Monday, October 27, 2014

Ebola Tackles Football

The quarterback of our daughter and son-in-law’s coed Brooklyn bar league football team went bowling last week and now the team’s season is all but over.

No, he didn’t wrench his arm out trying to make a 7-10 split spare. Rather, he’s a victim of the ongoing, somewhat overarching and sometimes shameful Ebola scare. You see, on the evening Dr. Craig Spencer went bowling at Gutter in Williamsburg, the quarterback patronized the same bowling alley. Dr. Spencer, you will recall, is the good doctor who volunteered to save lives in Guinea to treat Ebola patients and stem the plague, who unfortunately contracted the disease himself with symptoms displayed last Thursday. 

It is only natural to be cautious, concerned and sensitive. But people, including governors in our area, who are calling for and mandating quarantines for Ebola care workers, are feeding public panic by ignoring established medical science that Ebola is transmitted only through direct contact with infected body fluids.

At no time did any of Dr. Spencer’s fluids touch the quarterback. Still, he felt obligated to email his teammates and ask if they had a problem with his playing Sunday. All but one couple had no problem. If he played they wouldn’t, the couple wrote in an email to all team members save the quarterback. Without them the team had too few players to field a squad. They forfeited. Unless there’s a change of heart they’ll forfeit the last two games of the season, as well.

For sure, touch football is not on the same par of significance as the spread of Ebola. As I said earlier, caution, concern and sensitivity are required. Even if they were wrong, at least according to medical experts, the couple was entitled to express their feelings and act on them, regardless of how they affected the rest of the team.

But panic in the streets, at the airports, and on the ball fields must be balanced by attention to medical experts. Because of our federal/state system of government we lack a proper, uniform, central response to the challenge of Ebola containment, made all the more alarming because of the 24/7 media cycle in which we live. 

I don’t have an answer as to how we should react. But I worry about elected officials making decisions about science that are politically motivated. We’ve already seen some of their questionable (preposterous, actually) beliefs. Some continue to deny global warming. Or evolution. Or believe that a woman cannot become pregnant if raped. 

We live in the 21st century. Let’s start acting like we do. We are not living through a Stephen King novel. This is not the Middle Ages wracked by plague of unknown origin and remediation. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ben Bradlee Inspired Many a Journalist

Don’t count me among the legions inspired to become journalists by Ben Bradlee and his then-young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It’s not that I didn’t admire this trio of Washington Post muckrakers. It’s just that I had decided to become a reporter three years before Watergate entered the public consciousness.

My muse was another editor at a different Post, along with the writing behind the exposure in Chicago of official corruption, albeit the fictional kind. 

I was motivated by James Wechsler, the bow-tied editor of The New York Post. Now, don’t be put off by your thoughts about today’s New York Post. Back in 1969, The Post was still a bastion of liberal, progressive thought wrapped inside standard police-fire-and-general-mayhem tabloid fare upfront and a superlative sports section in the back.

The death earlier this week of Bradlee, retired executive editor of The Washington Post, has brought forth the expected tributes about his defining role in the paper’s dogged investigation of the Watergate break-in (initially criticized by Republicans, a big shrug-of-the-shoulders by almost everyone else) and his eventual triumph and vindication with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. It is not too far a reach to state, as others have, that Bradlee-Woodward-Bernstein begat a new generation of journalists, each seeking to leave his or her mark by exposing and toppling members of the power elite. 

I started my pursuit of a career in journalism a full three years before Watergate after being brought up reading The New York Post every day. As a youngster I would read the comics—Nancy, Mutt & Jeff, Dennis the Menace. As I grew older, the sports columnists Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Milton Gross, Paul Zimmerman and Leonard Schechter romanced my interests in baseball and football. Next I delved into the social columnists, the Entertainment Tonight-Perez Hilton-TMZ of their day: Leonard Lyons, Earl Wilson, Sidney Skolsky, whose signature line in every weekend celebrity profile was whether she or he slept in the raw, an impressionable image for a hormonally stimulated early teenager. 

Finally, with more maturity, I absorbed the political mavens: Wechsler, Max Lerner, Mary McGrory, Art Buchwald, William Buckley, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson, Murray Kempton, and a newcomer, Pete Hamill, a counter to Jimmy Breslin’s man-of-the-street prose in The Daily News

It was a column by Wechsler, a review of a 1969 revival of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page that ignited my interest in being a reporter, an upgrade from my position as editor of Calling Card, a Brooklyn College newspaper. 

On one of our early dates I took Gilda to see The Front Page revival starring Bert Convy and Robert Ryan. To this day I revel in watching two movie adaptations of the play—the 1931 film starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, and the 1940 adaptation, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell—about star reporter Hildy Johnson’s desire to leave the Chicago Examiner to get married, all the while trying to overcome the machinations of managing editor Walter Burns to keep Johnson on the payroll. Along the way they expose the corruption of the mayor and sheriff who want to execute an innocent man. 

I don’t mean to suggest my life as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor and publisher matched the frenzied excitement of The Front Page. But I had my share of stimulation and sensationalism. During my time as a reporter for The New Haven Register, I covered the largest industrial arson in the nation’s history, interviewed U.S. senator Lowell Weicker during a break from his duties on the Watergate Committee, profiled a survivor of an Eastern Airlines crash in the Everglades and a pilot who vied with Charles Lindbergh to be the first to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, to name a few memorable stories.

When I interviewed to be a field editor on Nation’s Restaurant News in Manhattan in 1977, the group vice president coyly asked me if I preferred a job at The New York Post, by then a Rupert Murdoch property. Just say the word and he’d call a friend there. I resisted the bait, telling him only after experiencing the job as a business-to-business writer would I be able to determine if I found the task rewarding. I must have, as I stayed with the company for 32 years, all but that first year on Chain Store Age.

It was rewarding, both financially and emotionally. To be sure, I rarely covered politicians, except when they got involved in minimum wage or other issues affecting the retail and restaurant industries. So when candidates for my Chain Store Age staff would inevitably ask for my comparison between the gratification of working for the consumer press and a trade journal, I would respond that my ego was stroked by getting to know many of the men and women who, every day through their stores, catalogs and Internet sites, touched the lives of most Americans. My magazine also provided insight into many merchandise and systems suppliers that have transformed the way we shop. I was fortunate, I would tell them, to work in a publishing house that allowed, encouraged actually, probing editorial that dissected retail strategies and exposed them when they didn’t work.

We didn’t topple any retail empires. No president, even of a retail company, resigned because of our reporting. That was not our mission. But I take pride and comfort in what Fred Barbash, now the Morning Mix editor of The Washington Post, wrote back in January 2000. Under the headline, “Investing tip: Read the trade publications,” Barbash repeatedly referenced an issue of Chain Store Age to detail how article after article informed his knowledge of the stock market. “When it comes to getting ideas for buying stocks before the whole wide world knows about them, when it comes to resources that cost little or nothing compared with some of the pricey newsletters, I think you can’t beat …”  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Some Things I Wonder About

Here are a few things I wonder about:

I wonder when restaurant and retail operators will determine the time is right for an increase in the minimum wage. Just as restaurateurs fought smoking bans inside their establishments on the pretext it would drive down sales, only to be proven wrong, they continue to argue that an increase in the minimum wage would hurt business. I cannot remember a time during the last 35 years when merchants and restaurateurs did not lobby against pay hikes, when they did not counsel the time was not propitious.

Yes, some stores and food establishments might suffer, but not because salaries were higher. They’d possibly go out of business because they were inefficient operators, or their locations were marginal, or their service and product were sub-par. 

I wonder when politicians will come to their senses and realize giving a few more cents to workers would benefit the whole economy.

Driving Gilda to and from work since she broke her wrist in mid-August has vastly increased my exposure to Sirius radio. Aside from the near 45 mpg fuel economy we have been enjoying in her Ford C-Max, we get to listen to Sirius. Often, it’s the BBC World News, but when we want music Gilda usually chooses the Pulse station. I sometimes opt for Bridge but she switches the station to one of her favorites. Until she explained the songs on Bridge, such as “Please Come to Boston” and “Dream Weaver,” were too melancholy, I never realized so many indeed were downers, which got me to wondering if the Bridge station wasn’t sending out a subliminal message to would be suicides that jumping off a bridge usually does the trick.

News reports continue to emphasize U.S. and allied aircraft are having limited results blunting the ISIS offensive in Syria and Iraq. Often, it is reported, ISIS has tanks and other heavy artillery while its foes have simpler, less impactful weapons. Which got me to wondering, how is it that with smart bombs and laser-guided drone attacks the allied coalition hasn’t been able to knock out the ISIS ordnance. It’s not as if these big guns are hiding. Newscasts clearly show them. Even if they were inside cities the U.S. (and Israel) previously demonstrated the pinpoint precision of aerial forces. So why the negligible results?

Regardless of political party it seems off-year congressional and senate candidates rarely want to be seen with the president, even if they share the same party affiliation. It’s happening with Obama and previously with George W. Bush. 

But I wonder why almost all political ads on TV, radio, billboards and printed flyers fail to identify party affiliation of the candidate. It’s particularly vexing when the roadway landscape is bedecked with all manner of political signs that leave one scratching one’s head about a candidate’s red or blue color. You’d think all Republicans would want to make sure they are not mistaken for an Obama supporter.

The failure to identify party affiliation can affect even the most tenured of elected pols. My U.S. representative, Nita Lowey, has served in Congress since 1989. She is the ranking minority member on the Committee on Appropriations. She is no slouch. Yet the flyer that arrived at our home over the weekend included absolutely no mention of her Democratic Party affiliation. I couldn’t tell you who is running against her, but, then again, anyone not familiar with Lowey couldn’t tell you her party alignment by looking at her literature. 

I ran this by my good friend Marty who’s okay with my posting this—I wonder why movies and TV shows invariably portray accountants as short guys and architects as tall, mostly sophisticated gentlemen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Wal-Mart CEO to Owner of the KC Royals

David Glass stood before exultant fans in Kauffman Stadium Wednesday evening. As television cameras recorded the scene, the 79-year-old owner and chief executive of the Kansas City Royals thanked the faithful for their support of his team that, by virtue of their four game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, is headed to the World Series for the first time since 1985. Indeed, this is the first time in 28 years that the Royals had qualified for any post-season activity.

Glass has owned the Royals since he shelled out $96 million in 2000. For the seven years prior to his ownership he was the CEO of the baseball franchise founded by Ewing Kauffman, who died in 1993. During Glass’ tenure as head Royal, Kansas City was a model of ineptitude, setting records for annual futility. Fans were infuriated, believing the team was more concerned with fielding the lowest paid roster in the sport than with being competitive. This year’s payroll started at $92 million, 19th out of the 30 major league teams.

Paying low wages was something Glass was all too familiar with. You see, from 1988 to 2000, Glass was president and CEO of Wal-Mart. And that’s where my connection to David Glass lies. As head of Wal-Mart, succeeding founder Sam Walton, Glass oversaw its growth from $20.6 billion to $191.3 billion, from 1,381 domestic stores to 4,190 stores in countries as diverse as Great Britain, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, China and Germany. 

He has a wry sense of humor. He could be self-effacing. He would tell the story of the time Walton tried to recruit him in 1962 when he was invited to attend the opening of the second Wal-Mart, in Harrison, Ark. At the time Glass was a financial officer with a small drug store chain in Springfield, MO. As related by Vance H. Trimble in his biography of Walton, Glass said, 

“It was the worst retail store I had ever seen. Sam had brought a couple of trucks or watermelons in and stacked them on the sidewalk. He had a donkey ride out in the parking lot. It was 115 degrees, and the watermelons began to pop, and the donkey began to do what donkeys do, and it all mixed together and ran all over the parking lot. And when you went inside the store, the mess just continued, having been tracked in all over the floor. 

“He was a nice fellow, but I wrote him off. It was just terrible.”

Fourteen years later Glass joined Wal-Mart.

I met Glass about three years later. He was not the most approachable of Wal-Mart executives. Behind his resonant baritone voice I always suspected he did not like sharing anything with the press. And this was before his signature moment with the media. That occurred in December 1992 on NBC Dateline. Glass was confronted with allegations Wal-Mart suppliers in Bangladesh employed underage child laborers, that the company’s vaunted Made in America program was a sham.

Glass, at the time, had bushy, dark eyebrows that slanted up his forehead. With the Dateline camera angled from below his seat, he was the picture of Mephistopheles. He was the picture of evil incarnate.

Glass stormed out of the interview. Though he returned to face the Dateline cameras weeks later, the damage to his and Wal-Mart’s reputation was done.

Over the last five years the Royals have been more competitive. Their general manager, Dayton Moore, has made many shrewd roster moves. As he stood on the infield stage under a black League Champions hat, David Glass could only hope fans would be more appreciative of his management of their beloved, long-suffering Royals. It would help if they won the World Series. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Have You Noticed ...

Have you noticed … a certain sameness to the rhetoric coming from the political left and right? Both want to take the country back.

Here’s what U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Bill Maher last Friday: 

“We now have a government that works for millionaires and billionaires and Fortune 500 companies, but it’s leaving real families, real people behind. And so, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to get over there and we’ve got to be willing to fight back, to take this country back.”

A conservative, retired friend of mine sent along a right wing screed that contained the following:

“We didn’t fight for the Socialist States of America; we fought for the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” … Yes, we are old and slow these days but rest assured, we have at least one good fight left in us. We have loved this country, fought for it, and died for it, and now we are going to save it. It is our country and nobody is going to take it away from us. We took oaths to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that is an oath we plan to keep. There are those who want to destroy this land we love but, like our founders, there is no way we are going to remain silent.”

It’s an “us vs. them” attitude that has overtaken much of our political dialogue. Solutions are rarely advanced beyond “throw-the-bums-out.”

I pointed out to my conservative friend that the fighters of WWII, Korea and Vietnam “fought to defend social security, the GI Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, the FDA, national parks, Civil Rights, and other progressive programs, all of which were passed and in place by 1965 at the latest and many pre-WWII. 

“If we want to blame Obama for anything, let’s blame him for reducing unemployment to its lowest levels in about a decade; for saving the domestic car industry; for extending health care to millions of uninsured; for having the longest run of positive job growth; for following through on Bush’s contract with Iraq to remove US troops (he’s now being blamed for doing what Bush signed on to do, another mess W. left).”

Have you noticed … that despite daily reassurances by broadcasters, doctors and government officials that it is hard to contract Ebola even from an infected carrier, many Americans are panicking, believing the deadly disease will invade our shores and kill thousands, even millions, of us? Why? Because there are too many dumb people living among us. 

First, let’s note the obvious—more people than you care to believe don’t wash their hands before leaving the bathroom. Second, and perhaps more important, Americans are mostly ignorant about stuff that really matters. We choose political leaders based on emotions not reasoned thinking; we prefer mindless TV shows and movies over thought-provoking performances; we celebrate and emulate celebrities with no talent. I could go on but the point is, we are a shallow people, easily led by media that has an agenda that is anti-Progressive.

Did you notice … the article in Thursday’s New York Times about expensive watch collectors and their weekly Red Bar meetings to ogle and fondle time pieces worth the down payment on a Manhattan co-op?

I couldn’t believe one attendee admitted to regularly bringing half a million dollars worth of watches to the gatherings. That sort of ostrich-head-in-the-sand attitude toward crime just invites foul deeds. I’m reminded of a post I did back in 2010 about a metal detector enthusiast whose house was burglarized after I profiled him in The New Haven Register and, by newspaper policy, had to include his address story ( As with my story, sometimes too much information is too much.

Have you seen … the new Republican Party TV ad that tries to soften the image of the GOP by portraying “Republicans are people, too”? With a # IAMaRepublican in the lower left hand corner, the ad shows various shades of “Republicans”—a black woman, a woman with a tattoo, a man with a tattoo and beard, a young professional-looking white man reading The New York Times in public, and other activities not generally associated with conservative types, such as recycling, shopping at Trader Joe’s, using a Mac, driving a Prius, listening to Spotify and putting together Ikea furniture.

A warm and fuzzy ad, only all the pictures are stock photo images. There’s no assurance all or any of them are Republicans or even U.S. citizens. Heck, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, the man standing next to a Prius is a Swede. Given that country’s social welfare system it’s highly doubtful he has much in common with Republican, especially conservative Republican, values.

Let’s end on an amusing note about the differences in our national society, sent to me by my aforementioned conservative friend:  

You may have heard on the news about a Southern California man who was put under 72-hour psychiatric observation when it was found he owned 100 guns and allegedly had 100,000 rounds of ammunition stored in his home. The house also featured a secret escape tunnel.

By Southern California standards, someone owning 100,000 rounds is considered “mentally unstable.”

In Michigan, he’d be called “The last white guy still living in Detroit.”

In Arizona, he’d be called “an avid gun collector.”

In Arkansas, he’d be called “a novice gun collector.”

In Utah, he’d be called “moderately well prepared,” but they’d probably reserve judgment until they made sure that he had a corresponding quantity of stored food.

In Kansas, he’d be “A guy down the road you would want to have for a friend.”

In Montana, he’d be called “The neighborhood ‘Go-To’ guy.”

In Idaho, he’d be called “a likely gubernatorial candidate.”

In Georgia, he’d be called “an eligible bachelor.”

In North Carolina, Virginia, W.Va., Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina he would be called “a deer hunting buddy.”

And in Texas: he’d just be “Bubba, who’s a little short on ammo.”