Cronkite

The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.

In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.

There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.

This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”

This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.

For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.

The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.

Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.

Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat:  the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events–  the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.

Bad Boy Ballmer

The Book of the Week is “Bad Boy Ballmer, the Man Who Rules Microsoft” by Frederic Alan Maxwell, published in 2002. This ebook recounts the history of Microsoft and the career of its co-founder, Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, which was a community comprised of “intense and well-funded academic, athletic, and social competition, and a high level of parental expectation, involvement, and support.” Ballmer’s father decided he was going to attend Harvard College. Fortunately, his superb academic record proved sufficient for acceptance. There, he met Bill Gates. They struck up a friendship and started Microsoft in the spring of 1975.

In the early 1980’s, under Ballmer’s and Gates’ auspices, the company created applications software that worked best on its own operating systems. This was one of many of Microsoft’s monopolistic practices that prompted government investigations and many lawsuits against it. Legally, financially and politically astute, Microsoft successfully defended itself for well over a decade, and employed unlawful dirty tricks in taking swipes at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Netscape and many other companies that made competing products. The whole time, Microsoft arrogantly denied it was a monopoly.

In the summer of 1998, Ballmer was named president of the company, which was still dogged by accusations of illegal business practices. The corporate culture had changed for the worse, and employee turnover rose. In order to boost morale, Ballmer “scheduled one-on-one interviews with the top hundred of Microsoft’s now thirty-five thousand employees, asking them what they thought was wrong with the company and how it could change.”

Ballmer told the press that his $180 billion company was overvalued. Shortly thereafter, on September 23, 1999, Microsoft’s NASDAQ stock price plummeted. Shareholders in the Seattle area alone suffered collective losses of $11 billion, or over “$3,000 for every man, woman, child and dog.” Other tech stocks fell precipitously as well. It was thought that Ballmer’s remark was a deliberate strategy to financially debilitate Microsoft’s rivals, which lacked the resources his company did.

Performance of Microsoft employees was reviewed every six months, on a 5-point scale. Managers competed for the privilege of supervising employees awarded high scores. However, the system had an inherent unfairness in that some managers gave 3’s for 4.5-level work, because they were supposed to rank their subordinates pursuant to the normal curve.

Read the book to learn more about how Ballmer’s personality and actions shaped Microsoft for over a quarter of a century.

Beam, Straight Up

The Book of the Week is “Beam, Straight Up: The Bold Story of the First Family of Bourbon” by Fred Noe, with Jim Kokoris, published in 2012.  This autobiographical book recounts the history of the brand of Kentucky bourbon known as “Jim Beam” as told by a descendant of the company’s founder.

The drink recipe dates back to the 1790’s, and the family first started selling whiskey in 1795. Bourbon is a kind of whiskey. The name Bourbon was derived from the county name in Kentucky in about 1820.

Whiskey is “a spirit that’s made from a grain like corn, rye, wheat or barley.” A whiskey can be called bourbon only if it is comprised of a minimum of 51% corn, that has been aged a minimum of two years “inside charred, new oak barrels that can only be used once.”

Other varieties of whiskey include scotch (mostly barley), Canadian (mostly rye) and Irish (mostly malted barley). “Thanks to our innovation and our premiumization (upscale brands), bourbon was the fastest-growing large category in the United States in 2011.”

In the early days, the family shipped the bourbon in oak barrels on flatboats via streams and rivers, of which Kentucky likely has more than any other state. In the 1850’s, railroads and steamboats began to serve as additional shipping channels.

The spirit industry had its share of problems through the decades. In the 1920’s, there was Prohibition. Other drinks containing alcohol including vodka, scotch, wine and beer rose in popularity. Even so, competing whiskey-making companies would assist each other when they faced various equipment failures due to disasters.

Noe writes, “Sometimes I think the whole world is like one big bar, and I’m the world’s bartender.”

The Man Time Forgot

The Book of the Week is “The Man Time Forgot” by Isaiah Wilner, published in 2007.  This ebook tells the history of Time magazine, and contains the biographies of its two original business partners. According to this account, Brit Hadden alone came up with the concept for the magazine, and partnered with Henry Luce to create the publishing company for it.

The concept was to cobble together days-old stories from all the news outlets and retell them in a sassy way, intended to provoke controversy. Hadden believed “Controversy is unrest, and unrest breathes the spirit of progress.” In the mid-1920’s, one could get away with reprinting articles without crediting his sources.

In the nineteen teens, Luce and Hadden had developed a contentious but complementary relationship at the elitist Hotchkiss, a private boarding school in Connecticut, and then continued their teamwork on academic publications at Yale college. There, they competed in a rigorous contest whose prizes consisted of opportunities to work on the school newspaper. They both made the cut.

During WWI, the president of the college allowed academic credit to be given for military courses. In fact, the school became largely a military training ground in the war years. Hadden and Luce availed themselves of training but stayed stateside, although in 1918, President Wilson lowered the age of conscription to 18.

Postwar, consumerism abounded. “As households bought their first automobiles, washing machines and phonographs, companies plastered the streets with billboards.” The public spent its leisure time partaking of magazines, newspapers, books, movies and radio. Sensationalism had become big business.

More and more American residents were able to experience common entertainment. This was advantageous for the ad sales success of Time. When the magazine met its “rate base”– a minimum number of magazines being circulated among the public– it was able to charge more money to its advertisers. Direct mail was a budding advertising outlet for the magazine itself, of which it took full advantage. By the early 1920’s, Time had tens of thousands of readers.

It took several years for Hadden to convince the Post Office to classify Time as a newspaper, affording the national publication faster delivery from its sole office in New York City.

Letters to the editor (some were fictional, concoted by Hadden) was a favorite section of the magazine. The author contends that “Time remained the place to hear the full-throated call of the average American moron, expressing his prejudices with confidence and joy. Subscribers enjoyed reading such letters…”

Sadly, Hadden’s poor health resulted in his untimely death. Until he himself died, Luce was extremely reluctant to concede that Time was Hadden’s idea, and released propaganda making himself and Hadden co-founders. He failed to credit Hadden as the magazine’s true sole creator. Such deception boosted his ego and brought him undeserved honors. Such can be the nature of publishing and public relations.

Louis D. Brandeis, A Life

The Book of the Week is “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” by Melvin I. Urofsky, published in 2009. This is the lengthy biography of an attorney and Supreme Court Justice.

The youngest of three siblings, Brandeis grew up in Louisville, KY in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Prior to the early 20th century, Brandeis felt that his job as an attorney was to help develop a fair solution for all parties involved in a dispute. He felt he was a mediator and moralist, rather than an attorney being paid to favorably act on behalf of and give legal advice to only his client. This mentality led Brandeis to engage in a few conflicts of interest in dealing with his firm’s clients.  For instance, he represented a corporate client in litigation in which a third party was represented by his firm.

Despite becoming embroiled in a few episodes of hypocrisy, Brandeis fought against corrupt, monopolistic practices of various large American institutions. He felt obligated to do what he considered public service, pro bono. Fortunately, his income as a law partner allowed this.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, there were three big insurance companies that wielded an amount of power similar to that of big-name brokerages in the early 2000’s. The outsized ego and greed of the insurance executives, too, led them to manipulate the government, commit accounting irregularities, and abuse their power and the public’s trust. Brandeis took them on, exposing what he thought was their moral depravity. He then found a way for the public to avoid adding to the profits of the evil insurance corporations by initiating the sale of affordable life insurance through savings banks.

Brandeis was nominated a Supreme Court Justice by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “When confronted with the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, and in a time of growing nativism, clearly those who ‘feared foreigners’ would oppose the appointment.” Brandeis had to endure four stressful months of hearings and background checking before he was appointed.

Around 1920, Brandeis became active in the Zionist movement. He controversially defined the movement as one in which oppressed Jews could receive financial assistance to improve their lot through settling in Palestine. Since the persecuted Jews who had found a haven in the United States had become successful in their adopted country, they did not need to go to Palestine to build a homeland there. But they were urged to help their fellow Jews who were worse off than themselves, to do so. Other people in the movement felt Brandeis did not truly understand the mentality of the oppressed Jewish immigrants, who viewed Palestine as a place they could freely practice their religion.

During the 1930’s, when Great Britain realized that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews, and that there was so much oil in the Middle East, she changed her political position on Zionism as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. She found the Jews argumentative, and wanted Palestine to be “an Arab-dominated region under English tutelage.”

Brandeis favored a workday shorter than twelve or fourteen hours, in order to give unionized American workers time to fulfill their civic responsibilities to get involved in local politics and “as parents and members of their communities.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis left an influential legacy in that he had a “… great impact not only on jurisdictional matters but on commercial law, antitrust, administrative law, utility regulation, federalism, and individual liberties.”

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life

The Book of the Week is “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life:  A Biography” by Mary-Lou Weisman, published in 2010.

This book describes the life of the oldest of four sons of neglectful parents. Fortunately, that son had a marketable, incredible talent that allowed him to live a decent life as an adult.

When Jaffee was six years old, in 1927, his mother decided to take her sons from Savannah, Georgia, back with her to a shtetl in an increasingly anti-Semitic Lithuania. The family– absent the father, who stayed in the United States, scrounging out a living as a part-time postal worker– went back and forth between their new and old countries a few times, causing emotional upheaval for all involved.

Read the book to learn the details of Jaffee’s unstable childhood and how he parlayed his experience with hardship into a successful career in cartooning.

I Got A Name

The Book of the Week is “I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story” by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, published in 2012. This is a career biography of the singer-songwriter Jim Croce.

In struggling to be his own man, Croce’s strengths and weaknesses emerged. In the early 1960’s, Croce rebelled against his parents in various ways. He broke free of his strict Catholic upbringing by converting to Judaism, marrying a Jew and pursuing a music career irrelevant to his Villanova University education in psychology and German.

He was able to stand up to his family but not the music company he chose to represent him and his wife. Although Croce had incredible talent and passion for composing and singing folk songs about working class people and love, the couple got swindled due to their phobia for dealing with attorneys. For years, Croce’s music made only his promoters wealthy. The couple stayed dirt poor even after there was widespread purchasing of his music.

In the late 1960’s, the Croces were pressured by the music company to go on concert tours at colleges. In the early 1970’s, Croce, without his wife, went on long, grueling road trips, during which he adopted the stereotyped rock-star lifestyle– taking drugs (not the hard ones, though) and philandering, but without the luxury accommodations and high pay.

Read the book to learn the full story (that ended tragically) of the suffering that Croce and his family endured in order for him to pursue his dream.

Wendy and the Lost Boys

The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.

Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.

A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.

Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family.  Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.

At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers.  One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.

Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.

Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.

One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

Growing Up Laughing

The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part biography of the author’s father, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.

Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.

In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.

Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.