Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harry’s unweathered essays on the media

In 1987, Harry drafted the following essay about the media, one of many he eventually filed in a computer folder titled BOOK 1. Yes, he had considered the idea of writing a book on media after he retired from government. The essays could serve as a history lesson for youngsters and others who could use the background. For sure, they show us more of the knowledge that occupied Harry’s mind.

Chapter 1  Introduction

I have a great deal to say about the media, but before I start, let me define the term. The media is something like the weather – everyone talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it. And when people talk about the media, they all mean different things; that is, they are talking about different elements of the media. Media itself is an all-embracing term. It includes newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, newsletters, house organs, press releases, etc.

To complicate the problem, within each element of the media there are different manifestations. In the newspaper field, for example, there are seven-day a week newspapers, five-day a week newspapers, three-day a week newspapers, weekly newspapers, biweekly newspapers, and even a few monthly newspapers. There are newspapers for sale and newspapers given away free. Even Sunday newspapers can be cast in a separate category, since they are quite different from their daily counterparts and some are even managed by separate staffs.

Within both radio and television broadcasting, there are the major networks, the independents (so-called), cable, and local stations. All are part of the same general species, but all differ from each other in many important ways. The same is true of magazines – general magazines, popular magazines, trade magazines, special interest magazines, and so on. There is, in fact, such a wild proliferation of published and broadcast material available to the public that it is very nearly impossible to catalogue and assess it all under the heading of “media”.  

Books, for example, are a very important element of the media, since they exercise considerable influence over the way their readers view the world around them. Movies, too. If anyone thinks, for example, that people in other countries derive their impressions of life in the United States from newspapers alone, he is badly mistaken. Books, movies and television entertainment programs have far more influence on foreign perceptions of American society than do newspapers or news broadcasts. I can’t prove that, but I strongly believe it.

In any case, the entire spectrum of material embraced by the “media” is too huge to be manageable in any one volume like this. On a practical level, therefore, when I talk about the media, I am talking only about a few of its more important (in my view) elements; that is, a few newspapers, a few magazines, a few broadcasts – a small fraction of the whole, and yet enough, I hope, to convey the reasons why I feel as I do about media performance and its effect on our national perceptions.  

Now a few words about where I’m coming from. For some 36 years I was intimately associated with a Pentagon publication called the Current News, a series of daily compilations of newspaper and magazine stories dealing with national security affairs. This sort of experience does not qualify me as a journalist, per se, but rather as a serious reader, or student, of journalistic efforts. I would submit that anyone of moderate intelligence who studies the products of journalism in any field of interest attentively for more than three decades will inevitably learn something – not only about the field of interest, but also about the practice of journalism itself. If he has a modicum of self-respect, he will also think about what he has learned. And if he has an ego, as I do, he will try to impart what he has learned to others, as I am in this book.  

(In the following weeks, Ill post more essays from Harry’s “BOOK 1” files.)

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Remembering Judy Garland greats

Harry, age 89, in February 2011

John Denver (an artist from my era) is quoted as saying this about music: “Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same.” 

I believe Harry would have agreed. Here’s another music-themed article he wrote, on Aug. 14, 2011, probably for his community newsletter in Leisure World of Silver Spring, MD.    

Some musical shows have so captivated the public that they never disappear from view. Among these perennial favorites are such musicals as Showboat, Porgy and Bess, The Music Man, 42nd Street, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, Yankee-Doodle, Gigi, and this one – Meet Me in St. Louis. Just as there is never a day in this country when there is not a gigantic sale of mattresses, so is there never a week or a month when one of these musicals is not being performed somewhere. High school and college drama and music classes, professional and semi-professional singers and actors, and many wannabe producers, directors, set designers, etc., are caught up in the magic of theater art and devote their talents to these shows. We attend such musical shows every chance we get, which brings us to one of our favorites, “Meet Me in St. Louis”.
I would surmise that most of us, if not every single one of us, have seen the 1944 movie that featured Judy Garland in the starring role. But it might surprise you to hear that Judy was very unhappy when she was chosen for it, afraid that it would be a step backward in her career. She was already 22 years old and had played an adult role before in “For Me and My Gal” in 1942. Now they wanted her to go back to playing a high-school girl with a crush on the boy next door.

She’d had enough of that with her co-star Mickey Rooney in a dozen such pictures and she did not want to be stereotyped as the perpetual teenager. She even went to Vincent Minnelli, who had been signed to direct the film, to try to persuade him that she was wrong for the role and to choose somebody else. He strongly disagreed, and the two got off to a bad start. Subsequently, throughout the filming, they simply did not get along together, arguing and fighting about many aspects of the film. He kept repeating takes and re-shooting scenes over and over again till she wound up screaming at him. (As everybody knows now, they eventually married. Go figure.)

Judy needn’t have worried. She was a smash hit and that role confirmed her as one of the greatest singing stars in Hollywood history. In retrospect, it’s hard to visualize anybody else in Judy’s role, singing the songs that she made famous. Who else could express her love for “The Boy Next Door” as plaintively as she? And who else could belt out “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie” or “The Trolley Song” as lustily as she?

Also in the score was one of the most popular and endearing Christmas songs ever written – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that Judy sang to Margaret O’Brien in a touching scene. Judy did not want to sing the original lyric: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, It may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past.” She thought it made her seem too mean-spirited. So Hugh Martin, who wrote all the music and lyrics together with his partner, Ralph Blane, gave Judy a new lyric – “… Let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Anyway, when you come away from this musical, you come away humming and singing the catchy melodies and the easy lyrics.

(Footnote: Hugh Martin, composer, lyricist, playwright, died March 11, 2011, at the age of 96.)

Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie (Lyric)

When Louie came home to the flat, he hung up his coat and his hat. He gazed all around, but no wifey he found, So he said, “Where can Flossie be at?” A note on the table he spied, He read it just once then he cried. It ran “Louie, dear, It’s too slow for me here, So I think I will go for a ride.”

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair, Don’t tell me the lights are shining, Any place but there. We will dance the Hoochee Koochee, I will be your Tootsie Wootsie, If you will meet me in St. Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair.

The Trolley Song (Lyric)

With my high starched collar and my high topped shoes, and my hair piled high upon my head, I went to lose a jolly hour on the trolley and lost my heart instead. With his light brown derby and his bright green tie, He was quite the handsomest of men, I started to yen, so I counted to ten, then I counted to ten again. 

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, Ding, ding, ding went the bell, Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings, From the moment I saw him I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor, Bump, bump, bump went the brake, Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings, When he smiled I could feel the car shake.

He tipped his hat and took a seat, He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet. He asked my name, I held my breath, I couldn’t speak because he scared me half to death. Chug, chug, chug went the motor, Plop, plop, plop went the wheels, Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings, As he started to go then I started to know how it feels, when the universe reels.

The day was bright, the air was sweet, The smell of honeysuckle charmed you off your feet.You tried to sing, but couldn’t squeak, In fact, you loved him so you couldn’t even speak.

Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer, Plop, plop, plop went the wheels, Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings, As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand, And as if it were planned, he stayed on with me and, It was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine, To the end of the line.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Letters offer words of wisdom on publishing

Harry’s work protégés and editor friends will appreciate these two letters he wrote in the 1990s. Although his references to publishing costs may not apply today, his reasoning does. We learn more about his experiences in the newsletter industry and with the book he co-authored in 94. And, once again, we see his spirit of encouragement to fellow writers and in general.

2 April 1993 – Lipid Research Clinic, Washington, DC  

Dear Diane:

I’m truly sorry that you had to stop publishing your newsletter. Over the years I’ve seen a great many newsletters begin with high hopes and end with despair and disappointment. Many of them had so little going for them that they deserved to die. But not yours. I thought yours showed great promise right from the start and, more important, you kept improving it to the point where you were producing a highly professional product with a potentially huge audience.

From the vantage point of an outside observer, I can make a few guesses about what happened because I’ve seen this happen time and time again. The problem is that you can’t get enough money invested in the effort to give it a fair chance to succeed. The money problem is compounded by the fact that the production of a newsletter is nobody’s primary job, but rather a part-time, spare-time activity for people who are already fully occupied with their primary jobs.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that every bureaucratic organization (like yours) has people at the top who don’t recognize the importance of a newsletter and deep-down don’t really want to see such an effort succeed. Indeed, they, together with the accountants (bean counters) are usually too shortsighted to visualize the potential future profits to be derived from a comparatively modest investment in the present.

The elder Kiplinger, of newsletter fame, once told me that when he started his first newsletter he lost money for the first three years. He kept borrowing money to keep it going – not from financial institutions, who all thought he was crazy to throw good money after bad, but from personal friends and relatives who had faith in him. In the fourth and fifth years he broke even. After that, he took off like a rocket.

Today, the Kiplinger line of publications takes in around a half billion – repeat a HALF BILLION – dollars a year. I don’t know how many, certainly more than a dozen, medical institutions around the country now publish newsletters. I have personally spoken to the people who work on three of them, and all three tell me the same thing – that it takes three to five years to reach the break-even point, but that it’s worth waiting for, because now they’re all making money, which allows their organizations to expand their medical efforts and do some things they could otherwise not afford to do. In every case, they had to fight off the accountants who are seemingly incapable of looking beyond the first two years to see profits five years down the road.

They also all agree that it’s not just the investment in the publication itself that’s important. It’s the investment in publicity and in marketing that gets the results, because the best newsletter in the world won’t make money unless a major effort goes into marketing it and selling subscriptions. I would bet a bundle that if the powers that be at GW Medical Center got behind your newsletter with a reasonable investment in publicity and marketing, they would wind up with a profitable enterprise just a few years down the road. I say this because I firmly believe that in terms of product, in terms of the usefulness and timeliness of the information contained in your newsletter, and in view of the importance of cholesterol knowledge penetrating the public consciousness, you have a winning combination.

I hope you won’t let this experience discourage you from trying again someday. And, by the way, I don’t want any money back on my subscription. Use it for something worthwhile.

With all best wishes,
Harry Zubkoff

2 December 1996 – To a long-time colleague and friend

I’m finally getting around to writing, now that the great Jubilee is a distant memory. So let’s talk about the publishing business. I believe there’s a lot of money to be made in this business, and it almost doesn’t matter what you publish, so long as you do it wisely. If you look at the book shelves in every bookstore, you’ll see all kinds of garbage. For every decent book, there are several dozen that are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but people buy them because they have attractive covers.

So, the first thing you need is the ability to design a cover. The next thing is the ability to write an appealing blurb on the back cover to attract the reader; it need have little bearing on the contents of the book. It’s just a hook. And then, of course, you need maybe 60,000 to 80,000 words to fill up the middle. Put a small ad in a writer’s magazine and you’ll get plenty of manuscripts in the mail. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever you want. How-to books, religious books, humorous books, gruesome books, occult books, who-dun-its, sci-fi – anything you want. What’s more, you can print these things in paperbacks very cheaply, and you can sell them for $2.95 or $3.95, half the price of the big paperback publishers, and still make money.

Even 30 years ago, when you were fresh out of school (Good Lord, was it really that long ago?) you had a talent for editing, and by now you should be very good at it. All you really need to make money is the capital to invest; and you can start small and build it up faster than you think. Then there’s the way my publisher did it. He hired three hacks (that’s three old pros like me) to write a coffee-table book, with plenty of pictures to accompany the text, he paid us a flat fee (no royalties) to provide him with camera-ready copy on computer discs, and he hired a distribution firm to sell the books in advance, based on a description of the planned contents and the reputations of the three authors. (I think the distributor did not do a good job, but that’s another story.) I really don’t know how much he made on the deal, but I’m positive that he made a tidy profit. 

Anyway, you could do the same thing, only better with a crackerjack salesman. There are dozens of guys like me around who would participate in this kind of a project for a modest fee. And there are plenty of topics that are ideal for this kind of book – for example, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, coming up in September 1997; the 100th anniversary of powered flight, in December 2003; the 30th anniversary of the first landing on the moon coming up in 1999; and many others, as well. There are plenty of non-military related subjects, too. Put your mind to it and you can think of dozens; brainstorm it and you’re sure to come up with a few winners.

This copy of my book is the last extra copy I have, so consider it on loan to you. Keep it as long as you like, but I’d appreciate getting it back some day. After you look at it, and whenever you’re ready, I’d be happy to get together with you if you want to talk or kick some ideas around.                              

With all best wishes,

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

You can find Harry’s book on Amazon:

Flights: American Aerospace ... Beginning to Future

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Harry’s letters, musings give me hope today

Continuing a wave of letters I’ve discovered in Harry’s computer files, here are two brief ones he wrote in the 1990s. I originally rejected them for this blog; you see, they are just ordinary, friendly letters – one to a former office colleague, the other to a writer at The Washington Post. I changed my mind about sharing them because, on second glance, they inspired me with thoughts that we are all ambassadors of hope simply by showing kindness and understanding to others. Plus, I took a moment to look up the article he was talking about in the second letter.

October 1993 – Country Care Center, Illinois

Dear Dottie:

Alice Price gave me your address and told me you will soon hit a major milestone – your 80th birthday. So here’s a happy birthday wish a couple weeks in advance. When you blow out the candle(s) on your cake, may your fondest wish come true. Jeanette and I passed a milestone in August – our fiftieth anniversary. In this day and age, when the statisticians tell us that fully half of all marriages now end in divorce, that is looked upon as an aberration. It just isn’t fashionable any more, they say, to stay married to the same person for fifty years. How little they know! Actually, it still seems incredible to me that we were married fifty years ago, in August 1943, in the middle of the war. How fast these years have flown!

I suppose the young people in every generation think they are living through troubled times, but it seems to me that no generation faced more uncertainty about the future than ours did. And yet, despite the war, I think the whole country was optimistic about the future. We knew that somehow our country would survive and become stronger and better – and it did. So we – all of us – have much to be thankful for. Of course, like everyone our age, we have some health problems, but we still continue to enjoy life with all its heartaches and challenges. And we still have faith that this great country will somehow muddle through and continue to get better and, having been around since Woodrow Wilson was President, I don’t think it matters one little bit who the President may be at any given time.

Anyway, Dottie, we saw some tough times and some good times during our years together in the Pentagon, and looking back on them, it seems that I remember more clearly only the good times, and you were a part of all of them.

Happy Birthday and all best wishes,

17 March 1994 – Ms. Amy E. Schwartz, The Washington Post

Dear Ms. Schwartz:

I just want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your columns in the Post, no matter what subject you choose to write about. (Or, as Winston Churchill would have it, no matter what subject about which you choose to write.) This letter is long overdue, since I have enjoyed your columns for a long time. It was yesterday’s column, however, (3/16/94) on “Laughter in the Movie House”, that finally triggered me to act. I find your columns usually loaded with background information on the subject at hand, invariably thoughtful, exquisitely worded, and always provocative.

Strangely, it sometimes seems to me that I detect the same facility for language, the same gift for phrasing and a similar trend of opinion and commentary in two of your colleagues, Meg Greenfield and Lally Weymouth. Either you are all sisters under the skin or there is a particularly skillful editor at work here. Whatever the case, all three of you seem to echo my own thoughts frequently and much more elegantly than I could express them myself. So thank you, thanks to all of you, for being there and for making the Post always worth reading.  

Here’s the URL to the Post article:

September in History – Things we should know and remember

Also on my blog chopping block was this musing, last edited by Harry on July 29, 2009. It’s one of many notes he saved on quite a variety of topics. 

On September 30, 1946, the International Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its verdicts in the war crimes trials. (I was there.) The Nazi Leadership Corps, the SS (Schutzsaffel), the Security Police and the Gestapo were declared criminal organizations and their leaders were placed on an automatic arrest list. The Tribunal adopted the historic principle that one who has committed criminal acts may not take refuge in superior orders nor in the doctrine that the crimes were acts of the state.

This quote by Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, one of the greatest movies of our times, is worth repeating and remembering.

“This trial has shown that ordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. There are those in our country, America, today who speak of the protection of the country. Of survival. The answer to that is:  Survival of what? A country is what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the world, let it now be noted here that this is what we stand for: Justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Harry weighs in on scandals, in letter to old friend

We continue to learn more about Harry’s professional life and relationships through the following letter he wrote in 1997 to a long-time co-worker and journalist. He comments on scandals in the military and a scandal of sorts related to his government publication. And he gives a few updates on his personal life.

10 February 1997
Dear Ben:

By now you must realize that I am the world’s worst correspondent. For some reason I just can’t bring myself to sit down and write letters. I mean to write. I want to write. I keep composing letters in my mind to various friends scattered around the world. I just can’t seem to actually write them. In your case, I’ve been writing mental communiques to you for the past year or so, but today it came to me quite forcibly that time is slipping away and I better stop procrastinating and start writing. So – here goes with a number of things I’ve wanted to tell you.

1.  Of course, I read your article on the sexual harassment problem in the Army when it appeared in the Outlook section of The Washington Post just before Christmas. I wanted to tell you then, and I’m telling you now, that you hit the nail on the head. Since then, I’ve heard that the scuttlebutt around the Pentagon is that they’ve uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and that a lot more is going to be breaking in the next few months – not only in the Army, but in all the services, especially the Navy again. 

My own opinion is that as long as men and women are thrown together in stressful situations, there will be problems; and as long as they are thrown together in non-stressful situations, there will also be problems. There simply is no getting away from it – men and women will get together somehow, no matter what the circumstances are, and more often willingly than not. I don’t see how it can be avoided without complete separation of the sexes in the military, and of course, that’s no longer possible. So, from now on and forevermore, incidents are going to occur and recur, from time to time, just like cheating scandals at the military academies. These things are, in a manner of speaking, inevitable. 

So, the question is, how do you handle them when they arise? Like you said, the last thing we need is another committee to start an investigation. What they need is a top ranking General, three or four stars, to go out and look at the situation and then take some decisive action. Unfortunately, nobody asked me what to do.

2.  Remember Fred Hiatt about whom I wrote a critical piece that you were good enough to publish in the magazine? After he left the Pentagon beat, the Post sent him to Russia; they even gave him some language training and other schooling to prepare him to be a foreign correspondent. (Too bad they don’t give young Pentagon reporters some schooling, too.) Anyway, he’s now back in Washington and occasionally writes a piece for the Op-ed page. Obviously, he has matured into a respectable commentator and has written some very fine and thoughtful articles in recent months. So I wrote him a letter to tell him so, and got a nice response from him. I thought you’d be interested.

3.  Regarding the Current News files that were decimated by Maitre at Boston U., the final resolution of that problem was that the remaining files were shipped down to the Air University archives at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Dr. Silber paid the freight, which I believe cost somewhere around ten grand. I think I mentioned to you that Dick Kohn, former Air Force historian and now a professor at North Carolina got into the act and helped make those arrangements. 

Meanwhile, Maitre turned out to be...well, as W.C. Fields said when he met Mae West, “There is less here than meets the eye.” You might say that all’s well that ends well, but every time I think of Maitre I get furious all over again.

[Note: Harry was referring to the Current News, a daily publication he managed during his Pentagon career. Other letters in his files show that the Defense Department turned over the Current News archives to a communications director at Boston U., after much research and requests from other organizations to keep the files for scholarly research. It turned out that the Boston U. director later disposed of them, infuriating Harry and others. Certain individuals eventually retrieved the archive.]

4.  I read your review of Colin Powell’s book with considerable interest. I know him, not well, but reasonably well, and there are some things about his book that “give me pause.” You did a masterful job with that review, and some of what you said echoed my own reservations. It should have been printed in the mainstream press, where it could get much wider circulation, but even so, enough Washington insiders saw it so that it made an impression. Have you had any comments?

5.  I celebrated my 75th birthday last June and my 53rd anniversary last August – in fair health. Did I tell you that for the past seven or eight years I have been taking courses at the University of Maryland – one or two each semester? (I’ve also been teaching English there.) Last semester I took a course in the political process for journalists, taught by two people; one is a former Maryland State Senator, a Republican lady, and the other is the former Democratic Governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaeffer. Both were a joy to listen to – fascinating, really. This semester I’m taking a course taught by Hodding Carter: Professional Seminar in Public Affairs Reporting. It should be interesting; certainly, as in all the other courses I’ve taken, I’m bound to learn something. I must say, Ben, the older I get, the more I realize how little I know, or, to put it another way, how little I’ve learned along the way.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman