You have to love the folks at Regency Electronics. They make radar detectors. Those are the devices that warn you that police radar is on the road ahead. Now you would think this would be a business it would be hard to brag to your children about. But Regency’s head is unbowed. They have sent out a press release that proudly asserts that they are promoting highway safety. How, you ask? Well, when the speeding driver’s radar detector sounds off, he slows down. . . .
A recent news story in The Washington Post said Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, had “angrily canceled” hearings on the Air Force budget. This was not a laughing matter for the Air Force because Stevens’s committee has the power of the purse and can reduce or increase the Air Force’s budget. What had the Air Force done to inspire such wrath? It had tried to save $200,000 by buying milk for a base in Alaska from a dairy in Seattle. Alaska dairies complained, and the budget process ground to a halt so Stevens could protect Alaskan dairies, even though doing so will cost the taxpayers more. . . .
The New York Times recently published a case study of the high cost of Broadway theater. It compared the costs of the London production of Kean with the New York version, and the results were bad news for people who worry about the excessive value that American culture is now putting on money. Anyone who has worked in the theater knows what a labor of love it can be for everyone concerned, from the people backstage to the actors in front of the footlights. Yet on Broadway it has degenerated into a labor of greed.
If you have been to London recently, you know the cost of living there is much the same as in New York, certainly not more than 20 percent less. Yet the New York actor gets a minimum of $610 a week against $180 in London, a New York stage manager $1,000 compared to $300 for his London counterpart. The star of the show got $3,000 a week in London and $12,500 in New York.
There are also some truly exotic union rules that run up the cost of Broadway productions. A man whose only job was to tend to the star’s wig, a job that took at the most an hour a day, had to be paid $500 a week. His counterpart in London got $140. Because of such union work rules as one requiring the crew that installs the set to be paid not only for the hours it works, but for the hours until the lights are focused on the set, set installation costs in New York were $10,000 compared to $3,000 in London.
The sad thing about these high costs is that they discourage production and reduce the opportunities for people to function in work that can be truly joyful. I can understand when we are held up by unions representing people who do society’s drudge work. But it just doesn’t make sense for people who can have fun going to work every day to risk not having that fun in order to get money they don’t really need. . . .
But if Broadway is bad, Hollywood is worse. Kenny Rogers, the singer and actor, is said to have made more than $20 million last year. He owns houses in Malibu, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills. When asked by a magazine interviewer, “Would you consider a challenging role in a film if it were a meaty character part even if it weren’t a starring role?” Rogers replied, “The problem is monetary. I can’t afford to take time off to do something that doesn’t compensate me as much as what I can make otherwise.” “So money is the operative factor,” the interviewer commented. “Absolutely,” answered Rogers.
Meanwhile, a couple of thousand miles away from Beverly Hills, Joan Burton, the deputy clerk of Chase County, Kansas, was offered a pay raise by the county commission. She turned it down because she didn’t believe the rural county could afford it. Her annual salary is $1,066.67. . . .
When I was growing up, the press tended to be excessively deferential to businessmen, portraying the worst scoundrels as distinguished pillars of the community. Then journalistic fashion changed and even the best businessmen tended to be treated like suspects in a holdup. Now we seem to be moving toward a recognition that at least some businessmen are good guys. Recently, for example, The Washington Post‘s R. H. Melton wrote about a memorial service held by the small businessmen who were tenants of Stanley Wolpoff, a commercial landlord in Silver Spring, Maryland, who had died the week before. Wolpoff, the tenants said, would allow fledgling businessmen low rent for the first couple of years, and if they failed he would simply write off the remaining rent due under the lease instead of suing them. But his kindness often kept them from failing. “There are three or four guys on Sligo Avenue here who would have lost their business in last year’s recession if it wasn’t for Stan,” said one of the tenants. . . .
The latest craze in corporate finance is called the leveraged buy-out, and, like most of the innovations of Wall Street, it involves a new way to take you to the cleaners. Here is how it works. The managers of a company decide they want to buy it. The trouble is, their $500,000-a-year salaries are not enough to provide the capital to buy a $100 million corporation. So they put up maybe a million or so and go to the bank where they get a loan for the rest. Secured by what? By the assets of the company, of course.
Since they don’t own the company yet, this security may seem a bit dubious, but not to a banker who is cut in on the deal, receiving a percentage of the ownership sufficient to overcome any excess of rectitude in his character. Now the manager makes an offer to you for your stock. Is the offer fair, you ask? Where do you get the facts about the company so that you can decide? Why, from the managers, of course. Since their interest is in keeping the price low, you are not likely to get facts from them that will lead you to put a high value on your stock. . . .
In all the talk about the Barbara Hutton biography that turned out to contain some fairly glaring errors, one comment about editors stood out. It came from Frances Fitzgerald, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Fire in the Lake. She said, “There is very little editing, even for style.” This seems to me to be generally true in the book publishing business, where an editor’s day appears to consist entirely of taking people to lunch and making deals.
It is also at least partly true of the magazine business. There is some good style editing in magazines. The New Yorker is perhaps an outstanding example. There is also some excellent fact-checking, of which The New Yorker is also a good example. But there is very little of what I call “argue” editing, in which the author’s ideas are examined, intellectual loopholes are discovered and filled, and some facts are exposed as irrelevant while others are found to be missing.
We do a lot of argue editing at the Monthly, probably because I was trained as a lawyer, not as a journalist. One lesson you learn very early as a lawyer is the high desirability of having your partners find the flaws in your case in the forgiving privacy of the office instead of having opposing counsel reveal them in the courtroom to your certain embarrassment and possible defeat.
I recommend this practice to other editors. Some writers, especially the famous ones who tend to become prima donnas, feel it is insulting. They seem to think their artistic integrity is threatened whenever an editor suggests they might be wrong. But the simple fact is that each of us, even the most gifted, falls into error from time to time. That’s why every article in this magazine, including this column, gets a hard look from at least two editors who are free to question anything, whether a matter of fact, style, or meaning. . . .
My concern about argue editing prompts me to add one proposal to what Jonathan Friendly of The New York Times reports that many editors said at a recent conference on how to train journalists: “It is more important for journalism students to get a broad background in the liberal arts rather than train in specific methods of reporting and editing.”
There are two kinds of experience that can enrich a reporter’s point of view. One is the experience of others that he learns through history and literature and that is why a good liberal arts education is so important. Another is through his own life experience, which he should seek to make as varied as possible. Experience in government, business, and the military is particularly desirable as a break in or preceding a career in journalism. The formal education I would add is one year of law school. The Socratic-method teachers at the better law schools do teach their students how to think—to argue edit, if you will. There’s no reason liberal arts teachers couldn’t do the same thing, and I hope someday they will. But the sad fact is that today that kind of rigor is not part of the average college teacher’s intellectual equipment. . . .
For this month’s lesson on how lobbyists work, I turn to Susan Trausch of the Washington bureau of the Boston Globe. She got a phone call from a public relations firm inviting her to a lunch sponsored by “The Committee on the Care of Children.” Trausch describes the lunch as “a seven-course, gold-plated finger-bowl and hot-towel extravaganza that looked like something out of I, Claudius. . . with orchids flown in from Hawaii.”
The Committee on the Care of Children was not much in evidence at the lunch. What was in evidence were attorneys from the law firm of Warner & Stackpole, which represents the aspirin industry. They used the occasion to argue that aspirin does not cause Reye’s Syndrome, although there is substantial evidence that it does when given to children who are recovering from the flu or chicken pox. This firm has succeeded, by threatening legal action, in getting hundreds of television stations around the country not to run a public service announcement prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services cautioning parents on the use of aspirin.
Children with the flu or chicken pox are a tiny percentage of the market— why would the aspirin industry make such a huge effort to protect it? The reason is that lobbyists make money off of industry’s tendency to panic at the slightest hint of regulation, and lobbyists have therefore become expert at exacerbating that panic. . . .
King & Spalding, the large Atlanta law firm, has been charged with discrimination against its female employees. The firm’s defense, according to the Associated Press, is that law firms should be free to discriminate against women because “lawyers are different—they’re essential to the enforcement of the Constitution.” This is the kind of argument desperate lawyers concoct when their client is guilty as hell under the current rules and their only hope is either to get the rules changed or to exempt their client from them. That King & Spalding’s lawyer may well be desperate is suggested by the fact that the firm, at a recent picnic for the members, asked the female associates to participate in a bathing beauty contest. One senior partner had wanted the contestants to parade in wet T-shirts. . . .
If you doubt that journalism has changed dramatically in recent years, consider this story by Ward Sinclair that ran recently in the first news section of The Washington Post:
“There’s a fresh and different breeze blowing across the great congressional desert where the hot air dries the brain cells and the ego trips pass for statecraft.
“It’s called the Kika. Eligio (Kika) de la Garza (D-Texas). He cuts with his wit, he disarms with a hyped up Latino accent, he shies away from spotlights, he beguiles his enemies. He is a sly fox who occasionally plays himself off as a poor little step ‘n’ fetchit Mexican guy. He is chairman of that grasping crowd of strivers called the House Agriculture Committee, and he is an unusual man.”
Ten years ago, if such a story had appeared in the Post at all, it would have been in the Style section. It may be a trifle overwritten, but I’m delighted by the trend that has brought it to the front of the paper. I had deplored the journalistic tradition that dictated a ghetto of facts in the news section, facts unadorned by color, opinion, or human understanding. You might find color and empathy in sections like Style. And you would find opinion on the editorial page. It would be just as sterile as the dry facts of the news section, for the opinion would be written, not by reporters who had first-hand knowledge and a feel of the underlying reality, but by fellows who sat in the office all day writing editorials.
I think that in the long run we’re going to see an end to the editorial page as it exists today. There are substantial bureaucratic forces at every paper who will fight this development, but I think ultimately they are doomed. They’re going to be seen as boring compared to what is happening with the appearance of more and more stories like Sinclair’s.
I should, however, inject one note of caution about the Sinclair trend. Readers still have a legitimate need for straight news about what happened yesterday, and if they’re going to be given something else in the news section it should be labeled, as Sinclair’s was not, “Profile” or “Background” or “News Analysis” or some such term that would warn the reader that this is not objective reporting. . . .
Who is General Motors’ largest contractor? A tire company or a steel mill? No, it’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan. Health insurance cost GM $2.2 billion in 1982 alone. That added $480 to the cost of each GM car. But why should that bother the doctors who seldom settle for less than a Mercedes. . . .
Speaking of our friends the physicians, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Journal of the American Medical Association permitted an editorial decision to be dictated by a drug company that was a major advertiser.
Pfizer didn’t like a story that the journal published about one of its drugs. According to present and former employees of the journal, “Pfizer pulled $250,000 in ads and threatened to remove $2 million more.” The journal proceeded to print another article more to Pfizer’s liking, and the advertising is back. . . .
“Experts Cite Flaws in Grace Panel’s Claim for Savings,” read the headline in The Washington Post. The major flaw, according to the experts and the reporter who wrote the story, was that the proposals weren’t politically realistic. The problem with this kind of expert—and this kind of reporter—is that he never mentions the ideas that could bring about big savings, because he is convinced they wouldn’t get through Congress. Since the experts, and the reporters who follow them, won’t talk about the ideas, the public has no chance to learn about them and to generate the pressure that could make the ideas politically realistic.
I am convinced there would be strong public pressure for later retirement for military and civilian officials if the public realized how early these retirements take place now and how much of this and future budgets will be devoted to them. But the experts say it’s unrealistic and so do the reporters, so the people aren’t told the facts.
This kind of realism is typical of the incremental approach to problems that dominates respectable Washington. These people never propose radical reform—the change they suggest is always five or ten degrees from the center.
Meg Greenfield, for one, has begun to question this centrism. She asks how can we have a centrist position on an abomination like the South African government? “Sometimes,” she writes, “we have to choose. We have to devise policies that have nothing to do with seeking a precise midpoint between the tired old prescribed choices and cliches.” Amen. . . .
Everyone agrees that we should spend more money on education but there is compelling evidence that money is not the whole answer. Among the states, South Dakota ranks 47th in teachers’ salaries but is fifth in the percentage of those who enter high school and stay on to graduate. The District of Columbia, on the other hand, ranks second in salaries but 50th in graduates. . . .
In the last year or so you’ve probably read a number of horror stories about how the Pentagon pays extravagant sums for small parts that often cost only a few cents to make. One way the contractors get away with such charges is by declaring they have “proprietary rights” in the small parts. The government seldom challenges such claims, even when the contractor does not make the part himself but buys it elsewhere. The catch is that, once the item is declared proprietary, military purchasing officials will not furnish other companies the engineering data they need to make competitive bids. And it is, of course, the lack of competition that produces the outrageous prices.
When the stories about those prices began to appear, Congress demanded changes and Caspar Weinberger promised reform. But Charles Mohr of The New York Times has unearthed a subsequent Pentagon memo that expresses concern about moves to restrict the practice of declaring proprietary rights. The memo also says that the “least preferred” way of controlling costs is the practice under which the machine shops at Air Force logistic centers have begun making spare parts themselves at savings of tens of millions of dollars. . . .
An affidavit Robert McNamara made in connection with General Westmoreland’s suit against CBS was quoted recently in The New York Times. In it McNamara said, “I did not believe it would have been possible for the military command in Vietnam to engage in a conspiracy to suppress or fake intelligence or enemy troop strength and if such a conspiracy had existed, I do not believe it could have been kept secret from myself or the president.”
This statement outraged David Halberstam, who immediately wrote a letter to the Times. The Times refused to print it. Halberstam sent it to us and here it is:
“Since there is a new revisionist fashion to blame the press for the defeat in Vietnam (primarily on the part of people who said that there would never be a defeat there) and since public memory is short, and public figures like McNamara have selective recall, it should be pointed out that in Mr. McNamara’s reign as secretary of defense and even before General Westmoreland’s tour in Vietnam there was in fact precisely this kind of trickiness with reports and estimates on the part of the Saigon command.
“Conspiracy is probably too strong a word for what took place at that time, since an Army staff works in subtle and nimble ways once it finds out what its superior wants, but there is no doubt that the growing strength of the enemy and the failures of the ally were systematically ignored, despite the pleas of passionate officers in the field. Very tough warnings came from senior Saigon officers that those who persisted in being honest and pessimistic not only would not be listened to, but that they would dissent at the risk of their careers.
“When the most passionate of these officers, Lieutenant Colonel John Vann, retired from the service so he could go public, his briefing to the Joint Chiefs was canceled at the personal request of Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the military officer closest to McNamara. As far back as 1964 I detailed this, using the names of some officers (others would have been easy enough to find out); that there was no investigation or courtmartial simply confirmed what those of us who watched that period already knew: Washington was not angry with Saigon, because Saigon was giving Washington what it wanted: results and estimates which fit in with the policy and made the domestic politics of that policy more tolerable (helping to keep it from being an issue in the 1964 campaign).
“For Secretary McNamara to issue his affidavit now is particularly disingenuous since his various aides know that one of the reasons he became increasingly disenchanted with the policy around 1967 was that he no longer believed Westmoreland’s estimates. Prodded by briefings from his aide, John McNaughton, he knew that the bombing had failed, that the other side could send down almost as many men as it wanted, that we were in effect fighting the birthrate of North Vietnam, and that therefore the best we could hope to do was impose a fairly brutal aerial tax upon them.
“The war was thus unwinnable. Which is at the heart of the current controversy: what happens when a government and a command finally begin to discover that a policy has failed. The choices are not pleasant. You either accept that judgment and go public with it (no one did); you can come to that conclusion, as McNamara did, separate yourself as quietly and deftly from your own policy, or in desperation, as the Saigon command was forced to do (with a political campaign approaching and pressure mounting from a highly political president), you began to play with the figures, giving Washingon inevitably what you thought Washington wanted. The jiggling was what Lyndon Johnson wanted; he just didn’t want anyone to get caught doing it.
“That is at the core of this trial: General Westmoreland was, in fact, not a hero, nor a villain; in the end he was mostly a pawn. The affidavit from McNamara isn’t much help in unraveling all this (although by giving it, he and Bundy at least pay back a partial debt to Westmoreland whom they left holding a bad policy once they bailed out to their happier new jobs), but perhaps it means that CBS’s lawyers can finally get him under oath. That alone would make this trial worthwhile.”
I agree with Halberstam. It is tragic that McNamara, who has lived such an honorable and useful life since leaving the Pentagon, could come this close to committing perjury. It may not have been an overt conspiracy but there was certainly tacit encouragement of false intelligence….
Certain news makes me nervous. For example, a new book called U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities says that we have 26,000 nuclear weapons and that 700 U.S. combat units are ready to use them. With these numbers and the normal tendencies of military bureaucracy, the possibility of accidental detonation seems not nearly slim enough.
Then there’s the danger of theft by terrorists. With so many weapons lying around—there are 5,800 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe alone—it’s hard to imagine our security being so perfect that one or two aren’t going to end up in enemy hands. Three thousand eight hundred of these weapons in Europe are artillery shells that are 20 years old and, according to Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, “do not have modern electronic systems that allow them to be destroyed by a remote-controlled radio signal if stolen.” Many are kept behind doors that have only single locks. The Army is spending $35 million on a new security program for these weapons. But if you know the Army, that kind of money will be spent on plans for a double lock for which the maker will then claim “proprietary rights” and charge outrageous sums. . . .
A state senator from Nebraska has proposed that college athletes in revenue-producing sports like football and basketball be treated as school employees with salaries, health insurance, workers’ compensation, and the other usual benefits. This strikes me as sensible. If it at least were widely debated, it would make colleges face the terrible hypocrisy involved in their athletic programs, and it would do something to take care of the injured college athlete, who often finds his alma mater indifferent to his disability when it becomes clear that he can no longer be a revenue-producing player. . . .
Recently, I was talking to some friends about the Long report on the Beirut bombing that killed 200 Marines. They wondered how such a report could have come from a military where coverup seems to be a way of life. The explanation is simple. Most military officers are competent people—perhaps even a cut above their counterparts in the civilian government—but their performance is shaped by their role. If their assignment is to the chain of command, their concern for their own careers and their loyalty to their superiors and subordinates in that chain of command mean that they are unlikely to concede that serious error has been made by anyone in the. chain. On the other hand, if they are assigned to do an independent report, they take the assignment seriously and often do a commendable job. Remember, to cite another example, the Peers report on My Lai. . . .
The other day Ann Landers got a letter that said: “I have just talked with my son, an intern in a large, prestigious hospital. Jay is exhausted to the point of being unsure about everything, including his ability to make decisions. The 100-hour weeks, the 40-hour shifts and the constant stress and pressures of modern-day medicine are taking their toll not only on him, but most interns and residents.
“Please ask your friends in the medical world the purpose of such training. Surely they can’t believe that a doctor can be mentally alert when he is fatigued. I certainly would hate to have my life depend on a person who had gone without sleep for two days and a night.”
Ann Landers, who is usually shrewder, unquestioningly accepted the medical profession’s answer that “rarely is a life-and-death decision made by an intern or resident who has been without sleep for many hours.” Anyone who has been around hospitals very much knows this is a blatant lie. Ann’s medical adviser went on to say that most young doctors “would rather take care of patients than eat or sleep.” That, too, is a lie. Most of them bitterly resent the slavery of internship and residency. The experience leaves them with a lifelong self-pity, which they use to justify their high fees—”If you knew what I had to go through”—and a sadistic determination to see that future generations of medical students suffer just as they did.
There is a simple solution to this problem: require all the senior physicians who practice at a given hospital to take one night-duty assignment a year. In most cases that would permit sensible and humane schedules for the younger doctors and break the insane chain of self-pity that now distorts the attitudes of the entire profession. . . .