The Dark Side of the ‘Lucky Guy’

On June 9, Broadway’s 67th annual Tony awards will be announced and celebrated. One of the lead actor nominees is Tom Hanks, for “Lucky Guy,” a tale of the life of the late Mike McAlary, a tabloid columnist who became known in New York as a hard-charging crime and police reporter who got to major police and crime stories before his newspaper competitors. He was bold and flashy and won a Pulitzer prize in 1997. He died in 1998 from colon cancer.

But in 1994, he made a mockery of journalism by writing three columns about a woman who was raped in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. He got some bad information from police sources and rushed into print saying the woman was a “hoaxer” who was not raped or attacked in any way but made up the story to draw attention to her concerns about the treatments of gays and lesbians. When the police medical report confirmed she had been raped, finding semen inside her body and on her clothes, McAlary refused to accept the findings. What they found, he said in one of his three columns, was “at best, saliva.” Mc Alary never sought to interview the woman and he never apologized to her.  That was heinous journalism. The woman sued him for libel.

The woman’s attorney, Martin Garbus, went to see the play and wrote a piece worth reading for The New York Times entitled The Damage Done by a ‘Lucky Guy.

I wrote three columns for Newsday in 1994 and 95 about the facts of the case, the unlucky victim, and the trial that exposed the dark side of tabloid journalism as practiced by Broadway’s “Lucky Guy”:

Tangled Webs Woven with Personal Ties

Fighting Her Accusers and the ‘Demons’

A Novel Take on Responsible Reporting


Bush: I Cannot Tell the Truth

Beyond the Killing Fields - George W. Bush, 2006 - clatl.comBy Sydney H. Schanberg

Even during the Vietnam War, the disinformation that flowed from the White House was never so spectacular, so multitudinous – and so effective – as the unceasing Newspeak from the Bush White House now.

About effectiveness, the polls say that a lot of Americans, for instance, still think that Iraq had a connection to the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001. The same is true about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and about the “mushroom-cloud” imminence of Baghdad’s threat to national security. The president and his chorus put all these delusions into America’s head. They swore that these bogus stories were true in order to frighten the voters and Congress into supporting their invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

How did we get into the habit of tolerating such serial, public proclamations of falsehoods? Remember the cute story about George Washington and the cherry tree? Now, with the new President George, the confession line reads a little differently: “I cannot tell the truth.” Indeed, if mendacity statistics were being kept by some national agency, this presidency would surely have set new records.

The president says flatly: “The United States doesn’t torture.” That’s ridiculous, laughable. The accepted definition of torture regarding prisoners captured in a war, which is what President Bush was talking about, is “degrading” physical or psychological treatment that causes extreme pain or debilitating injuries — or death. Under that definition, United States has already acknowledged many cases of torture in Iraq and convicted and sentenced a number of soldiers for their abuses. Indeed, if the president’s false statement of torture purity were true, we would be the first nation since the beginning of recorded time whose military forces have not committed acts of torture during the brutality and insanity of war.

I have covered wars close-up. Everyone who has been in wars knows that torture is inevitable, a given. The only difference between warring parties is that some armies have strong rules against torture and others have softer discipline or no rules at all. The President says our security now requires that we relax our rules against torture. He doesn’t put it that way; he makes it sound benign and squarely in the humane tradition. Many people believe him. He has apparently persuaded them that changing our laws will not make us more like the terrorists we are fighting now, who lop off heads and display the acts on television.

The President has swept aside the argument from many American field officers that if we allow interrogations to go beyond the rules, our own soldiers when taken prisoner will be handled more brutally. He declares that those who raise such issues are dealing in “hypothetical questions” which he says he will not respond to. He also dismisses the contention of military men who have been in war that harsh torture rarely produces reliable information.

Senator John McCain of Arizona is one of those military men. As a navy pilot in the Vietnam War, he was shot down over Hanoi and tortured severely at Hoa Lo prison, known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Eventually, as did most prisoners subjected to intense physical beatings, McCain gave a false confession, testifying that he had deliberately bombed North Vietnamese schools and hospitals. The taped confession was played over prison loudspeakers for the purpose of humiliating him. It was also broadcast over Hanoi’s military radio station. It was all lies, the usual product of torture.

So John McCain, a Republican like the President, knows about torture. And the President does not. McCain and two other Republican senators at first stood up against the President’s legislation relaxing the rules against torture. But under political pressure, McCain and his group reached a “compromise” with the White House — and the bill was enacted in 2006 by the then GOP-controlled Congress. It’s a whitewash that allows the CIA to use harsh tactics on prisoners behind a cloak of secrecy — with no accountability to the public.

Secrecy continues to be a commandment in the Bush administration. Secrecy and the inability to tell the truth.

First published September 24, 2006 in The Village Voice.


Woodward Reviews Tenet’s Book – Says His Books Were Better

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published on Schanberg Reports, Sunday, May 6, 2007

In Sunday’s Washington Post (May 6), Bob Woodward penned a lengthy appraisal of George Tenet’s book, “At The Center Of The Storm,” about his tenure as George Bush’s CIA director. But it’s not really a review of the Tenet book; it’s more like an explanation of how Tenet could have been a better intelligence chief and written a better memoir if only he had listened to Bob Woodward.

Woodward takes Tenet to task for, among other things, failing to bring his pre-9/11 Al Qaeda alarms directly to the president, one on one, instead of to Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser. The criticism is appropriate; the tone is way off-key.

Woodward cites a Tenet quote from his recent interview on “60 Minutes,” as follows: “The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security adviser and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they’re going to implement.”

Woodward comments: “Whoa! That’s a startling admission. I’m pretty certain that President Bush or any president, for that matter would consider himself or herself the action officer when it comes to protecting the country from terrorism.”

“I’m pretty certain.” With such words and signals throughout the article, Woodward reminds you of his insider status and access to high places as demonstrated by his own books (“Plan of Attack” and “State of Denial”) about the Bush White House’s march to the invasion of Iraq. The trouble is, “Plan of Attack” showed Woodward to be too close to the White House and its plans for war. The later book, “State of Denial” was an attempt to rehabilitate himself as a principled journalist not too cozy or beholden to his sources.

This book review doesn’t really get him off the hook. He is still using the Washington Post as a venue for justifying his anonymous-source methods – methods which spare his best sources any serious scrutiny or criticism.

It is common knowledge that Colin Powell has for years been one of Woodward’s most available unidentified sources. Woodward goes out of his way in this book review to defend Powell’s actions in the run-up to the war, even though Powell, like Tenet, chose not to tell the President that going to war was a bad mistake and did not resign his post. In short, both men decided to be loyal to the president. Woodward excoriates Tenet for making these choices, and says Tenet owes Powell an apology for the CIA-approved falsehoods about WMD’s in Powell’s infamous selling-of-the-war speech at the United Nations in February 2003. Powell is excused, Tenet is not. Shouldn’t Powell as Secretary of State, whose own intelligence unit had raised red flags about key parts of the CIA’s product, been more diligent? In his rise from combat officer in Vietnam to head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had to have developed the skills to sniff out weak intelligence.

Tellingly, Woodward spends one-quarter of his book review insisting that Tenet’s versions of events previously described in Woodward’s books are flawed and Woodward’s versions are the correct ones. I don’t know which man is telling the absolute truth because as a journalist for 50 years, I have never encountered any “absolute” truth other than the biological fact of being alive or being dead.

What I do know is my reaction to this book “review” – which is that it’s as much about Woodward as about Tenet.

Woodward is relentless in defending his own versions of events.

An example: “He [Tenet] doesn’t know when Bush decided to go to war. But he writes that in September 2002, ‘there was no decision to go to war yet’ and that by December 2002 the war ‘decision had already been made.’ He provides no evidence or statements to support these claims, and I think he is wrong about the latter date. From my reporting and interviews with Bush and other key players, I believe Bush finally decided to go to war in early January 2003.”

Pardon the digression, but, actually, I think both of them could be wrong. From my own research, I have come to the belief that the Bushies brought the war plan with them when they took office in 2000. There’s a war plan drawn up by Dick Cheney (then Defense Secretary) and Paul Wolfowitz (then his policy chief) in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1992. The plan spoke directly of Iraq and laid out a blueprint for the United States to seek world dominion. It embarrassed the first President Bush, and he shelved it. Then, as the Neocons and related war proponents waited out the Clinton years, they formed a Washington think tank in 1997 called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). The founding members included Cheney, Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, I. Lewis Libby, Jeb Bush, Zalmay Khalizad, William J. Bennett, Elliott Abrams – the whole gang. Their first public move was a heated letter to President Clinton describing Iraq’s threat as an urgent priority and urging him to move swiftly to take out Saddam Hussein, by military force if necessary. Two years later, in September 2000, just months before the second President Bush took office, PNAC issued a military manifesto of 70-plus pages, calling for a much more elaborate march to world dominion than the 1992 document. Its core goal was to build an American military machine that could successfully carry out “multiple, major wars simultaneously…across the globe.” It also called for controlling space militarily. It said it would take some time to accomplish all this, “absent” the occurrence of another “Pearl Harbor.” The Pearl Harbor bit is on page 51. Read the whole scary thing in the Letters/Statements and Publications/Reports sections on the PNAC website (

So my gut tells me the Bushies all along had the plan ready, waiting for execution.

Finally, I offer up the paragraph in the Woodward book review that convinced me of how needy he is to convince us of his importance in the Washington firmament:

He writes: “Full disclosure: In discussions with Tenet as a reporter for this paper, I many times urged him to write his memoir, and, after he resigned from the CIA, I even spent a day with him and his co-writer, Bill Harlow, in late 2005 to suggest questions he should try to address. Foremost, I hoped that he would provide intimate portraits of the two presidents he had served as CIA director – George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Instead he has adhered to the rule of CIA directors: protect the president at all costs.”

Odd, isn’t it. Some reasonable people believe that protecting the president was what Woodward was doing in “Plan of Attack.”



My Memories of Rupert and the Murdoch Methods

By Sydney H. Schanberg

I’ve never had a conversation with Rupert Murdoch but our paths did cross a couple of times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was the Metropolitan Editor, and then an Op-Ed columnist, at The New York Times, writing about the New York scene. Like most people, my views have been shaped by my personal experiences, and my experiences with Murdoch were instructive.

Murdoch arrived in New York in 1977 with a deliberate splash, purchasing the strongly liberal but financially slipping New York Post. Along with a bargain-basement $31 million, he gave the paper’s long-time owner, Dolly Schiff, a fervent promise to “maintain its present policies and traditions.” Few in the journalism community believed his pledge, and he confirmed their expectations by quickly skewing the Post to hard-core conservatism both on its editorial pages and in its news coverage. Apolitical reporters were not wanted. The news pages also became sensationalized and trashy.

To any journalist in New York – or any regular newspaper reader for that matter – it was clear that Murdoch was a rough-riding business pirate intent on expanding his empire, one who would say or do almost anything to get his way. His rightist political ideology was real, but he generally made it secondary to his primary crusade – his search for profit, power and the most elusive goal of all, respectability. He was not satanic or even a demon; he was merely a human, modern-day robber baron.

Only a year after his takeover of the Post, a city-wide strike by the pressmen’s union forced the closure of the city’s major papers – The Times, the Daily News and the Post. Murdoch, though he was a member of the Publishers Association, decided to break precedent and provide financing and distribution for a “strike paper” — one of three that sprung up to satisfy the city’s newspaper readers after the strike began. Called The Daily Metro, it operated out of office space on the East Side. Several Times copy editors, reporters and news assistants, to pay their bills, joined Murdoch’s jerry-built strike paper. On paper, the owner of the company was listed as Frederick Iseman, who was unknown to me though he was described in a Time magazine article at the time as a pre-strike, 25-year-old assistant editor at The Times.

As the Times’ Metropolitan editor, I was a management employee and therefore required to come to the office every day and go through ritual routines, such as editors’ meetings, though there was no paper to put out. It was the worst passage in my journalistic life. One afternoon, after several weeks of these ritual workdays, I decided to take a walk in the summer sunshine and visit the Times staffers at the Murdoch-financed paper. It was a cheerful reunion; all of us were lonely and eager to get back to real newspapering. I spent about an hour schmoozing with these colleagues. I introduced myself to Iseman and explained that this was merely a social visit. There seemed to be no friction.

Early the next morning, I received an angry call at home from Abe Rosenthal, the Times’ executive editor. He wanted to know why I had gone off the reservation to visit “the enemy.” He was referring not to Murdoch but to the striking Times employees working at his makeshift paper. I said I didn’t consider them “the enemy.” He then told me that he had found out about my visit from Walter Mattson, the Chief Operating Officer of the Times, who had received a nasty call from Murdoch himself who claimed that I had told all the Times employees at his shop that Rosenthal considered the strike a betrayal and didn’t want any Times employees working for Murdoch. This was utter rubbish; Murdoch was just flexing his muscles in New York and using intimidation tactics, something he was well-known for. I told Abe that no such conversation had taken place. I also told him that Murdoch had frequently demonstrated in the past, as he put together the pieces of his media operation, that he was a person who lied easily. Abe and I spoke loudly to each other for several minutes before our conversation ended.

When I got to the Times building later that morning, I went to see Walter Mattson. I had been at The Times for twenty years and was pretty annoyed at having been accused of some kind of disloyalty. I asked Walter why, since he had to have heard that Murdoch regularly played loose with the truth, he hadn’t called me first to check on on the credibility of Murdoch’s story before passing it on unquestioned. Most of the loud talk in this conversation was mine. Walter is a real gentleman and mostly just listened.

Several weeks later, two months into the strike, Murdoch abruptly pulled out of the Publishers Association agreement and announced he was resuming publication. He made separate deals with the pressmen and all the other newspaper unions. This was in the first week of October. The Times and the Daily News were caught unawares and quickly resumed negotiations with the unions. It was a month before they came to terms and resumed publishing – a month when Murdoch’s Post was on the news stands every day. It would appear that Murdoch blatantly used the strike for financial advantage and to establish his trademark in New York while the city’s other papers were shut down.

Rarely has a man made false promises and told lies so effortlessly. Now Murdoch, as he prepares to take over the Wall Street Journal, is promising to preserve that paper’s superior level of journalism, maintain its integrity and keep ideology out of the newsroom. We never knew he was such a joke-teller.

There is so much to remember about Rupert. He was a very busy bee. When the Australian-born magnate arrived in New York, he set about wooing – and showing off his macho to — the city’s politicians, real estate developers, bankers, Wall Street mandarins and various other mavens of the establishment. He threw breakfast events in the ballroom of one of the city’s larger hotels. All the mavens showed up – unusual turnouts for an establishment that prides itself on being second to none.

He also gave generously to political campaigns. Soon he had persuaded Congress to change the anti-trust law that prevented a single owner to hold a newspaper and a television station in the same market area. And so the Fox television network was born. Rupert had gotten his way and he was on his way.

In 1985, he wangled special permission from Washington to skip certain time and residency requirements, jumped the line and became an American citizen. One of his motives was to circumvent the rules limiting foreign ownership. He has also copied our home- grown moguls in other ways. For the past four years, according to recent news reports, he has paid Lilliputian-sized U.S. taxes. In the latest two of those years, the reports said, he paid no taxes at all. Citizen Murdoch is apparently following the Leona Helmsley rule: only little people pay taxes.

Further details of his history have been extensively detailed of late in the nation’s press – the result of his effort to take over the many-faceted Dow Jones media company and its flagship paper, The Wall Street Journal. Rupert’s offer was a surprisingly high $5 billion, obviously meant as a pre-emptive bid to fend off any other possible suitors. The Journal is a much-respected paper that covers the business world across the globe with distinctively high-quality journalism. Most elders in the journalism community have expressed fears that Rupert would take the Journal’s quality downward, as he had with so many of the other newspapers he has acquired. Not surprisingly, in his negotiations with the Dow Jones board of directors, he has promised to maintain the paper’s quality. Rupert’s promises, as he has taught us, have a very short life span. He promised Dolly Schiff when he bought the Post, He promised the London Sunday Times when he took over there. He promised many others. The results tell the story. Rupert is a street-fighter, he doesn’t observe any Geneva Conventions, he makes his own rules as he swallows each media unit.

From the start, most people believed that by waving $5 billion under the many noses of the extended Bancroft family, who have maintained the credibility of Dow Jones and the Journal for over a century, he would again get his way. And he did. After weeks of debate and agonizing, exactly at his deadline, July 31, enough of the Bancrofts succumbed and cast their shares for his offer.

What happens to the Journal now? Only one thing is certain. A man in his late 70s does not suddenly get a soul transplant. He is an amasser of power and profit. His tools are charm, money, ruthlessness and intimidation.

My other personal memory of Rupert has to do with all these qualities. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to lift a finger, since his track record precedes him. This was one of those times.

I had moved from the Metropolitan Editor’s chair to The Times’ Op-Ed page, introducing a new opinion column titled “New York.” And after watching Rupert’s comings and goings for about a year, I wrote a column  about his power-gathering. The headline was: “The Tasmanian Devil.” (Obviously it was not meant literally; he is carnivorous, but only in a figurative sense.)

The next morning, I learned from Max Frankel, then the editor of the opinion page and later the paper’s executive editor, that the publisher, Arthur (“Punch”) Sulzberger Sr., had called Max the night before, after getting his hand-delivered copy of the early edition, to complain about the tone of my piece. He wanted it removed from later editions. Max said he talked him out of this, arguing that its absence in later editions would only draw excessive notice to the column.

Instead, the publisher called a late-afternoon conference in his digs on the 14th floor. In a polite fashion, I was being called on the executive carpet. In addition to the publisher, Sydney Gruson, Punch’s right-hand man, was there, as was Max. Drinks were poured and Punch explained his stance. He felt that other publishers were our colleagues and therefore not proper material for critical columns. I posited that newspapers were major opinion shapers and therefore centers of power and that if my column was going to examine the establishment, media chiefs should not be left off the list. Punch then got right to his point. “Sydney,” he said of Murdoch, “I have to do business with him.” I understood him completely and said no more.

As I left the meeting, though, I thought to myself: Murdoch is the guy who, during the 1978 strike, thumbed his nose at the Publishers Association and resumed publication of the Post while the other papers were still dark. This was a man who went around slurring The Times, calling its journalism “liberal propaganda.” Yes, Punch had to do business with him, knowing that this is a man whose word has little worth.

The reporters and editors of the Wall Street Journal [which Murdoch was purchasing] have reason to be worried.

First published on Schanberg Reports, July 22, 2007


Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes