Why I WON'T Be Watching 9/11 10th Anniversary Coverage
September 8, 2011 3:00 PM
[TVWW contributor Eric Mink and I were colleagues -- TV critic co-equals -- at the New York Daily News a decade ago, when terrorists steered planes into the Twin Towers and elsewhere. I was watching from the safety of my basement office in Cherry Hill, NJ, 90 miles away. Eric was much, much closer to what we now call Ground Zero.
Ten years later, I'm watching all the anniversary documentaries and coverage presented by the various TV networks, but Eric is not. In the very personal and memorable essay that follows, he explains why. - DB]
By Eric Mink
Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, life stirred in the television department at the New York Daily News, pretty much as it had every workday since Dave Bianculli and I had become colleagues more than eight years earlier. As we soon learned, every workday after that would be different from those that had come before. Three months later, I left the newspaper.
The collegiality and mutual respect with which Dave and I had worked throughout our tenure together at The News were never more crucial than in the demanding and draining weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We both watched, thought, talked and wrote, inevitably concentrating on programming and issues connected in one way or another to the attacks and their aftermath. As ever, the pieces we wrote embodied our individual personalities and styles; and, as ever, our efforts were never in conflict.
I've just written a freelance column for The St. Louis Jewish Light about my determination to avoid television coverage of the 10th anniversary, and why. I'm grateful that Dave found it worthwhile and wanted to share it with the readers of TV WORTH WATCHING.
A link to that piece is HERE.
Your comments, as always, are encouraged and welcome.
OWN 'Serving Life': Tracing a Path from Senseless Violence to Sensitive Tenderness
July 26, 2011 2:30 PM
By Eric Mink
Tap into any online news feed at any time of the day or night. Catch any television newscast or radio news summary. Scan the headlines of any newspaper. Somewhere therein, you will find evidence of human beings assaulting other human beings with such casual cruelty and violence that your brain can't even process it. Last week's mass murders in Norway offer a particularly timely illustration.
Some of these horrible events simply defy reason. Others, while every bit as damnable, can be plugged into a cause-and-effect sequence that at least seems to make them make some kind of twisted sense.
But deep at the core of every such incident lie questions that transcend the particulars: Are people fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Are these recurring brutalities a gross distortion of the essential nature of humanity, or do they exemplify what we really are?
Philosophers and theologians will continue to argue about these things as they have for centuries. But in the meantime, a new television documentary holds out hope that humanity, in fact, may be defined by something pure and bright within us. And it finds that hope in the most improbable of settings.
Serving Life, premiering Thursday (July 28) at 9 p.m. ET on the OWN cable and satellite channel, was made in a state prison amid men who did violence or let it be done when they might have stopped it. Their choices cost them their freedom, and they are unlikely ever to be released.
The documentary shows them stripped of pretense and posturing, stripped of rationalizations for the grave consequences of their past actions. It shows them testing themselves and finding a capacity to help people who desperately need caring attention and who can offer nothing in exchange for it.
Through the acts of kindness, tenderness and self-sacrifice they perform at a bedrock human level, these men discover a sense of honor, dignity and, yes, a kind of nobility, affirming their humanity as something that is true and fine. In the process, they earn a measure of redemption by any reasonable standard of the concept.
Produced and directed by veteran journalist Lisa R. Cohen, with Forest Whitaker serving as narrator and executive producer, Serving Life documents the experiences of the volunteers and patients -- all of them prisoners -- in the hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The maximum-security facility houses 5100 prisoners, 86 percent of whom are violent offenders. The abundance of life sentences and the scarcity of parole possibilities decree that 85 percent of the inmates will die there.
Longtime warden Burl Cain started the hospice program in 1997. "It's just immoral not to care about somebody dying and try to have compassion when they're going to wherever they're going," Cain says.
Tending to the daily needs of people suffering from terminal illnesses is not easy or pretty work. As noted in an opening on-screen advisory, the documentary makes no attempt to sanitize these scenes or the moments of death that conclude the process. Nor should it.
Thirty-one inmates make up the corps of hospice volunteers at Angola, but the work takes its toll, and the ranks need to be recharged from time to time. In the film, 60 people apply to join the sixth class of prison hospice caregivers, but two rounds of reviews and interviews eliminate all but eight. The film follows four of them: two armed robbers, one murderer and a drug dealer doing life via a three-strikes law.
We watch these four men -- Justin Granier, Ronald Ratliff, Charles "Boston" Rodgers and Anthony Middlebrooks Jr. (called Shaheed) -- come to grips with the physical and psychological demands of intimate personal contact with hospitalized prisoners during weeks of training. Then they begin caring for hospice patients under the watchful mentoring of experienced inmate volunteers and a small professional staff of nurses and social workers.
Some of the volunteers and patients also struggle with issues in their own lives. One of the dying patients, for example, has an older brother behind bars in another part of the prison. Their moments together -- brother with brother -- provide some of the film's most wrenching scenes.
But the heart of Serving Life is the volunteers' discovery of what it means to serve, and finding out if they are capable of it. Sometimes, the challenge is raw and physical: cleaning patients' soiled bodies of urine and feces. More often, service is a volunteer keeping watch at bedside while a patient he has come to know and care for slips through his last few hours of life. The caregiver holds a hand, strokes a forehead, applies lotion to drying skin, whispers comforting assurances to someone who probably can't hear them, just in case.
"Early in my career here," Warden Cain says, "I started to realize the only true rehabilitation was moral. I can teach you skills and trades, but I'd just make a smarter criminal unless we get something in our heart, unless we become moral.... A criminal is a selfish person. Whatever he wants, he takes it. So the way to be the opposite of that taker is to be the giver. The ultimate gift is to be the hospice caregiver."
There are a couple of moments when Serving Life seems to doubt itself and calls on production devices to artificially inflate its considerable emotional impact: a musical score that becomes needlessly intrusive, a slow-motion montage that feels hokey.
But these are minor glitches compared to the documentary's astute use of moving images and sound to tell stories of extraordinary poignance. What this filmmaking artistry reveals is imprisoned men with backgrounds of violence and no hope of release finding the strength to sacrifice and the morality of giving for its own sake. In embracing these values, the men reveal the vital core of their humanity and, by extension, of ours: simple goodness and a beauty of spirit that can retain the power to redeem.
Eric Mink -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. Mink teaches film studies at Webster University in St. Louis and provides writing and editing services to independent clients.
HBO Revives 'Flood' of Memories
July 11, 2011 2:15 PM
By Eric Mink
Curt Flood started in center field for the St. Louis Cardinals of my childhood and adolescence. He was an alcoholic. He abandoned his family. He ran away from a team in the middle of a season and never came back. He welched on debts and didn't pay his taxes. He operated a side business that conned fans out of thousands of dollars. He helped the Cardinals win World Series titles in 1964 and 1967, but in the '68 Series, he missed a fly ball in the seventh inning of the seventh game that arguably made the Detroit Tigers that year's champions.
Curt Flood is one of my heroes...
Irresponsible, dishonorable and self-destructive behavior is not the stuff of which heroes are made, yet Flood's heroism was genuine and true, not only to me but also to countless other fans and, perhaps most especially, to all professional athletes who have come since, and who owe him a debt that is beyond repayment.
How these contradictions co-existed in the person and life of Curt Flood is the animating spirit of a new documentary premiering Wednesday night [July 13] at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
The Curious Case of Curt Flood lays out the triumphant and tragic dimensions of Flood's baseball career and personal life. Its principal narrative thread is the quixotic legal battle Flood waged with the baseball establishment at the peak of his career.
In the fall of 1969, the Cardinals decided to trade Flood and catcher Tim McCarver to the Philadelphia Phillies for slugging outfielder Dick Allen. Flood decided to say no. Player contracts didn't give him the right to say no, but Flood declared he would not allow himself to be treated as if he were someone else's property, no matter how well paid he was.
On January 16, 1970, two days before his 32nd birthday and after intense consultations with the lawyers leading the players' union at the time, Flood filed a federal lawsuit against the most powerful people in Major League Baseball: the team owners, the commissioner, and the presidents of the two leagues. Contract clauses notwithstanding, Flood argued, baseball had neither the legal right nor the moral right to deny any player a say in where and for whom he would work.
As the case crept through the federal court system, Flood's personal life crumbled. He was bombarded by hate mail, death threats and savage racial insults. He was effectively abandoned by former teammates. Relationships dissolved. His money dried up. He drank constantly. He signed with baseball's worst team, the Washington Senators, but his skills had eroded and he quit the team -- by telegram -- never to play again. Then he fled to Denmark without telling anyone where he was going or where he was once he got there.
In the summer of 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood, 5-to-3. In its majority opinion, the Court admitted that baseball did not merit special treatment under the law, but it refused to reverse two previous decisions granting it that special treatment.
Flood's downward spiral accelerated. Even three years later, when players' union collective bargaining efforts (energized in large part by Flood's unsuccessful lawsuit) freed players from the absolute control of team owners, Flood was too deep in alcoholism, depression and despair to appreciate it. Not that players seemed inclined to credit him.
In The Curious Case of Curt Flood, interviews with family members, friends, teammates, professional associates and adversaries, journalists and authors attest to the private agonies that accompanied Flood's all-too-public struggles.
Producer Ezra Edelman and his HBO Sports team keep the screen alive with archival news footage, official and personal photos, game highlights, close-ups of newspaper pages and artful isolations of key passages in legal documents. Flood speaks for himself over the course of some 30 years, in news clips and interviews with the likes of Howard Cosell, Roy Firestone and "Easy" Ed Macauley, a St. Louis college and pro basketball star turned local sportscaster.
This is an extremely tough and unflinching film. It is as sharp and direct in addressing Flood's flaws as it is forthright in celebrating his undeniable athletic skills: a consistently productive hitter (.293 batting average over 15 seasons) and a fielder of extraordinary speed and range (seven straight Gold Glove awards from 1963 through 1969).
Yet relentless honesty -- uncommon as it is in film biographies, sports biographies especially -- is not this film's most remarkable achievement. That distinction belongs to Edelman's success in resolving the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Flood's conduct and our knee-jerk notions of heroism.
The film carefully lays a foundation for this point of view: First, Flood did not stumble into an against-all-odds conflict; he knew precisely what he was getting into. Players' union lawyers counseled him at length that success was unlikely in light of existing Supreme Court precedents. He also understood that even if he prevailed, it would take so long that he would not benefit personally. A victory would be a victory for other current players and for future players, but not for him. Neither point dissuaded Flood from proceeding.
Finally, Flood's character flaws and failings made him an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Even Flood's closest friends did not dream he was someone who would get into a fight to the finish with the system. But in real life, heroes are not perfect people who act heroically simply because that's what perfect people do. Flood, a distinctly imperfect man, discovered a reservoir of inner courage that allowed him to risk his personal security and well being for the benefit of others.
After years of self-loathing and life-threatening alcohol abuse, Flood began to find a measure of redemption. He reconnected with a girlfriend he had abandoned decades earlier, actress Judy Pace (right), who encouraged and insisted on his return to sobriety and supported him as he worked on it. They later married, and Judy Pace Flood is credited as a consultant to the HBO documentary. Flood also rebuilt his ravaged relationships with the now-grown children of his first marriage.
But it wasn't until 1994, in the midst of a strike against team owners, that a new generation of major league players gave Flood the acknowledgment and appreciation they owed him for his sacrifice on their behalf.
The Curious Case of Curt Flood is unsparing, but it is not unkind. Curt Flood was a troubled man with a need gnawing inside him. But a need for what: Love? Respect? A place in history? A need to stand up to injustice? To change baseball? To help players? To improve the status of African Americans, as one of his heroes, Jackie Robinson, had done? Probably bits of all those things.
But ultimately he was a flawed human being who was neither thoroughly admirable nor thoroughly deplorable. Just like the rest of us. Except that when his moment came, he acted heroically. Not like very many of us at all.
Eric Mink -- email@example.com -- most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. Mink teaches film studies at Webster University in St. Louis and provides writing and editing services to independent clients.
Does Keith Olbermann Matter? And How Should His Success Be Measured?
June 27, 2011 7:34 AM
By Eric Mink
If there's a sharper, more passionate writer than Keith Olbermann working in television news today -- someone who wields the raw power of nouns and verbs better than he does -- I don't know who it is.
Olbermann, whose second incarnation of Countdown with Keith Olbermann premiered June 20 on Current TV, has something else, too. When he's got his best game on, he's among that tiny minority of communicators with physical features, personality traits, intellectual attributes, mechanical skills and a certain something no one can define that let him project his image and voice through an electronic transmission system and juice up the emotions of viewers and listeners when his digitized self appears on their video screens.
All that stipulated, I also can not name anyone else in the field who is a more tangled rat's nest of contradictions than the furious, anti-corporate, populist outsider who has become a multi-millionaire servicing the profit motives of Capital Cities/ABC, the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft, General Electric and even the News Corporation of Rupert Murdoch, a.k.a. media's Prince of Darkness.
Olbermann's latest home, Current Media LLC, is a privately held, for-profit entity co-founded by a Nobel Peace Prize-winning, Oscar-awarded documentarian with 24 years in the U.S. Congress and the vice presidency of the United States (but not, by the skin of his radiant teeth, the U.S. presidency). Albert Arnold Gore Jr.'s fellow Currenters include a complement of senior executives with roots in and connections to Viacom, Hewlett-Packard, Booz Allen Hamilton, etc., etc., etc.
All due respect, anti-corporate populist outsiders they ain't.
And that doesn't even count Comcast, the 10-percent investor in Current and the media omnivore that just swallowed NBC/Universal, including MSNBC. Olbermann fled from MSNBC last January just before the Comcast takeover closed. Among other reasons, there was a suggestion that he worried the new guys might slap content restrictions on his show.
So, fine. If he's going to play in the big leagues, he has to work for somebody who owns a team.
As to the games themselves, Olbermann has tried to tamp down ratings expectations. In a brief conference call with reporters the Friday before launch week, Olbermann said what everybody on the line already knew: All the characterizations of his early ratings, whether by competitors or by Current TV itself, would be, he said, "bullshit."
Not being an advertiser or an investor, I don't really care what ratings Countdown gets, but I do wonder about an appropriate measure of success for Olbermann and the show.
Day to day, of course, experience and instinct will tell him and his production team whether they did a good show: what worked, what didn't work, what should have worked better.
The first week was heavy on the latter.
Most consistent, it seemed to me, were the hyper-drive openings and news summaries, replete with Olbermannic kickers. Most inconsistent were the follow-up interview/analysis segments. Olbermann pulled good material out of John Dean, Ken Vogel, Andy Kroll and Jonathan Turley, but a fair number of segments went nowhere. Sometimes the problem was the interviewee (say, Rep. James Clyburn, Janeane Garofalo, Anita Dunn), and sometimes it was the interviewer (i.e. Olbermann with Matt Taibbi and Matthew Hoh).
Olbermann's signature bits were more uneven still, although they smoothed out as the week wore on.
"Special Comments," for example, didn't hit its stride until Thursday's mostly quiet but insightful piece on gay marriage.
"The Most Worstest Person of the Day Ever in the Universe" (whatever) struggled even more. On Monday, Olbermann nailed a young New York commuter who was shown on video trying and failing miserably to salvage a shred of dignity after she was chastised by a train conductor for disturbing passengers with loud profanity during a cell phone call.
Forget that the woman looked awfully small compared to the day's other contenders: Sarah Palin and Fox News' Chris Wallace. Forget that the video felt like pandering to Olbermann's legions of web-centric fans. Forget, even, that nobody really knew what happened in the time before and after a fellow passenger caught her between "record" and "stop" on his smart phone.
Olbermann fared better later in the week when he remembered that American politics is a target-rich environment for shaming and mockery and that populists are better advised to look up, not down, for their raw material. When he did, he found an abundance of apt honorees, including a babbling Rick Santorum, a clueless Georgia state legislator, and recurring targets Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
Even so, it's mystifying that Olbermann didn't get around to worsting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored a 5-4 majority opinion last week telling 1.5 million American women to take a hike. They didn't have enough in common, Scalia wrote, to sue Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as a unified class of plaintiffs.
Apparently, the charge that current and former female employees of the world's largest retailer were paid less than male employees wasn't unifying enough. Neither was the charge that their promotions were fewer and fell shorter than those of their male counterparts. Nor was the charge that the monster-truck culture of the Arkansas-founded behemoth subjected female employees to more taunts, leers, nicknames and butt grabs than male employees could ever dream of.
Instead, Scalia and his four fellow corporateers stood unified in defense of Wal-Mart. And its $405 billion in 2010 revenue. And all of Big Corporate America. Against working Americans. AGAIN. (This stuff almost writes itself, once you get going!)
Specifics aside, the question remains: If not ratings, by what measure should we judge the success of Olbermann's Countdown on Current. Households with access to the channel? Ad revenue? Web traffic? Blog posts? Social media action? Corporate (gasp!) profitability?
Politics is the metier of the show, as Olbermann might put it, so isn't political influence a reasonable standard of success? Was Countdown on MSNBC a player in the national political conversation? Can Countdown on Current be? Jon Stewart's The Daily Show certainly is, although I couldn't point to a Nielsen stat to prove it. Is there a clear path to relevance and influence?
In the early 1990s, HBO was starting to break out of the isolation of pay cabledom and into the mainstream of American popular culture. One of its most effective tools was something called "quality noise." Bob Cooper, who ran HBO's original movies operation, explained at the time that "quality noise" included word of mouth, critical buzz, distinctiveness from what the competition was doing, and a hard-to-pin-down sense that if you missed, say, the Josephine Baker film or the Stalin miniseries (or, much later, The Sopranos, Entourage or Curb Your Enthusiasm), you'd feel out of it.
The media universe was expanding when HBO made its move 20 years ago, and it still is. But there's infinitely more noise now than there was then, and few would argue that "quality" has much to do with it.
Even so, Olbermann still has to generate word of mouth and demonstrate distinctiveness. He still has to show he has something of value to add to the public policy discussion.
It has to be more than an artfully written, astutely delivered stew of fact-based bile and bombast. It has to be more than echo-chamber validation of progressive values and arguments. What he says also has to matter somehow.
That's Olbermann's real challenge.
Eric Mink -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. Mink now teaches film studies at Webster University in St. Louis and provides writing and editing services to independent clients.
"Deadline -- U.S.A.," an Old Movie with a Still-Timely Message
August 4, 2010 2:51 PM
[Bianculli here: Today at 4 p.m. ET, TCM presents a rare showing of an old movie that still works -- especially, contributing critic Eric Mink suggests, for journalists. The film is 1952's Deadline -- U.S.A., with an eerily timely message...]
News: Still Not Dead
By Eric Mink
Journalism wallows in one existential crisis after another. Take your pick: Internet technology is killing the news profession; the Great Recession is suffocating a business model already on life support; concentration of ownership is destroying media's vital competitive drive; the ethical vacuum around Fox News' success is sucking the lifeblood out of honorable news presentation. These days, you couldn't be blamed if you believed that the inherent short attention span of youth were a genetic mutation caused by cellphone radiation to the brain.
How startling, then, to discover not only a measure of reassurance about all this, but also some genuine wisdom, in a 58-year-old Hollywood movie.
You can't hardly find 1952's Deadline -- U.S.A. It's not out on home video, DVD or VHS. Amazon, Netflix, Blockbuster, Red Box -- forget it.
Cable's Turner Classic Movies has a print in its archives, but the picture, written and directed by Richard Brooks, doesn't turn up much. A rare scheduled screening Wednesday at 4 p.m. (ET) is part of the channel's annual Summer Under the Stars focus on different actors each day in August. The movie appears on the day devoted to Ethel Barrymore.
Barrymore delivers a gleaming supporting performance in Deadline -- U.S.A. as Margaret Garrison, widow of the founder and owner of The Day, a great metropolitan newspaper in trouble. Garrison's distressed staff is led by managing editor Ed Hutcheson, played by an alternately sulking and furious Humphrey Bogart.
I managed to get hold of a reasonably decent copy last year and was stunned at how much I'd forgotten in the decades since I'd last seen it -- years before I'd ever worked for a newspaper.
The film is littered, of course, with newsroom markers that would have given it authenticity in 1952 but are long dead: clacking typewriters and wire service teletype machines, pneumatic tubes coughing pasted-up stories from copy desks to the composing room floor and back, headsets on re-write men taking phoned-in notes from reporters and instantly turning them into finished stories.
There also is no shortage of familiar newsroom stereotypes -- a "tough-broad" woman reporter among them -- and fast talkers that put Aaron Sorkin's West Wing and Sports Night characters to shame. And, after hours, lots of alcohol at the local bar.
There's also a music score that's almost intolerably hokey in spots ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic"??!!) and enough dated wise-guy dialogue to set your eyes rolling for chunks of the film's 87 minutes.
But those glitches pale in comparison to the emotional pull of the movie's two interlocking stories:
First, Garrison's two daughters want to cash out their inheritance by selling The Day to a competitor who will shut it down. Their mother (Barrymore) doesn't want to sell, but she's outvoted.
At the same time, a well-connected hood is rigging elections, robbing the city blind and bumping off people with impunity. But he makes a big mistake when he has a snoopy reporter for The Day severely beaten up. That fires up Hutcheson, who also sees aggressive coverage as a way to generate enough public interest and pressure to kill the sale of the paper.
Bogart's Hutcheson delivers most of the impassioned passages about the news profession and why it's important. Remarkably, they still resonate today, notwithstanding the industry obits we see and read almost daily:
"The Day is more than a building," Hutcheson says during a court hearing into the validity of the sales contract for the paper. "It's people. It's 1,500 men and women whose skill, heart, brains and experience make a great newspaper possible. We don't own one stick of furniture in this company, but we, along with the 290,000 people who read this paper, have a vital interest in whether it lives or dies."
It hardly matters how the work of skilled, sensitive, smart, experienced news people gets to the public. People still hunger for it, and society still needs it. The real threat to the news profession, then, lies with frightened corporate executives who lack a commitment to what they're supposed to manage, and who lack the skill, sensitivity, intelligence and experience of the people who work for them.
Early in Deadline -- U.S.A., Hutcheson tries to shame Mrs. Garrison into defying her daughters. In the company's board room, Hutcheson invokes the newspaper's founding principles and points to a framed copy of its first edition hanging on the wall. Then he begins to recite, from memory, the statement published on the front page of that paper:
"This paper will fight for progress and reform, will never be satisfied merely with printing the news, will never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory wealth or predatory poverty."
When I heard Bogart deliver those lines, an electrical jolt coursed through my spine. I had seen them before. I had read them before -- at least, words very close to them. They have appeared on the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I worked for 21 years, since they were uttered in 1907 by owner Joseph Pulitzer when he retired as editor and publisher. They are affixed in hammered metal letters to the marble walls in the lobby of the Post-Dispatch building. The exact passage reads as follows:
"I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."
From 1907 to 1952 to 2010, the tools and techniques of news gathering and distribution have changed multiple times, and they'll change again. The way to gain the trust, loyalty and patronage of news consumers hasn't changed at all.
Eric Mink most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. He now teaches film as an adjunct assistant professor at Webster University in St. Louis.
GUEST BLOG #107: Eric Mink Remembers, and Offers an Appreciation of, Veteran Newsman Daniel Schorr
July 26, 2010 8:00 AM
[Bianculli here: Contributing critic Eric Mink has weighed in with a wonderful piece on Daniel Schorr, who died Friday. Here it is:]
Daniel Schorr: 'Noodge' of the Highest Order
By Eric Mink
There's a great Yiddish word for Dan Schorr: noodge.
Either a noun or a verb depending on context, the word describes both a kind of conduct and the kind of person who engages in the conduct. The most apt definition I found for "to noodge" is "to annoy with persistent complaining, asking, urging, etc." You can quibble about style, but I'd argue that great reporters have a lot of noodge in them.
Schorr was a noodge of the highest order.
Early in his career, Schorr's reporting annoyed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, irritated President John F. Kennedy and got him kicked out of the Soviet Union by Premier Nikita Khruschev. Schorr was such a noodge questioning East German Communist dictator Walter Ulbricht that Ulbricht broke off the interview and stormed out of the room, leaving Schorr facing an empty chair.
Much later in his career, Schorr took a stand on principle that vexed and perplexed Ted Turner, the television visionary who had hired Schorr in 1979 to be the first employee of what was to become the nation's first 24-hour news channel: CNN.
But newsman Daniel Schorr, who died July 23 at age 93, really got to U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. And Nixon's inability to manage his anger helped bring down his presidency.
In 1971, Nixon sicced the FBI and the IRS on Schorr after he broadcast reports for CBS News on Nixon's failure to fulfill a pledge to assist Catholic schools.
"You take a fellow like this Dan Schorr," Nixon complained on Sept. 18, 1971, to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in a tape recorded Oval Office conversation transcribed by the University of Virginia. "He is always creating something, isn't he?"
Haldeman replied, "You don't, shouldn't get involved in this, but he's on our tax list, too."
"Good," Nixon said. "Pound these people."
Later in the conversation, Nixon and Haldeman discussed a trumped-up FBI investigation of Schorr and prepared a phony cover story about Schorr being considered for a federal appointment.
The second article of impeachment adopted by the House Committee on the Judiciary on July 27, 1974, charged Nixon with abusing his authority over government agencies by targeting certain U.S. citizens for illegal investigations. Schorr was one of those cited in the record. Thirteen days later, Nixon slinked off into history as the only American president ever to resign from office.
In a piece about Schorr for The Nation last week, John Nichols wrote that "Schorr's unofficial beat was always the abuse of power," which gets it just right.
But on one glaring occasion, Schorr's single-minded, hard-headed dedication to that mission brought him grief not only from the powerful but also from some of his own colleagues.
In the summer of 1975, Schorr was on the intelligence beat for CBS News, pursuing stories of abuses by the CIA, FBI and other agencies. Simultaneous investigations by special committees in the House and Senate were uncovering a long and sordid record of illegal activity at home and abroad.
The House committee, chaired by New York Democrat Otis Pike, completed its investigation and voted to publish its findings with sensitive national security information deleted. But under pressure from then-President Gerald Ford, the full House voted to keep even the edited version of the committee's report secret.
Schorr got a copy of the report from a trusted source and began filing on-air reports about its contents. But CBS executives would not agree to supplement its broadcast reporting with print publication of the complete document. Without CBS' approval or knowledge -- and fearing that the full report might never see the light of day -- Schorr secretly gave the report to the Village Voice. The Voice published it on Feb. 16, 1976, as a 24-page supplement with the front-page headline, "The report on the CIA that President Ford doesn't want you to read."
It was a bombshell, and CBS executives were not happy.
Schorr recounted the aftermath in a 90th-birthday interview with NPR's Robert Siegel in 2006. The day the Voice hit the stands, Schorr said he was called into the office of Sanford Socolow, then the Washington bureau chief of CBS News, and asked what he knew about the Voice's publication. Schorr said he ducked the question.
Then, according to Schorr, Socolow noted that Lesley Stahl, then a CBS White House reporter, was dating Aaron Latham, a writer for New York magazine. New York magazine and the Village Voice were both owned by editor/publisher Clay Felker. Socolow asked Schorr if he thought there might be a connection between Stahl's romantic relationship and the Voice's publication of the Pike report.
As Schorr described it on NPR, "I said, 'Ummm. Who knows?' I allowed him to entertain that thought for one day. The next day ... I went into Sandy Socolow's office and said, 'Forget what I said yesterday. Stop looking for who it was.'"
Stahl's account is radically different. In Reporting Live, the memoir she published in 2000, Stahl quotes by name CBS News executives who said Schorr told them he believed Stahl had taken the report from his desk and leaked it to the Voice. She points out that the Washington Post identified Schorr as the leaker before Schorr says he told Socolow. And she says that Socolow called Schorr a liar.
The House ethics committee investigated the leak and called Schorr to testify. He refused to say who gave him the report, and the committee eventually declined to cite Schorr for contempt.
With the legal situation resolved, Schorr sat for a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in which he denied implicating Stahl. The next day he resigned from CBS, and according to Stahl, she got his office. Her memoir describes a phone call from Schorr several weeks later as a half-hearted and not very convincing apology.
Twenty years later, the rift was still raw.
On January 25, 1996, I sat in the front row at Low Library on the campus of Columbia University as Schorr accepted the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton for "exceptional lifetime contributions to radio and television reporting and commentary." I was a member of the seven-person jury that had given Schorr the Gold Baton, awarded only in those years when we believed there was a worthy candidate.
Schorr's official National Public Radio biography, which Schorr undoubtedly reviewed and approved, gives the Gold Baton the greatest prominence among his many awards, saying "[it] is the most prestigious award in the field of broadcasting and is considered the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize."
The host of the awards that year was Ted Koppel, then the anchor and managing editor of ABC News' Nightline.
As the ceremonies drew near, I thought Schorr's award would have special resonance that night, considering that at least two of the Silver Baton honors that year were going to programs on issues Schorr had covered himself with distinction: The Discovery Channel's Watergate, a five-hour documentary (also narrated by Schorr); and PBS' America's War on Poverty, a five-hour documentary by Blackside Productions, and a story Schorr had covered when he returned from his European posting for CBS in the mid-1960s.
In accordance with long-standing tradition, Columbia's president at the time, George Rupp, would present the Gold Baton. The scheduled Silver Baton presenters had been announced a month earlier: Koppel of ABC; Schorr, by then 11 years into his 25-year run at NPR; Tim Russert of NBC; Ralph Begleiter of CNN' PBS's Charlie Rose; and, representing CBS News, Lesley Stahl.
On January 24, one day before the awards ceremony, Stahl cancelled.
Eric Mink most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the St Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. He now teaches film as an adjunct assistant professor at Webster University in St. Louis.
GUEST BLOG #100: TVWW Welcomes Its Newest Contributor, Eric Mink, Who Assesses the Media Flap Over the McChrystal Story
June 30, 2010 5:16 AM
[Bianculli here: Just in time for the relaunch, we're proudly adding yet another co-conspirator to TV WORTH WATCHING: Eric Mink, whom long-time New York Daily News readers will remember was my co-conspirator, and fellow TV critic, there as well. And for his first story for us, Eric offers his take on the reporting of, and reaction to, the Gen. Stanley McChrystal remarks...]
What Reporters Should, and Shouldn't, Report
By Eric Mink
Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi -- never one to mince words, thank god -- unloaded on CBS News' Lara Logan in a Monday blog post headlined, a tad indelicately, "Lara Logan, You Suck."
Actually, Logan already had established that fact pretty conclusively herself in an embarrassing interview televised Sunday on CNN's Reliable Sources, but I guess Taibbi wanted to make sure no one missed the point.
What infuriated Taibbi most, he wrote, was Logan's thinly disguised accusation that freelance writer Michael Hastings has been lying about the tactics he used in reporting his stunning piece for Rolling Stone on Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal had been the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until last week when President Obama relieved him of duty for insubordination plainly revealed in comments by McChrystal and senior members of his staff in Hastings' story.
Logan told Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz, "Michael Hastings, if you believe him, says that there were no ground rules laid out. And, I mean, that just doesn't really make a lot of sense to me... I mean, I know these people. They never let their guard down like that... I just -- I don't believe it." (See the video HERE.)
Tabbi laid into the we're-all-friends, beat-reporting approach that Logan seemed to endorse, and then lumped her in with the prototypical "would-be 'reputable' journalist who's just been severely ass-whipped by a relative no-name freelancer on an enormous story [and who] fights back by going on television and, without any evidence at all, accusing the guy who beat him of cheating."
Vitriol aside, Taibbi's best point, I think, is the sad truth that far too many journalists -- mainstream AND non-mainstream, by the way -- forget who we're supposed to be reporting and writing for. It's not for our editors. It's not for our publishers or advertisers. It's not for other journalists. And it's certainly not for the -- choose as many as you want -- politicians, administrative staffers, athletes, team managers, funders, business executives, club owners, civilian officials, campaign strategists or the military commanders and their suck-up staffs we're covering.
It really doesn't matter whether we're on the international terrorism beat or the television beat. We report, research, analyze, assess and write for our readers, listeners and viewers -- people who, for an infinite number of reasons, can't do it for themselves. They DO, however, want to know about things, and they are willing to grant us the most valuable thing they have -- a slice of their extremely limited time -- in exchange for honest, skilled, professional work that gives them information of value.
Logan is hardly alone in not having a clue about this (and not realizing that she doesn't), nor is Taibbi alone among reporters in getting it, whether in print, broadcast, cable or Internet. But Hastings' story on McChrystal has cast the whole matter in high relief.
I've never been all that wild about the explanation that this is about access, that beat reporters play nice so that when real news develops, they'll be assured of hot information, good quotes and great guest bookings. Yeah, there's some of that, but Taibbi's blog post, again, gets at something deeper and more
primal and, therefore, more disturbing.
Reporters try to please the people they're covering, Taibbi wrote, "because you just want to be part of the club so so badly... Most of these reporters just want to be inside the ropeline so badly -- they want to be able to say they had that beer with Hillary Clinton in a bowling alley in Scranton or whatever -- that it colors their whole worldview."
It is a dangerous delusion. Jerry Berger, a long-time newspaper gossip columnist in St. Louis, advised me about this very early in my career. He said that a lot of reporters -- particularly those who deal with prominent people -- can be seduced by their proximity to wealth, power and fame, and come to believe that it's their world, too. They think that they're "part of the club," as Taibbi put it.
"We will never be part of their world," Berger warned me. "They will let us think we are, but only as long as they see us as useful to them somehow. Don't ever forget that."
Michael Hastings could have omitted the damning things he included in his piece on McChrystal & Co. in Afghanistan. I'd bet money, in fact, that he did leave out a lot of what some of his critics have dismissed as workplace banter and the universal practice of employees kvetching about their bosses.
But Hastings, like all reporters, had to make judgments about his material, about what he could leave out because it wasn't really important and what he had to include because it was. In making those judgments, context mattered.
Hastings knew, for example, that a confidential report on Afghanistan that McChrystal had written for Defense Secretary Robert Gates last August 30 had been leaked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and published on Sept. 21. The source of the leak remains unknown, but the report itself bolstered arguments in favor of the strategy McChrystal favored in Afghanistan, and it leaked at the precise time that the Obama administration was considering which policy options to adopt.
Hastings also knew that last October 1, with the administration still mulling its options, McChrystal made a public speech and answered questions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in which he endorsed certain policies and criticized others. A day later, McChrystal was ordered to fly to Copenhagen, where he received a private rebuke from the president aboard Air Force One on an airport
With that as background, what Hastings encountered in Afghanistan was top aides to McChrystal who were willing to ridicule senior administration officials and do so in McChrystal's presence. He saw McChrystal let them do so with impunity and, in a couple of instances, saw the general make his own disparaging comments.
At that point, Hastings had only two choices: Cover up yet another instance of a wartime general and his staff demeaning their civilian superiors, or provide readers with an honest report of a story of major significance.
We know what Hastings did. And, I guess, we know what Lara Logan's choice would have been.
Eric Mink most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously wrote about television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. He now teaches film as an adjunct assistant professor at Webster University in St. Louis.
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