Ronald J. Ostrow, deeply sourced Justice Dept. reporter for L.A. Times, dies at 89
By Matt Schudel,
Family photo Family photo
Ronald J. Ostrow, who helped with coverage of the Watergate break-in during the 1970s and the Iran-contra scandal a decade later during his long tenure covering the Justice Department in Washington for the Los Angeles Times, died June 14 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 89.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a cousin, Alan Levin.
Mr. Ostrow was known as a tenacious, if soft-spoken reporter who spent more than 30 years covering the Justice Department beginning in 1966, developing an unparalleled network of contacts throughout the agency.
“He got stories from the FBI and Justice that nobody else had,” William H. Webster, a former FBI and CIA director, told the Times in 2000. “You could trust him.”
Somewhat slight of stature and habitually wearing a bow tie, Mr. Ostrow had a friendly, almost professorial manner that helped him gain the confidence of the people he interviewed.
“He had sources at the Justice Department from clerks at the door to the attorney general,” said Richard Cooper, a former reporter and editor in the Times’s Washington bureau. “He was an extremely likable, nice guy. He just had friends everywhere.”
At a time when the L.A. Times had a major presence in Washington, with as many as 50 reporters and editors in the bureau, Mr. Ostrow stood out as one of the paper’s most diligent and respected journalists.
“He was the best beat reporter most of us have ever seen,” Doyle McManus, the Times’s current Washington bureau chief, said in an interview.
Mr. Ostrow helped lead the paper’s early coverage of the June 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex by operatives of President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign. He assisted investigative reporter Jack Nelson in securing an interview with Alfred Baldwin, who had tapped the committee’s telephones and acted as a lookout for the Watergate burglars.
In October 1972, Baldwin went on the record as one of the first named sources linking the Watergate break-in to Nixon’s reelection campaign committee. It was “perhaps the most important Watergate story so far,” author David Halberstam wrote in “The Powers That Be,” his 1979 book about journalism organizations, “because it was so tangible, it had an eyewitness, and it brought Watergate to the very door of the White House.”
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered much of the Watergate scandal, also praised Nelson’s and Mr. Ostrow’s work in their book “All the President’s Men”: “The Times’ interview with Baldwin had been the most vivid piece of journalism in the whole Watergate saga, definitively portraying the difference between a ‘third-rate burglary attempt’ and the brand of political gang warfare practiced by the President’s men.”
The Washington bureau chief of the Times, John F. Lawrence, was briefly jailed after refusing to turn over tapes of the Baldwin interview.
A year later, Mr. Ostrow covered the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired after demanding access to secret White House recordings. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his top deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned out of principle rather than obey the White House order to fire Cox.
During the 1980s, Mr. Ostrow covered the Iran-contra affair, in which the administration of President Ronald Reagan was embroiled in a complicated scheme to sell arms to Iran, in return for the release of U.S. prisoners, then using profits from the arms sales to fund anti-communist guerrilla groups in Nicaragua. All of the actions were illegal.
In 1987, Mr. Ostrow was among the first reporters to learn the identity of a new Supreme Court nominee, after Reagan’s first choices withdrew or were rejected. In a brief telephone conversation, in which he said little more than “uh-huh” and “okay,” Mr. Ostrow confirmed that the nominee would be California federal judge Anthony M. Kennedy.
Asked how he got the information, Mr. Ostrow mentioned that he had known a parking attendant at the Justice Department for years. As the attendant gained more seniority, he had access to the department’s logbook, which had been signed by Kennedy.
An undated photo of Ronald J. Ostrow early in his career.
Ronald Jay Ostrow was born Aug. 23, 1931, in San Francisco. His father sold gloves and other apparel, his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Ostrow graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1953 and served in the Army before beginning his career in California with the Wall Street Journal and Business Week. He joined the Los Angeles Times as a business reporter in 1962, then moved to the Washington bureau four years later.
“After reading [Ben] Hecht and [Charles] MacArthur’s ‘Front Page’ at a formative, preteen age,” Mr. Ostrow told the reference work “Contemporary Authors,” “I never wanted to do anything but be a newspaper reporter.”
He won a Nieman fellowship to Harvard University in 1964-65 and was the co-author of two books, “The FBI and the Berrigans: The Making of a Conspiracy” (1972), written with Nelson about FBI investigations of anti-Vietnam War activists; and “Taking Care of the Law” (1982), with former attorney general Griffin B. Bell. Mr. Ostrow retired in 2000.
His marriage to the former Patricia Curran ended in divorce. Their 14-year-old daughter, Kathryn, died in 1977 of cystic fibrosis.
Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Alyce Kelly Ostrow of Chevy Chase; two stepdaughters, Kalin Hyman of Brinklow, Md. and Alison Auerbach of Washington; a stepbrother; and four grandchildren.
McManus, who has worked in the L.A. Times Washington bureau since 1983, recalled that Mr. Ostrow would sometimes try to cajole information from his sources by saying, “You know, my job is on the line here.”
“Then the source would answer,” McManus recalled, “ ‘Ron, you’ve used that line on me a dozen times, and they haven’t fired you yet.’ ”
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