Linda Deutsch was only 18 when she got her first newspaper job in 1963. Her first front-page byline soon followed. After moving to Los Angeles four years later with $1,000, she shot up the ranks from cub reporter to court reporter at the Associated Press, covering some of the biggest cases in history — from Charles Manson to O.J. Simpson. She was one of the female journalists who sued the Associated Press for equal pay and the right to be called "newswomen" rather than "newsmen."
Deutsch is one of a handful of Special Correspondents in the AP's history, and she jokes that she has covered "every big trial except Socrates." Above all, throughout her 48-year career, she has championed both the freedom of the press and the rights of women journalists.
We spoke with Deutsch, after she won the International Women's Media Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, about her incredible career and her advice for young women who want to make a go of it in journalism.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a young journalist?
"Well, I started in the ‘60s, and there were women in the field, but they usually were assigned to cover the social pages, weddings — they did all the social side. Some women did break through, and they were real trailblazers. But they were few and far between. And when I started, I really didn’t think about it. I thought, 'Well, I’m a good reporter, I’m a good journalist.' I just plunged in and applied for jobs. I worked briefly for my hometown newspaper in New Jersey."
What was your first assignment?
"I talked my way into covering the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. I was 18 years old, and I heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his 'I Have A Dream' speech. I got my first front-page byline. And from there, I’ve always said there’s no turning back. By the time I got home from that summer, my local paper offered me a job while I was going to college. And so I worked all through my last two years of college."
How did you get to Los Angeles, and how did you find your first big job?
"I saved $1000 dollars. I used $400 of it for a plane ticket and $200 for a down payment on a little VW bug car, and the rest for a down payment on an apartment. And I got a job right away at a newspaper out in San Bernardino, which was way too far away for me to stay there. And so I came into L.A. after about three months and interviewed at three places.
"The Associated Press bureau chief looked at my clips and said, 'You’re hired.' And I started there in January of 1967. My career was, in many ways, dictated by timing. I had wanted to be an entertainment writer; I thought I’d be covering Hollywood and stars, and I was for awhile. I covered the Oscars and the Emmys, and I interviewed famous people. But a year after I came, in 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. And I was working that night, and so I covered the assassination."
What was the night of Bobby Kennedy's assassination like?
"I was in the bureau. My shift started at midnight, and he was killed at 12:05. So I stayed in the bureau and basically took dictation from the scene, fed copy to our teletype operators. In those days, that’s how you did things. They didn’t send me to the scene because they had people there already.
"But then, several months later, the accused assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, [went on trial], and they brought out two more experienced reporters from New York and Washington to cover it. I was the backup reporter. I was the kid, you know, a cub, and that was the first time I went into a big, high-profile trial. I was able to write features and do anything [the guys] didn’t have time to do."
What was your next big story?
"Barely a year later, in August of 1969, Sharon Tate and her friends were killed in Los Angeles. And that was the biggest mass murder in history up to that time. It brought to the fore a lot of issues that America was facing then. Hippies, flower power, drugs — a lot of drugs — and this rampant violence without any sense. And it had huge celebrities. Sharon Tate was the wife of the famous director Roman Polanski, and all of the victims were part of the glitterati, as they called them then. So I was covering that from day one.
"But the problem was the trial was so crazy, everything about it was crazy. The Manson women were camped out on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, living there, saying if he was convicted, they would immolate themselves like the nuns in Vietnam. People were having LSD flashbacks in the courtroom. People were coming through the screen with heroin in their pockets. It was bizarre and extreme.
"At one point, Manson leaped across the counsel table at the judge, with a pencil in his hands, screaming: 'Someone should cut your head off, old man!' It was crazy... We went through so much, the reporters. A lot of them are still my friends, and we get together for reunions. Because no one else can understand what it was like. It was like going through a war together, as if we were in the trenches... The trial lasted almost a year, and it changed our lives."
Were you hooked on reporting on trials?
"When it ended, I think I knew I was not going back to entertainment. This was much more exciting and more dramatic than anything I would ever see in the movies or on television. I knew by the end of that case that I was going to pursue this, that it was my calling."
Did you face a lot of discrimination in those early days?
"I personally was never harassed. I had a lot of respect for my colleagues. I was very fortunate in that aspect, but I think it was because they saw that I could do the job. You don’t harass somebody that's making you look good. And so the only discrimination, really, was in pay and in assignments. And there were some odd rules at the AP, like women had to retire when they were 55, but men could work until they were 65. Pay was quite unequal. And so there was a big lawsuit. In the early 1970s, the women of the AP filed suit."
Were you part of the suit?
"All of the women were. But there were some named people who brought the lawsuit...none of them stayed very long afterwards. But they won. Finally [in 1973]...every woman in the AP was given money, depending on the term of [her] employment, and [we] were all allowed to retire the same time as the men. At the time, women at the AP were known as 'newsmen,' and that changed, too. So now, we were newswomen. But there were still very few of us."
Did you also have a family while you were doing all this? Is it tough to balance work and family when you're doing this kind of work?
"Other women have done it very successfully. I never married. I never had children. I have many, many friends. I have a godson who means the world to me. And I have a very full life, but it never included marriage. I think my relationships mostly broke up because of my work. Men were not interested in women who had to be away for five months at a time on a trial. You know, it was a little different."
You also covered the O.J. Simpson trial. Was that a watershed moment in America’s love affair with celebrities and reality TV?
"People said the O.J. Simpson trial was big because it was on television, but I don’t think so. O.J. Simpson was the most famous American ever charged with murder, ever. Even up until now...he was beloved by everyone. He was a national hero because of his football prowess, because of his persona; he was just so charismatic... He was also a black man who transcended race.
"And to have him arrested was like an insult to the nation. No one would believe it. And then the judge, Lance Ito, decided to allow the televising of the entire trial, gavel to gavel. That had never been done... Anytime you wanted, you could tune in and see the O.J. Simpson trial. People changed their work schedules so they could see this case. It became a national addiction.
"That was like the first reality TV show... And the judge, unfortunately, suffered from allowing it. Because he, too, was under the camera’s glare, and he was under scrutiny... And then, of course, because of the way it came out, and O.J. being acquitted, they blamed him."
Do you think he is guilty?
"I never made a decision. It’s not my job. My job is to tell the facts. And that's why, after the trial, O.J. called me and said he wanted to thank me for being fair to him, because I just reported the facts. That began a long conversation that lasted years. We talked on the phone all the time. Up until he just went to prison a few years ago, we were always in contact. And he always said he didn’t do it so, you know, I have reserved judgment."
What is your advice to young women who want to do work that is meaningful and in the public interest?
"My advice is to find out what your passion is. If your passion is journalism, it’s going to be a hard road. Journalism is not as accessible as it once was. The business is changing on a daily basis... You will have to be able to look at a career where you will never get rich, really, and you make those sacrifices because you know that there is nothing else you could do that would satisfy you as much. That’s the judging point.
"If there is something else that attracts you — if you think you could be a lawyer, if you think you could be a professor — and if that would give you as much satisfaction, then do it. Because it’s going to be hard to be a journalist. But if you feel there is nothing else that would make your life worthwhile, then go for it. Because if you can make yourself indispensable to a news organization, and show them how good you are, you’re going to do it."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.