The professor never took a journalism class.
But for 60 years, Karl Grossman has been a celebrated investigative reporter, esteemed East End columnist, popular author of six books on the threat of nuclear energy, and a noted documentarian and TV host. He’s won a coveted George Polk Award, Generoso Pope Award, John Peter Zenger Award, a Long Island Press Club Award, and other honors too numerous to list.
Grossman earned these accomplishments wrinkling his shoes in the old-school, pre-Internet reporting trenches across seven decades using the world as his classroom and its people as his teachers. Today, he’s a full tenured professor of journalism at State University of New York/College of Old Westbury, where he’s taught investigative reporting and the ethics of reporting since 1978 after his beloved Long Island Press folded.
To say that they don’t make ink-stained scribblers like Grossman anymore would suggest that this tireless newshound set out to become a made man of the journalism racket.
Not true. It happened by accident.
“I actually never thought I’d be a reporter,” said Grossman, 78, who lives in Sag Harbor with his schoolteacher wife, Janet, to whom he’s been married for 59 years, and his main squeeze for 61.
“I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens and went to Andrew Jackson High, where I considered writing for the school paper, but it was run by a bunch of snobby girls who were like a clique. That turned me off. I was an Eagle Scout and in the 1950s on Eagle Scout Day you were ‘paired’ with someone in the field you thought you’d like to go into. My aim at the time was to become a college professor so I was paired with Queens College president Dr. John Theobold. I spent the day in part with him and in part dropping into classes meeting various professors and I really thought I’d probably become a professor.”
Then, in 1961, at age 19, reporting discovered Karl Grossman.
He was accepted into Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, where students spent three months in the classroom and three months interning at on-the-job-training jobs in various professional fields in the real world.
“I wound up as a copy boy at the Cleveland Press, where over the front door was the motto: ‘Give light and the people will find their own way,’” said Grossman. “The paper was founded by EW Scripps who loved muckraking reporting. The Press was known for it. I met the most interesting people I’d ever met in that newsroom and realized that reporters were so much more invested in the real world, in the lives of others, than college professors were.”
Grossman answered phones, taking news tips, giving memos to reporters on alleged corruption in city or state government. He’d watch a team of reporters dig deep into stories with research, gut instinct, and legwork. He watched those reporters toil late past deadline, overturning municipal stones, meeting secret sources, ferreting breadcrumb trails of avarice, and finally unearthing the gleaming ore of truth.
Grossman watched his little memos blossom into multi-part exposés splashed across page one with banner headlines. He saw that a story that revealed the truth in a newspaper — that got its rugged power from common taxpaying readers — could actually move the arthritic hand of government for the betterment of the citizenry.
“The reporters provided the light and the people found a way to make change,” Grossman said. “I knew I’d found my path in life. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a reporter. On campus, I had been dating a beautiful girl named Janet Kopp from Huntington. She was homesick. I figured I’d learned enough in school. I’d never taken a single journalism course but my internship at the Cleveland Press made me want to be a reporter. I packed up my motorcycle, Janet hopped on the back, and we headed east to Huntington, which is how I wound up on Long Island.”
If we flash ahead several years, that motorcycle ride from Yellow Springs led Grossman to “shine light” on LILCO and the Shoreham nuclear power plant story and the scary plan to build nine nuclear plants on Long Island. Karl Grossman’s reporting on that radioactive hot-button issue — and his subsequent documentaries and books on the subject — would shed the light to make the people of Long Island vote to live nuclear energy free.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Grossman landed his first reporting job for the Babylon Leader at age 20, where, in 1963, he sharpened his mighty No. 2 pencil and took cocky aim at one the most powerful power brokers in New York State — Robert Moses, head of the State Parks and Public Works. Moses was twirling a grotesque highway system that resembled a bowl of linguini through the five boroughs of New York City, displacing tens of thousands of working-class people with eminent domain, destroying historic neighborhoods with no regard for cultural concerns, aesthetics or traditional community cohesion. Moses, who never learned to drive, would also ram highways like the Southern State Parkway out into shores of Nassau and Suffolk counties with overpasses so low that minorities on buses could not pass under them as documented in the magnificent book “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro.
“Moses also wanted to build a four-lane highway the length of Fire Island,” said Grossman. “That story took me out to Fire Island to take a look and to talk to people who lived there. What I found was a gorgeous preserve of nature, the Sunken Forest with wild holly and an amazing seashore. I was a city kid, but I was an Eagle Scout, so I knew about nature. I also spoke to the people who lived on Fire Island whose idyllic world would be destroyed by Moses’s plan to cover it with asphalt. I quoted these articulate, very concerned people like Charles Collingwood, a TV commentator, and Theodore White, the Time writer who wrote ‘The Making of a President,’ Reginald Rose, who wrote ‘12 Angry Men.’
“I went back to the Leader and wrote a long, long story quoting these smart people about how Moses was going to destroy Fire Island as his roads had already destroyed so many other communities. The story ran in the Babylon Leader and other concerned citizens like Murray Barbash, a builder and conservationist, and environmentally concerned lawyers, got involved. So did my publisher, who let me write story after story after story about Moses’s Fire Island road plan.”
Several other Long Island weeklies followed the Leader and even though The New York Times and Newsday championed Moses’s vision, the local conservationists and weekly newspapers helped move the hand of government as Fire Island was declared a National Seashore, which took the power away from New York State and Robert Moses and placed it with the Feds.
If you visit Fire Island on Valentine’s Day with someone special and marvel at the preserved natural beauty, give thanks that a gutsy kid reporter named Karl Grossman from St. Albans, Queens biked east as a young man because he fell in love with newspapering and a Long Island gal named Janet Kopp at Antioch College.
Karl Grossman made his journalistic bones with shoe leather and a notebook, an unteachable hunger for that elusive thing called the truth which he spoke loudly to people of power.
Soon after Fire Island was saved, the Babylon Leader was sold to a new publisher who let Grossman cover another Robert Moses horror story, the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. Because Moses refused to hire any blacks in his simulated world, a civil rights march embarked on the Unisphere. “I reported the story and took photos,” Grossman said. “The story ran in the Leader. I was called into the office of the new publisher and fired because Robert Moses complained about my story.”
When one door closed, endless new doors opened for Grossman, who was soon hired at the Long Island Press at age 22, where he covered issues concerning the environment and the aforementioned nuclear power plant issue on Long Island.
In 1977, Grossman learned that the Long Island Press was closing from a headline in a newspaper box outside the Whalebone on Noyac Road. Soon after, he received a call to come teach at SUNY Old Westbury, and was hired by a chain of local Long Island weeklies to write a column that has appeared in The Southampton Press, The East Hampton Press, The Shelter Island Reporter, and The Sag Harbor Express. The newspapering led to books including “Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know about Nuclear Energy,” “The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet,” and “Weapons in Space.”
Grossman also became the chief investigative reporter for WVVH-TV, the host of the weekly Enviro Close-Up, and documentaries “Three Mile Island Revisited,” “The Push to Revive Nuclear Power,” and “Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens,” all available on You Tube.
So, what does a man who got hooked on news in the early 1960s tell his students today as daily newspapers close from sea to shining sea?
“I tell them that there is still a legitimate media for them to work in,” he said. “I tell them to work on local weeklies that have prospered as dailies close. It’s where I learned the craft. But I stress that they need to learn all the platforms news is delivered on now — print, radio, TV, internet, podcasts, blogs, social media, websites. They need to learn how to use cameras so they can make documentaries that start with a simple news story. I tell them that in the movie ‘The Graduate,’ a businessman tells Dustin Hoffman that the future is a single word: ‘Plastics.’ I tell them to substitute ‘digital’ for ‘plastics’ and they will work in the news business.
I also tell them that they must learn to write well. And to be on time. A student more than 10 minutes late in one of my classes is marked absent. Because if it was a news conference or an interview he just missed, he would be fired. I also tell them ‘Give light and the people will find their way.’”
After 60 years in journalism, Karl Grossman is still shining the light.