|Harry poses in the Pentagon parking lot for a media story in the 1980s|
Lester: This is the Les Kinsolving show, uninhibited radio all around our nation’s capital, WNTR radio, where you can join in by calling …
Today with our special guest, and I’ll introduce him, he’s the Pentagon press monitor for 36 years, who tells it like it is to reporters for 36 years. Ladies and gentlemen, Harry Zubkoff has been the Pentagon’s press monitor; he supervises the clippings of dozens of newspapers and zeroxing all the stories he finds every day that pertain to national defense. Pentagon spokesman Bob Sims agreed with me at noontime today that Harry Zubkoff is a very intelligent, very observant person. He is not ignorant; he is a very decent man. Well Harry told the Washington Times yesterday, Harry told them:
“Reporters aren’t reporters anymore, generally speaking, they’re all commentators; everybody wants to
be a commentator. The passion to get the facts right has been replaced by the urge to be sensational, to be speculative. Objectivity has gone down the drain. If those people out there in the great American republic depend upon their newspapers, their local newspapers, let’s say, without reference to a few national news magazines and a few other news sources, then they’re badly informed. A story about a $600 toilet seat has more impact than any amount of good solid reporting about what’s going on. It really colors our thinking.”
As I mentioned, Pentagon spokesman Bob Sims said that Harry Zubkoff is very intelligent, very decent, and very observant. But, when I asked the spokesman for the Secretary and the Department of Defense if he agrees with Harry about a whole roomful of Pentagon reporters who were sitting there watching and listening today, spokesman Sims, who is a retired Navy captain, took what is known in the U.S. Navy as immediate evasive action – I think that’s the term for it, I was in the Army – he said, “I don’t know what Harry said.” Well, I said, it’s right here in the Times. You can read it, Bob. And I held it right in front of his eyes. So spokesman Sims said, “When I go to the Washington Times for my session with their editors, you’ll know what my views are. Harry is entitled to his own views; he’s qualified to give his own opinion.” So I asked, Bob, Secretary Weinberger wouldn’t think of disciplining Harry for this very interesting candor, would he? Pentagon spokesman Sims replied, and this, too, is a quote: “We believe in candor and free flow of ideas.” And that is all I can say is that that is next best to spokesman Bob Sims agreeing in full view of those seething Pentagon reporters. Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to have on this air this afternoon, the free flowing candor of Harry Zubkoff himself, the Pentagon press monitor for 36 years.
Harry, welcome to WNTR.
Harry: Thank you, Lester, glad to be with you.
Lester: Harry, give us an encapsulation; tell all of us on the air here about the Early Bird.
Harry: Well, the Early Bird is simply a compilation of clippings taken from the morning papers every day and put together in a small package and distributed to the top people in the Pentagon.
Lester: How many is that?
Harry: Well, throughout the Pentagon, approximately 4,000 copies.
Lester: Isn’t there a supplemental that goes all over the service, all over the country?
Harry: No, no, the supplemental clips, which includes a great deal of material that we don’t have room to put into the Early Bird, is a much more limited distribution, just a few hundred copies.
Lester: My heavens. You did me the great honor of printing things that I have written from time to time. One of them has to do with that rather fascinating and outrageous case – do you remember the midshipwoman at the Naval Academy who wouldn’t jump?
Harry: Yes, I do.
Lester: Right and I wrote a piece on that. The outrageous, she was a midshipman, they call them midshipmen down there, they haven’t yielded to the neuter movement yet. She was a senior, first classman, every midshipman has to jump, and she wouldn’t jump, or she couldn’t, and they had the whole psychiatric department down there trying to persuade her to jump. And so they separated her as they had done to a number of other midshipmen who couldn’t jump. You have to be able to jump a distance because you might have to jump off a ship. What she did is she went right downtown in Annapolis to the NAACP, and she suggested to them she was being discharged, that is, separated from the Naval Academy because of her race, which was an absolute falsehood. So under that pressure they let her back in. And I wrote about it, and let me say this, Harry, you may put out a limited number but when I went down to Fort Bragg to do a story on the 82nd Airborne, when I went into the PR office, they said, “Are you the same guy who wrote about the midshipwoman that wouldn’t jump?” Now how did it get down to Fort Bragg?
Harry: I have no idea, Lester.
Lester: You mean there’s a fast grapevine in the Armed Services?
Harry: I’m sure there is.
Lester: Harry, let me ask you this. Did you start this system of printing a big selection of news clippings every morning?
Harry: Well, let’s say I was there at the creation.
Lester: You were there at the creation. Now, have you ever put anything in there that has caused a furor?
Lester: Hahaha. Well what kind of furors? Can you give us an example?
Harry: There are all kinds of examples, Lester. There are stories that embarrass any administration. There are stories that are very critical and that some people would not like to be printed in our Early Bird edition or in any of our editions.
Lester: Even though it’s in a hugely distributed newspaper.
Harry: Of course. And it’s our mission to get our readers’ attention.
Lester: And sometimes there are those who react by wanting to kill the messenger.
Lester: Let me ask this. How is it that you’re still alive, Harry?
Harry: Nine lives.
Lester: Hahaha. Tell me, can you go back and remember what the most ferocious action was when you printed something? Can you give us two or three examples of this?
Harry: No, that’s impossible, Lester.
Lester: Well, you understand why as a newsman I will try to get it out of you.
Harry: You cannot squeeze blood out of a turnip.
Lester: Well, the thing is, I like Bob Sims very much. He’s always been courteous, he doesn’t get nasty. Matter of fact, I think the Pentagon generally speaking has had some very delightful spokesmen that realize that they’re frequently gonna be unable to ask the questions we ask because of security reasons or one reason or another that’s legitimate but understand why we have to pursue, and all we ask is that they come up with something that is amusing, or if they have to evade, at least do it with style and with good humor.
Harry: All of them are very stylish.
Lester: Hahaha. Tell me this. Can you tell us some of the periodicals you draw from, other than the larger ones, like the Washington Post, and the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and so forth and so on. How many to you excerpt from?
Harry: We are screening 65 newspapers every day, and some 300 periodicals, including weeklies, biweeklies, monthlies, bimonthlies, quarterlies; a great many, including some daily newsletters.
Lester: Before I knew a great deal about his, I remember writing a piece about this, when I was publisher of Washington Weekly, and we ran a very funny piece about the fact that West Point had put in AstroTurf in Michie Stadium. I cover West Point and Annapolis and Ivy League Football and the rebel rousers, kind of cheerleaders, came to me outraged because this general there who was in charge of the athletic program out there gave orders that the Army mule could no longer run across the field and leave the Army team on the field. I said, well why on earth they would give an order like that? And he said, well because they Army mule might misbehave on the turf. And we checked with the post veterinarian and a mule cannot misbehave while running. [Harry laughs.] And they transferred the veterinarian to Leavenworth, not the prison, but the fort. And they said we’ve also consulted with the University of Texas and the University of Colorado. They have a buffalo and a longhorn steer that are, to put it delicately, they are more dangerous to astro turf and misbehaving than a mere mule. And they still allow them on the astro turf. So I went and asked the general, and he got very angry and very gruff, and brushed me off and so forth. And he didn’t know that we distributed Washington Weekly at the Pentagon. So we got a picture of the Army mule braying, and here’s the general, a very silly looking picture of him, and we headlined it in 60-point heads, General Bans Army Mule From West Point Astro Turf. I’m told that almost every Annapolis officer, graduate at the Pentagon had that posted above his desk. The next week they got apparently four or five-hundred phone calls, and the next week the Army mule was allowed to take one run down the astro turf and they gave me a small decoration. You do publish from all of these different periodicals, and Harry, let me ask one or two other things. You’ve been in 36 years.
Harry: Yes I have.
Lester: Where did you work before you came in to the Pentagon?
Harry: I worked for one year at the Veterans Administration.
Lester: You’re a veteran?
Harry: Yes, I am.
Lester: You mentioned the $600 toilet seat. And that is a point at grave issue because I remember asking President Reagan why he had rewarded the same newspaper with an exclusive interview whose cartoonist Herb Block continues to draw Casper Weinberger with a toilet seat around his neck, which I think is really toilet seat journalism, and it’s really misleading, because it wasn’t a toilet seat for $600, it was a whole system, a whole lavatory system. And the Washington Post knows that, and they also know that it was discovered not by the press, and not by Congress, but it was discovered by the Pentagon’s investigators as I understand it. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Harry: You’re absolutely right.
Lester: And they’ve discovered 90 percent of this stuff.
Harry: Indeed they have.
Lester: And Casper Weinberger has a choice. He can try to cover it up or for the sake of the economy or the sake of the country he could expose it, and whenever he exposes it, it leaks into the hands of those correspondents or others, and then they use it to smear the Pentagon. Is that an accurate assessment of the case?
Harry: Well, let’s say they do not accurately reflect the facts.
Lester: Hahaha. Harry, you’re a diplomat. I wonder why you didn’t end up the Secretary of State. Harry, are you going to retire anytime soon?
Harry: As a matter of fact, I have retired, Lester.
Lester: You have retired! Hahaha. Well let me ask you this. Reflections on the past. Is that anything on your mind? You’ve made strong statements and I couldn’t agree with them more. Because I’ve noticed that it’s hard to find any news story in the Washington Post that you don’t see editorial content coming out; it’s very hard to see anything even approximating objectivity, and to a certain extent the New York Times, even though the New York Times is more dignified about it. Would you disagree with that?
Harry: Those papers are not alone. There are a great many papers around the country all affected by the same syndrome; that is, they want to do more than report the news.
Lester: Well, here’s the point. I of course speak as a commentator and columnist. We’re full of opinions. But I have been a reporter and I do know the difference between straight news and the editorial page. But as you know, there was a reported discussion between John Oaks, a reporter in the New York Times, and Ed Rosenthal about who had the most influence, and Rosenthal said, “I’ll give you six editorial pages, just give me the news columns.”
Harry: That’s why he’s the editor.
Lester: Harry, what are you gonna do in retirement?
Harry: I’m planning to do some writing, and I expect I will be writing about the media.
Lester: That’s wonderful. What was your impression about the Sidle Commission?
Harry: They did an excellent job. They tried to set up the procedures for including the press, and I think they succeeded. They had a mission to perform, they performed it.
Lester: Harry, if you had a son of military age and he was in the service, the special forces, and he was going on a very high risk combat mission, would you want his mission covered by a pool of reporters, including Sy Hersh of the New York Times, and Janet Cook of the Washington Post, and Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun, who has stated as I mentioned in an earlier commentary today, stated that he will steal any secret he can from the Secretary’s desk?
Harry: Without reference to any individuals, if there is a mission going on like that and my son were on it, no I would not want the press involved, but the press has its job to do, the military has its job to do.
Lester: Did you fault the military from excluding the press from Granada?
Harry: No, I did not. In the immediate launching of that invasion, no, the press was allowed in after a few days.
Lester: Yes, and they screamed bloody murder because they weren’t allowed to go in.
Harry: Well, they have their own mission to perform, and they should be enthusiastic about doing it.
Lester: What’s your reaction to General Maxwell Taylor’s statement that we should never again go into battle accompanied by television cameras?
Harry: I’m not sure how to react to that. The problem is that television cameras are here to stay. How we can exclude them in the future, I think is hopeless.
Lester: Oh, but Harry, where in the Constitution are they guaranteed the right to cover all battle operations? If it were in the Constitution, why do you think that the big media had the good sense not to try to sue the government over Granada?
Harry: That would be a losing battle for them.
Lester: Right, in other words, they do not have the right to cover every combat activity; they do not have the right to fly over our fleet, and when it’s going into a battle situation and take pictures of it. They do not have the right to go in with landings, and when they see a wounded American, to do a close-up of the belly wound and show it in every home in America during dinnertime, do they Harry?
Harry: I can’t comment on what they have a right to do, Lester.
Lester: I just want your opinion. You’ve been a Pentagon press monitor for a long time.
Harry: They have a right to pursue their profession as best they can.
Lester: And isn’t it up to the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Defense to give the ultimate protection to our men who are going into combat, isn’t that a prior need?
Lester: Harry, I could go on with you for hours and hours. I think I was the only reporter who testified to the Sidle Commission who had this kind of opinion, for which I was bitterly denounced by the Los Angeles Times, by the Cable News Network, and three or four others, including one of the panel members, but it was a lot of fun, I had a marvelous time and I appreciate it. Harry, any last thing that you want to get on the air?
Harry: I’m responding to your questions. I recall President Kennedy’s quote, which has always delighted me, when he said that “I’m reading more and enjoying it less.”
Lester: Haha! Harry Zubkoff, good luck to you and please let me know when that book comes out and we’ll certainly deal with it on this air. Harry, will you do me this favor, listen in occasionally and call and give me the benefit of your opinions.
Harry: I’ll do that, Lester.
Lester: That, ladies and gentlemen, was Harry Zubkoff, the Pentagon press monitor for 36 years. Harry Zubkoff, an absolutely delightful man.