The NMFishbowl Podcast: Isaac Avilucea

By Daniel Libit

There should be a movie made about Isaac Avilucea.

I write this in full recognition of how tropey it is to summarize a person’s life story in terms of its screenplay potential. Nevertheless, let it be stipulated for the record: there should be a movie made about Isaac Avilucea.

A native New Mexican, Avilucea currently works as a reporter for The Trentonian newspaper in New Jersey’s capital city. He got his start in journalism at the Daily Lobo while a student at the University of New Mexico, cutting his teeth on the jagged edges of ex-UNM football coach Mike Locksley’s ignominious tenure. From there, Avilucea has caused a right-minded (if, ocassionally, wrong-headed) stir at nearly every place he’s reported, from the Rio Grande to the Delaware River.

Now 29, Avilucea has already experienced the following twice:

  • Being fired from a newspaper over a spat with his boss
  • A First Amendment court battle over the publication of records
  • Cancer

Recently, the latter two have become cosmically intertwined in his life. In late 2016, Avilucea was profiled by the Daily Beast over the effort by the New Jersey Attorney General to suppress his reporting on a legally obtained document in a child endangerment court proceeding. At the same time, Avilucea had been diagnosed with a reoccurrence of testicular cancer, which had spread to nearly every vital organ in his body.

“It was a simultaneous battle for the First Amendment and my life,” Avilucea tells me in the latest episode of The NMFishbowl Podcast. You can listen to our conversation by clicking below (or download it on iTunes here):

In our two-hour discussion, Avilucea and I talk about life, death and truth — and a little bit of Lobo shenanigans for good measure.

Here are some key takeaways (click the relevant links to jump directly to that portion of the SoundCloud audio)…

Avilucea on his formative experiences covering UNM athletics for The Daily Lobo: “It was a hot cauldron over there at UNM. You had to be careful of everything you did as a reporter. You had to make sure all your i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed and, really, that is what it taught me: the importance of being very thorough and being on top of things and ensuring you are accurate and as fair as you can be…

“If you give [former UNM Athletic Director] Paul Krebs or Mike Locksley or UNM a little peg to stand on, in terms of a small inaccuracy, they are going to use that to bootstrap their agenda and discredit everything that you write. And I was already in a situation because some of the factual-based things I had written, some of the columns and articles covering that cluster-you-know-what over at UNM. They were going to do anything in their power to discredit me. I remember that while that whole controversy was exploding, I got contacted by a reporter at KOB [TV] who had…obtained some emails (between) Paul Krebs and another athletic official (that) had been referencing me, where they said we have to be careful with Isaac because he is always looking to take a negative angle and make everything subjective. They were trying to discredit me as some sort of subjective, biased, slant artist, which is kind of interesting coming from a guy named Paul Krebs…I think his career is indicative of him trying to shape and slant every story that has involved — negatively or positively — UNM.

Avilucea on his irreconcilable differences with sports journalism: “I could not and I did not survive as a sports journalist…As a sports journalist, you are an access journalist: your coverage depends on your access; your scoops depend on your access. And who gives that and grants that access? It’s the universities and the coaches and, in some respects, on the professional level, it is the players…”

“The biggest example of this kind of access in sports journalism that blew up in sports journalists’ face(s) was the whole fiasco at Penn State, with the whole sex scandal with Jerry Sandusky. Sports is thought of as the ‘toy department’. I wrote a column basically talking about how that’s not even explicit enough (in terms of) how certain newspapers treat their sports departments: it’s not a toy department, it’s a sex-toy department…It’s appalling, because there were how many sports journalists that were covering Penn State over the decades that maybe had an inkling or knew some information about Jerry Sandusky? But it wasn’t a sports reporter who broke that story, it was a news reporter who was detached from the university, who didn’t have to rely on their access to those Penn State officials, coaches, players, assistant coaches…”

Avilucea on getting fired at the Santa Fe New Mexican: “Basically, what happened at the Santa Fe New Mexican is that a bunch of little things culminated into a big thing.…Frank Mercogliano, who is the SID at New Mexico…I did not get along with that guy. He was a complete schmuck when I was at the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo, always giving me a hard time about everything I wrote. [He] would do these little underhanded things to attempt to limit my access or stymie me in whatever way that he could, and that continued when I moved on to the Santa Fe New Mexican…”

“There is this very little-known or utilized rule that universities have about issuing credentials to reporters for the NCAA basketball tournament. So what was it, 2011, it was when the Lobos were really good, and Will Webber, my colleague, had been covering the Lobos very vigorously, but he couldn’t make the trip to go cover them at the tournament…So, essentially the decision was they would have me go cover it and sign me for the press credential. Frank…pulled this little-known rule that whatever paper is covering (the tournament), the reporter that goes has to at least have covered the University of New Mexico for half the games…I knew what they were doing: they didn’t like the reporter that the New Mexican had assigned to cover the University of New Mexico, because of some of the controversial, critical stories I had written when I was sports editor, managing editor at the Daily Lobo…”

[Editor’s note: Mercogliano called Avilucea’s interpretation of events “inaccurate”, telling NMFishbowl.com: “At that time, in order to obtain a credential through a team, a writer had to have attended a certain percentage of games in a working capacity.  As he had never covered any games, I informed him that he wouldn’t qualify.”]

“That kind of started to deteriorate mine and [Sports Editor] James [Barron’s] relationship…I was at a high school football game with Will Webber. It was a terrible game between two fo the worst teams in the north…I wanted to gouge my eyes out. And I just needed to bite my tongue and I didn’t. And I remember referring, on Twitter, (to it being) ‘an abortion of a game’. It was an unfortunate phrase I used. I regretted it, kind of, even though I thought it was true. But you have to consider — and I didn’t consider at the time I tweeted it — that there is a high concentration of Catholics in northern New Mexico who take offense of any use of the word, ‘abortion’…”

“[Barron] did get a significant amount of calls about my reporting because I’m an aggressive reporter who always looks for an angle I think is interesting and that I think will speak to people. And sometimes the people speaking are the ones that hate it. So, he was always getting calls about me and this gets in his head…I was trying to jazz up a run-of-the-mill [prep] roundup [column]…it upset somebody in Santa Fe High. They called James. James was upset he had to hear it and kind of came down on me. And I remember he threatened my job before, and he did it again this time and I lost my shit…I was out of journalism for six or seven months and that was very difficult that was one of the lowest points in my life.”

[Editor’s note: Barron tells NMFishbowl.com: “I would basically say that the details he presented are accurate. I do take a little bit of an issue with me threatening his job. I don’t think that is how I couched it…I think I did caution him against his behavior and how it reflects poorly upon his performance….In defense of him, I love him to death and I think he is a hell of a journalist.”]

Avilucea on getting fired (after 18 days) at the North Adams (Mass.) Transcript: “I get assigned to cover this feature of a young soccer player who transferred from this pretty prestigious high school to a tech school in the North Adams area…She said the reason why she transferred was because her last school was ‘like the movie Mean Girls’, very cliquey, there were mean-mean-spirited girls…some of the girls on the soccer team ostracized her. I thought this was a very candid quote, not a canned quote, from a young prep athlete…That was the soundbite that sunk — and sunk me…”

“(The newspaper) basically said, ‘Give me your keys and your equipment, you’re gone.’…The next day, they run an editorial apologizing and basically slamming me for this ‘editorial oversight’, which is the way they put it…So I wrote my now rebuttal to their nonsense…I basically laid out what had happened…I think the headline I ended up rolling with was, ‘I got fired for being a journalist.’ And it blew up, nationally. Poynter picked it up. Buzzfeed picked it up. And I parlayed it into another job with the sister newspaper in Connecticut of the company that had just fired me. I ended up working for the same Digital First Media company in Torrington, Connecticut.”

Avilucea on his first prior-restraint publishing battle at the Connecticut Law Tribune: “I end up falling upon, by luck, this habeas corpus [petition] that the father had filed to try to get custody back of his children. Habeas corpus in a family court proceeding is virtually unheard of; it’s a very novel approach…I made calls to the mother to get her side of the account and, instead of calling me back, she slapped the Connecticut Law Tribune with court papers…And the Connecticut Law Tribune, God bless them, fought the good fight…Basically, we publicly shamed the judge into rescinding his prior restraint injunction…”

Avilucea on his first cancer diagnosis: “December 2014, heading into (20)15, I noticed my right testicle was very swollen. I was young at the time, otherwise healthy, kind of shrugged it off, thought maybe I had a hernia, maybe it is something else, didn’t want to really deal with it and didn’t deal with it…I went to the hospital, to urgent care, and the doctor looked at it and felt it and saw the size of it and immediately sent me to the emergency room at Robert Wood Johnson in Hamilton, N.J.…All I really remember is the print-out I got. The doctor kind of looked at me, handed it to me, asked me if I was in any pain, do you need me to prescribe anything, and I was like, ‘No, I’m good.’ And he handed me the paper and I’m walking out and I’m looking at the paper and it says, ‘suspected neoplasm.’…”

“It was a very aggressive germ-cell cancer. And the only thing I had going for me at that point was that they thought it was early-stage. They didn’t think it had spread outside of my testicle. So, they hadn’t recommended chemotherapy. They said it was Stage 1…I ended up dropping the ball, in some senses of the word: I didn’t follow up with an oncologist…I was turning 26 and my insurance was lapsing under my parents. And the company insurance that Digital First offered to me wasn’t very good, was very expensive… Essentially, I never followed up with an oncologist and, in retrospect, I was rolling the dice…But what I realized is you don’t gamble with your life. And I had to learn a very hard lesson. Because a year and a half later, in 2016, my testicular cancer either came back, was either a recurrence, or was never cured in the first place because I didn’t get proactive chemotherapy. And it came back with a vengeance. It was Stage 3 metastatic testicular cancer, which is the worst form of testicular cancer you could have.”

Avilucea on his second cancer diagnosis:  “I remember being at work on Dec. 14, 2016, and I had been spitting up blood for a week, week-and-a-half before. And I had Googled it, and it didn’t look good. But I didn’t want to confront my potential reality. And I get up on Dec. 14, and I have this foreboding feeling that morning…I go meet my colleague from the Times of Trenton, her name is Anna Merriman, I go meet her at a coffee shop…We are walking over to the courthouse cafe in Trenton, N.J. I felt clammy, cold, and I could not walk. I was out of breath. I had no energy and I got about halfway to the courthouse cafe and I collapsed on the concrete…”

“I remember Anna had to go get her car to drive me back to my car. I made it back to my house. I was texting with who essentially would become my wife and telling her about some of these issues and she was very concerned and she told me you have to go to the hospital and I didn’t want to go. I was supposed to get on a plane in two days to go to New Mexico to see my family on Christmas…I remember the doctor came in and delivered what I knew was going to be terrible news…I saw that punch coming from a mile away and I couldn’t duck it. She put her hand on my leg and told me my cancer had come back and it was very spread out and it was metastatic, and it was all over the place, in every vital organ…”

Avilucea on his second prior-restraint publishing battle at The Trentonian: It was around…October 24, and we had written previously about this charter-school student, a five-year-old, who had been found with heroin packets, 30 heroin packets, at school…A month later, his mother comes to The Trentonian newspaper and asks to speak to a reporter and, by luck or whatever fate, if that exists, I happen to be the reporter that went in and answered the door and went out to talk to her…She tells me, in short order, ‘Do you remember that kid who was found with drugs at school about a month ago? Well, that is my son and they just found him with crack cocaine, again, a couple of days ago at school.’…She tells me there is an emergency family removal hearing with a judge here in about an hour and a half…I was like, ‘Okay, great, I’ll go, we’ll try to petition the judge to let me into the hearing, and we’ll go from there.’…”

“The boy’s mother at some point had left and she comes back…she has this child custody complaint in her hand, and she is like cursing, swearing, very upset, very animated, and she at some point…shows me the paper, and she says, you can have this. I’m looking at this, trying to take notes, and she says you can have this, you can have this paper. I’m like, okay, cool. How often does a journalist get offered any sort of information, let alone court papers?…”

Avilucea on simultaneously fighting for his health and his First amendment rights: “The amount of stress and pressure and angst and depression and every cocktail of emotions you could stir up and down is what I experienced that whole time…But I just decided I could not take the [plea] deal [with the Attorney General] in good conscience. Because I wouldn’t just be selling out both myself and my newspaper: I would be selling out every journalist in New Jersey, every journalist across the United States. I would be a Benedict Arnold of journalism if I took that deal, because I would be absconding my First Amendment rights to publish something I lawfully obtained. And I was not going to do that, even more so with my life on the line. I was not going to let my potential legacy be that I sold journalism down the Delaware River in Trenton, N.J.”

Avilucea on ‘strong-arming’ The Trentonian into joining the fight: “I scuttled the settlement…I took the only course of action I could. And that was to leverage the media coverage not only against the Attorney General’s office, but against The Trentonian, fighting what should have been something that is a slam-dunk. You know you fight that, even if there is a possibility you lose, you fight that.”

“When the Daily Beast story came out there was radio silence from The Trentonian upper brass on that story. And they kind of signed on to pursue every avenue to win this case, but it honestly took almost a strong-arming of my own company to get them to understand the importance of this fight and why we should expend every legal resource we could in the name of journalism.”

[The Trentonian Editor John Berry did not respond to a request for comment.]

Here are some additional reading materials and useful links…

Featured Image Courtesy of Isaac Avilucea