David Bruce: Media Anecdotes

• In February 2009, the Tucson Weeklycelebrated 25 years of existence. Since most alternative newspapers don’t last that long, it was and is something to celebrate. Douglas Biggers and a friend named Mark Goehring started the newspaper. Mr. Biggers wrote in the newspaper’s 25th-anniversary edition, “It should have died a quick and easy death, since it was started by two 24-year-olds with no money, limited experience and virtually no qualifications to assume the monikers of editor and publisher. The city had a nasty reputation for chewing up and spitting out all attempts to start publications that were alternatives to the daily papers. That the Tucson Weeklycontinues to thrive and can celebrate 25 years of publication is nothing short of a miracle.” One of the miracles that kept the newspaper alive was that they never received a bill for printing it for the newspaper’s entire first year of existence. They had asked for two weeks’ credit, and they marveled as the two weeks’ credit turned into 50 weeks’ credit, during all of which time they were making the newspaper grow. At the end of the year, they contacted their printer and set up a meeting to discuss their credit situation. It was about time, because they now owed over $100,000 in printing costs. They soon discovered why they had received a year’s credit: An accounting clerk at the printer’s offices did not want to confront them about their bill, so the clerk had let the credit continue. Mr. Biggers remembers, “The suits from Texas came to town soon thereafter, and the story ends with a lawsuit that was settled out of court after a series of misadventures with attorneys and a judge pro tem who I am convinced (and whose name I cannot recall) was a fan of the paper and somehow enabled us to prevail against formidable odds.” In the end, the Tucson Weeklysurvived, which is something worth celebrating.

• Chicago reporter Harry Romanoff was a good man on the telephone, and he impersonated many notabilities in order to get information. After a Chicago police officer was killed, newspapers wanted a photograph of the police officer, but his family was secluded and would not admit into the house any of the Chicago reporters, including Jack McPhaul, who worked at the Examinerwith Mr. Romanoff. However, the door of the house opened, and the widow asked, “Where’s the Examinerman?” Mr. McPhaul came forward, and the widow let him inside, led him to the telephone, and said, “The captain wants to talk to you.” Not surprisingly to Mr. McPhaul, Mr. Romanoff was on the telephone. Mr. Romanoff said, “Don’t let on. She thinks I’m the district captain. I’ve told her the Examineris the police department’s best friend. She’ll give you his picture. Hustle it down here.” Mr. McPhaul left the house with a photograph of the slain police officer, much to the disgust and envy of the other rival reporters.

• National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr had an extraordinarily long career, and he was still working hard in his 90s. Of course, in that time, he had experienced and been a part of much history, including being on President Richard M. Nixon’s “enemies list.” He said about his younger colleagues at NPR, “They frequently come to me and ask about Watergate. I’ve become ‘Mr. History.’” Unfortunately, some of his younger colleagues have little sense of history. For example, Mr. Schorr told a story about a person who said to him, “Daniel, I had a question. You covered the Spanish-American War and …”—of course, the Spanish-American War occurred in 1898, while Mr. Schorr was born in 1916. Mr. Schorr does, of course, use his knowledge of history in his work; he says that “one thing I consciously try to do in the commentaries is take today’s development and stack it up against a history of what might have happened before.”

• In 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers won the first two games of the NBA Championships, beating the Boston Celtics. Laker Magic Johnson worried after the second game that his teammates, including Michael Cooper, were spending too much time talking to reporters—something that can lead to cockiness and overconfidence, which are not what you want to have when facing a tough opponent. Magic whispered to Michael to end the interview. Michael kept talking, so Magic tapped Michael on the shoulder and told him it was time to end the interview—now. This could have led to a disagreement between teammates, but Michael respected Magic, so he smiled and ended the interview, telling the reporters, “Well, you heard him.” The Lakers became NBA Champions, defeating the Celtics four games to two.

• As an employee at the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert was one of the reporters who spent a lot of time at Billy Goat’s and at Riccardo’s. Reporters from the Chicago Daily Newsspent much time at both places, too. Billy Goat’s was a bar, and Riccardo’s was an Italian restaurant. When Riccardo’s was sold, a Chicago Sun-Timesreporter interviewed the seller, who said that he had enjoyed being the owner of the restaurant, with one exception: “On Friday nights, they let the animals out of the zoo.” John McHugh, a Daily Newsreporter, read the article, and then told Roger, “Ebert, he means us.”

• At one time, sportswriters were a wild and crazy bunch who used to have fun. For example, Texas sportwriters Gary Cartwright, Blackie Sherrod, and Bud Shrake used to wear capes and leotards and pretend to be Les Flying Punzars, acrobatic Italians who came from a mysterious somewhere. Their specialty was the triple somersault, which unfortunately they were always unable to perform because they lacked a trapeze. By the way, Mr. Sherrod used to refer to sports as the “perspiring arts.”

• Not every reporter knows much about music, even when assigned to write an article about musicians. When the Beatles first came to the United States, an American reporter asked what they most wanted to see. The Beatles replied, “Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.” Surprised by the answer, the reporter asked, “Where’s that?”

• President Lyndon Johnson once put his face close to the face of White House reporter Hugh Sidey and said, “Every reporter I ever met has a character flaw. What’s yours?”


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David Bruce: Media Anecdotes

Some people whose photographs appear in such magazines as InStyle, In Touch, Life & Style, Star, OK!, and Us are not famous, which means that they have to work very hard at appearing in these magazines. One such person is Phoebe Price, who spends a lot of time and money going to parties at Cannes, the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Oscars. One of her tips for being photographed in expensive and skimpy clothing at such parties is this: “Say I find a Dolce & Gabbana dress, and I think it’s really hot and I think someone else [who is famous] might wear it. I’ll wear it so that it might get compared in a magazine.” Ms. Price even has an informant at Saks Fifth Avenue who tells her what celebrities are planning to wear to parties where the paparazzi will be around. Ms. Price also says that when the paparazzi have her in their sights, “I always do side angles and over-the-shoulder. I give them 15 to 20 looks.” Joel Stein, a humor columnist who interviewed Ms. Price for the Los Angeles Times, decided to try to get the paparazzi to take photographs of Cassandra, his wife. Mr. Stein announced to the paparazzi that Cassandra Barry was about to walk down the carpet to a party. Immediately, members of the paparazzi shouted, “Cassandra, up top!” As Cassandra gave the paparazzi side angles and over-the-shoulder looks, the cameras snapped, and she ended up giving the paparazzi 15 to 20 looks.

Musician Naomi Judd hosts a cable-TV talk show on Sunday mornings, and if she could have any guest she wanted, she would have Jesus as her guest. During a break while appearing on Larry King’s talk show, she asked him whom he would like to have as a guest. Mr. King replied, “God.” She then asked him what would be his first question. Mr. King replied, “I would ask Him if He had a Son.” Ms. Judd has long taken religion seriously. Her mother tells a story about when Naomi was a child. Her mother met Naomi’s Sunday-School teacher, who told her that she had to be extra prepared to teach her Sunday-School lessons because Naomi was sure to ask questions such as “’Would you explain that Immaculate Conception just one more time?” and “OK, how did He raise Lazarus from the dead?” As a young adult, she almost gave her mother a stroke when she told her mother that she had visited a Buddhist temple—as it happened, just to check it out. She also worked an extra shift as a young adult so she could buy the Time-Life series of books on the Great Religions.

Tabloid newspapers often don’t follow the rules that more established newspapers follow—getting readers can sometimes be regarded as more important than reporting truth. Robert Johnson, an assistant editor, said about the Hearst tabloid newspaper the Los Angeles Herald Express, “The paper was aimed at the underside of the community, the barely literate, the bored, the poor, the people who want to know about murders and UFO’s and sports results, and damn little else. It was just sloppy. No metro in America had more typos. We were embarrassed to tell people we worked there. It always crawled over any disaster because they were easy to cover.” The paper did have the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, Aggie Underwood, who enjoyed creating flashy names for murder cases. One murder case featured a waitress who had been stabbed to death. Ms. Underwood dropped a white carnation on the waitress’ corpse so she could call the case “THE WHITE CARNATION MURDER.”

Punk rocker Patti Smith occasionally acted badly. Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, received mainly mediocre and bad reviews, and that put her on the defensive. At a press conference in London, a music reporter asked her why tickets for her tour weren’t selling. She screamed, “F*ck you! You’re a rag! Get out of here!” She also took food from a plate and threw it. Next she was asked, “Which Beatle newsreel are you acting now?” She responded by climbing on a table, kicking away any objects that were on it. She then told everyone, “I’m the field marshal of rock ’n’ roll! I’m f*cking declaring war! My guitar is my machine gun!” One of the journalists present was Julie Burchill, a young fan of Ms. Smith’s. She was horrified and in tears because of Ms. Smith’s actions. Later, Ms. Burchill wrote, “For a two-year-old it would have been a very impressive performance; from the Queen of Rock and Roll it was like watching God jerk off.”

When Kathryn Crosby—not yet married to Bing—was 18 years old, she had a chance to interview famous stars Bob Hope and Joan Fonteyn. Unfortunately, she nearly caused a disaster by asking Ms. Fonteyn how old she was. Fortunately, Mr. Hope smoothed things over by saying, “Making allowances for your youth and inexperience, we still can’t let you talk to a great star that way. Now, here’s what you should have asked.” Mr. Hope then asked Ms. Fonteyn a series of questions that both elicited the information needed for Ms. Crosby to write an interesting newspaper column and flattered Ms. Fonteyn at the same time. Ms. Crosby writes, “It was a gentle and instructive rebuke from a master craftsman, and I never forgot the lesson that it instilled. Months later, when the same callow teen-ager interviewed Bing for her paper, she was ready to snare a superstar and a husband with a far more subtle approach.”

Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne once met writer Heywood Broun and told him, “I’m glad to know you, Broun. I often read your articles in the World.” This was a mistake because Mr. Broun had not written for the World for two years. Mr. Broun replied, “I’m glad to hear that. And by the way, that’s a great basketball team you have at Yale.”

Media representatives tend to always be present around such politicians and their wives as Al and Tipper Gore. In a comic protest, Tipper once soaked a few reporters with a water pistol.


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David Bruce: Media Anecdotes


In early June of 1893, President Grover Cleveland discovered that he had cancer of the mouth. He decided to have the tumor removed, but he was afraid that news of the operation—in which he had a 15 percent of dying—would panic Wall Street, which was already having troubles and so this operation would be done secretly. On June 30, he boarded the yacht Oneida, which was anchored in New York harbor. There, six physicians operated on him, removing the tumor, five teeth, and much of his upper left jawbone and left palate. The operation was successful, and by mid-July he began using a vulcanized rubber prosthetic that enabled him to speak in his normal voice. Elisha Jay Edwards, a reporter for The Philadelphia Press, heard rumors about the operation, and he was able to verify it by locating the anesthesiologist. On August 29, The Philadelphia Presspublished a major scoop titled “The President a Very Sick Man.” Unfortunately, although the article was true, the Cleveland administration denied that an operation had taken place, and soon Mr. Edwards was vilified and accused of having made up the story. His career as a reporter was nearly ruined. For 15 years, he could barely find work, but in 1909, he became a columnist for a new, struggling newspaper: The Wall Street Journal. Even then, the Grover Cleveland article he had written tainted his reputation. Finally, in 1917, one of the doctors who had performed the operation, W.W. Keen, who had always regretted how Mr. Edwards had been falsely accused of having made up the story about President Cleveland, wrote a confession that The Saturday Evening Post published. In it, he told the facts about the operation with the purpose, he wrote, of being able to “vindicate Mr. Edwards’ character as a truthful correspondent.” Mr. Edwards received many congratulatory letters and telegrams about the restoring of his reputation, and he wrote a thank-you letter to Mr. Keen.

At one time, Chicago journalists would pretend to be police officers or other officials, either in person or on the telephone, in order to get information from crime scenes. Frequently, they would pretend to be Sgt. Francis (Jiggs) Donohue, the chief officer for the coroner’s office. Chicago Herald-Examiner reporter Harry Romanoff once telephoned a barroom where a murder had occurred. On the phone, he said, “This is Sgt. Donohue of the coroner’s office.” The person who had answered the phone said, “That’s funny. So is this.” Sgt. Donohue had arrived at the murder scene faster than Mr. Romanoff had expected. Once, Buddy McHugh of the Chicago American arrived very quickly on a murder scene (a house), identified himself as Sgt. Donohue, and told the person at the house, “If some newspaper guy shows up posing as me, give him the bum’s rush.” Soon after Mr. McHugh had left, the real Sgt. Donohue showed up, but the householder said, “Go peddle your papers. I’m wise to you. Sgt. Donohue’s been here.”

Sassy, a magazine for North American teenage girls, published some important articles. The writers once spent a day looking through reader correspondence. In particular, they were looking for letters in which the writer wrote about being a victim of incest. Each time they found a letter from a victim of incest, they rang a bell. Unfortunately, the bell rang more often than anyone expected. The article that appeared in Sassy was titled “Real Stories About Incest.” It told the stories of three girls who were victims of incest. Running the story took courage on the part of Sassy, as many advertisers were boycotting it because it had run some articles about sex that the religious right disliked. Shortly after the article ran, Citicorp Venture Capital, which controlled 60 percent of Sassy, asked Sandra Yates, the founder of Sassy, to resign. Ms. Yates says, “It remains the most painful episode of my working career.”

Muhammad Ali may be the best boxer who ever lived—he is certainly the greatest boxing celebrity who ever lived. At one point in his career, he had an acute hernia condition and needed an operation. At Boston City Hospital, his surgeon said, “It was such a marvelously developed stomach—I hated to slice it up.” By the way, Mr. Ali knew how to get publicity. He wanted to be in Life magazine, so when he learned that Life photographer Flip Schulke was an expert in taking underwater photographs, he told him that he trained underwater. This was a lie—Mr. Ali could not even swim—but two pages of photos of Mr. Ali “training” underwater appeared in the September 8, 1961, issue of Life.

Not all interviewers are as prepared as they think they are. James Marshall, who wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books about two characters named George and Martha, once was interviewed by a woman on a radio show in Chicago. Before the interview, he asked her, “Do you need any information about myself?” She replied, “No. I’ve done my homework.” Unfortunately, her first question to him on the air was, “What’s it like writing about the First Family?” Mr. Marshall replied, “Well, it’s not that George and Martha.” She then asked, “Who are they, then?” Mr. Marshall replied, “Well … they’re hippos.” As you may expect, the interviewer was completely unprepared to interview him, and Mr. Marshall had to take over the interview.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutist Donald Peck was mightily unimpressed by opera singer Maria Callas. Once, the CSO was supposed to record with her. A rehearsal was scheduled, but Ms. Callas did not show up. The CSO waited for her because they were being paid for the time of the rehearsal, and when the rehearsal time was over they stood up to leave. At that exact time, Ms. Callas walked into the rehearsal space. Her agent made sure that the press knew that the CSO had risen out of respect to Ms. Callas, but Mr. Peck writes, “What a manipulation of the truth!”

Mort Sahl got his satiric comedy act from newspapers. The head of Fox Cable News, Roger Ailes, once saw him read a newspaper, then perform his act six hours later with 40 minutes of new satiric observations that he had created from his reading of the newspaper.


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