December 2, 2004
Beverly Hills’ ‘Starr’ Reporter
A redheaded reporter with an eye for fashion and a taste for adventure, Brenda Starr has chased stories around the globe for nearly 65 years, all within the confines of a comic strip.
Now, the secret is out: A real-life, three-dimensional disciple of Starr lives among us in Beverly Hills. And she's on the coattails of a major story -- movie star major.
Norma Zager, 57, has big blonde hair and hot pink fingernails. On this particular Tuesday, the 5-foot tall reporter wears a gray top with black fur cuffs and dangling, heart-shaped, silver earrings. One foot sports a fuchsia, furry slipper; the other a black cast adorned with a rhinestone broach.
The editor of the weekly Beverly Hills Courier broke her foot shopping. But that doesn't stop her from putting out the free 40-page newspaper.
Sheets of paper taped to the left edge of the window keep sunlight from pouring in where the blinds fall short. Zager surveys her small office, cluttered with three extra desks, cardboard boxes, papers, photographs, a stuffed-animal dog and other tchotchkes, and says, "You see all the help I have here?"
"I'm a one-man dog-and-pony show," she announces.
Zager started using a computer to lay out the newspaper only six months ago. Previously, she would print articles and cut and paste them onto larger pieces of paper.
But Zager transcended her low-tech, low-profile environment, as any superhero would. She sniffed a significant story and followed its trail.
When Erin Brockovich-Ellis, the environmental crusader who inspired the movie starring Julia Roberts, and lawyer Edward Masry came to town, Zager smelled trouble.
Brockovich and Masry were famous for helping the residents of Hinkley win a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric for contaminating the city's groundwater.
This time, the duo were alleging that oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School were emitting a carcinogen -- benzene -- that was causing cancer.
Major news media portrayed the activists as heroes.
"I just didn't buy into it," Zager said. "It's not that I immediately assume people are lying. It's just that I don't always assume they're telling the truth."
She conducted her own investigations and found that an array of scientists rebutted the crusaders' contentions. She concluded that the pair's own data did not support their claims. No wonder Brockovich-Ellis and Masry refused to release their data until a judge ordered them to do so, Zager said.
She uncovered what has since been called "junk science" by Time's Leon Jaroff; "a bogus trial-lawyer claim" by The Wall Street Journal; and a "campaign of deception" by Eric Umansky in the Columbia Journalism Review.
The lone reporter from the little-known newspaper battled celebrity and a rich law firm and won.
"Each day, I put on my Superman cape and try to do good," she said.
The Los Angeles Press Club honored Zager as "Journalist of the Year" in June.
She continues to report on the case, since lawsuits filed by Brockovich-Ellis and Masry against oil companies and the city and school district of Beverly Hills are still pending.
Zager started out as a reporter, working for a short stint after college at a community newspaper in her hometown, Detroit. After getting married and having children, she turned to comedy. She spent 14 years as a stand-up comedian, entertaining at clubs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
But being a journalist was her lifelong dream.
"I always wanted to be Brenda Starr," Zager said.
In 1999, the Jewish mother of two left the stage for the Courier. After a few years, Zager rose to editor-in-chief. She writes almost all the Courier's articles, since the newspaper has no other reporters.
Zager talked about journalism in high-minded terms, citing the constitutional right to a free press, the responsibility of a reporter to seek truth and the trust a community places in a journalist.
When reporting on the oil wells, Zager wanted "to make sure the community had every piece of information that was available, so they could judge for themselves if it was safe or not."
"You can't take yourself seriously, but you have to take the profession seriously," she said. "Remember the old adage, 'Don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.'"
Zager wished reporters would "take back the power" and worried that media conglomerates are squelching independent voices: "Community papers are the last bastions of real investigative journalism."
Still, if Zager had her way, she would be writing for The Washington Post.
"I would feel sorry for the Congress if I get there," she said. "I am plucky. I'm gutsy. People meet me, and they think I'm tough. I am, but I'm sensitive like every other woman."
Like many Jewish women, Zager is searching for love and is no stranger to the world of JDate. When the telephone rang in her office, it was her date for Friday night, a suitor with a sense of humor. This man had not yet triggered her "jerk-dar," what the reporter called her ability to detect a "bad man."
Zager, who is divorced, is "an eternal optimist when it comes to love."
The fashionista, who likes to make a statement ("When I'm in a New York state of mind, I'll get into that Ivy League look, Ralph Lauren mode"), also loves to cook and is working on getting a chocolate cookbook she wrote published.
She also reads Philip Roth, because "you have to read before you can write."
With so many books to read (and write), dishes to cook, clothes to buy and stories to chase, Zager has her hands full. She prays for the ability to handle it all: "I wake up every day and say, please God, let me multitask today."