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In the eye of the storm over Morton Downey Jr.

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Reader’s Digest used to have a monthly feature in which people would write about the most unforgettable character they ever met. I was reminded of that last week with the passing of Morton Downey Jr. from lung cancer at age 67.
In fact, I never met Mr. Downey, but I was involved with him in one of the most unforgettable incidents I’ve ever covered, and certainly the most bizarre.
Mr. Downey was a video shock jock before the term was invented. In the tradition of TV pioneer Joe Pyne, Mr. Downey’s talk show featured him insulting his guests as he puffed incessantly on cigarette after cigarette, blowing smoke in their faces.
On April 25, 1989, shortly after I arrived at my office at the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was the TV reporter, I picked up the competing daily, the San Francisco Examiner, and almost choked on my morning croissant.
According to the Examiner, Mr. Downey-who had been in town promoting his show-was attacked by skinheads in a restroom at the San Francisco International Airport at 11:25 p.m. the night before. They beat him up, chopped his hair with scissors and drew swastikas on his face and clothes, Mr. Downey asserted.
He said the skinheads-young white supremacists-may have wanted to attack him because he had criticized them on his show. He said one of the skinheads said to him, as he was attacked, “Now it’s our turn to take you apart. Heil, Hitler.”
I couldn’t believe I had missed this big story-and neither could my editors. Embarrassed, I dutifully-and unenthusiastically-went about writing a perfunctory follow-up piece.
As I was about halfway into writing my story, one of the guys in the composing room-where the story would actually be placed in the paper-came running up to me holding the picture we were going to run with the story. It was a photo of Downey with the swastika drawn on his face. I glanced at it and said, “Yeah, so what?”
“Look closely,” he said, excitedly. “It’s drawn backward, as if you were looking in a mirror and were to draw a swastika on your face.”
Hello! Now there’s an angle. I contacted the San Francisco airport police, who had investigated the incident. They were already skeptical about Mr. Downey’s account of the attack, and soon they were labeling it a hoax.
The incident made national news. The following week Mr. Downey’s attack was the only subject on Phil Donahue’s hour-long talk show.
Mr. Downey was live, in-studio, in New York. Mr. Donahue asked me to question Mr. Downey via phone from my office in San Francisco. I asked why the swastika on his face had been drawn backward, as if he had looked into a mirror and drawn it himself.
Mr. Downey’s reply seemed a non sequitur: “I finally asked that question of Jim Gabbert.”
Mr. Gabbert was the owner of the San Francisco independent UHF TV station that aired Mr. Downey’s show, and just before he had gone to the San Francisco Airport, Mr. Downey had been partying on Mr. Gabbert’s yacht.
Continuing his answer on “Donahue,” Mr. Downey said, “[Gabbert] handed out 30 pieces of paper to employees. Fifteen drew [a swastika] one way, 15 drew it another way.”
Mr. Donahue was pretty soft on Mr. Downey, at one point saying that “serious media folk” had “run out of adjectives to condemn Brother Downey.”
And Mr. Downey insisted the incident was no hoax. “If I’m lying, I’m obviously already in mental jeopardy and need a rubber room,” he told Mr. Donahue.
Despite all of the publicity, Downey’s show, which, coincidentally, was premiering on Mr. Gabbert’s station the night of the incident, drew a dismal average rating of 0.85 its first week. Even reruns of the 30-year-old “Perry Mason,” also broadcast by Mr. Gabbert’s station, did better.
Five months later, Mr. Downey’s show was off the air in San Francisco and everywhere else.
Upon hearing of Mr. Downey’s death, I called Mr. Gabbert, who sold the station a few years ago and is now retired and living in Florida.
“I was never able to prove it, but I’m sure it was a hoax,” he said of the incident.
Asked to recount what he liked about Mr. Downey, Mr. Gabbert said, “Well, he didn’t really have too many redeeming qualities. But you know, his dad was a famous Irish tenor. That night on my boat Mort sang some songs. He was a damn fine musician.”