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On the Media: An unlikely duo wins Pulitzer for Bell coverage

Times reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb took wildly divergent paths that led to the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

April 19, 2011|James Rainey
  • Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives, right, celebrates with fellow reporter Jeff Gottlieb after they won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives, right, celebrates with fellow… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)

There were several great moments in the Los Angeles Times newsroom Monday, as the paper reeled in a couple of Pulitzer Prizes.

You had to love Ruben Vives, just three years into his reporting career, accepting a glass of champagne with a shaking hand, but speaking like a practiced orator about the value of newspapers. Who wasn't tickled for Barbara Davidson, the winner for feature photography, beaming and threatening to sing the anthem of her native Canada? Times Editor Russ Stanton drew a roar of approval paying tribute to Vives' journeyman reporting partner. "When you look up 'grizzled veteran' in the AP stylebook," Stanton said, "it says, 'See also Gottlieb, Jeff.'"

The story of corruption in the city of Bell couldn't have been led by a more perfectly cinematic duo, a pair of mismatched bookends, both raised in Los Angeles but from worlds apart. The story of Vives and Gottlieb's wildly divergent paths to the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, journalism's top award, ought to make even a business renowned for moving on pause for a moment of appreciation.

The unlikely duo led the way for dozens of Times colleagues, who together brought a measure of truth and justice to the downtrodden city of Bell, where corrupt bosses had turned the public treasury into something like their personal ATM.

Born in Guatemala, Vives never imagined he would end up in a headline, or even the byline under one. He was a preschooler in Central America when the only mother he had ever known (his grandmother) packed him in a van for an interminable road trip. He would be dropped in Southern California to be raised by two people, his parents, who at first were little more than strangers.

The journey didn't always go smoothly. His father left and started another family. Gang members in the San Fernando Valley beat a beloved uncle so badly he died of his injuries. Vives recalls visiting the scene, blood still on the sidewalk. Later, the young immigrant would have to fight to obtain legal status and a green card so he could stay in this country.

A fortunate break came when the couple who employed Vives' mother took an interest in the struggling family. The couple moved the immigrants away from their sketchy block in Echo Park to Whittier. When Vives graduated high school, the good Samaritans helped him find a job.

Since his angels happened to be then-Los Angeles Times business editor Robert Magnuson and his wife, reporter Shawn Hubler, a likely landing spot for Vives seemed like a job at the newspaper. Vives interviewed and The Times hired him as a copy messenger for the summer.

The teenager hustled and worked extra hours to secure a full-time job. Initially, he was too awed by the reporters and editors who surrounded him to think he would be one of them. That began to change in 2005, with The Times' investigation into deadly medical practices and racial injustice at Martin Luther King Jr. Drew Medical Center. The paper brought Vives on as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients, work that showed the young copy assistant, firsthand, how journalism "can speak for the voices that often don't get heard."

The seed had been planted. When crime reporter Jill Leovy took a book leave in 2008, editors gave Vives the chance to take over the Homicide Report, an exhaustive accounting of the stories of murder victims in Los Angeles. He took the assignment so to heart that sometimes, out socializing with friends, he worried that he should be tending to the city's dead and, more important, to the stories of their loved ones. A reporter had been born, one who, at 32, burns with fervor for the profession.

Gottlieb, 57, grew up in an entirely different Los Angeles. His parents, a county probation officer and a stay-at-home mom, filled their North Hollywood home with newspapers, books and magazines. They encouraged their children to embrace current events and to read voraciously.

When he left Pitzer College, Gottlieb had no career destination in mind. But he fell in with a group of investigative reporters and writers who had a fascination with JFK's assassination. He soon got the bug, not for conspiracy, but for research and writing. He enrolled in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Over a three-decade newspaper career, he jumped from the Riverside Press-Enterprise to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and eventually to the San Jose Mercury News, where he left a lasting impression, especially with an investigation of Stanford University research projects that grossly overcharged taxpayers for overhead. Stanford's president, Donald Kennedy, resigned.

Gottlieb joined The Times' Orange County edition in 1997. He worked first as an editor and then on a variety of reporting beats, including higher education and medicine. Like a lot of other journalists living through the wrenching cutbacks in the industry, he thought about changing careers. In the middle of last year, he worked out of his Hermosa Beach home, manning The Times' coverage of the South Bay.

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