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San Diego Revealed: 2017 in Memorable Journalism About Our Town

We take a look back at stories that shed light on topics from the homeless and law enforcement misconduct to Comic-Con, the border and a high-flying bunny.

Downtown San Diego / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Wayward taxpayer money. Inept public agencies. The toll of tasers, rogue drug rehab centers and rising seas. And the challenges at the world’s busiest border crossing and beyond.

Local and national media outlets revealed plenty about San Diego and the borderlands it inhabits in 2017. Here’s a look at some of the stories that stuck with us:

Along the Border, Unease and Certainty in Trump Era

• Early in 2017, journalists from the Associated Press spent two weeks traveling the 3,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, going back and forth from nation to nation, finally ending in Tijuana, where they opened their Jeep’s doors to “food stalls selling roasted corn, churros and hot dogs; a near-empty bar blaring the oompa-oompas of norteno, Mexico’s answer to polka.”

They found a mixed Mexican and American culture that isn’t going anywhere in “a region convulsed by uncertainty and angst, but rooted in a shared culture and history unlikely to be transformed by any politician, or any barrier man can construct.”

As explained by a man traveling from Tijuana to a cashier’s job in Chula Vista, “we Mexicans have been through a lot, especially here in our own country. So for Mexico, a president like (Trump) is like having a cold. One day you will get over it.”

• Inewsource, a San Diego news outlet, chronicled the decades-long effort to keep foreigners out of the U.S. in an interactive project called “America’s Wall” that featured stunning video, a map of the current wall’s recent growth and more.

• In images, Union-Tribune photographer John Gibbons took a fascinating aerial tour of the border from the Pacific Ocean to a town in Imperial County, revealing the rugged stretches where there’s nothing but dunes.

Bunny Business in Rep. Hunter Ethics Probe

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s campaign spending scandal widened in 2017. The Press-Enterprise in Riverside started the year off by talking to an aide who tried to engage in a pre-emptive strike against a Congressional ethics report by saying “$600 in campaign expenditures for in cabin rabbit transport fees” was an oversight.

Wait, what now? Yup, that’s a reference to a pet rabbit’s cross-country flight fees, which you’ll be hearing more about as the 2018 congressional election looms.

U-T reporter Morgan Cook, who led coverage of Hunter’s spending mess in 2016, broke news in 2017 about Hunter’s bizarre campaign expenditures, including questionable and unreimbursed spending on registration at Irish dance festivals (his daughter is a dancer) and a trip to Italy. She also reported that he stopped making campaign payments to his wife.

• In other government ethics journalism, the U-T found that local public officials make a bundle by attending meetings that in some cases aren’t recorded and aren’t open to the public. In fact, it’s not clear that some happened at all.

And the Reader found that the mayor’s homeless czar got to travel by private jet, courtesy of a campaign booster, to visit a homeless shelter in Phoenix.

The Homeless: Bringing S.D.’s Biggest Story to Life

L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez found a way to bring the human tragedy of homelessness to light: He focused on one woman, nearly 80, who lived in her PT Cruiser in a Carlsbad parking lot, snuggling next to her two dogs for warmth at night, her feet elevated to prevent swelling.

Through his words, she comes alive as a person instead of a symbol, a cautionary tale or a walking tragedy.

• Our Skid Row has plenty of company. The rising tides of homeless have dominated the news in cities and towns across the West Coast: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego. The Associated Press noticed a trend and put the pieces together in a wide-ranging November story: “A homeless crisis of unprecedented proportions is rocking the West Coast, and its victims are being left behind by the very things that mark the region’s success: soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy that waits for no one.”

Law Enforcement Under the Microscope

• The Reuters news agency studied dozens of deaths where Tasers used by law enforcement played a role. Reuters reporters, who examined a San Diego-area case among others, found that “many who die are among society’s vulnerable — unarmed, in psychological distress and seeking help.”

• In a shocking report, The Washington Post revealed that two U.S. border officers are still on the job here after forcing a 16-year-old boy in 2013 to drink the liquid he was carrying and hoping to take with him into the U.S. ““Mi corazón! Mi corazón!” he screamed: “My heart! My heart!” Within two hours he was dead of a liquid methamphetamine overdose.

In 2017, the U.S. agreed to pay his family $1 million. A lawyer said the border officers engaged in “the most inhuman kind of cruelty.”

• The U-T revealed that nine women have accused a single sheriff’s deputy of sexual misconduct.

San Diego Schools on the Hot Seat

Inewsource had a big year on the education beat, uncovering deep problems at Gompers Preparatory Academy, thousands of missing or dead iPads in South Bay middle and high schools (and no insight into whether they helped students learn), potential fraud in San Ysidro elementary schools and $20 million in expenses that a local Christian college couldn’t explain.

A Failure of Science and a Golden State Doomsday

• California’s much-lauded stem cell therapy program has been a bust, reported the medical news site Stat: “the National Institutes of Health has supported three and a half times as many human trials of stem cell therapies, dollar for dollar, as the California agency has funded since it started making grants in 2006. Just two of its clinical trials have been completed.”

• “A slow-moving emergency is lapping at California’s shores — climate-driven sea-level rise that experts now predict could elevate the water in coastal areas up to 10 feet in just 70 years, gobbling up beachfront and overwhelming low-lying cities,” the news site CalMatters reported in a series of eye-opening stories about the effects of climate change here.

The stories focus minds by laying out the worst-case predictions of scientists, including the loss of 42,000 homes to seawater over their roofs.

From Snopes to Comic-Con : The Best of the Rest

• “On average, somebody dies about every two weeks while being cared for in a licensed rehab center in California,” the Orange County Register reports in an investigation. But rehab centers are lightly regulated — just about anyone can run one — “and “there are just 16 inspectors, working in an office in Sacramento, to monitor nearly 2,000 rehab centers in California.”

• Rolling Stone published an oral history of Comic-Con, including this evocative revelation about comic book fans in the 1960s: “In those days, you were an oddball or an outcast if you were into that stuff. Society looked down on science fiction fans, but even science fiction fans looked down on [comics fans]. We were at the bottom – unless you were into outright pornography, we were as low as you could get.”

• Snopes.com, the fact-checking site with close ties to San Diego, still has plenty of mojo even in these days where millions of Americans seem allergic to the truth. But it’s had some near-death experiences lately amid sordid accusations, and Wired Magazine discovered “it can be trickier than expected to nail down the truth about Snopes” itself.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. He is also immediate past president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

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