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Book Review: ‘Before the Colors Fade’ by Harry Reasoner

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Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.

It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.

His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.

In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”

One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”

Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:

If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”

Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”

Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”

The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s

alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”

Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

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His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.

For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?

Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”

Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”

This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.

Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:

I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”

Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that

The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”

Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”

Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”

Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:

Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”

He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…

Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”

Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”

These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:

In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”

Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:

You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”

I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.


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Movie Review: Spotlight

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Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.

Movie Review: Truth

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Truth co-starring Cate Blanchett (Cinderella) and Robert Redford (Captain America, An Unfinished Life) is at best a cold, hard character film about today’s journalism. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to recall every detail or even the headline about the 2004 CBS News story by Dan Rather (portrayed here by Mr. Redford), with producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett), that brought Rather down. Part of Truth‘s point is that today’s shouting match, agenda-driven news business overemphasizes trivial details at the expense of solid, investigative reporting.

Asking questions, probing for closer scrutiny of those in power—demanding to know the truth—is the theme of this two-hour tale of a report about President Bush that came apart if not necessarily undone. The movie’s carried all the way by Blanchett as an intense and passionate but hard and myopic producer. Beginning and ending with the 2004 presidential election, an event in which journalism ought to matter the most, she wants the story of a National Guard scandal surrounding George W. Bush’s dubious service so bad she can smell it.

But there’s only a whiff. Truth concerns what it takes, with her “crack” team (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid), operating within the early 21st century’s toadying corporate news media that kiss up to government, to do the reporting and get the story just right. CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, depicted here as a sort of journalistic godfather, is on stand by to go live when Mapes and company have the goods. What happens as the story unravels, with Bruce Greenwood (Capote, Eight Below) as a top CBS suit and Stacy Keach as a key source, shows both the left-wing bias of modern news media—Mapes, Rather and team are guilty as charged—and the less apparent fact that the freedom of the press to be biased and pursue an angle, whatever its predisposition, is crucial in a free society.

If Truth doesn’t exactly dramatize why establishing whether Bush dodged the draft, obtained special favors through his powerful government family and influenced or controlled the press, it shows how it is likely. Especially when you realize watching a Bush press conference video clip that almost every jibe, dig and sneer at the media is part and parcel of today’s corrupt Obama administration, down to exact words about troops in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Truth matters, writer-director James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) proposes in Truth, it matters very much, and even when pursued by the shrill and the pompous—as Blanchett constantly runs her hands through her mop of hair—on the left or the shrill and the pompous on the right, the people ought to take truth seriously. Truth shows how and why the people do not, chiefly through Blanchett as Mapes, a damaged woman with a reason to be hard-charging whatever her flaws. Rather, too, in this incarnation, though never as straight and concise as Harry Reasoner or Walter Cronkite, comes off as a simple Texan driven by curiosity above all who, it should be remembered, was disgraced by CBS News only to be hired by Mark Cuban, who is hardly part of the vast left-wing, or, for that matter, conservative, media conspiracy.

Think about what matters and stay true to the pursuit, Truth argues, in powerful family scenes which ought to remind today’s jaded audiences the high cost of being a journalist, blogger or truthseeker, and challenge everyone in power, though Truth abbreviates this as FEA (which I figured out well in advance and you probably will, too).

“Who the f— are you people?!?” A taxi driver asks as three broadcast journalists under fire climb in as the media frenzy turns on itself instead of on those running the government. Truth answers this question and reminds the audience what value such people are to the governed.

Brian Williams and NBC News

nightly_newsNBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams apologized for falsely recalling events during an incident in 2003 during the Iraq war in which he had asserted that a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter he was traveling on was under fire and shot down by the enemy until rescued by an Army unit. It turns out that the aerial vehicle may have been under fire (though this, too, is in dispute) and that was about it; the helicopter was not shot down as he had claimed and he was not rescued as he had described (read the Stars and Stripes report here). His false assertions have reportedly been made for years, as recently as last week, and appear, in light of the fact that another U.S. helicopter in proximity was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, to have been conflated and/or embellished.

The Brian Williams apology is another setback for the damaged NBC News brand, which has sustained many major mistakes and subsequent apologies from NBC and MSNBC personalities in recent years.

I do not watch Brian Williams or NBC Nightly News enough to judge or gauge his reputation. However, as a journalist, I am inclined to grant Williams the benefit of the doubt; it is conceivable that being on a vehicle under siege in combat 12 years ago became conflated in his mind with another vehicle which was shot down, especially given his admitted enthusiasm for acknowledging a heroic U.S. Army, which is garnering new appreciation in the wake of the commercial and critical success of American Sniper. I know that Brian Williams, who recently interviewed Edward Snowden, appears regularly on the NBC News joint operation MSNBC and whose daughter recently appeared in NBC’s recent live musical version of Peter Pan, is a former fireman. His claim to be motivated by a desire to recognize heroic action seems sincere.

The real problem with today’s broadcast journalism is the rampant subjectivism, which the Comcast-owned NBC News practices with abandon. Generally, Fox News trivializes, sensationalizes and minimizes the news, while CNN avoids controversy at the expense of reporting facts and lets left-wing bias into its programming, and MSNBC, led by NBC News, is practically an organ of the New Left presidency. While a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center found MSNBC (which has still not corrected its mistake about Ayn Rand) to be the most opinionated, least news-oriented cable news channel, and another study found it wildly biased for Obama, the channel also fired leftist TV talk show host Phil Donahue, whom I interviewed last year, for fear that his principled opposition to the Iraq war would harm its political influence, despite Donahue’s top ratings. Both NBC News and MSNBC employ numerous former and current government workers, political pundits and influence peddlers and their relatives, often without disclosure, such as Alan Greenspan’s wife, Andrea Mitchell, though broadcast news is similarly guilty as an industry.

With news driven by who, not what, there is to know, someone in a prominent position such as Brian Williams was bound to slip and come undone. The anchorman came of age following the highly touted Tom Brokaw, author of the dubiously titled Greatest Generation and embodiment of an influence peddler who made a career of cozying up to those in government power, and Williams has followed in that same path of personality-driven news, which is to say pseudo-journalism. He is not known for breaking news. He is not known for original, cohesive reports or groundbreaking investigations. He gained an exclusive interview with whistleblower Snowden last year and did a decent but not exceptional job. He Tweets, jokes, cajoles, goes all over TV, especially NBC TV comedies and MSNBC, promoting himself and his bland, short, mediocre Nightly News and he became visibly associated with his daughter’s high-profile appearance as NBC’s Peter Pan. None of this evokes Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace or Walter Cronkite or great broadcast journalists.

It’s not entirely his fault. The line between TV personality and TV journalist is blurred if not eviscerated as journalism has become subjective, not objective, and he is probably encouraged to push himself rather than his ability by the government-favored cable utility that employs him. In a vapid, cynical culture in which a public that favors sneering over reporting does not differentiate between facts and fiction, it should surprise no one that the nation’s top TV news personality doesn’t, either.

The Suicide of Leanita McClain

Leanita McClainLeanita McClain was a rising Chicago journalist in the 1980s whose Memorial Day 1984 suicide made an impression on me as a suburban Chicago youth. By the age of 32, she had gone from growing up in a city housing project on the south side to graduating from Northwestern University’s journalism school and working as a top editor at the Chicago Tribune. She had written an influential column for Newsweek and she’d been headed for success. Known to her friends as Lea and married to journalist Clarence Page, McClain had, to me, been living the American Dream—being productive, living in a lakefront high-rise and being happily married.

That’s why her suicide didn’t add up. I later learned that Leanita McClain had been suffering from depression, that she had divorced Page and had felt guilty for being black and successful. As someone who had been pre-judged for factors (like hers) beyond my control and had once had thoughts of suicide, an act which permeated my youth in an area in which 33 teen-age suicides were committed in an 18-month period, the suicide of Leanita McClain resonated.

I knew that she had struggled with being a successful black woman, which she wrote about, and that she felt guilt about living in a wealthy white area of the city. Before she killed herself, McClain had returned to living on Chicago’s predominantly black south side—she had moved into the wealthy and racially mixed Hyde Park—after volunteering to tutor poor blacks in government sponsored housing. The light-skinned McClain, whose mother was albino, was apparently taunted for living among whites. I, too, had been pre-judged; for being white—bullied by blacks using racial slurs in streets, parks, and offices—for being male, for being gay, and, constantly, for living in the suburbs. To someone who used to hear the Chicago and Northwestern train whistle near the tracks where I lived and wonder who would take their own life and not show up for school that day, her final act was intriguing. Had McClain felt alone, alienated and envied for merely existing, too? I wondered. I knew that people tried to make me feel guilty for living in a nice, clean suburb, that some hated me based on my skin color, and I knew I felt like I did not fit in. Her death showed me that someone from a poor background who had achieved success and had the best of everything might also fall prey to such feelings. What thoughts had preceded her feelings, I wanted to know. Why did she choose to check out?

What deepened the mystery was the deficit of information about her death—it was as though there was a seal of information on suicide, any suicide, but especially hers, and, years later, when I booked and met Clarence Page while working as a talk radio production assistant, I didn’t dare ask about his ex-wife, the late Leanita McClain. But the touchstones of her life and career—Chicago, race, and envy—were never far from my thoughts. When I interviewed writer and director Robert Benton about his evocative 2003 movie, The Human Stain, which was vilified by the liberal press for casting Anthony Hopkins as a black man passing for white, I thought of her again.

And again, when writing a column about the year 1967 in motion pictures, when a black New York Times columnist called Sidney Poitier, one of my favorite actors, a derogatory term for appealing to white audiences in his historic trifecta of a year with In the Heat of the Night, To Sir with Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Poitier, I knew, never portrayed a leading man in another major movie again. I saw that what Ayn Rand, who had denounced racism as a variant of collectivism, called the Age of Envy could destroy people of all races and backgrounds. And still no one breathed the name of Leanita McClain.

Until now. I had recently reconnected to Clarence Page, still writing for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington, DC, bureau, and gamely debating me on Facebook between talk TV appearances, and I gently reached out in memory of Leanita McClain’s Memorial Day suicide and asked for an interview, which he graciously granted. As I read more about her suicide, I decided to seek the input of her friend and fellow journalist Monroe Anderson, and a lively conversation ensued. I did ask one of her white Tribune editors for an interview. I never heard back and I was not surprised. In my view, many in the media are often purely subjective in using people to advance a certain perception about their business (i.e., newspaper, news channel, Web site) and her suicide is partly a lesson in what’s wrong with the media, the culture, and the country.

What follows are the facts and writings of her short life. Leanita McClain was born to a poor family on Chicago’s south side. With two much older sisters, an albino mother and a father who worked in a factory, she spent a lot of time alone and her early writings foreshadow her sense of alienation. In a brief teen-age essay, entitled “On Me, Segregation, Integration and Pink Polka-Dotted Gremlins With Olive Ears,” McClain wrote:

“Why is there so much hate and contempt among people? I have never been blocked from anything because of my color, and I’m not ashamed of it, either. My great grandfather was Caucasian and so was my great grandmother. My grandmother was part Seminole Indian. I hate to talk like that. It sounds like someone drained all of the blood out of my grandmother and decided that one color was Negro, another color Indian and another Caucasian.” She added: “Why can’t people just be people and live in peace and harmony. Maybe I’m in search of the perfect world. Or maybe I’m just me. That’s it. I’m me. But . . . to be me is to be nothing — to be nothing is to be me. And I love all people. Even pink polka-dotted ones with olive ears.”

McClain grew up in the Ida B. Wells government housing project. She was a bright student, attended Chicago State University, aimed to be a teacher like her older sisters but changed her mind after a violent crime, and went to Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism on a scholarship. After being hired as an intern at the Chicago Tribune, where she met both Page and Anderson, McClain worked in several editing positions, and, in its October 13, 1980, edition, Newsweek published the strong-minded young woman’s My Turn column, “The Middle-Class Black’s Burden”. Her first line signals her dilemma: “I am a member of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success,” she wrote. “I am not ashamed.” McClain, an unabashed advocate for welfare-statism, continued: “As for the envy of my own people, am I to give up my career, my standard of living, to pacify them and set my conscience at ease? No, I have worked for these amenities and deserve them, though I can never enjoy them without feeling guilty.” Clarence Page would write in his introduction to A Foot in Each World, a posthumously published collection of her work: “Material comfort and worldly honors could not lighten the burden she placed on herself, a cross she felt she had to bear for her people.”

Therein was at least part of the problem, as reaction to the column—controversy, acclaim and a sudden promotion by the white liberal Tribune—may have fed the roots of her clinical depression. By the time Chicago’s corrupt Democratic Party had its first major black candidate, Harold Washington, for mayor, Leanita McClain was poised for despair. Washington ran, many of the city’s white Democrats fled to a Jewish Republican candidate named Bernie Epton (whom I supported), and Washington won. But McClain, already stung by criticism among blacks for having gone “uptown,” wrote a blisteringly racist commentary for the Washington Post. The newspaper’s editors gave her essay a headline she did not like—Page wrote that she thought it overstated her case—“How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.” Leanita McClain killed herself less than a year after it was published.

In the essay, she wrote that she had heard a voice during the heated mayoral campaign that “was going on about ‘the blacks.’ ‘The blacks this’ and ‘the blacks’ that, ‘the blacks, the blacks, the blacks.’ My eyes fogged, but not from the bathroom steam. ‘The blacks.’ It is the article that offends.” Long before an interracial Illinois senator calling himself a black man from Chicago was elected president, McClain described what followed Harold Washington’s victory: “[b]lack strangers exchanged sly smiles on the streets. A jubilant scream went up, but it was a silent one, something like the high-pitched tones only animals can discern. The black man won! We did it! It rose to the stratosphere, crystalized and sprinkled every one of us like sugared rain. We had a feeling, and above all we had power.”

McClain admitted in the piece that she had put so much effort into “belonging”, and that the political acrimony showed her that solving the racial problem would take more than living, marrying and going to school together. “What is there, then, to believe in?” She asked, indicating that she held integration as a dogma more than as a goal and referring to what she called her innate black hope. Amid her abrupt abandonment of racial harmony as an attainable goal and embrace of what she called the comradeship of blackness, her insights were clear and penetrating:

“I’ve detested my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune whose antiseptic suburban worlds are just as narrow, who pretend to have immense racial concerns and knowledge, but who don’t know blacks other than me and who haven’t even come in touch with ordinary whites in decades.” Leanita McClain was prophetic about a newspaper that never regained the common touch and has floundered ever since.

Despite her newly declared hostility for whites, in a column in which she wrote about wanting to gun them down, liberal black editor Leanita McClain had at various times also criticized Chicago public schools, the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Chicago’s self-aggrandizing race-baiter, the Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, whose budding presidential candidacy she dismissed. But there were signs that defeatism had pierced her soul: “no black is going to be president of the United States for so far in the future that it isn’t worth pondering.”

McClain, whose parents had vowed that their children would leave public housing—which they did—was not afraid to question liberal articles of faith, denouncing both progressive education and the permissiveness of the 1960s. She also argued for the right to an abortion, absolute free speech, and she observed that the black middle class was largely dependent on government jobs. When Vanessa Williams won the 1984 Miss America contest, McClain wrote that Williams’s ability as an individual swayed the judges, and McClain rightly predicted that the nation’s first black Miss America would not be co-opted into becoming a spokesman for black causes. When she heard from some black readers that Williams won Miss America because she was light-skinned, like McClain, she called the self-hate out, firing right back: “Color variations are joked about uninhibitedly among black people, but any serious discussion of it is whispered; and it is an unmentionable in the company of whites. Even civil rights has not relieved this twisted, parasitic tendency…those people who choose to feel superior or inferior to others of their own race on the basis of skin color ought to spend more time looking over themselves.”

Throughout her brief career, Leanita McClain pointed out that it was a black journalist who revealed Jesse Jackson’s slur against Jews, that Black History Month was begun by a black historian in 1926 as Negro History Week during the week of the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and freed slave and abolitionist newspaper publisher Frederick Douglass, and she warned that Chicago, now governed by a mayor who is dictating drug tests for Chicago’s housing project residents and wants new city casinos, was falling under the control of thugs who would take the city back to the days of Al Capone. And she never let up in railing against racism: “Whether whites can see it or not, or admit to it or not, they are ingrained by this society with a superior attitude toward blacks that is as natural and reflexive and uncontrollable as sneezing.”

One of her best pieces, a Chicago magazine article published in 1981, asks: Who will save our schools? McClain wrote: “It wasn’t that long ago that one could grow up black and poor in Chicago and still receive an education. I did. So did my two sisters, who remain in the system as elementary school teachers. We and the thousands like us did it by mastering standardized tests and the English language. We did it without free meals, busing, pupil or teacher desegregation plans or euphemisms that hid the fact that children simply weren’t making it. To fail was just that. It was not a perfect education. The public schools provided a solid if unimaginative curriculum in basic reading and mathematical skills that those with initiative could develop. We can read, and write, and reason.”

And she did, making a living out of thinking, reading and writing, which I know first-hand is an achievement. Writing later about a sign she kept that evokes blacks sitting in colored waiting rooms, she explained that she kept it as a reminder that, “with a sense of self, we never will again.” Tragically, she lost her sense of self, which I think she erroneously predicated on blood. In this post and related posts, I seek to foster a better understanding of Leanita McClain’s work, life, and death, which moved me as a youth and influenced my career. The following interviews with those who knew her best, two accomplished journalists kind enough to talk to me on the eve of the 27th Memorial Day since she died, are intended to put her suicide in context, as part of studying an important and underreported topic that deeply affects us. This is for the memory of Leanita McClain and individuals who don’t fit in and want to make the world their own.