maybe I was.” Writing for the Bellingham Herald in the 1980s, he took on the business community and the politicians on behalf of the environmentalist, writing at the time about the Chicago Bridge and Iron company (CBI) lobbying state politicians; “Faced with a project that violated state and local shoreline regulations, the company decided to change the regulations rather than change the project. It turned to the legislature.”
A decade later, he covered the battle over the endangered Spotted Owl in the Olympic National Forest. “Those guys were ready to burn down the forest,” he remembers. “I wanted to see what it was all about.”
After a trip to Forks, Washington, he chose to side with the endangered humans, instead of the Owls.
That set him against the same environmental community who considered his work fighting CBI nothing short of heroic. He was even less beloved when the entire series of articles was entered into the Congressional Record in August of 1994 as evidence of regulatory over-reaching. The language highlighted the plight of the little guy in the timber industry, and the destruction of family livelihoods and communities, similar to arguments being heard in D.C. right now that describe coalmining as a way of life. Bob the civilian would not favor rolling back President Obama’s clean air regulations and clean fuel initiatives, but Bob the reporter might write about the coalminers.
And later, his investigative reporting stung the Democratic Party in the notoriously blue state of Washington in a way that nothing had before or is likely to again. The scandal he exposed cut across party lines, the systemic use of state funds to pay dedicated campaign staff and hide them in policy offices. Both parties were guilty, but the report forced them to stop, and it naturally had a greater impact on the majority party, who had more staff. It was years before the whole thing shook out in the courts, and the retaliatory aftershocks for those mentioned in the story were felt for decades. Bob points to that story as his finest reporting, even though it put him at odds with people he liked, ended some of his long standing associations, and caused injuries he didn’t intend. “They were breaking the law,” he says with pride, “stealing money from the tax payers. After the story broke, they had to stop.”
Retiring as a reporter didn’t change his fundamental nature.
“I took that outrage with me into the next job,” he says. His job with the State Children’s Administration was advocating for families and kids who had been separated from their siblings in foster care. His advocacy there won him more fans, but not with the Administration. They eventually settled those differences out of court.
I interviewed two reporters for this piece. They gave me so much material, it turned into a series.
I was intrigued enough by what they had to say, that I was inspired to do a little digging of my own. I can’t say what I learned surprised me, but it did confirm a few ideas.
I had a sense from years of conversations with Bob, and my first conversation with Lee, that there was something to this notion of investigative reporting as advocacy. Bob Partlow never met fellow journalist Lee Stranahan, and Private Citizen Bob wouldn’t agree with many of Lee’s conclusions about the current leadership in Washington, D.C.
But Reporter Bob wholeheartedly echoes his methods and philosophies. Lee Stranahan says, “People will hate you,” and that going against the grain is standard operating procedure for an investigative reporter. Partlow agrees, “If you need to be liked, than this isn’t the right job.” If you read on, I believe you will see that the gentlemen, for all their differences, are very alike in the way they view the world.