Written by The Business Journal Staff
Forty years ago this month, George Gruner spent two weeks in the Fresno County jail.
At the time of his incarceration in September 1976, Gruner was managing editor at the Fresno Bee. He and three of his colleagues at the newspaper made headlines of their own by refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source used in a story about a city councilman’s connection to a Los Angeles garbage hauling business trying to muscle its way into Fresno.
The jailed journalists, alternately dubbed “the Fresno Four” and “the Bee Four,” invoked the First Amendment — and California’s media shield law — in declining to testify.
Now 91 years old and a resident at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens retirement community in Fresno, Gruner said the Bee Four case proved to be one of the highlights of his long and storied journalism career.
“Because of the nature of the charges against us, we had to be held separately from the other prisoners,” he said. “So they put us in the dispensary out at what used to be the old county prison farm. We didn’t resist at all so the guards pretty much left us alone as long as we didn’t try to escape. I actually spent most of my time hitting golf balls into a corn field.”
Next month, a group that Gruner referred to as “editorial types” will gather to commemorate the Fresno Four’s 40th anniversary. In addition to Gruner, the other members were Bee reporters Phil Patterson and Joe Rosato, and former Bee City Editor Jim Bort Jr., who, before he died in 2010, said being involved in the case was “the most important thing” he’d ever done in his life.
Born in Alameda and raised in Oakland, Gruner was editor of his high school newspaper and began his formal journalism career at the Oakland Tribune as a gummer and copy boy. A gummer, he explained, was responsible for cutting up and processing the stock quotations that came into the newsroom everyday via tickertape.
In 1943, two months after he turned 18, Gruner was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Europe. He wound up in the infantry and narrowly escaped being captured at the Battle of the Bulge after being assigned to remain at the base to serve as a PBX board operator — a skill he first acquired while working at the Tribune.
After the war, Gruner returned to the Tribune, where he met his wife Irene, who also worked at the paper as a reporter. After getting married, the couple decided to quit their jobs and travel around Europe for a while. “Then Irene got pregnant and I figured I either had to get a job or we needed to go home,” Gruner said.
So he took a job as a copy editor for the European edition of Stars and Stripes. Two years later when the Gruners returned to California with their son Richard, they decided to settle in Sanger, where Irene’s family had a ranch.
Gruner took a copy editing job at the Fresno Bee and spent the next 33 years steadily rising to the newspaper’s top job, executive editor, a position he held from 1981 until his retirement in 1988.
A year after he stepped down at the Bee, The McClatchy Co., in partnership with Fresno State, established the George F. Gruner Awards for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism, in part because of the Fresno Four case, which made it all the way to both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts.
The legal battle took more than a year. But ultimately, the Bee lost, even though the newspaper’s source for the controversial story was never revealed.
Gruner was actually playing golf with Bort when he got the order to report to jail. Two weeks later, a judge sentenced the Fresno Four to five days — “after we’d already served 15 days,” Gruner said. “So they released us.”
The Fresno Four received a lot of national support for upholding the rights of the free press, but the protracted court battle cost the Bee dearly. “I saw some of the bills,” Gruner said. “McClatchy paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend us.”
As a result of the case, the Bee established a practice that at least one editor must know the sources of all of the reporters’ stories, Gruner added.
To this day, Gruner said he still doesn’t know who the source was who leaked the damning grand jury testimony about the garbage hauling contracts. “All I know was that it was in the public interest to publish this information and I made the decision to publish it,” he said.
Until the day he retired, Gruner insisted on using his trusty Royal typewriter to compose everything he wrote. Since retiring, he’s written three books. “I have to admit,” he said, “once I started writing the books, I discovered the advantages of working on a computer.”
Gruner’s first book, “Blue Water Beat: The Two Lives of the Battleship USS California,” was published in 1996 and details the history of the prominent Navy battleship, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Another maritime-focused tome published in 2002, “The White Flyers,” spotlights the California coastal passenger liners Yale and Harvard.
Gruner’s latest book, published in 2012 by the Clovis Veteran’s Memorial District, is called “Into the Night” and uses source material and oral histories to piece together a portrait of Central California during World War II, profiling Hammer Field, Camp Pinedale and the Fresno Fairgrounds — all key military facilities during the war years.
Although he rarely complains, the past year has been not been an easy one for the veteran newspaperman. His wife, who had been ill for some time, died in November 2015 at the age of 93. About six months earlier, Gruner had what he referred to as “a little stroke.”
Today, the spry nonagenarian is fully recovered. He goes to the gym twice a week and still drives himself around town. “I like to go out to the Veterans Memorial Building in Clovis and shoot the bull with some of the guys out there,” he said.
One popular topic at those discussions is today’s media world, which Gruner said is “nothing” like the one he operated in. “Technology and especially social media have really changed the way journalists operate. The immediacy factor is so great right now, with all these tweets and twits, which I don’t do,” he said.
“Technology has given the news media a lot less time to ascertain the facts,” he added. “In the good old days, we had time to ascertain the facts. There’s so much erroneous information going all around the world immediately right now.”
“In my day, we didn’t rush to print,” Gruner said. “We established the facts, made sure they were accurate and then gave the story the proper play.”
Gruner said that if he had it to do over again, there’s very little he would change.
“Journalism is an interesting business,” he said. “I never regretted a day of it.”