Surrounded by piles of folders containing government documents and newspaper articles which line his home, Karl Grossman described his foray into investigative journalism as a “corny story,” but one that set the tone for his long and accomplished career.
To celebrate his 50 years of being a reporter on Long Island, Mr. Grossman, who is a journalism professor at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, will reflect at Canio’s Books on Saturday on his “corny story,” and his many efforts to expose the truth as an investigative reporter.
In 1960, Mr. Grossman was required to take on an internship as part of the curriculum at Antioch College in Ohio. Planning to become a professor of sociology, he decided to intern as a copy boy at the Cleveland Press, a Scripps-Howard newspaper. It was on his first day when he laid eyes upon the motto engraved into the granite of the newspaper building that he’d come to adopt as his own: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
With no practical experience, the New York City-bred intern was responsible for the menial tasks of manning the phones and relaying “horror stories” to reporters.
“They were tales of inequity, injustice and unfairness,” he said amid the evidence of 50 years of research in his Noyac home. “After these articles were developed, half of the time there were resolutions. It fixed the problem. I thought it was the neatest thing in the world. You could go and expose some situation that was so wrong and see how fluid the U.S. democracy is … enough to allow the public to be made aware and respond to what they read.”
To Mr. Grossman, who was then 18 years old, the act of digging for answers and presenting them to the public was an attractive career choice. It was a way to shed light and inform the public of misdeeds or cloudy agendas and facilitate some kind of solution. “That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole professional life,” he said.
Shortly after deciding that he wanted to join the pencil-toting army of reporters, he moved back to New York and started New Voice, a student newspaper at Adelphi Suffolk College in Oakdale, now Dowling College. At the end of his spring semester in 1962, Mr. Grossman answered an advertisement in The New York Times for a reporter position at the Babylon Town Leader and got the job.
Immediately, he was thrown headfirst into controversy.
City planner Robert Moses, who was largely responsible for such projects as the Triborough Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the Long Island parkway system, quickly became Mr. Grossman’s focus when he proposed building a four-lane highway on Fire Island. It was Mr. Grossman’s assignment to write a story about the possible damaging consequences of building a highway on the barrier beach, and the advantages of creating a protected seashore. The Babylon Town Leader editorially called for the creation of the Fire Island National Seashore. Due in large part to Mr. Grossman’s work, Mr. Moses’s push for the highway was denied when the Fire Island National Seashore was created in 1964.
Mr. Grossman said that not long after his work was published, he lost his job because of Mr. Moses’s powerful influence.
“The executive vice president of the newspaper chain calls me in and says, ‘Mr. Moses is very mad at you—you’re fired,’” Mr. Grossman recalled. The Town Leader had recently been bought out, and Mr. Grossman had no one to back him up. As the head of various agencies, Mr. Moses had a lot of strings he could pull—and cut, according to Mr. Grossman.
Despite the loss, Mr. Grossman was able to witness the resolution to a problem, just like he saw during his internship. It began what would be a long road as an investigative journalist.
He later went to work for the daily Long Island Press, where he exposed and helped to stop a huge sand mining operation in Jamesport run by entrepreneur George Semerjian, and broke the news of the oil industry’s plans to drill off Long Island and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.
Truly an environmentalist, Mr. Grossman found his niche when he wrote about the Long Island Lighting Company’s plans to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants in Suffolk County, beginning in Shoreham. He also discovered that high radioactivity found in the Peconic River was caused by a leak from Brookhaven National Laboratory and not by fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Nevada, as was previously thought. Even though the Long Island Press folded in 1977, Mr. Grossman has continuously published his work in many Suffolk County weeklies, including The Southampton Press. He also shifted into TV news as host of “Long Island World” on WLIW-TV and as a night anchor and investigative reporter for WSNL-TV.