McGaffin was born in Mt. Vernon, NY and grew up in Elmsford, NY. At 17 he joined the Marines to fight in WW II and served as pilot in the Koran War. Twice, planes he was in were shot down and he survived. He attended Cornell University and graduated from Davis & Elkins College in Elkin WV. He received his masters in journalism from Columbia University School of Journalism.
McGaffin started his journalism career at the Schenectady Gazette, moving west to the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1957. He was the bureau chief at the Riverside Press-Enterprise for five years and then the editor of the Corona Daily Independent.
In 1963 McGaffin went to the San Jose Mercury-News where he entered television, becoming the news director and anchor of KNTV. In 1967 he moved to Sacramento as bureau chief for San Francisco KPIX. In 1968 he came to Seattle where he worked at ABC affiliate KOMO-TV.
Two years later McGaffin found himself enjoying carte blanche reporting during the heyday of news with the Seattle flagship media empire, KING-TV.
KING-TV was run with an iron fist by Dorothy Bullitt, a known nonconformist at the time, a woman in a male dominated business. It was at KING-TV where McGaffin contributed to the station’s fearless reputation of high journalistic standards breaking national news, investigative reporting and documentary work.
McGaffin’s career saw 35 awards including 14 Emmys. Notable were an interview with Richard Nixon, “Young, Black and Explosive” – the exposure of corruption in the Seattle Police Department, “Poor El Salvador,” “The Buck Stops Here” “Catch 33”- about the capturing of Orca whales for aquariums, “The Burned Child” exposing the flammability of children’s clothes, the later winning 5 national awards.
Don McGaffin rarely left any one person with a milquetoast impression. Where he evoked fierce loyalty in many; his fearless manner induced absolute terror in others (especially those who had something to hide).
McGaffin had a reputation that preceded him. He was the absolute investigative reporter. He lived it. He ate it. He slept it. His life at KING-TV was replete with stories of his pot stirring and prankster antics. Hardly any of them were absent a hearty laugh before the end of the story. Unless, of course you had the misfortune to be the corruption he uncovered, day after day, week after week. His professional ethics carved a standard in journalism history. Today few are fortunate to have the opportunity to emulate and master these standards.
In the early 1970’s McGaffin got on the air in his usual spot and read the names of people who were paying Seattle Police to let them illegally gamble. It was simple. It was clear. It was factual. It created a series of events that led to a huge scandal and a much needed clean up of the entire Seattle Police department and its reputed payoff system.
In the mist of the scandal two hooded police officers surprised McGaffin late one night in KOMO-TV’s parking lot – their intent - to permanently convince McGaffin to end his investigation.
A major scuffle ensued. McGaffin was a boxer in his day. He always said, “My dad taught me when you’re going down to drop and roll.” And roll he did under the nearest car just as one of the men was in full kick at McGaffin’s head. The sound of bone breaking as it hit the running board of the car was clear for all those present. The perpetrators were easy to find.
McGaffin was destined to meet his attackers the next day in his employer’s office where they begged him not to file charges… In true McGaffin style he said, “Are you kidding? You tried to kill me last night. (Meaningful expletive)--- you.” McGaffin never backed off of a good rumble.
Within another year or so, after the police chief had been replaced with someone who was supposed to clean up the gambling issue, McGaffin found a list of people who were spied on by the new chief. McGaffin went right on the air and read the list of citizens on the air. All of them were honest citizens tailed at the behest of the new chief. The list included the then current Mayor Wes Uhlman and his staff, another reporter and Don McGaffin.
It is amazing how the simplicity of reporting facts could be so effective to clean up those who operate beneath the radar. “Don’t try to make it pretty,” he was known to mentor other reporters, “Just SAY it.”
McGaffin had one other quality that made him dangerous. There was no price that could buy him. He reported the facts, he busted bad guys and he documented every single piece of it….on the air. In his day this meant doing research sometimes for months, sometimes years. If McGaffin was anything it was tenacious.
The newsroom circles were full of stories about McGaffin. There were the typical boisterous pre-game newscasts rituals where the brave would loudly argue current events and politics have one last smoke and an occasional taste of Wild Turkey in McGaffin’s small office prior to airtime.
It wasn’t just the brave who got his attention either. McGaffin didn’t hesitate to leave anyone out including the secretaries where often he would exclaim noisily that the brownies they brought to work were made specifically for him - which endeared him to every secretary who brought them. One thing for sure, he knew no boundaries.
If you were one honored enough to be part of McGaffin’s motley circle of friends, undoubtedly you would have a story or two or three about him that would rival the next…all of them full of trouble, adventure and entertainment. None of them were without a twist of McGaffin wit, style and sagacious wisdom. With McGaffin nothing was ever dull or easy, unless it was when he was up to one of his usual prankster rights of passage, which seemed to weave its way throughout his daily life …and any unsuspecting soul who may have found himself part of his next foray.
When President Nixon came to town attempting to find a safe haven on a cross country campaign meeting with local reporters, McGaffin was the local reporter selected to interview him. It was 1972 and Nixon had been uneasily twisting in the press. The resulting on air debate is famous to this day. It enraged Nixon to the point of storming out of KOMO TV news station where he took out his anger by kicking every tire on his limousine before he got inside.
McGaffin’s trophy of the event was a framed photo of Nixon and McGaffin on air – with a bubble asking, “Would you buy a used car from either of these men?”
Although he was the master he truly touched anyone who strived to be a true consumer advocate or writer. He knew no social barriers. He was passionate about people. He did things because it was the right thing to do. He was driven to see that news groups produced quality journalism. He was interested in all. This is how he applied his belief that the press was so important to our nation’s communication ecosystem. This is how I came upon the man - the investigative journalist - Don McGaffin.
How I met McGaffin- I was a worldly 19 years of age and a young college coed working my way through school. I had just signed on as a volunteer to help exercise horses at the Seattle Police Department’s Horse Patrol. It was not too long before I began to understand things were not so right up at the SPD Horse Patrol. I was too young to understand the significance of some of the paperwork scandal but I certainly and clearly understood one thing, some of the horses were being abused – terribly beaten by one superior officer.
I also knew if I were to complain to anyone in a male dominated military world such as a police department at that time, it would be unlikely that anyone would take me seriously. I was, after all, pretty much the embodiment of Ted Bundy bait. In the early 70’s it was often that men did not take women seriously.
So after I had documented the horrific injuries on high definition kodachrome film, I made a call to KING-TV. The news director I spoke to ran the gauntlet of tests on my phone call attempting to get me to spill the beans but I persevered and insisted on speaking to someone in person.
In an hour, I was meeting Mr. Don McGaffin at one of the school parking lots and on my way to a high end restaurant on Lake Union known as Jack McGovern’s. McGaffin had been pulled out of the middle of a golf game (a sport he dearly loved and participated as often as humanly possible).
I was very nervous. They had sent the guy who broke the Seattle Police Department payoff system. This was big time. It took three drinks for me to calm down enough to talk. Finally I was able utter words. McGaffin waited.
The first thing I requested was that none of the other officers were to be harmed. McGaffin was kind and patient (the patience part -a trait - as I soon would learn must have been difficult for him). He promised he would not put anything on the air without my reviewing it first and he promised he would protect the other police officers as he could.
The next months were a whir of scandal. McGaffin made one phone call inquiring about the horse patrol and the police department went into a tailspin. Internal panic resulted within the department.
“What does McGaffin know?” was the cry that could be heard as far away as Tacoma. “Hey you Estenberg! What’s going on up there at the horse patrol?” an officer shared with me later.
An investigation was initiated immediately. Soon I found myself in McGaffin’s Mini Cooper with a British flag painted on the roof roaring downtown at no less than 60 miles an hour. As we pulled into the police department’s parking garage, McGaffin parked in a spot marked for someone else (as if he owned it himself) and we walked to the elevator.
“Don’t talk too much – be polite,” he instructed me, “Just smile and let me do the talking.” I was hoping the terror of the road trip down fifth avenue didn’t show too much as I accompanied him up the elevator to the chief of police’s office.
When we got to the chief’s office, I was introduced and offered a chair where I gladly sat down. McGaffin did the talking with a few calculated moments where I was to answer a few questions with a “yes” or a “no” and the occasional “uh huh” and I of course smiled nicely.
All this took maybe five minutes and McGaffin and I were down the elevator to his car again. Once we settled in the car I thought McGaffin was going to have a fit. “Did you see the look on his face when I walked in with you?” He chortled, “I thought he was going to have heart failure! You did good kid. You did good.”
I couldn’t help but notice that McGaffin was exactly right. It took the police department less than two months to clean up the corruption in the horse patrol. McGaffin tried to get footage of the guy who beat the horses but he never had another opportunity because the abuser was dismissed shortly after. The sergeant who protected him was transferred to a desk job in traffic division for the remainder of his five years until retirement. He kept complaining about that B---h that turned him in.
The officers I had wanted to protect were left unscathed by the ordeal and I learned to write effective letters with McGaffin’s tutelage and oversight.
I appeared in front of the Animal Control Committee and told my story. It was very interesting. When I got done describing all of what I knew (there was much more than just the beatings), I concluded with, “I have pictures, would you like to see them?”
They didn’t think that would be necessary and allocated enough funds (it was a lot) to quietly clean it all up. And indeed they did. They did such a good job McGaffin never did a story. McGaffin was good to his word at least until the City Council decided to stop funding the horse patrol and shut it down a year later. Then McGaffin did a story. It was about me and everything I did to save the horses. The City Council decided to reconsider after the story aired and the horse patrol was saved again, this time in public.
That was the beginning of our friendship, McGaffin and I. I was kind of an outsider to his regular group of peers and friends since I didn’t report in front of a news camera. It was for no lack of consumer advocacy but I suppose I was his own little secret.
Often in those early years, I would find myself helping him research and investigating various topics and stories. He knew I was attracted to investigative reporting and suggested often that I change my major to communication to become a journalist. At some level I didn’t believe I was good enough but he never gave up teaching me. For 32 years he taught me. Sometimes I didn’t know it but he was always teaching me.
It was 20 years into our friendship when McGaffin came back from El Salvador and told me the CIA was selling arms to the contras. McGaffin told me, and my children, about how he and his cameraman were captured, held captive and how they escaped. I knew this was important but could not fathom the immense ramifications of the event. It was two years before this information was well known and in the press. I never tired of hearing his stories. McGaffin was an amazing story teller.
He always told me that he would never go to work in Washington DC. He said it was too controlled. Breaking news, he said, always broke out of Seattle. I never knew exactly what he meant by that until I decided to do my own documentary on an issue in Washington DC. It involved covering congressional public hearings in a public hearing room.
I went through my due diligence to get press credentials for the first hearing. This I was denied. I was told that if I inasmuchas blinked a camera lens, it would be confiscated immediately and I would be thrown out. I thought – well, I really don’t have a reputation as yet nor had I produced a documentary yet so I quietly conceded at the time.
The next trip I took to DC, I REALLY did my due diligence to get press credentials.
Not only did it not happen but I was told it would never happen.
Was this because I had a criminal background? No. Was it because I failed to do something in the application process? No. It was because this is the way it has been done since 1970 and if you do not work for a large media group or you do not live in Washington DC (and even living there may not make it happen) your request would never see the light of day.
I have shared this story with numerous reporters (including McGaffin) in mainstream broadcasting and they were shocked. When you think about it, how would they know? After all, mainstream broadcasting always gets free rein including press passes because they are with large corporate news groups. It is just assumed all reporters get press credentials. This is not the case.
When it happened to me, I was horrified. I literally went down the hall in the Congressional Rayburn building and retched. This was by definition a clear first amendment violation of freedom of the press by my own government.
It was an interesting phenomenon that as my life developed I became quite well schooled in the art of business, ultimately becoming a fairly accomplished financial consultant and entrepreneur. This is interesting because as I would voraciously consume my next advocacy challenge I could always hear McGaffin tell me, “Just follow the money Honey. Just follow the money.” And indeed, upon investigation and without fail, I would always find the source of a problem usually with an accompanying conflict of interest.
Of the many things McGaffin taught me was how important the business of journalism is. He used to tell me that if the news media ever failed to investigate and report the facts to the public the nation as we know it would most certainly fail. That news is really the voice of the majority who do not have lobbyists, an organized national committee or corporate funds to pay for marketing. What they do have is the right to vote but if their information conduit fails them they are left twisting in the wind.
Our communication system is based on an ecosystem of sorts where as long as there is the check and balance of consequence then everything would tend to stay in balance. I always understood the concept but I never really believed the news and journalism could be undermined. I was young and naďve - and wrong. He was right.
It is interesting how the consumer is responding to the lack of credibility in mainstream journalism. Traditional and mainstream media have almost overnight lost 60% of their audiences. They report the reasons as this and that and occasionally they mention it is the public’s sense of lack of credibility. The information starved consumer is turning to the internet for information and mainstream media is going right there with them attempting to regain their audiences.
But there is something on the internet that is a fierce competitor of mainstream media and their millions of corporate marketing dollars. Now there are members of the public who are now on a level playing field. Anyone can put information up on the internet with very little in the way of capital. The consumer is making change with their purchasing dollar…again.
Not long ago McGaffin told me, as I was groaning on about how corrupt things appeared to be, “Honey – they’ve been moving their people in place for thirty years. Now we can finally see them in the open.” I do hope that the consumer market succeeds in making that change.
In his last 19 years McGaffin was robbed of his speech and ability to walk due to several strokes. He was well known as a scrapper and he always got up from a fight. The strokes were no different. He fought back, recovered his speech and his zest for politics with both strokes. When he recovered from his first stroke and was again able, I vowed there would never be long silences between our visits.
One day not too long ago I arrived at McGaffin’s full of anticipation. I had the raw cut of my documentary and he didn’t know anything about it. I told him I had a surprise for him that I wanted him to watch. I briefly explained what it was. I warned him that it was totally beer budget. He understood and was ready to watch it.
I cued up the tape and started it for his viewing, I watched him
closely. He watched the 40-minute piece silently, moving only to shift
his weight from time to time. As it came to an end, he quietly
straightened up, squinted his eyes at me (as he was prone to do when he
was particularly interested in something) and he said sternly, “Who
| McGaffin was a regular with my family and friends. He was a
lover of children and helped guide
mine. He always attended birthday
parties and personal gatherings. He never hesitated to rush to my aid
and defend my name in times of need. Both my children grew up with him
in their lives and each was honored to a special event with McGaffin for
their graduations. He was deeply loved by us all.
My dear friend and mentor Don McGaffin passed away May 29, 2005. I miss him. But he will not be forgotten.
During the time that UnInformed Consent was evolving into its own, McGaffin enjoyed consulting and advising us on many occasions. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more actually – him or me. I, as well as my children, the friends and relatives who were honored to know and learn from him watched in amazement as he battled each day with his disabilities never letting it get the better of him. He was truly an inspiration for all that we can be.
| It was a strange twist of irony that Washington Post Bernstein and
Woodward’s “Deep Throat”, the secret source in Watergate scandal, one of
the most famous journalistic mysteries of the century that destroyed
Richard Nixon, revealed himself just a few days after McGaffin’s death.
Rumor has it that if all the bets were called - McGaffin would have won
a tidy sum.
So here’s to you Donald E. McGaffin – my friend – UnInformed Consent is dedicated to you, your ethics and your tough and gritty style. You will always fly with us.
UnInformed Consent will forever and always be committed to report the truth and fight injustice.
We hereby dedicate the word “McGaffinize” to mean: