Sunday, April 8, 2012

Remembering Mike Wallace

         The most noteworthy thing that Mike Wallace and I had in common, other than we both worked at CBS News in the 1970s and 1980s, was a disdain for the university that the other attended.
         Mike graduated from the University of Michigan, I, more than a dozen years later, from The Ohio State University, and each year our teams played in The Game, a cross-border football rivalry that began in 1897.
         I’m not sure how either of us had learned where the other went to school, but as the November contest neared in 1974, Mike walked through the newsroom, where I was a writer for the CBS Evening News, pointed at me, and declared, “You’re going to lose.”
         I called after him, “Want to bet?”
         And thus began an annual ritual, ten dollars, no points, winner take all. It was a civil wager, with a short-lived bragging right, the loser having to deliver the purse to the victor.
But in 1984, the last year of our betting, when Ohio State beat Michigan, 21-6, Mike walked into the newsroom, dumped 1,000 pennies on my desk, and quickly left without saying a word. 
I moved from CBS News to NBC News the following year, just before The Game. It was a good thing, since Michigan won that contest, 27-17.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Always Wonder Why

           I thought of Andy Rooney the other day when I filled the tank of my car. The price of mid-grade gasoline was $3.55.9 a gallon, and I recalled how, many years ago during one of his commentaries on 60 Minutes, Andy had wondered why that nine-tenths of a cent always was tacked on to gasoline prices.
Why, he asked, didn’t the oil companies just round up to the full cent?
Among his many friends at CBS News, I was one of the newer ones, having met him in 1973, shortly after I joined the CBS Evening News. As journalists who considered ourselves writers first, Andy and I shared a passion for the written word. And we liked the low-tech way of getting those words on paper, using a manual typewriter.
I had bought an old Underwood at a yard sale a few months earlier, and I knew that Andy used a similar typewriter in his office. As he was walking through the newsroom one day, I asked him if he knew of a way to learn when my typewriter was manufactured. He told me where to find the serial number on it, and returned a short time later with a piece of paper with serial numbers and corresponding dates  – typewritten, of course: it turned out that my Underwood was built in 1942, the year that I was born.
Andy suggested that I take it to Martin Tytell, a forensic typewriter expert in Lower Manhattan, who could show me how to make it like new. With Andy Rooney as my reference, Tytell did, and thus began my hobby of collecting old typewriters, with bookcase shelves now filled with 18 L.C. Smiths, Coronas, Underwoods, Royals and others, ranging in age from 1875 to 1942, all in perfect working condition; there are a few more in my basement, awaiting repair.
Several years ago, a student at Portland High School in Maine asked Andy to deliver the commencement address, and he accepted. Andy later told me that he did it because of the sheer audacity of the invitation. “I don’t like to do these things,” he said. “But how could I refuse such a wonderful request?”
When I heard that he was coming to Portland, I emailed Andy an offer to stay at my house, which was about 25 miles away. He called me to explain that he planned to drive to the graduation ceremony in the morning, and then head right back to Boston, where his wife Marge and he were visiting. But he asked me to come into Portland to visit with him, and I did, and we spent about a half-hour talking before the speech, and half as long after. The one line that I remember was when he admonished the students to not sleep late in the morning, “to make the most of your days, because time is too valuable.”
            In addition to words and typewriters, Andy and I liked to play tennis, and we always had time for that.
            Andy had heard about a Tuesday and Thursday lunchtime tennis club that Walter Cronkite and I were putting together. Among the original members were Bud Benjamin, the Evening News executive producer; John Lane, the senior producer; Bill Willson, an associate producer; Charles Osgood, a correspondent; and Howard Stringer, then the executive producer of CBS Reports. We needed one more person to complete the group, so that four of us could play at least once a week. 
“Include me in the tennis club,” Andy said over the phone. “I can be available any time you want.”
            And he always was. If a particular member were unable to play on his assigned day, I would call the others. Andy would say, “I’ll cancel lunch plans.” Walter, Bud, John, Charlie and Bill would say, “Let me check my schedule.” Howard would ask, “Who else is playing?”
            Andy wasn’t a great player; on most days, he wasn’t even a good player, possessing a forehand that was hard pressed to stay inbounds, and a backhand that hit the net more often than it cleared it. But he worked harder on the court than any of us, and if he happened to be at the net for a return, his spring-action overhead was deadly accurate.
            And so were Andy’s off-the-court comments, his takes on everything from events around the world to happenings within the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street, where we all worked. Those were good days back then, when it was fun to be with colleagues, on and off the tennis court. Those are the memories that I always will have.
And now, whenever I pull into a gas station, I will look at that nine-tenths of a cent, think of Andy, and wonder why.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remembering the "Good Old Days"

            Whenever two or more recovering journalists get together, chances are likely that at least part of their conversation will involve which were the best “good old days.”
            For me, the bookends were from 1963, with the March on Washington, the first national story that I covered, through 1993, when I decided that it was time to step back from the daily pressure cooker of network television news.
            But I never abandoned the reporting life; I just scaled it down a bit, briefly editing a small daily newspaper in Maine, writing about the media, and advising and teaching what I am hopeful will be a new crop of journalists who one day will make their own “good old days” arguments.
            Along the way on this journey, I was privileged to work with some of the great names in journalism – editors, reporters, anchors, producers, columnists, as well as other professionals whose jobs defied any easy labeling.
            To try to name them all, of course, would be an impossible task, due in part to normal memory cell deterioration but also because of a fear that inadvertently neglecting someone could end a friendship.
            Definitely on the list, though, is Walter Cronkite, who has no equal as a newsman. I worked with him as a CBS Evening News writer for seven years, the best years of my life as a journalist, and his presence is sorely missed in today’s news world.
Also on the list, without question, is John Chancellor, with whom I worked during my eight years as News Editor with the NBC Nightly News.  When John died on July 12, 1996, I was doing media commentary for the Bangor Daily News. I wrote a column then about John’s death, and I believe that what it said about him and about journalism is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

Chancellor remembered with own words

By Sandor M. Polster
BANGOR DAILY NEWS (BANGOR, MAINE Saturday, July 20, 1996)
John Chancellor died a week ago yesterday, two days short of his 69th birthday, three years after his farewell to NBC News.
Death from gastric cancer, a disease that he called "a damned inconvenience," cheated John of writing his book about how television has changed politics; it cheated us of a newsman who valued truth above all.
I first met John on a hot and humid day in June 1979, in Vienna, Austria, when President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II agreement.
My assignment that day, as a writer for Walter Cronkite's "CBS Evening News," was to study the 200-page summit communique, determine the significant parts, and prepare the script for that night's broadcast. I was working in a small office behind the Grand Gallery in the Schonbrunn Palace when I heard a light knock on the door and the clearing of a throat.
It was John Chancellor, then the anchor of the "NBC Nightly News." He asked if I would mind his sharing the office while he read the communique. For the next couple of hours, we dissected the documents like two graduate students preparing for a final exam.
Some of John's thoughts about the arms agreement were read that evening by Walter Cronkite on CBS. Some of mine were read by John Chancellor on NBC.
It was more than six years later, after I had left CBS to join "NBC Nightly News," that I again saw John; he had become the show's commentator. I was pounding away on a computer when I heard a gentle clearing of a throat and looked up.
"We met in Vienna," he said. "You may not remember me. I owe you a drink for letting me use your office."
Thus developed a friendship that was based on kinship: Each of us had started as newspaper reporters, each worshipped the written word, each regretted the changes that television news had undergone.
During the 1988 political party conventions in Atlanta and New Orleans, I worked with John in the anchor booth, one floor down from Tom Brokaw. John's only comment about the physical arrangement was, "Oh well, at least I have fewer stairs to climb."
He and I would walk together from the trailers where NBC News based its operations to the convention halls, and he would be embarrassed by the attention and the affection that people accorded him. He made various comments about this to me, none of which I accurately remember.
But he told The Washington Post in June 1993, "I've always believed the news is more important than you are. Being good at journalism does not mean being a big showoff or hot dog, but finding ways of making the substance of news interesting to people."'
John and I retired from NBC News a month apart. Our reasons were the same. We had, as he used to say, "outlived the culture." He told me, "It isn't retirement, it's liberation." He told an interviewer, "If I were a product on the shelf, I'd be in violation of food and drug laws."
Our friendship that began in Vienna and grew over the years while at work at NBC, and while at rest at bars and restaurants around Rockefeller Center, survived the past three years via the telephone and the fax machine.
John never complained about the chemotherapy and radiation treatments for his cancer -- "legalized poisoning," he called them. He always tried to be optimistic, and was dismayed about, but understanding of, the pessimism being expressed during this year's political campaign.
"I cannot recall when in a presidential political year that people were optimistic," he said.
When I sent John a note about an essay idea I was considering, he faxed back a suggestion that I make a comparison to Shakespeare; he even offered me the appropriate quote.
In 1990, John gave me a copy of his book, "Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America." When I learned that he had died, I took it from the shelf and read his inscription to me: "From his colleague, friend and fan."
There are no words more fitting than those for me to sign my tribute to John Chancellor.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big City Byline

            It was with great pride, and even greater trepidation, that I walked into the newsroom of the New York Post a few minutes before 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday, January 8, 1968, as an employee. I was assigned to the rewrite bank, the youngest of about eight people who would take street reporters’ phoned-in notes and turn them into stories for the country’s largest circulation afternoon newspaper.
It was Big City journalism as I always had imagined – loud, profane, chaotic, challenging. And it was incredible fun.
            But just 39 days earlier, I had come within five minutes of none of this happening. My last day of work at the one-room office of the Associated Press, located in the newsroom of the Portland Press Herald/Evening Express newspaper in Maine, was on Friday, December 22, 1967.
My shift normally ended at 2 p.m., but I decided to hang around the office for a while, to talk with people I probably never would see again. I had no idea what I would do the following week; I had heard nothing from the New York Post, where I had interviewed a month earlier, and where I very much wanted to work.
            Shortly before 3 p.m., as I was leaving, a Press Herald editor stopped me to say goodbye, and, in those few minutes, Bill Langzetelle, the head of the AP bureau, called out, “Sandy. Phone call from New York.”
            It was John Bott, the Post city editor. “When can you start?” he asked. We agreed on – actually, he suggested – the first Monday after New Year’s Day.
            Twenty-two days later, I received my first Post byline. Looking back now, I realize it wasn't particularly good. But at the time I thought it was great, a story written on deadline, two paragraphs at a time, with a copy boy running my words to editors as fast as I could type. In those days, the Post had seven editions, with deadlines at various times from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and for each deadline the copy had to be edited, set in type, and put on the press. 
Vince Austin, the Post’s police reporter in the Borough of Queens, had read me his notes – rough facts, a few quotes, bare details, no time for anything else. But it was a story with tabloid written all over it, about how a woman’s body was found that morning near her home, and how none of her neighbors had responded to her screams for help, and I milked it for all it was worth. Under the headline “Woman Slain As Her Cries Go Unheeded,” the story began:
       Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
   This morning, her battered, partly nude body was found in an alley, at 35-30 34th St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
   Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.
            Back then, someone still in the 90-day probationary period wouldn’t receive a byline, but Fred McMurrow, then in charge of the copy desk, kept shouting “I’m loving this” as he pushed through my copy, and, when I completed the story, John Bott, the city editor, asked how I wanted my name spelled. I was so nervous that I wrote it out for him on a piece of copy paper, and even included the “By.”
             And thus began my six years with the Post, working with some of the legends of New York journalism (introductions in a subsequent Blog posting), first on rewrite’s back row, then with the first string, then reporting various beats – community services, labor, City Hall – but always returning to rewrite, the heart of an afternoon newspaper, the only job where the pace is so fast that you don’t have time to second guess.
- 0 -

Here is my first byline story, as it appeared, including a typo, at the top left of Page 2 in the New York Post on January 30, 1968:

Woman Slain

As Her Cries

Go Unheeded


     Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
      This morning, her  battered,  partly  nude body was  found  in an  alley, at 35-30 
34th  St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
     Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.

      Neighbors told police they had heard screams, but thought it was just cats fighting.
   Other neighbors said they heard garbage cans rattling but assumed the noise was caused by dogs.
   Miss Lang, a telephone operator at Manhattan’s Beverly Hotel at 51st St. and Lexington Av., was 59. She lived alone in a 2 1/2-room apartment at 35-16 34th St. Police believe she may have been raped.
     “Between 12:30 and 1 o’clock this morning I heard three screams, one right after the other,” said a woman neighbor of Miss Lang’s. “I was waiting for the fourth.”
     “It was definitely a woman’s scream,” she said. “I had no impulse to call the police because we hear that quite often in their neighborhood now, and it’s usually a family fight, and nobody wants to get involved in a family fight.”
      The woman said that she feels “badly now that I didn’t call the police.”
    Other neighbors had told her they had heard screams early this morning she said, but no one called the police.
    “This neighborhood is changing, and now we’re getting more afraid every day,” she said.
     May Lang apparently wasn’t afraid of the neighborhood.
    She worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, and always walked the 3 1/2 blocks from the elevated train at 31st St. and 36th Av. to her apartment.
   Miss Lang’s best friend, Florence Limitone, who lives in the same apartment building, criticized those who heard her cries for help but failed to respond.
    “It must be terrible for people to hear her scream and not do anything about it. They could have done something. After all, they wer in the security of their own homes.”
    Miss Lang’s body was discovered at about 7:30 a.m. Her undergarments were found in a backyard nearby, her dress was pulled over her head.
     A fur coat, red shoes, red handbag and a shopping bag containing beer and soap were found nearby.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Empty Throne


            I wonder whether Dan Rather is going to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his ascension to the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Well, not exactly the actual chair on that first broadcast, March 9, 1981, since Rather, with less than two minutes to airtime, refused to sit in the seat that Walter Cronkite had occupied the previous 19 years.
            Only Rather can explain his petty pique, but it was a near-catastrophe that will not be soon forgotten, all these years later, by those who had worked so hard to make sure that his debut broadcast would be perfect.
            During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news, perhaps, standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.
            Rather had inherited me, as he did most of the rest of the Evening News staff, from Cronkite; I was one of three news writers, with responsibility for international and U.S. foreign policy news, and I sat directly to his right at the desk that during the day was the working “slot,” an old newspaper term for copy desk, and at 6:30 p.m. was the anchor desk. Behind the anchor chair was a slide-out shelf with a typewriter on it.
            As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, “Two minutes. Two minutes to air,” Rather stood up from the chair and declared, “I want to sit here,” and moved the typewriter and perched himself on the shelf.
            Sandy Socolow, the executive producer, was in a videotape room working on a last-minute report when he heard over the intercom the crazed voice of the broadcast director, Richard Mutschler. While a verbatim text of what Mutschler said does not exist, it is certain that more than a few expletives were included in his surprised shouts.
            On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, “Good evening,” his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes.
            But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent. Thirty years later, I still can see Dan Rather perched on that typewriter table, looking a bit constipated, as if he were bracing for a hasty retreat.
            It would take exactly 24 years for that to happen, for Rather to announce on March 9, 2005, his departure as CBS Evening News anchor because of a contentious report the previous September that questioned President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record.
            So, in addition to wondering whether Rather might observe the anniversary of his first CBS Evening News broadcast, I wonder whether he will make any note of his last. If he had any class, he would ignore both.

            For the record, here is Walter Cronkite’s March 6, 1981, sign-off:
“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News. For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.
“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists – writers, reporters, editors, producers – and none of that will change.
“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, Universe. Old anchorman, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.
“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Brief Diversion


NewsMediaMaven was created for me to write about, before I forget them, experiences and anecdotes from my more than 45-year-long career in print and broadcast journalism.
            But, with apologies, I’ve decided that this space also should allow me to rant a bit about things that are akin to fingernails on a chalkboard – the misuse of language.
            I had the good fortune to study at the elbows of two of the greatest and longest-serving news editors in the history of network news: John Merriman of the CBS Evening News and Gilbert Millstein of the NBC Nightly News. Each in his own way was a self-appointed guardian of the written and spoken word, John with a sense of humor and seemingly never-ending laugh, Gil with a greater seriousness and a less forgiving memory.
            But both believed in the accuracy and the austerity of language, and they used their skills as editors to make sure that the scripts of anchors and correspondents alike were understandable, since in broadcast journalism there are no second chances. Theirs were lessons that I learned, and tried to continue during my eight years as News Editor at Nightly News.
            Now, however, on all broadcasts, network and cable, I sense backsliding. I don’t dispute that English is a living language – additions each year to dictionaries are proof of that – but there are some words and phrases that should be locked in time.
Following, in no particular order of importance, are a few examples that prompt me to yell at the television set:

War on Terror
As defined in most dictionaries, “Terror” means “extreme fear,” which can be of many things, such as darkness or spiders. What is being fought now by governments is a “War on Terrorism,” which means against “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

Mid-Air Collision 
Where, exactly, is “mid-air”? When you think about that phrase, it makes no sense. Planes collide either on the ground or in flight.

The Skies Above
Space is vast, but there is only one sky above us. Enough said.

None is
“None” is not a contraction of “no one,” and therefore it requires the plural “are.”

Media Is
“The media,” with very few exceptions, are plural, and require a plural verb. “Medium” is singular.

Politics Are
“Politics” is a singular noun, and requires a singular verb. Just ask Tip O’Neill.

To “interpret” something is to imply evaluation. The word to describe someone who turns a foreign language into English without expressing an opinion is “Translator.”

That’s how the British spell the title of someone who provides advice. In the United States, it should be spelled “Adviser.”

Technically, an “Attorney” is an agent, and that title does not automatically convey legal skills. A “Lawyer” is clearly defined as a “legal representative.”

Farther and Further
“Farther” is used when referring to distances, while “Further” implies a state of mind, something that is continued.

Between and Among
It is “between” two people, “among” three or more.

Percent and Percentage Point
There is a difference: “Percent” is the rate, number, or amount of something in each hundred; “Percentage” is any proportion or share in relation to a whole. If something increased from 10 percent to 15 percent, the increase would be 5 percentage points.

            These are just a few of my pet peeves. I invite readers to add some of theirs to the list.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome to New York

    I became a reporter with the New York Post the first week of January 1968. It always had been known as a writer’s newspaper, number three in a city where The Times and the Daily News dominated, but it was at the top of the list of fun places to work, a kind of place that no longer exists.
    My introduction to this feisty broadsheet dressed in tabloid clothing, however, had been on an unusually warm November 20th in 1967, when I was invited to a 4 p.m. interview at 110 Washington Street, in Lower Manhattan. On the outside of that building was the address, but there was nothing to indicate that inside was the largest afternoon daily newspaper in the United States. In the lobby, a maintenance person at a desk motioned me to a bank of elevators, told me to go to the second floor, to turn left, and to walk to the end of the hallway.
    From the elevator, I passed an open men's lavatory that clearly needed to have its ventilation system repaired, and then walked through a door that was one end of an overcrowded coatroom. The other end had swinging saloon-like doors that opened into a packed newsroom.
    The first person I saw was sitting at a small desk, clenching a thin cigar in his mouth, wearing a three-button suit jacket, a button-down shirt and a necktie, pounding away at a manual typewriter; I later learned he was Joe Kahn, one of the best reporters in the news business. When I asked him where I might find John Bott, the city editor, he glared at me through thick glasses and growled, “Do I look like a fucking receptionist?" He obviously did not expect an answer.
    The newsroom seemed on the edge of chaos, with the sound of typewriters competing with shouts and ringing telephones, all of this drowned out by the roar of traffic through windows overlooking the West Side Highway, wide open because there was no air conditioning. The room, with a paint color somewhere between putty and mildew, smelled of a mixture of exhaust fumes, ink, sweat and cigarette smoke. Hanging from the ceiling like stalactites were drinking straw wrappers that had been dipped in jelly from donuts and fired skyward by staffers over the years. On the bare cement floor were wadded up pieces of copy paper and crushed cigarette butts.
    I was ten months out of graduate school and, as only arrogant youth can dictate, I was impatient to advance my career. The Associated Press in Portland, Maine, where I was working, was a dead end, I thought, and New York would be my future. I had written letters in the fall to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Life magazine and the New York Post, and vowed to take the first job offered. The Times’ Abe Rosenthal, then the managing editor, wrote me a polite rejection; the Wall Street Journal offered me a reporting job in Pittsburgh; Life magazine never responded. John Bott wrote that he would like to meet with me.
    The interview, which lasted about 20 minutes, was conducted at Bott’s desk in the middle of the newsroom. He was a short man, hampered by leg braces from childhood polio, white haired, in his 50s, dressed in slacks, white shirt and dark tie. Throughout our conversation, an adjacent door to the press area kept opening and closing as page proofs of the last of seven editions were rushed to him and other editors; Bott at first was apologetic for the interruptions, but after the fourth or fifth time he just smiled.
    As the interview ended, Bott briefly introduced me to Stan Opotowsky, the managing editor who sat to the left of him, dapper in a crisp blue dress shirt, patterned tie and suspenders, and, directly across the desk, to Larry Nathanson, the assistant city editor, whose tie was loosened, checkered shirt wrinkled, khakis stained by spilled coffee. Bott then nodded to me, shook my hand, and said he would be in touch. I thanked him for his time, and, as I headed back past Joe Kahn’s desk, being careful to avoid eye contact, and into the coatroom, a loud bell rang, and the roll of the presses began to shake the building. It was a great sound, a great feeling, and I knew then that I had found my new home.