It seems that everyone in The City has a story about Warren Hinckle, the hard-charging muckraking journalist who died last month at 77.
There is no shortage of material. The self-described “unreasonable” reporter with a notebook in one hand, a drink in the other and a patch over one eye made an indelible impression on everyone who encountered him. But the impact of his work was even greater.
Beyond the easily caricatured image, Hinckle was a man of strong convictions and a deep sense of social justice. He was genuine, selfless and dedicated to fighting on behalf of the poor and the powerless. An oft-quoted line about the role of journalism applied to Hinckle better than to any other reporter I’ve known in my 40 years of activism: His job was to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Hinckle himself put it another way. It was the job of the press, he said, to be unreasonable.
“Being unreasonable means being mean and persistent about the truth,” Hinckle said. “It means more than merely telling the truth. It means screaming like hell.”
Obituaries and remembrances over the past week have recounted some of his best-known bouts of unreasonableness in the service of truth — from railing against the Vietnam War to exposing corrupt CIA operations. These were big fights, on a national and even international level. But Hinckle fought just as fiercely in smaller battles here at home. He screamed just as loudly on behalf of the Bay Area’s poor and underprivileged, and I was fortunate enough to witness some of his greatest moments.
When a for-profit corporation was bleeding Oakland Hospital dry in the mid-’80s, Hinckle strode righteously into the fray. As striking caregivers picketed the hospital to protest the corporation’s drastic budget cuts and their dire impacts on patients, a cab pulled up and out stepped Hinckle, like a warrior proudly entering the arena. He walked right through the picket line and into the hospital. Under the false pretense of writing a business-friendly story, Hinckle ambushed the hospital’s administrator and subjected him to an almost metronomic barrage of demanding questions.
He was brazen, intimidating and ruthless — he had the truth on his side and he knew it and he would not let up until that hapless, empty suit either acknowledged his guilt or wilted under Hinckle’s scrutiny.
After walking the picket line and talking to caregivers and community supporters, Hinckle wrote the story up in his inimitable style and presented the truth of the Oakland Hospital strike in no uncertain terms: As a direct result of corporate greed, Oakland patients were suffering, and East Oakland caregivers were struggling to make ends meet as their wages lagged far behind those of their Kaiser and San Francisco General counterparts.
Hinckle didn’t qualify it, didn’t soft-pedal it — he just told it as it was, and public opinion followed closely behind, bringing the strike to a quick and successful conclusion.
In the late ’90s, Hinckle took up the cause of Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, the country’s largest skilled nursing facility, which had cared for The City’s elderly since the 1860s, when the Gold Rush generation reached their golden years.
The hospital was facing closure due to deteriorating conditions when Hinckle banded with other notable San Franciscans — political consultant Jack Davis, Independent publisher Ted Fang and Public Health Department Director Dr. Mitchell Katz, among others — to mount an ambitious public awareness and voter education campaign with the goal of raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new state-of-the-art facility.
Against all odds and in defiance of a chorus of vocal critics, they succeeded: San Francisco voters approved a $400 million construction project and a revitalized Laguna Honda reopened in 2010.
Hinckle was fearless, driven, passionate and, like so many of the great figures in San Francisco history, outsized and outrageous. But the man I knew always had the truth in his sights and the community in his heart.
Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and a longtime San Francisco resident.