Notes of a Reporter at Large • 07-04-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 05 July 2013 15:01

What is an English Major Good For?

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In a recent article in the New York Times, this is the question raised by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer and Ivy League  professor.  It was aroused by a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the state of the humanities. This is a word defined in my Webster’s, as the study of literature, philosophy, art,. etc., as distinguished from the sciences.

The gist of the academy’s study is that the teaching of the  humanities has fallen on hard times. According to Klinkenborg, that’s “the experience of nearly everyone” who teaches the liberal arts.

“Undergraduates,” he says, “will tell you that they’re under pressure  – from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large – to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.”

It got me to thinking:

History, foreign languages, literature, philosophy, music, painting, dance, the arts in general, have been diminishing branches of learning for some time. The emphasis in a college curriculum has been on learning something that will pay.

I like the way Klinkenborg  puts it: ‘Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.”

“What many undergraduates do not know,” he adds, “and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them is how valuable  the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

This reminds me of a long-ago conversation with a fellow classmate at the University of Maine. Ed was about 40, a four-year veteran of the war in the Pacific. I was much younger, still a kid, 21 or so. We got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives after college. In the end, said Ed, “Whatever comes of our careers we’ve been to college. We know the value of a college education. We know what the great books are.  We can go on learning from them for the rest of  our lives.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-27-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 27 June 2013 14:27

The Fugitive Whistleblower

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

What to make of Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor, who revealed U.S. surveillance programs? Is the 30-year-old  former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) and C.I.A. a saint or sinner? A man of moral valor or a traitor?

Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst, was 40 when he  released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making on Vietnam. He gave the documents  to the New York Times and other newspapers. Ellsberg is 83 today and remains a hero to millions.

As of this writing on Tuesday – my deadline – Edward Snowden was somewhere on the planet but where?

On Monday the media scrambled to find seats on Aerflot Flight 150 flying from Moscow to Havana. Snowden, so they learned from the Russian media, was  booked on seat 17a.  But as the plane taxied from the gate, filled with journalists in hot pursuit, an AP reporter discovered the awful truth. Seat 17a was empty. It didn’t take the media long to figure they’d  been snookered. Snowden, no doubt with help in high places, had stiffed Uncle Sam.

As stars fell on Moscow on Monday night, Snowden was nowhere to be found. The journalists, who were in such a high fever to interview him, were halfway to Havana. Most cruel cut of all, Aerflot flight 150, was one of the rare Russian flights that does not serve alcohol.

Some in Russia relish the story, seeing it as payback time for all the years of American self-righteousness over Russia’s history of human rights abuses. President Putin was also upset when Congress passed a bill last year “which punishes Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses,” said the New York Times.

A Russian novelist, Victor Erofeyev, summed things up this way:

“When the president is a former spy, from time to time in this country they organize spy games, The Spy Olympic Games, and they have fun. We are people from outside, who don’t understand how fun it is to put all the journalists on a plane and send them to Havana. They are having the greatest dinner tonight.”

As for what to make of the fugitive whistleblower, who can say? That story, unlike David Ellsberg’s, is yet to be written.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-20-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 June 2013 12:31

The Media Blink on Poverty

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I read a riveting piece in the New York Times earlier this month. Its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took the paper to task for neglecting the poor. The Times, she says, does well reporting on art auctions but not so well on soup kitchens. There’s ample space to take note of the cost of a luxury loft in Soho but not for children in homeless shelters.

How well does the greatest newspaper in the world cover those who live in poverty and the news that affects them? The Times does not ignore poverty, but, she argues,  it could and should  do a good deal more.

America is a country of immense wealth where nearly 50 million people live in poverty in a population of 300 million, or one of every six. In the U.S. poverty is defined as income below $23,550 for a family of four. According to Sullivan it’s worse for children; one in five are destitute.

“In New York City,” she wrote, “it is commonplace to see men and woman sleeping on the street. Among the city’s 8 million residents, 1.5 million don’t have enough to eat; a third of those are children.”

Sullivan is the fifth public editor appointed by the newspaper in recent years. Although she is employed by the Times, she works independently of the newsroom and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public concerning coverage in the paper.

Indifference or worse, she finds, on the part of the media about the poor is widespread. Quoting the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Sullivan points out that “in 52 major mainstream news outlets, including the Times, combined coverage of poverty amounted to far less than 1 percent of all front-page articles.”

The Times may do better than some,” she writes, “but given New York City’s high poverty rate and the Times’ special responsibility as the nation’s dominant paper, with the most plentiful resources, there should be more.”

Diane Nilan, an advocate for homeless families in Illinois, wrote Sullivan that she was dismayed by the newspaper’s’ “spotty interest,” saying, “I ache for these people, but until the media make an issue of it, nothing will happen.”

Some others speaking for the poor, see another side to the problem. In an interview, Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress, told Sullivan, “It’s isolated, it’s in a silo, it’s a problem that other people have.” By contrast, the Times’ “thorough and sustained coverage of gay rights has a remarkable sense of inclusiveness and solidarity...movingly telling the stories of admirable individuals who are overcoming challenges.”

Boteach said the poor really cannot be dismissed as “the other.” She pointed out, “People cycle in and out of poverty.” Every  few years one in three Americans will

will know poverty at firsthand.

All of this reminds me that somewhere I read that a civilization can best be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-13-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 13 June 2013 14:16

National Security vs. Personal Privacy

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

We live in an age when, as Gail Collins  in the New York Times put it on Saturday, “you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”

The other day the Times ran a piece about an 83-year-old man who told a telemarketer on the line that he would like to update his health insurance card. “What happened next is all too familiar,” the paper said. “Money was withdrawn from the man’s account for something he now says he never authorized.” He never received the health insurance card.

In the same article we learn a 59-year-old retiree was forced to take a part-time job after a telemarketer emptied his bank account

At the same time we read of the feds “scooping up our phone records” as a matter of routine regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counter-terrorism investigation,” according to a Times editorial.

Edward J. Snowden, the former employee of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), who had leaked national security documents to the press, said his motive was to provoke a public debate about civil liberties. President Obama denounced the leak but liked the idea of a lively public discussion of the “trade-offs” between security and privacy,

“I  think it’s healthy for our democracy,” Obama said last week. But the White House has not given the country a clue as to how it would deal with the obstacles, legal and political, to holding such a discussion. In the meantime, (as of Tuesday) Edward Snowden was still a hunted man.

So far the only complaints  about the government’s surveillance operations have come from some Democratic liberals and Republican libertarians. Polls say most Americans give the government a pass on terrorism. And reluctant acceptance of a loss of privacy “at a time of targeted online advertising, location-tracking cellphones and intrusive government programs,” according to the Times.

No wonder the satirical novelist, George Orwell, is on my mind. In 1949 he published, “1984”, set at a time in the future when the world would be divided between hard right and hard left totalitarianism. In the world he depicted there was no place for the truth. Propaganda was information. There were signs everywhere reminding people in Orwell’s mythical Oceania that Big Brother was watching.

Last week’s column, “Speaking of Operations,” was incorrectly labeled as having originally appeared on April 29, 2010. It was, in fact, written last week.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-06-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 June 2013 14:50

Speaking of Operations

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I wasn’t feeling right, and started seeing doctors. The first step was a sonogram. What turned up was a possible problem with the gallbladder. That didn’t satisfy us, and we consulted a gastroenterologist, someone familiar, as my Webster’s puts it, “with the structure, functions, and diseases of digestive organs.” He did an upper-GI and sent the findings to a specialist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

This doctor-specialist (I don’t know how else to describe him) was skilled in a new technique removing growths inside the stomach without surgery. Following an upper endoscopy (an examination by means of  an optical instrument like a camera) he found a tumor in the upper part of my stomach. He could not identify it as being cancer or benign, but he believed it would become cancer if we did nothing.

A traditional procedure to remove a tumor in this area would have required surgery. He gave us a choice: do away with the tumor with surgery or opt for an endoscopy, the one he recommended, and the choice we took.

The doctor, working with the scope, pushed it down my throat into the stomach area. The tumor was pulled away from the stomach lining and tied up in order to cut off the blood supply. It died, passing through the stomach. The only aftereffect was when I awoke with a slight sore throat,  long since gone. It had been a long day preparing and waiting but the actual time spent in the procedure itself was 32 minutes, and a success.

A few weeks later when we came back for a checkup, the doctor told the Lady Friend and me that in five years - if we had not had the tumor taken out – it probably would have become cancerous.

The whole experience was uncanny –  bloodless surgery that removed a tumor growing in my body without scalpels and other surgical instruments. I was told I might bleed some and to watch for it. I never saw blood. The doctor told us that life could become difficult for people over 70 when they have to part with a piece of their stomach because nerve and blood systems are central to its functions. For an old timer like myself, endoscopy was the way to go.

I must confess I didn’t want to write this piece. Too personal. But the Lady Friend talked me into it. She says it’s something people should know about.

One thing more. For all my grumpiness about the technological age we live in, my tongue is now silent. Except now and then when it’s my frustrations with the computer, cell phones, iPads, you name it.

This column originally appeared on April 29, 2010.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-23-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 23 May 2013 11:48

The Everlasting Pursuit for Gun Control

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Organized crime was an issue almost as large as the economy during the Great Depression. Since 1932, when Charles Lindbergh’s two-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered, the public clamored for federal action against the underworld. The states and local police were no match for its arsenals of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and professional killers. Mobsters like Al Capone ruled cities the size of Chicago.

Six months after Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president, Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s close friend and adviser for many years, wrote an article, “Uncle Sam Starts After Crime,” in the Saturday Evening Post. The focus was the machine gun, the weapon of choice in the underworld, which, as Howe said, had “made gang killing so successful.”

What Howe said about the machine gun could be said of the powerful weaponry on sale in our own time.: “the machine gun cannot by any means be construed as a weapon needed by the peaceful citizen to protect his home. One cannot keep a machine gun under the pillow at night...Nor does one go duck hunting or squirrel hunting with a machine gun tucked under his arm. Its sale to any private citizen is obviously for the purpose of committing crime and whole murder. Its manufacture, except for the use of the Army and police and state military forces, is a menace to the nation.”

He urged the Justice Department to move ahead on plans to give the federal government authority over crimes in interstate commerce and he urged Roosevelt to put “the whole weight of the White House” behind the effort.

As Alfred Rollins, Jr., an early Howe biographer, tells us, Louis called for a federal institution for training police officers. It ran into fears and accusations against Roosevelt and Howe for plotting to create a secret police. Howe, however, kept at it, stepping up the crusade on the radio.

As part of the effort to reform the criminal justice system, he advocated a national criminological laboratory, and a probationary system for lawyers before they would be allowed to practice criminal law, replacing hung juries with a system of ten-or eleven-person majorities, and competent people running the prisons, declaring, “Ninety percent of prison riots start from stupid wardens.”

As was the case then and is the case today, enacting gun control legislation has had to contend with a constitutional mandate giving the right to every citizen to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment, Howe said, was inspired by the fear of an all-mighty king or dictator rising up in the new republic.

“No power has been more jealously or watchfully guarded by the states themselves  than this general police power,” he wrote.  In his day a criminal could escape arrest by crossing the border of a neighboring state.

Louis Howe, a  handicapper who loved to make predictions on the outcomes of horse races, did not live long enough to see any of the schemes in his anti-crime crusade pay off. In poor health all his life, he died in 1936 at 65. Yet, as his biographer reminds us, “much of what he had failed to gain was eventually achieved in the elaborate expansion of the FBI.” This may not have been the desired outcome for some but it is what happened, and in looking back, it represented progress. If there is a message for President Obama it might be to furlough the consultants, pollsters and media wizards and find himself a Louis Howe.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-16-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 May 2013 11:58

Barbara Says She’s Ready for Retirement

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Barbara Walters announced on Monday on the “The View” that she is retiring next year. Or as The New York Times put it on the front page on Tuesday: “Pope Benedict XVI retired. And so, soon, shall Barbara Walters.”

That  may be. But as one who once worked with Barbara on the Today Show and liked and admired her, all the hoopla may be, as they say in show biz, a false exit. But she is 83, had surgery in 2011 to replace a heart valve and more recently suffered a concussion in January after fainting at a pre-Inauguration  party at the British embassy in Washington. Several days later, we learned,  “Ms. Walters had contracted chickenpox, which gave her an infection that led to the fainting spell.”

But as she told the Times, “I am not leaving because I am in ill health. I am now fine.”

When I wrote a memoir of my life in the news in 2007 (“A Strange Breed of Folks: Tales from the World’s Oldest Profession”), I recalled that Barbara was driven as so many successful people are. “And she was an indefatigable worker, staying with a story through the long hours of a news emergency.

“‘What can I do?’ she called one late October night in 1973. I was busy making over the show for the morning. The Yom Kippur War had just broken out. Egypt and Syria had launched an attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

“She pitched right in, running off with camera crews to interview this newsmaker and that and rounding up major figures for live morning interviews in the studio.”

On her show Monday she said that although she plans to retire, “There will be special occasions, and I will come back – I’m not walking into the sunset – but I don’t want to appear on another program or climb another mountain.” Take it from me, putting a show on the air is climbing a mountain.

I read the piece to the Lady Friend. She remarked, “It’s going to be hard on her giving up the spotlight. But she does have a year to make the change.”

Stay tuned.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-09-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 May 2013 15:37

Another Wave of the Digital Future

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Years ago, when I was living for a short time in Salem, Oregon, I delivered the phone books in an upscale neighborhood. After I knocked  and the lady of the house came to the door I  remarked  about the painting on the wall. I still don’t know much about art but even then I knew enough to recognize a Picasso. The lady was stunned.

“You, the telephone man,“ she said. “You recognized the Picasso. But my neighbors, even friends, they had no idea who painted that picture.” In her humiliation she took the hefty delivery and banged the door shut.

The anecdote comes to mind because The White Pages in the phone book may go the way of the rotary-dialed phone, or so the New York Times reported this week.

The major local phone company in New York State and New Jersey, Verizon, is seeking  permission from regulators to terminate the annual delivery of White Pages to all of its millions of customers in the two states.

In Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma and Georgia  AT&T has already received approval to stop delivering the White Pages to all residents.

When I reported the news at breakfast, the Lady Friend thought the loss was yet another wave of the digital future. She would miss the residential phone numbers but her lament mainly would be for the loss of the yellow pages, so handy in hunting for a plumber, a painter, a spare part.

“But they’ll still be delivering the yellow pages,” I pointed out. “The ads make it profitable. Besides, the article is about New York State. Why borrow trouble? It says nothing about California.”

Skepticism is not the word for the Lady Friend’s response.

According to surveys cited in the newspaper, only about one in every nine households in the U.S. uses the hard-copy listings any more.  Most go online for numbers or else phone for directory assistance.

In New York and New Jersey Verizon is touting the move as a boon to the environment. Nearly 5,000 tons of paper would be saved by ending the distribution of the White Pages, it estimates, all of which triggered  more of the unquotable from the Lady Friend.

But, hold on, a benevolent AT&T in North Carolina  decided to drop a plan to cut delivery of the White Pages in the Tar Heel State. The change of heart is attributed  to a plea from advocates for the elderly. They said the old folks feared losing contact with friends and neighbors.

So there may still be room for human warmth in the digital age but the Lady Friend needs more convincing.

This column originlly appeared on May 13. 2010.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-02-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 May 2013 12:41

The New Depression

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In a  New Yorker article (April 29), George Packer looks back to the early 1930s when some of the leading writers began writing on the affects of the Depression. American society seemed to be on the verge of collapsing; the days of industrial capitalism seemed to be over. Ditto representative democracy.

Yet, at the same time the country seemed to be at “the start of something radically new...(and) close to the heart of history.”

Writers like Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser visited places like the Virginia coal country and Harlan, Kentucky, delivering food and clothing to striking miners, “braving heavily armed sheriff’s deputies, before being driven across the state line amid death threats.”

A classic of the era was “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee, a story on impoverished Alabama tenant farmers with photographs by Walker Evans. (The book sold little more than 600 copies, but the text and the pictures were “two of the most important works of the era.”)

For a few years, says Packer, “the most compelling form of American writing was a genre that didn’t even have a name – portraits of America at the start of the Depression, scenes “of endless devastation and wasted human life.” It was a cry “to join the cause of the dispossessed.” The mood was to sweep away the rotting system and start anew. Or as Wilson said in that idealistic day, “take Communism from the Communists.”

Writing these days is different. Most popular books are drawn to the big names – traders and hedge-fund managers, bankers and mortgage lenders and  business executives, the more glamorous the name the better.

The corners of our country where people hunt for food in garbage cans don’t get much notice. But they are a part of the portrait of an America floundering in what some are calling a “new depression.” Without the dispossessed there is no easy way to drive home the kind of times we are passing through.

Blame F.D.R., the Harvard-educated patrician. He rescued the country  (including capitalists and bankers) in the thirties, in new social and economic programs he called the New Deal. His efforts can be summarized in a single word: security. Security for capitalists and consumers, factory workers and farm workers, for the unemployed and employers.

Blame LBJ as well. He gave us “Great Society” legislation from civil rights to Medicare and Medicaid. Ironically, the reforms since the Great Depression – like unemployment insurance – have made it difficult to dramatize the present crisis. People are hurting, losing their jobs, and their self-respect, but most are still eating, have a home, television, phones, a car. They hurt nonetheless, though slipping noiselessly from the middle class. Their suffering does not lend itself to graphic drama. As Parker writes, a picture of “a jobs fair with people in business attire doesn’t have the immediate power of a breadline.”

I happened to catch the  Flatlanders on Garrison Keiller’s “Priarie Home Companion” the other day from Lubboc, Texas. The Flatlanders tell stories in their music. This one was about a family forced to leave California for the Dust Bowel after their home is foreclosed. “The banks,” they sang, “took it all – there is no other place to go...”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-25-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 25 April 2013 14:16

The Today Show is Still Making News

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

For old Today Show hands like me it’s deja vu.Today’s most recent co-host, Ann Curry, has been given a job on a less lucrative NBC broadcast. In sum, she’s been fired from the big show.

Curry’s partner, Matt Lauer, had predicted that he would be hurt by his bosses’ plan to remove Curry. That outcome, however, remains to be seen. There have been big shakeups on Today in the past. But, with the exception of Deborah Norville’s “disastrously brief succession” of Jane Pauley in 1990, “the show’s producers have prided themselves (since then) on executing smooth handoffs,” according to Sundays New York Times Magazine. And that’s as far as the story goes for now. But I’m primed to tell you about a fracas in my time on the Today Show when the stars battled so furiously that the earth trembled under your feet.

In the spring of 1973 after many years in local news, I landed a staff job on the Today Show. On my first morning in the studio, I was taken aside by a senior staffer. He pointed out a spot at some distance from the set where Frank McGee and Barbara Walters hosted the broadcast.

“This is where the writer stands,” he pointed out.

“Seen and not heard?”

He nodded. “Above all, you don’t speak to the cast unless they speak to you.” By “cast” he meant the people who performed on the air. But he might just as well have meant “caste” in terms of social status. He was advising me that the divide between high-priced on-air performers on the one hand and mere researchers, writers, and producers on the other was indeed wide. My hunch is that the gap is still wide, probably wider.

From the moment I’d gone to work there until the day Frank McGee died of cancer  at 52, the pair fought. McGee, one of the brightest stars in broadcast journalism, fought to maintain his role as principal co-host. Walters, who probably worked as hard if not harder than any of us, fought to be treated as an equal in a day when few women held top jobs in TV news. Staffers were torn in their sympathies.

Frank claimed to be appreciative of Barbara’s enterprise, but he didn’t think her a serious journalist. She hadn’t earned the credentials to be on a program like Today. Off-camera the two rarely spoke. One day Frank came to Stuart Schulberg, Today’s executive producer, with a demand: Barbara must no longer do Washington interviews. She was inept. Henceforth she should be restricted to figures in the entertainment world and show biz gossip. Schulberg  found himself in the middle, “a lion tamer in a cage with these two monsters,” as a former colleague put it.

Stuart agonized but he was going to leave Barbara alone. He admired her “spunk,” and maybe he was afraid of her, too. After Frank died on April  17, 1974, Barbara was  the face of the Today Show. Two years later ABC hired her away as the first female co-anchor of any network evening news, working with Harry Reasoner on the ABC Evening News. Her life is still an astonishing work in progress. She says she’s going to retire in 2014.

Full disclosure: a good deal of this material was taken from my 2007 memoir, “A Strange Breed of Folks – Tales from the World’s Second Oldest Profession.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-18-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 April 2013 15:37

Travels With Charley

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

John Steinbeck, the great American writer, died in 1968 at 66. You know his books – “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” “The Red Pony,” “The Wayward Bus,” “Tortilla Flat,” “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Travels with Charley,” among others.

“Travels with Charley” was published in the early 1960s and is still read today. Steinbeck was closing in on 60 (old age for many back then) when he set out “In Search of America” as the subtitle has it, accompanied only by a French poodle named Charley. Together they traveled through some 40 states – had many adventures – some scary like a hurricane in New York; some fraternal like sharing cognac with a family of potato pickers in Maine; some humorous, some stirring, some angry about what he found in the America of the time, and some prideful.

So I was shocked when I read an editorial in the New York Times that said a reporter retracing Steinbeck’s steps discovered that the author’s account of three months of solitary travels was fiction in many instances. The book, said the Times, was “full of improbably colorful characters” and improbable dialogue. All I could think was: another giant of my youth brought down to earth!

The reporter, Bill Seigerwald, (not a Times employee) retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 coast to coast trip. He said in a blog and in an article this month in Reason, a magazine, that Steinbeck fudged the facts, dates and places. He had not been gone for months with only the poodle for companionship, as he claimed. The author’s wife was with him most of the time; he hardly ever camped; often stayed in fancy hotels.

Why then do I not feel short-changed? Why am I not moved to cast old John aside as another charlatans in the trade?

Maybe because “Travels With Charley” is an historical document of a Twentieth Century odyssey, if made up in parts. Maybe it’s because when he was preparing his Great Depression novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” (a primer for our own Great Recession), Steinbeck was inspired to put, in his words, “a tag of shame” on the greedy, despicable people who brought the country to its knees. Maybe, too, it’s for lines in “Cannery Row” like, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Maybe, too, it’s for dialogue like, “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re  scum. Don’t mean nothing itself; it’ the way they say it.” Or, “Owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts yourself off forever from the ‘we.’”

The Times is right when it asserts, “Books labeled ‘nonfiction’ should not break faith with readers. Not now, and not in 1962, the year ‘Travels With Charley,’ came out and Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

And yet I bear Steinbeck no blame. “Travels With Charley” paints a true  picture of what our country was like half a century ago. No dearth of reality about that.

I am in agreement with the man who wrote the Times, “Your April 10 editorial. “The Truth About Charley” frets that John Steinbeck lied in portions of his book, “Travels With Charley in Search of America...

“What if he did? As Picasso said, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.’”

This column originally ran on April 21, 2011.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-11-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 11 April 2013 15:44

Lilly, the Cat from Katrina

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

A week or so before Eyjafjallajokull, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland blew its top and disrupted air travel the world over, our next-door neighbor flew to Berlin for a family reunion. The Lady Friend, kind-hearted to a fault, agreed to feed the young woman’s cat for the week she would be gone. When the volcano erupted stranding the neighbor and countless others, the Lady Friend stayed the course until the traveler returned.

In all this time the Lady Friend never laid eyes on the cat whose name is Lilly and is said to be a fluffy Persian or mostly Persian. The neighbor brought her home some months ago from a party who said Lilly was a Katrina cat, a survivor of the 2005 flood.

We can’t swear to it, but that’s what we heard. Anyway, this may explain her wariness of strangers.

One day, after setting out Lilly’s dinner, the Lady Friend, feeling sorry for her grounded neighbor thousands of mile away, poured the cat’s litter into a plastic bag, carried the refuse out to the back porch and then down the steps to the garbage bin.

In the middle of the night the Lady Friend woke up.

“Did you hear something?” she asked.

“No,” I said,” but I was more asleep than  awake.

“I wonder if it’s the cat.”

“The cat?”

“The cat next door. I thought I heard her.”

“I heard no cat,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

In the morning the Lady Friend didn’t touch her breakfast. Instead, she went over to the neighbor’s place. Some minutes later, she returned looking distraught. She’d found the back door ajar. She thought she’d locked it, but maybe she hadn’t.

The rest of the day was spent vainly looking for Lilly, inside and outside the house. Neighbors were enlisted in the search. Overcome with guilt, the Lady Friend called the neighbor’s boy friend leaving a message on his recorder. Sobbing, she took full responsibility for the tragedy. I begged her to let up on herself,  but she remained inconsolable.

That evening the neighbor’s boy friend came straight from work to the young woman’s house, went up to the bedroom, and got on the Internet. As he typed, he heard  rustling from inside the closet but thought he was imagining things. His  concern was spreading the alarm. But the sound persisted. He got up, opened the closet door, and guess who he found?

A few minutes later, over a cheerful glass of wine, the boy friend told us that he and Lilly, the cat from Katrina, had bonded very early in their relationship.

“She loves me,” he smiled. “And I love her, too.”

This column originally appeared on April 29, 2010.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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