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Paynesville Press - May 5, 2004

PAHS grad makes good as television journalist

By Michael Jacobson

George McGovern runs for president in 1972...

Ronald Reagan is inaugurated in 1980...

American hostages return from Iran to Andrews Air Force Base in 1981...

Rodney King is beaten by four police officers on a L.A. freeway in 1991...

Riots occur in Los Angeles after the police officers are acquitted of beating King in 1992...

Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman are murdered in Los Angeles in June 1994...

Police chase O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco...

O.J. is accused of the murder of his ex-wife and Goldman in "The Trial of the Century"...

Californians recall Gov. Gray Davis and elect actor Arnold Schwarzenegger governor in 2003...

ron olson Covering all these events for television was Paynesville native Ron Olsen, a 1966 PHS grad.

Ron Olsen has been a television news reporter in Los Angeles since 1982 where he has covered the Rodney King incident, the O.J. Simpson trial, and earthquakes, wildfires, riots, and other news stories.

Thirty-five years as a journalist have taken Olsen from the University of Minnesota to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Boise, Idaho, to Columbus, Ohio, to Pittsburgh, to Baltimore, and finally to Los Angeles, where he has worked as a television reporter and anchor since 1982.

Olsen has appeared as an update anchor on ABC's "World News Tonight," hosted talk shows, discussed the O.J. Simpson case on CNN and Italian television, appeared in a Columbo movie, and covered news from the trial of Snoop Doggy Dog to California wildfires and earthquakes.

After three decades in the business, Olsen still believes journalism is important. "Journalism has been called a 'first rough draft of history.' An accurate accounting is critical to the survival of our republic," said Olsen. "I think I was attracted to journalism because essentially it is a search for the truth - a truth without which a free nation cannot survive. Journalism matters. Good journalism is the enemy of deceit, and that, I continue to believe, is a battle worth waging."

Climbing the Ladder
"For me, everything started in Paynesville," said Olsen, the son of Dr. Bob and the late Ramona Olsen of Paynesville. He was called Rondo in school, but now is known as Ron. "The education I received at the Paynesville Area Schools has been the foundation for all I have done and a few things I still hope to do."

At Paynesville High School, Olsen served as a reporter for the high school newspaper and as editor of the yearbook. He was a member of the varsity debate team; participated in speech; belonged to the photography club; played roles in drama productions, including leading roles in two plays; was selected for the All State Choir; lettered in football and track; helped set a school record in the mile relay; and was a finalist for Homecoming king.

After graduating, he attended Bemidji State University and then transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he started working in journalism, first on the campus radio station. In 1968, while still a university student, he landed a job as floor director at KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities. "It wasn't what I wanted," recalled Olsen, "but it was the only entry-level position I could get at the time. I just wanted to get a foot in the door at a commercial television station."

After graduating from the U of M, Olsen worked at KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, KBOI-TV in Boise, WBNS-TV in Columbus, KDKA-TV in Pitts-burgh, WMAR-TV in Baltimore, and KABC-TV, KHJ-TV, and KTLA-TV in Los Angeles.

While in Los Angeles, Olsen has covered celebrity trials (Snoop Doggy Dog, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and John DeLorean in addition to the trials of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, which was his beat for 16 months); drug-related mass murders in Mexico; riots, earthquakes, and wildfires; and other breaking news.

He currently works as the principle reporter for the convergence project for KTLA and the Los Angeles Times, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper. Since both are owned by the Tribune Company, Olsen takes a newspaper story each afternoon and by interviewing the journalists, etc., turns it into a television story for the nightly news.

Olsen and his wife, Karen, live in Sherman Oaks, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.

In his career, Olsen has won numerous journalistic awards, the most prestigious are the Peabody Award, the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, and two Emmys.

Olsen was part of a five-member reporting team that broke the coverage of the Rodney King incident, covered the riots in Los Angeles when the police officers accused of beating him were originally acquitted, and then covered their subsequent federal trial. Olsen and his co-workers won their Peabody Award, awarded by the University of Georgia, in 1991.

Since then, he has won Emmy Awards from the Academy of Tele-vision Arts and Sciences for his coverage of the Malibu fire in 1993 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Olsen, a seven-time Emmy nominee, has also been honored with the Edward R. Murrow Award for spot news coverage in 1998; with a first-place award for hard news reporting from the Greater Los Angeles Press Club in 2001; with "Best Spot News" by the AP Radio and Television News Association also in 2001; and with three "Golden Mic" Awards from the Radio and Television News Association of Southern California.

Actually, though, Olsen received his first major award while growing up in Paynesville. In 1961, Olsen and two friends (Tom Vanderpool Jr. and Tim Ruhn) were sailing on Lake Koronis and they pulled a drowning man from a capsized rowboat. For that, Olsen received a lifesaving award from "Boy's Life," a Boy Scout magazine. "It was always my feeling that the credit should have gone to Tom and Tim, as they did most of the work," Olsen remembered, "but I got the award because I happened to be in the Scouts."

Olsen reflects
Two stories that Ron remembers most vividly were the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the police officers accused of beating Rodney King were originally found innocent of police brutality.

"I was at police headquarters when the rioting began. A crowd of several hundred people gathered at the front of the building in a stand-off with a line of LAPD officers."

In the middle of the riots, filing live reports, someone tried to steal Olsen's microphone while he was broadcasting, resulting in a live wrestling match on television.

"While I fought to hang on to the microphone, my cameraman Greg Hunter used his free arm to swing on the attacker. When it was over, I still had the mic. As I attempted to re-gain my composure and continue the report someone from the crowd came running in at top speed and threw a body-block into me, trying to knock me to the ground. All those years of football paid off as I managed to stay on my feet."

"Over the next several days smoke would rise as portions of the city of Los Angeles burned. We drove through the streets, witnessing unbelievable chaos. Shop owners armed with rifles positioned themselves on rooftops while mobs looted stores and set fires."

"Clad in bullet proof vests we drove through the streets trying to cover what would turn out to be the costliest civil uprising in U.S. history." The station hired a bodyguard to protect Olsen and his cameraman as they reported on the riots.

"All told, I can't think of anything I have done that was more dangerous or more stressful than the riots of 1992."

O.J. Simpson Case
On the morning of June 13, 1994, Olsen got a tip of a double murder on South Bundy Drive, with one of the victims being O.J. Simpson's ex-wife. A photographer from CBS was the only journalist to beat Olsen and his cameraman to the scene.

"Two bodies covered with white sheets were on the blood covered walkway. That was the beginning. It was the start of what would be nearly three years consumed by the criminal and then the civil trial of Orenthal James Simpson."

Olsen was headed home from KTLA a few days later when he bumped into the news director, who told him about police in pursuit of a white Ford bronco on the Santa Ana Freeway, containing O.J. Simpson.

Olsen and a cameraman guessed right, that Simpson was headed towards home. With Olsen driving and the cameraman filming, they waited on the interstate, and a few minutes later the white Ford bronco and the following mass of police cars and news vans arrived.

"As the Bronco approached I could see (Al) Cowlings at the wheel. There was no sign of O.J., who was slumped down in the back, reportedly with a gun to his head. I had to make a decision. I could pull out and pace the Bronco, which would put us alongside Simpson and Cowlings. Then, a headline flashed through my mind: 'Simpson commits suicide after TV truck crowds Bronco.' I decided to let Simpson pass and then pulled in behind the more than a dozen police cars that were in pursuit."

From the car, he called the station and filed a report with accompanying footage from a helicopter.

Olsen was part of the reporting team that covered O.J.'s criminal trial from beginning to end.

"I found myself in the middle of the biggest story of my career as each day we struggled to sort out a case that would come to be called 'The Trial of the Century.' "

"While covering the Los Angeles riots was the most stress I've ever felt, covering the Simpson trials was the most trying assignment of my life. Interpreting the daily courtroom drama was the greatest intellectual challenge I had faced. It also took a physical toll as I lost 15 pounds over the course of the trial."

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