It wasn’t the lead story in any newscast, or even an item, but in case you missed it, this week marked the 50th anniversary of the first ATM. Can you imagine a time you couldn’t drive, or walk up to a financial R2-D2 to grab some cash for the weekend…when people actually used folding money?
The occasion sparks one of those memories that helps you remind yourself that you, indeed, paid your professional dues on the way. It was in 1974. I worked at WMBO-AM in Auburn, N.Y., about 25 miles west of Syracuse. Auburn was a town back then of about 35,000 people and home to a giant state prison known as the joint where inmates pounded out the Empire State’s first license plates. It was also a rough place. The prison was so close to the station that when I told a crappy joke on my morning drive time show, which I did often, you could hear the guys inside yell, “you suck!” Nice to be recognized.
One way the station made some money was by selling what they’d call a “program length” commercial…basically a remote, hawking a store or a product. I did one for three hours once at Rondina’s furniture store promoting an upright vacuum cleaner with a bag that looked like a pair of denim jeans.
One this cold day, the Marine Midland Bank coughed up a few grand to have me do my show outside next to its newfangled contraption that would allow customers to drive up and do their banking with no human interaction. The name ATM hadn’t yet come into use. They just called it an “automated teller.” For three hours I stood in the freezing cold yapping about the thing that would not yap back, accosting drivers who stopped to struggle with the new technology. When I attempted to stick my mic in their cars asking them how they enjoyed the new experience, some gave cogent answers, others believed they were being robbed of the cash they just received from what some called “that goddamned money vending machine.” Luckily, no weapons were drawn, or fired, although I had to jump out of the way several times to avoid being run over. Perhaps the most harm I suffered was breathing in carbon monoxide for three hours, which provided me some insight as to the life of a New York State Thruway toll taker. Since there was no delay, whatever the folks said was aired, thus giving the nice people at Marine Midland some rather unfiltered feedback as to their new gizmo.
Fast forward to 1987 when I was employed as a correspondent with CNN. I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to catch up on how some folks from Vietnam were settling in to their new lives in the U.S. We followed a gentleman to the bank where a volunteer was demonstrating to him how to use an ATM to make a deposit. You could tell that between the language barrier and the unfamiliar technology this would take some time. Indeed, he filled out the deposit slip and placed it, and a check into the envelope provided. The volunteer then instructed him to slip the envelope into the slot. He gave her a very skeptical look, then did as he was advised. Sure enough he placed the envelope in the slot where it quickly disappeared from sight. The poor man’s face turned red, his lips quivered and I detected a tear from one eye as he turned to the volunteer and quietly pleaded, “where my money go?” Fifty years later, we’re all asking the same question.
I’m a little out of sorts today. My family thinks I’ve actually descended into a deep cognitive hole. Here’s what’s going on. Early this morning I got out of bed, put on business clothes and really ugly, but comfortable shoes. In the dark I rummaged for a lanyard with some sort of badge attached that might have my name on it. I found one from 1998. Sure, why not. My name hasn’t changed although I’ve changed jobs four times since then. Who cares?
I slipped the lanyard over my head, got in my car and looked for a gathering of similarly dressed humans. I found them at a nearby Tim Hortons, although I didn’t know that’s where I was. Thinking otherwise, I held out the canvas shopping bag I toted and gamely asked the person behind the counter if they were giving out free lattes and danish, and maybe a press kit. Some sort of swag might be fun too. A tchochke I could later sell on eBay. Also…did she know where the free lunch was. I then started averting my eyes to the barista’s midsection. No, I wasn’t looking at that. I was searching for her badge because her name escaped me. Fact is, I never knew it. The bewildered young lady didn’t call the cops but the muscular manager gently led me to the door, quietly suggesting I was either lost…or deranged. Oh no…I protested. I’m at work. Right? Uh, no. The manager, being proactive, directed me to the Urgent Care Clinic across the street.
The on-duty shrink, Dr. Fucocktah, sat me down, asked pointed questions, some of which revealed I’m a long-time auto writer. I then went on to tell my story thusly.
My recent knee surgery is preventing me from covering the show for the first time since 1990 in the waning years of the last century. I begrudgingly gave up my credentials, thus breaking my 37 year string. My employer assigned them to someone else, which is like someone simply handing over your soul..or MoviePass. Some kid..by that I mean someone under 60, would use my badge to snag all the free cappuccinos, tote bags, finger sandwiches, pastries and dust-collecting swag I was totally entitled to. Cars? LOL! The stories have long been written before the show courtesy embargoed info provided by the automakers weeks in advance. The media preview days exist for grabbing an auto company bigwig for an interview in hopes of breaking a story, networking for your next job, catching up with old friends..in hopes they can help you get your next job and always, always, always, free stuff.
Without being there I would be confined to home, following coverage online and pining over the Maserati-shaped lasagna I’d be missing, along with the swell BMW backpacks stuffed with releases I’d never read. Doesn’t matter. It’s free. You just want it. But now I am bereft without my annual ordeal of attempting to find a parking space within seven miles of Cobo, breathing in the luscious propane fumes spewing from the forklifts whizzing down the aisles, playing chicken with photographers trying to get their shots.
I will miss the mind-numbing roundtables and endless scrums where, as a short guy, get a spectacular view of my competition’s asses.
But it’s what I do, and have done for so many years. Second, third week of January each year, it’s where I am. Doesn’t matter where I’ve worked, CNN, AP, Detroit News, FCA, Automotive News..I have my badge, my comfy shoes and 90 pound bag with my laptop and other reporting stuff. I’m ready to do battle…and win. It’s show time but not this time for this lame-kneed scribe.
He quickly diagnosed my malady.
“You, my pathetic patient, are suffering from a common condition we call COBO-NO-GO,” he pronounced. “It’s occurs when veteran auto writers, for one reason or another, aren’t able to cover the Detroit Auto Show but blindly go through the motions anyway. There’s no known cure.”
I know. I thanked him…and asked if he could set me up with a free espresso. He couldn’t…but handed me an attractive tote bag. It’s a first step.
Until next year.
Sorry I haven’t been here in awhile. I’ve been smothered under a pile of stuff I started gathering as far back as the ’60’s, when I was a pre-teen, and now I’m in my 60’s, pre-mortem.
The boxes and tubs and drawers and file cabinets and shelves and assorted other fossils of my life were doing just fine taking up space until my wife and I decided we needed to move to another house a couple of miles away. The premise was simple. The house we lived in for 25 years had a nice yard and plenty of room for our kids to play. But the kids are adults and not interested in frolicking on a swing set, so the yard became just something for me to mow and fertilize and water, but never enjoy. So we ditched the big lot for a bigger house on a smaller piece of land and a lot less upkeep.
That’s when we discovered we messed up by letting sleeping stuff lie. There was one tub of reporter notebooks I saved…from 1979-80 when I was a budding local TV reporter in Tucson, Arizona. Would I really need to reminisce about covering the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission? There was a tub stuffed with ball caps I had collected. My favorite? The brown and gold cap with the embroidered Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board logo. Just the color scheme is almost as hazardous as the product it represented.
I was pleased to find my old scorecards from Yankee and Shea Stadiums, especially the one from the Yankees-KANSAS CITY A’s twi-nighter with Phil Rizzuto’s and Joe Garagiola’s autographs along with a blade of grass from right field, which I swiped after the game on my way through the old rightfield wall to the subway.
Oh, there were a dozen or more coffee mugs that were freebies at press events, political buttons, some “very important” t-shirts I collected along the way. A couple that stand out were “I was there. 7.1” that I picked up when covering the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and one emblazoned with one of the brands involved in the “great mustard war” at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Something kinda cool I still have are the original watercolors our courtroom artist made of Pete Rose in Federal Court in Cincinnati during the time he was kicked out of baseball. The artist was a large fellow, seated in the vacant jury box. The judge was not amused when the poor guy kicked over his water pot during the proceeding. Alas, the paintings were never completed but just fine under a withering deadline.
I have a Howdy Doody pen given to me when I interviewed Ed Kean. He was the head writer on the show and invented the Clarabell the clown character, played by Bob Keeshan before he was Captain Kangaroo. Howdy’s legs and arms are posable. The pen part sticks out of one of his legs. That’s something I’ll never part with.
On the other hand, I have two big boxes with hundreds of press passes. Some are keepers like the one I got covering the very first Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. I also have a few White House pool tags and a laminated one from the Secret Service when covering a campaign swing through Arizona by then First Lady Rosalynn Carter. But I also have scores more from every assortment of automotive events, especially auto shows, conferences and drive programs.
All this stuff takes room. What else do you do with it all besides leave it in repose in whatever repository it happens to be laying in? It’s not like I’m gonna sneak in the basement in the middle of the night to grab a quick peek at that six-foot tall plastic faux pencil I have courtesy of Kmart, which sent it to our bureau to promote its back-to-school campaign of 1990. Yes, I have it. Can’t part with it. Moved twice with it. Need it? Nope. Want it? Yes. Insanity? Could it be anything else?
My wife implores me to “weed out” anything considered a dust or space collector, but reporters don’t do that. We keep thinking we’ll need to refer back to some specimen of detritus to write a book, or something. “Oh no! I need those notes from my feature on dwarf tossing in Grand Rapids!” I actually was assigned that story by CNN in 1989. Not proud. Not proud at all.
See? I already got some use from some of those, um, artifacts, lurking in dark spaces by writing this blog post. Does that mean I’m done with them? Are you crazy? I’m certain follow-ups will be necessary, in fact, demanded, by my two or seven readers. Don’t worry. I know where everything is and where it will always be. Indeed, I don’t know how many more moves I have left in my life…but I know what will be moving with me.
He sat in front of his locker with a towel on his head and took no questions. It was the man the Detroit Tigers depend upon to successfully seal the deal when they’re ahead in a game. The “closer.” Two nights in a row Francisco Rodriquez, K-Rod, did not seal the deal. He did not close the door. He made enough mistakes to allow the team the Tigers were beating to beat them instead. It made me think about this particular arrangement where we call on someone else to finish the job we started then allow them to suffer loathing, both self and external, when they can’t quite get it done.
Let’s say we’re writing a news story. I make the calls, do the research and start to write. I’m almost done but I’m outta gas. The words aren’t coming to me and my fingers are tired from typing. I could also use a stiff drink and a hot dog. No problem. I call in “the closer” who is tasked with finishing my story in such a way it not only the front page lead but is so amazing it goes viral and CNN employs a panel of 27 pundits to parse it and assigns it a dramatic theme song and spooky graphics.
But that’s not the way it goes down. The closer is fatigued from bailing out a half-dozen of my colleagues and depleting his hyperbole supply. By the time I call him into my game he’s got nothin’. He gamely takes the assignment anyway because closers never say “no” when their number comes up or they’re offered single malt Scotch. He taps and taps on the keyboard and I feel editorial victory is imminent. It’ll be my byline all over the paper and CNN will ask me to do a Skype interview with Anderson Cooper who will compliment my journalistic enterprise, and cuff links, while privately I will know it was the Closer who won the day for me. But that’s not the way it went down. The Closer falls short. Working on no day’s rest he coughs up three errors of fact and two blatant personal biases. I’m called on the carpet by the Managing Editor and ordered to personally write the corrections and an apology to the readers for allowing bias to breach the body of my story.
Damn Closer! It was his job to complete my assignment, make me look good and pave the way to that Pulitzer. He apologized profusely and promised to pull himself together for the next assignment. I just don’t know if I can trust him anymore. For now on I’ll have to pitch a complete game..from lead to nut graph to conclusion. But I can’t go on indefinitely like this. In a pique of frustration I stole the one thing that would get the newsroom’s attention and hit my colleagues the hardest. When one hapless scribe padded up to the kitchenette looking to fill his empty mug, he was greeted with Alec Baldwin’s greatest line. “Coffee is for Closers.”
One of the best books I ever read was a slim little paperback thing published in 1954 titled “How to Lie With Statistics,” by Darrell Huff. It was required reading in my “Ethics in Journalism” course at the University of Arizona when I attended grad school there in 1978.
I bring this book to your attention because it should also be required reading for anyone who takes any stock in the myriad of public opinion polls tossed in our faces during this dreadful political season.
Huff warns us, “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify,”
Indeed. If you don’t already know this, polls are not the same as elections. News organizations buy polls to give them something to report, regardless of their accuracy. Polls are also useful for earning publicity for the purchasing news organization because every time the poll is cited in another news organization’s story, the purchasing network, station or publication’s name is mentioned…like the CNN/Wall Street Journal Poll, or the Mad Magazine/Hustler Poll. I made that one up. Doesn’t matter if the polls reflect reality. They can always tout the “margin for error,” to explain away the fact the poll’s results could be full of crap.
Political candidates buy polls to convince voters they’re winning. Corporations purchase polls to prove the world can’t live without their products or services.
It’s all in the wording of the questions. Sure, there can be the simple choice of candidate listed. But then the questions become even more leading. Say, “If Donald Trump wasn’t a misogynistic, lying creep, how much more likely would you be to vote for him?” Or. “How much does the fact that Hillary Clinton may very well be indicted affect your decision whether or not to vote for her?”
A company touting, say, its new miracle product might ask consumers identified as ex-felons, “Agree or disagree that your personal well-being would be enhanced with a product that could completely dissolve the serial number from a weapon used in a crime.”
Huff covers that possibility with the declaration “there is terror in numbers.”
You may recall the polls appeared to predict Mitt Romney unseating Barack Obama from the White House four years ago, only to be handily disproven when actual votes were counted. The polls showed that because those cited were “internal polls” taken for Romney, and paid for by Romney’s organization. Gotta keep the customer satisfied, until poor Mitt let his polls blind him into deciding not to write a concession speech “just in case.” Unfortunately for him, the real poll, known as the election, didn’t square with his self-serving survey and Mitt had to concede to the fact he was unprepared to cogently concede.
This is why I completely disregard any sort of poll plastered on the screen or on the page, no matter the subject. I learned long ago, courtesy Darrell Huff’s 144 pages of truth, the margin for error, is the poll itself.
Last Sunday my eyes teared up as I watch the retrospective of Morley Safer’s career on “60 Minutes” on the occasion of his retirement. Who knew he would pass from the scene only a few days later. Oh, my verklempt moment had nothing to do with him packing it in after a million years on the air. It had more to do with the perfection of his writing. Marrying his avuncular narration with video, writing short sentences, masterfully using the medium to tell a compelling and memorable story. For any of us who write for television, Safer was one of a very few to whom we could only hope to emulate, and never quite get there.
My tears were also drawn by the realization the art of television writing is becoming a lost one, as stations and networks rely on extemporaneous live reports that escape thoughtful writing and critical editing. Expediency and penny-pinching come with a high cost. Skilled television reporters and writers are being forced onto the street and replaced with so-called “citizen journalists,” bloggers and social media gadflys who may not have had the experience or training, learning the vows of the holy matrimony between words and video, economy of narration, video storytelling. Much too often I see scripts from wannabees and hacks who bang out words having never looked at a frame of video figuring the editor “will find something to cover that line with.”
I learned the hard way. I started my broadcasting career on the radio and eventually migrated to TV. The first time I handed a poorly written script to an editor who saw no relationship between the available video and my words he spat to me, “you realize, asshole, I don’t have one shot that matches what you wrote! Look at the damn video!” Those words have stayed with me to this day and I’ve passed them along to subsequent offenders.
I was blessed during my 20 CNN years to work mainly with one shooter to the point where we knew each other so we would each come up with lines and shots that matched perfectly, always avoiding the dreaded generic “wallpaper” shots that offer no value to the story.
In my capacity as Head of Digital Communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, I’m a constant drumbeat to our video producers to write tight, look at the damn video before writing and make certain pictures and words are in complete lockstep. It’s a continuing battle but one that is in hand.
Which brings me back to the genius of Morley Safer, for whom this marriage was sacred…and one on which he never cheated. The same could be said of the late, wonderful Bruce Morton, whose verbal dexterity was a key driver of my decision to enter broadcast journalism.
Sadly, as the Safers and Mortons pass from the scene, the beautiful art of television journalism is fading from the scene as well…and that brings tears to my eyes.