Joe Bianco first walked into a newspaper office in Newark, New Jersey. It was 1948, and he had no training of any kind for a journalism career. He spent a chunk of World War II as a Navy Corpsman, but, contrary to all the bloodletting going on at newspapers these days, they rarely ever involve actual blood.
Late the next year, he was offered a job at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
It was 1949. Claude R. Robins was mayor (yes, there was a mayor or two in Harrisburg before Steven R. Reed, whatever you’ve heard to the contrary.
Before he ever typed a word on a story, Joe was working undercover, investigating the gambling and prostitution rackets by the Mob in Central Pennsylvania. He was picked for the job because he was of Italian descent. His heart was in his throat the whole time. He was a nice Italian kid, didn’t know how to gamble, and was not a frequenter of bordellos. Things could easily go wrong.
“Just because you look like a Wise Guy doesn’t make you one,” he said in The Story Never Ends, A Memoir of a Newspaper Reporter,” (224 pages, in paperback and electronic versions at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and other booksellers.)
Joe Bianco only worked in Harrisburg for half a dozen years before he was lured away to The Oregonian in Portland. But check out a few of the highlights from his time in the Midstate:
- From the beginning, he was in it for keeps. Working as an undercover informant reporting on the capital city’s underworld was an assignment that easily could have led to his death. When the paper backed away from the story, Joe managed to ease himself out of the situation without any bodily harm. The information he discovered about gambling establishments – one of them a few steps away from the police HQ – and prostitution was for nothing.
- In 1950, the paper sent him upstate to witness the electrocution of two men in the state’s electric chair. The experience sickened and infuriated the young reporter.
- In 1953, Joe got a national scoop on an illness being suffered by former president Harry S. Truman, only to be criticized by his editor for making a long-distance call to do it.
- He discovered, with the help of a contact in the city police department that county authorities were taking children away from people on welfare and giving the kids to farmers to use as labor. Joe found it was apparently true, at least at one farm, and had his story. Or would have, but the farmer claimed Joe and his photographer had invaded his privacy (he hadn’t, Joe said) and got the county district attorney on his side. Joe’s editor dropped the story like a hot potato.
- In 1953, he uncovered the identity of a serial killer who had been killing truckers along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a story that won him and the paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
- Two years later he exposed the existence of gangs in the state prison system, and followed that by exposing a federal cover-up by reporting that six soldiers present at nuclear bomb tests in the American Southwest had suffered eye damage because of the tests. The feds had always held that nobody was hurt in the “safe” nuclear weapons testing.
The “A-Bomb” story was Joe’s last big scoop for the Harrisburg paper. He was on his way to a long and successful career at the Oregonian and Northwest Magazine in Portland, where he brought the latter national recognition and provided nurture for a number of authors who went on to literary success, including Barry Lopez and Ursula K. LeGuin.
He retired from the magazine in 1994. Sadly, the publication did not long survive his leaving, becoming the victim of budget cuts.
But Joe Bianco can hardly be called “retired.” He now runs his own publishing company. The years have brought him two national investigative journalism awards, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, an honorary doctorate of humane letters, a Peabody Award, and numerous other recognitions both national and international.
Called a “journalist’s journalist” by some, he got there by dogged curiosity and a stubborn refusal to quit. He must have been a real pain in the patoot for those public figures who were trying hard NOT to answer his questions.
Some of the coverage done in Northwest Magazine raised a lot of ruckus on many sides. It brought a lot of attention (translated as readers) to the publication. He stood behind his writers, and his bosses stood behind him.
I’m still reading the book. The first thing I said about it to somebody who asked what I thought, I said I wish I’d had him as a boss somewhere along the road as I was learning the trade. I like to think I was pretty good. Joe would have made me better.
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