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Shelter Island Profile | Karl Grossman, bringing the light through reporting

Karl Grossman — seen every week on the Reporter editorial page — is an investigative journalist whose writings about the dangers of development, nuclear energy and the degradation of the natural environment have been shedding light on Long Island since the 1960s.

Over the years, his work has taken him to some unusual places. “I’ve been like Zelig.  I’ve been to all kind of crazy situations,” he says, naming a few. “I ended up in Russia seven times to speak as an expert on nuclear weapons in space. I spoke twice before the British Parliament. I was at a disarmament conference. I’ve traveled all over the place.” 

Karl’s grandfather ran a hardware store in Sag Harbor over a hundred years ago, but the whole family left for New York City during the Depression, and Karl grew up in Brooklyn and St Albans, Queens, before going to Antioch College in Ohio at 17.

His father was in business, his mother a secretary, and his family’s most striking characteristic was a talent and love for music, not journalism. His brother Stefan is a gifted blues guitarist, his cousin Steve played saxophone with Miles Davis, and Karl thought he might like to be a college professor. “My father was not so happy I was turning down a paid education at Queens College,” Karl said. “I wanted to see America.” 

At Antioch he met a student named Janet Kopp who came from Huntington, and followed her to Cleveland one summer where she had lined up an internship that would take her away from Antioch through the fall. Karl found himself an internship at The Cleveland Press as a copyboy, a career path he had never previously contemplated.

The Cleveland Press turned out to be a newspaper with a strong bent toward investigative journalism, a fact that was announced on the entrance to the building, with a quote from E.W. Scripps, “Give light and the people will find their own way.”  Karl learned that many problems could be solved by uncovering facts and bringing them to light. “I found out that the information given to the reporters, once investigated, generally solved the problem right then and there.” 

When Karl fell hard for the work of an investigative reporter, it meant a departure from his plan to be a college professor and also from Ohio. He and Ms. Kopp climbed onto his motorcycle, headed back to New York and got married in spring of 1961. 

They have been together for 62 years. Janet Grossman worked as a teacher of English as a Second Language in the Sag Harbor schools, and is now retired. They have two sons, Kurt and Adam, one of whom has stayed close by. “Adam went to Pace Law School, was the Riverhead Town Attorney and is the chairman of the Southampton Board of Appeals,” said Karl. “He is as committed as I am.”

After Antioch, Karl still didn’t have a degree, and thought he’d need some more college. “Adelphi-Suffolk was starting so I went there and lived in a rooming house.” While still a student, he started the first newspaper at a four-year college in Suffolk County, which he named The New Voice. 

In 1962, he got a job as a reporter at the Babylon Town Leader. His first big story was investigative reporting on a four-lane highway Robert Moses sought to build along the length of Fire Island. “I kept writing about this road, how it would be an environmental disaster, and other newspapers picked up my stuff.” 

His articles pointed to an alternative: Fire Island National Seashore, which was established in 1964.

That was the year that Karl went to work for a daily, the Long Island Press, where he was recognized in 1970 with the George Polk Award for investigative reporting for writing about the square-mile sand mine dug along the Long Island Sound at Jamesport that was supposed to be a deep-water port, but wasn’t.

Karl founded the Press Club of Long Island in 1974 to work for press freedom, and was its first president. It is now one of the largest chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists in the U.S.

He left the Long Island Press a few weeks before it folded in 1977, and shifted to television, with a series on Cablevision and a column in weekly Long Island papers. “I felt like I was jumping out of a plane.” Karl said.

His program on Channel 21 was called Long Island World, and he created a series, “Can Suffolk be Saved?”  For 32 years, he has hosted the nationally-aired TV program “Enviro Close-Up with Karl Grossman” and is also the host of “Environment Long Island” produced at LTV in Wainscott.

In 1978 Karl started teaching investigative journalism when a professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury, Naomi Rosenthal, called him about a faculty opening. “It was an amazing place, very diverse,” he said, and he’s taught there ever since, rising to the rank of full professor, and teaching a variety of courses that he developed, including investigative and environmental journalism.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the safety of nuclear power became a front and center issue on Long Island due to the construction of the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island Sound. Karl says that LILCO, the energy company that built the plant, put pressure on Long Island newspapers not to run his stories, which were mostly critical of nuclear power and its safety record.

“I’m so indebted to the Southampton Press and the Shelter Island Reporter because they stood with me, as did the Sag Harbor Express, South Shore Press and the Community Journal.”

In 1986 after the Challenger blew up, Karl started investigating whether the Shuttle had plutonium on board, and learned that the next Shuttle mission was to carry nuclear materials. His research led to an article that appeared on the first page of The Nation on January 23, 1988, “The Space Probe’s Lethal Cargo.”  

Karl has several published books including: “Cover Up, 1980” on the dangers of nuclear power generation; “The Wrong Stuff,” 1997, about the nuclear threat of the space program: and “Weapons in Space,” 2011, in which he discussed nuclear-powered weapons such as the lasers that were part of the Star Wars nuclear defense proposal.

He’s still at it, working on two new books; one he calls “May We Choose Life” about the environment and energy issues, and a memoir.

“The left says the environmental crisis is about capitalism, but no matter what your system, we have to be eco-centric. We are not just talking about scenery. It’s life or death.”

Karl sees Shelter Island as “the quintessence of a livable balance between nature and people committed to living in nature.”

He gives former Town Supervisor Evans Griffing credit for helping to maintain this balance when he stridently opposed bridges linking Shelter Island to the North and South forks, when it was proposed in the 1960s. “Griffing was a Republican,” said Karl, who is not. “He believed in this balance.”

Karl has shed light on some seemingly-random problems, but his dedication to American journalism as the solution to these problems is consistent. “The thing is, I’ve gotten suddenly very old, but I’m still as committed as I was when I was 18 years old.”