I was once again a journalist, using my craft to pursue the truth. Or was I. A decade earlier I had excoriated commercial media for its pro-business agenda and support of the Vietnam War. “Running dogs of the imperialists” we called them. Now here I was, running with them.
I chose television as the vehicle for my journalism. I had started in radio, but pictures increased the power of persuasion by magnitudes. It was a lesson never forgotten by those of us who watched or heard the 1960 Richard Nixon/John F. Kennedy debate. On radio Nixon’s attention to detail overcame the glib New Englander’s platitudes. On television, the handsome, self-possessed young man overwhelmed the puffy Nixon, his face mottled by five o’clock shadow, his expression uncomfortable as he watched cool Kennedy promise great things for the country.
The 1960’s civil rights movement reinforced the power of pictures. When people actually saw dogs and fire hoses attacking high school kids the balance of public opinion tipped. The chant at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was, “the whole world is watching.”
Marlene Sanders, who had broken boundaries as the first women correspondent in Vietnam and the first Vice President of a television network, was the executive producer of CloseUp. Richard Girdau told Marlene that I was really a producer. She gave me a badly needed pay raise and assigned me to work with African-American producer Tony Batten. Tony and I hit it off and worked well together.
Our first show was on the nuclear fuel cycle. We decided to begin at the Navajo reservation where uranium mines had caused increased incidents of cancer among miners. Drifting uranium-tailing piles worried local ranchers. We interviewed a Navaho elder in a tiny meadow surrounded by aspen and pine along in a stream in the Lukachukai Mountains. He spoke of “his people” and their relationship to “the earth” the rates of cancer and official indifference. What seemed to us moving and profound in the mountains of Arizona seemed like a series of tired clichés in the cynical editing rooms at ABC news. Indians were losers, we were told, and nobody wanted to listen to losers. Our Indian elder never made it into the final show.
We visited deteriorating nuclear power plants and went to Hanford Washington where engineers assured us that they had solved the plutonium disposal problem with a process called “glassification.” Engineers and scientists were still working on ways to safely dispose of nuclear waste in 2017, almost 40 years later. They were equally confident of success although the collapse of a tunnel at Hanford has once again alarmed those who depend on Columbian River water.
Marlene assigned our next project, eventually entitled The All Volunteer Army: A Shocking State of Readiness. Neither of us had ever been in the military. The army tried to cooperate. We met with a series of colonels and majors, but we quickly discovered that when it came to figuring out what was really going on, officers were useless. They all faithfully repeated the company line. They were the “can do army.”Everything was just fine and the soldiers were ready for any contingency.
The enlisted men knew better and career non-commissioned officers knew the most. In 1978, the majority of sergeants we met were African-American. Tony became the conduit through which they hoped to tell their story. The army was almost dysfunctional. Drug use was rampant among enlisted men, equipment was poorly maintained, morale was low, officers were arrogant and out of touch. We visited the Fulda gap. If a war with the Soviet Union broke out, this is where Soviet troops would pour across a low point in the mountains separating East and West German.
The communications major told us the Black Horse Battalion, guarding the gap, was ready to go. The sergeants told us that out every nine tanks only five or six actually worked, the rest being cannibalized to keep the others going. But don’t worry, they said, even fewer Soviet tanks worked and their soldiers were even more demoralized.
It was a joke at a huge expense. Worse, the Army officer Corp, with some notable exceptions, seemed racist. The largely white, West Point trained officers blamed the increasingly brown and black troops they commanded for the Army’s problems. A white officer at Fort Jackson gestured, on camera, to the colored troops behind him and said, “They’re losers. They were born losers and they’ll die losers and you can’t win a war with losers.” In the rough cut Tony and I edited, this was the moment when the audience gasped and realized what was wrong with the Army. Officers had no respect for the men they were trying to lead.
Marlene screened the show before Christmas and said she liked it. It might have aired in much that form if an intense drama had not unfolded behind the scenes at ABC News. Roone Allege, who had made a huge success of ABC’s previously flagging sport’s division, convinced ABC honchos that he could make money on news, still a radical idea in 1978. News had always been a loss leader, the free lunch that bar tenders put out to entice customers to drink beer. News was expected to run at a loss, worth the cost because of the prestige news coverage brought to a network. News fulfilled a civic responsibility. Watch the great movie Network to get a sense of the shock that the idea of making money on news had in a couple of years earlier, in 1976.
Roone was particularly disappointed with the ratings of the CloseUp unit and it was clear from the start that he did not think Marlene would fix them. One of her producers, Pam Hill, on the other hand had achieved some of the highest ratings on CloseUp. Roone made Pam the show’s “artistic director.” He called Pam into his officer constantly and completely ignored Marlene, who resigned shortly after the first of the year.
Arledge put Pam in charge. She had major problems with our rough cut. In the first place, unless there was an actual threat of attack from the Soviet Union, who cared how powerful our army was? We told Pam that no one we spoke to thought the Soviets were about to invade. Tony was more adamant than I was and Pam took him off the show and put me in charge. Solidarity and journalistic integrity might have persuaded me to join him ten years earlier, but I was acutely aware of my tenuous hold on a professional job.
I returned to Germany to find generals who would testify on camera to the threat of an imminent Soviet invasion. The ones I found were all extremely right-wing. One of them had Nazi paraphernalia displayed on his study walls. We had to be careful to keep it out of the interview shot. The German generals assured us that a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap was a real possibility.
I wrote four or five versions of the script, all of which Pam rejected. Roger Petersen, our correspondent, wrote several additional versions. Finally, Pam wrote the last script herself.
Before a CloseUp documentary aired, after the show had gone through color correcting and audio mix, we held a final screening with lawyers, Pam and other honchos. The key moment in Pam’s version of The All Volunteer Army was the same statement of the white lieutenant at Fort Jackson that Tony and I used. “These men are losers.” But in Pam’s version the Lieutenant’s bitter comment was the core message of the film. The army’s problem was the men it was recruiting, the black and brown soldiers. The officers were blameless.
I turned to Dick Richter, Pam’s assistant and a friend, and whispered, “This is exactly the opposite of what we found as journalists in the field.” Pam over heard me and turned around in her chair to answer with a big smile on her face, “Isn’t it funny how things turn out like that sometimes?”