Once a diligent newspaper carrier, journalist from Humboldt remains humble despite the Pulitzer in his past
Mike Toner’s decorated 40-year career as a journalist was full of accomplishments and thrills, but almost falling out of a helicopter wasn’t among them.
It is true that Toner flew in a helicopter to photograph Mount St. Helens in Washington, but he said the part about him nearly falling out has been misinterpreted in online information about him.
Toner, who grew up in Humboldt, visited The Messenger offices Wednesday afternoon. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1993 for a series of articles titled “When the Bugs Fight Back” that explored the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics and pesticides.
About two years after winning the award, Toner visited with a journalism class at the University of Georgia, where he fielded questions from students.
Toner was asked if he had ever done anything he considered dangerous.
“I was thinking back, where has something happened, and I came up with the reporting I did in Mount St. Helens,” he recalled. “I went out shortly after the first eruption and spent a couple weeks out there. Initially, the ash cloud was so big nobody could fly.”
It was 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted.
Toner was among hundreds of other media personnel interested in flying over for a closer look.
“There was a long line, but eventually I got on a helicopter,” he said. “It was a big, Army National Guard Chinook.”
He said the chopper carried about 15 people. It included a backdoor that was typically used to deploy troops.
“We were up and the weather was fine and so we were taking turns,” he said.
Toner was acting as reporter and photographer at the time.
“I had my camera and it was my turn at the door. I was there mesmerized by the sight of the volcano. The absolute devastation,” he said.
“There was a steam explosion started coming up. The pilot, apparently, saw it a little later than I did.”
An announcement came over the intercom to buckle up. Toner was still standing in the doorway.
“I may have had a tether on,” he said. “I don’t remember. The thing was turning. I couldn’t walk back to the benches. As he turned, I wasn’t leaning out the door, but it was tilted enough that the lens cap — I think I let go of it and dropped it and it bounced out the door.
“So if there is a 200-millimeter lens cap found somewhere in the ash of Mount St. Helens, it’s mine and I’d like it back,” he said in jest.
Later, a story published in the school newspaper at the University of Georgia included a bit of that story.
“I didn’t tell it in that detail, I just said, ‘well I almost fell out of a helicopter when I was covering Mount. St. Helens.”
It is a remark that has followed him online, which he regrets. It was the lens cap that fell.
Toner, the experienced reporter, uses that story to underscore the need to quote people accurately.
“On rare occasion someone will write a story about me and I’ll go back and look and think, did I say that?” he said. “I think back and say, ‘yeah I said that, but it isn’t what I meant.'”
As a teenager in the 1950s, Toner delivered The Messenger. His route included both Humboldt and Dakota City, according to Terry Dwyer, The Messenger’s editorial page editor. Dwyer, who also grew up in Humboldt, is a friend of Toner’s.
Toner graduated from Humboldt High School in 1962, where he served as the school’s yearbook editor.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa in 1966.
In 1967 he completed a graduate program an the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
The early part of his career was spent at the Miami Herald where he was, among other things, assistant city editor and, ultimately, the newspaper’s science writer.
He spent 12 years covering Florida’s environmental issues and the space program, ranging from the later Apollo missions through the space station and the shuttle.
During his time at the Herald he took a year off to study at Stanford to learn more about the oil and gas industry.
Eventually, Toner was recruited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to be its science editor.
In 2012, he won the Gene S. Stuart Award from the Society for American Archaeology for “his responsible and entertaining writing about the inherent problems associated with shipwreck and underwater archeology.”
He also won that award in 2001 for a series or articles he wrote while at the AJC concerning how antiquities looting and thefts are endangering our cultural and archaeological heritage. Those articles were subsequently published as a monograph titled “The Past in Peril” by the Southeast Archaeological Center, U.S. Park Service.
In 2014, Toner was a judge for the writing contest held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He is retired from the AJC and he remains a regular contributor to the publication American Archaeology.
Toner shared this observation about his career in an email to Dwyer.
“I retired 40 years to the day that I first went to work at the Miami Herald. And as critical as I am today about the state of mass media, I am acutely conscious that I enjoyed 40 years of what seems to be have been the golden age of newspapers. Where else could a kid from Humboldt have gone so many places, met such interesting people, and had a good time doing it?”