Appreciation: Tony Valdez, trailblazing Latino news reporter with an encyclopedic knowledge of L.A.
In the fall of 2021, Tony Valdez visited the East Los Angeles College newsroom, carrying envelopes stamped with his organization's emblem. He stood before a group of student journalists eager to be like him.
As chairman of the 8 Ball Emergency Fund for Journalists, Valdez explained its mission to financially support working professionals. Layoffs, low pay and furloughs amid the COVID-19 pandemic — the former KTTV-TV Channel 11 broadcaster knew first-hand how grueling the industry could be.
Valdez was a local broadcast news legend, respected by viewers and peers alike for covering crime and for his encyclopedic knowledge of the city. The Mexican Filipino reporter lacked the typical journalism credentials to break into the business, but proved that infinite curiosity and insatiable doggedness were more than enough to thrive in the industry. He took pride in his heritage and told stories through a cultural prism, believing L.A.’s multiethnic communities deserved to be informed.
That day in the East L.A. College newsroom, though, he was there to help fellow journalists. Valdez explained that the 8 Ball board distributed grants to student journalists if funds remained, though it wasn't frequent. But that day, four students would receive $250 each. He pulled $100 bills from his wallet to add to each envelope.
It was the first time some had ever received such help.
"I was excited, felt supported by the community," said Teresa Acosta, the managing editor of Campus News newspaper, who plans to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona at the end of spring. "He was a really warm person. He didn't feel removed or like he was this celebrity, even though I had been watching him for a long time."
Those in Valdez’s circle knew how seriously he took his role as a leader.
"I think he saw himself giving a boost to kids who were in the situation he was in 60 years ago," said Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times reporter and fellow 8 Ball board member. "He thought these young people needed that boost and needed to be told they deserved it, and that it was going to make a difference in their lives."
"He knew what it was like to be poor," said Bob Tarlau, former senior news producer at KTTV. "He knew what it was like to struggle. He knew what it was like to be a minority. And those things forged a fire in him that never died."
A mentor to many, Valdez died May 4 of kidney failure in his Hollywood home, said his son, Steve Valdez. He was 78.
Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1944 to a homemaker and blue-collar father, Valdez gravitated toward journalism since he was boy. He enjoyed lingering around the old L.A. Herald Examiner building and treated the Central Library's children's section as a shrine. As a Bell Gardens High School student, he delved into photography and would occasionally emcee and DJ during lunch or at dances.
He took some courses at Los Angeles City College, but found himself working at a local record store, where he made a name for himself in the East L.A. music scene. By the mid-1960s, he was serving in Vietnam after being drafted by the U.S. Army. He lived in Fort Bliss, Texas where he met his future wife.
The couple returned to the Golden State where Valdez worked as a copywriter for a small advertising agency. He took on freelance assignments to bring in extra cash. The way he would tell his family years later, a KTLA -TV Channel 5 employee invited him off the street to work for the station on an as-needed basis, even though he didn't have a journalism degree. By 1978, Valdez accepted a full-time job with the company.
"The talent was there, but he didn't really know what to do with that talent," Steve Valdez said. "But on some level, he was impressing people with freelance pieces that he may have been doing."
That job didn't last long, and the newly divorced father briefly wrote for La Opinión, relying on the Spanish he learned while living in East L.A., and then worked a stint with KCET-TV Channel 28. Then came a freelance offer from KTTV in 1981 that turned Valdez into a household name.
He led "Tony's L.A.", highlighting L.A. County's hidden secrets. He hosted "Midday Sunday" and co-anchored the 10 p.m. news with Christine Devine. Throughout his tenure, the station gave him leeway to tell in-depth stories on historic L.A. events such as the Watts Riots.
But the reporter’s specialty was crime. His crime segment "L.A.'s Most Wanted," ran for 27 years and spotlighted cases, featuring law enforcement officials recounting events. Viewers were encouraged to play detective and call in with any tips. He enjoyed the challenge of trying to make sense of murder and mayhem. Steve Valdez said his father had the “time of his life” covering Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker" serial killer who terrorized California with a spate of break-in murders in the 1980s.
Accolades soon followed in the form of Emmys and awards from the Los Angeles Press Club. With a steady paycheck, Valdez purchased his prized 1985 Honda Prelude.
Valdez credited his upbringing, living in a housing project and being surrounded by L.A.’s rich multiethnic community with shaping how he approached stories.
Longtime colleague Tarlau said Valdez was a “dynamite” reporter and the best at winging pursuits because of his vast knowledge of L.A. If a pursuit cut through Boyle Heights, Valdez could talk about the neighborhood’s background and say where the driver could turn or pinpoint the nearest offramp.
Like any good reporter, the veteran was a stickler for accuracy and called it out.
In 1991, he wrote a letter to the editor in response to a Los Angeles Times’ “L.A. Speak” column, chastising the paper for incorrectly using Spanish "gang jargon." "Please let me emphasize that these are not criticisms of the piece but rather an effort to be factual," he wrote.
The day Pelé died in 2022, Valdez chastised broadcasters who mispronounced the professional soccer player's name. He wrote on his Facebook: "Note to news broadcasters in the USA: there's an accent mark over the second 'e' in Pelé's name because it is supposed to be pronounced 'pay-LAY.' All the reports of his passing I heard today pronounced it incorrectly as 'PAY-lay' except for the Spanish, Korean and Armenian newscasts along with CNN and the BBC where they got it right."
Longtime followers of Valdez shared their memories of the broadcaster on Devine’s Facebook post. Some described the newsman as a "truth seeking bulldog" and as the "human Thomas Guide, which I suppose would be today's version of the human Waze."
"He knew every street in LA and didn't need a map to get around, either on paper or a phone," commented Pat Anson on Devine's post. "Behind the gruff exterior was a guy who would always go to bat for a colleague on a union issue and quietly bought Thanksgiving dinner for everyone working that day when the company stopped doing it."
Despite his success and love for telling stories, the job slowly turned into a grind. A few years before his father retired in 2016, Steve Valdez said, their weekly lunches changed. Conversations no longer focused on his dad's latest story, but on the duties he had to fulfill as a union shop steward.
“He always loved the news, but he hated the business,” Steve Valdez said.
His time as a volunteer docent for the Los Angeles Conservancy helped alleviate the grind from his main job, such as the Union Station tours he led.
Valdez remained busy in retirement, holding various positions with the 8 Ball board and going on early morning drives to shoot photos of his beloved L.A. He loved sharing stories of his time in the business with his grandchildren.
Although he was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic, he had a penchant for oysters and loved eating at King Taco and dining at classic Hollywood eateries such as Musso & Frank Grill.
On his final segment for KTTV, Valdez reflected on his time in the industry before affirmative action or equal opportunity laws were enacted.
“I never gave up and I kept trying,” he told Devine. “Every time I failed, I tried to learn something from that experience and keep going.”
Valdez is survived by his son Steve, daughters Mariana Micheli and Paola Micheli, and three grandchildren.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.