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Buffett’s Newspaper Man, Stanford Lipsey


Another native Omahan who has achieved great things is Stanford Lipsey.  This publishing scion has enjoyed a full career in journalism.  A good deal of his newspapering life has been associated with billionaire investor Warren Buffett.  The two men are good friends. Lipsey retains strong ties to Omaha, where Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are based.  This story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, which draws tens of thousands to Omaha for what’s been described as a Wooodstock for capitalists. Lispey and Buffett made journalistic history back in the early 1970s with the Omaha Sun Newspapers, when an investigative report into Boys Town’s vast financial holdings and wealth ended up winning the paper and its publishing team a Pulitzer Prize.  Buffett later hired Lipsey as publisher of the Buffalo News, a position he continues in today.

NOTE: See my new story on this blog about the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer winning report on Boys Town during Lipsey’s reign as publisher.  The story is titled “Sun Reflection.”  Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO.  He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.

 

Stan Lipsey with his wife

 

 

 

Buffett’s Newspaper Man, Stanford Lipsey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native and veteran newspaper publisher Stanford Lipsey has seen and done it all in a six-decade journalism career that’s closely allied him to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.

Lipsey climbed the ranks at the now defunct Sun Newspapers in Omaha to become owner-publisher. In 1969 he sold the Sun to Buffett, but remained as publisher. In 1972 Lipsey was at the helm when the Sun, acting on a lead from Buffett, poked into the finances of Boys Town. The Sun’s probing led to sweeping changes at the charitable organization and earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

Buffett later appointed Lipsey publisher of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News. Lipsey is still its publisher today. In 1988 he was named a Berkshire vice president. The old friends, inducted in the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame in 2008, may or may not get together this weekend at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha.

Lipsey, who got his start as a photojournalist, came out with a photography book, Affinity of Form (2009, powerHouse Books), that can be purchased at the Qwest Center exhibition hall during the May 1 meeting or at the Bookworm. He still shoots, only with digital equipment, not the Brownie or Speed Graphic he began with. Instead of snapping news pics, he makes fine art images for galleries and books.

His life as a news hound has spanned hot type, clattering typewriters, digital off-set presses, computerized newsrooms and newspaper web sites. His training began at Omaha Central High and the University of Michigan. While in the U.S. Air Force he served as editor of the Offutt Air Force Base publication Air Pulse.

He began working at the Sun in 1952, learning the business inside and out. Lipsey said the Sun “was small enough so I could do it all.” He considers a well-rounded newspapering experience an “invaluable” education most publishers “don’t have” today. “In the large daily business hardly anybody has it. They come from one field. They were either an editor or an advertising manager or a business manager, but they don’t have the crossover background between news and advertising,” he said.

Buffett said, “He’s a real journalist but he understands every aspect of the business, and that was one of the considerations why we wanted him up in Buffalo.”

Under Lipsey’s watch, managing editor Paul Williams guided the Sun expose of Boys Town when the still single-campus, dormitory-style, boys-only home used weepy mass mail appeals to portray itself as destitute. The Sun revealed Boys Town sat on a $162 million endowment dwarfing that of many national institutions. Property and building assets created a total net value in excess of $200 million.

“We knew there was a story there, but we didn’t know how to get it,” said Buffett. “I was sitting at home doing the tax return for my own tiny little foundation and there was something in the instructions that said my tax return would be public. All of a sudden it dawned on me if a tax-free institution such as this foundation of mine had to make the return public, Boys Town probably did.”

The story goes Buffett called on a well-placed source who sat on the Boys Town board to verify Sun suspicions the nonprofit had accumulated a fortune. Public records confirmed the rest. Public indignation was strong.

“It’s a helluva story,” Lipsey said by phone. “It was so well done.”

He said breaking the exclusive, which major news outlets picked up, was what the Sun needed to do to stay relevant opposite the Omaha World-Herald.

In Buffett, the paper had deep pockets and considerable clout. In Williams, who went on to help found Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a solid newsman. In Lipsey, a crusading publisher.

“See, we didn’t have the advantage of being a daily, so when we came out we had to have something fresh, so we did investigative reports, enterprise reports,” said Lipsey. “Warren, Paul Williams and I would sit down and brainstorm — what’s the story, what should we go after, and then this thing came along — it actually came along on a tip from Warren. It made for a great story.”

Like Lipsey, Buffett still feels a sense of pride about what they did.

“That was a watershed. It didn’t do us any good commercially as a paper, but that was probably as interesting a month or two of my life as has ever occurred,” said Buffett.

The report upset the Catholic community. Defensive Boys Town officials attacked the Sun as “a yellow rag.” The gutsy coverage earned the Sun the first Pulitzer given to a weekly for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting. It’s the last Pulitzer, period, won by any Nebraska newspaper. The award also recognized the reforms the story instigated. A chastened, more transparent Boys Town embarked on a course serving at-risk youth in new, home-like environs across the nation. Boys Town also built the first of its major research facilities.

When Buffett acquired the Buffalo News in 1977 he asked Lipsey for help. “When I was in trouble up in Buffalo with the paper I called him,” said Buffett. At first Lipsey served as a consultant, commuting between Omaha and Buffalo, before accepting the role of publisher in 1983. The two men share an abiding mutual respect. “I admire Warren. I would say he’s someone who has taught me a lot. He’s a steady hand. He makes decisions that are totally moral, totally wise, and for the right reasons, and they’re not always necessarily for profit,” said Lipsey. “He won’t buy a company where the management isn’t in place. The only exception to that is me.”

 

 

Warren Buffett

 

 

The book The Warren Buffett CEO, Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers, devotes a chapter to “the turnaround” Lipsey engineered in Buffalo.

“You see a newspaper doesn’t really match what Warren buys in companies because this paper was losing money when he bought it but he always had enormous respect and love for newspapers. But then he was short — we had a very good editor but we didn’t have a good publisher here. He had to get one to come in, and he tapped me,” said Lipsey. “There was a daily newspaper here in competition called the Courier Express. It became one of these fights to the death type thing. I got very interested in that. That was an enormous challenge, and I wanted to make sure we survived.”

Buffett said Lipsey was well qualified coming from a small paper to oversee a big paper because he knew all phases of newspaper operations: “Stan knew the press room, he knew circulation, he knew ad sales, he knew the newsroom. Stan’’s been a terrific friend and business associate. He’s over 80 now and he goes to work every day with the same zest as always. There’s no one I trust more.”

With the dynamic pair behind it, the Buffalo News won out. Lipsey’s still in charge, but the shrinking place of printed newspapers in this digital age concerns him

“Certainly right now the newspaper business is challenging. We’re doing better than most papers, but we’re not doing well. All our numbers are way down. Circulation, advertising, profit, volume, everything, and I think you’ve seen the same thing with the World-Herald, and they were enormously profitable. The trouble with newspapers is they’re extraordinarily costly, so when you have a sharp fall off in revenue it’s hard to cut as much as you’re losing, because you have to so many people in the newsroom, so many people running the presses, so many people driving the delivery trucks. That’s the problem.”

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s Globe-Trotting Adventures as Foreign Correspondents

June 2, 2010 1 comment

This is a story about an amazing couple, John and Pegge Hlavacek, I met only a few years ago, decades removed from their adventures as globe-trotting foreign correspondents. Their fascinating stories are from way before my time but they are timeless because they personally speak to adventure, romance, intrigue, news, and history that they were there to experience and witness for themselves.  Their life together was like something from a movie or a play or a book. John has published a series of memoirs written by himself and by his late wife Pegge that document much of their intrepid adventures.  As my article notes, they don’t make couples like this anymore.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

 

 

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s Gobe-Trotting Adventures as Foreign Correspondents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Prior to meeting, John and Pegge Hlavacek were young, intrepid reporters filing stories from news making capitals around the world. Then, when fate brought them together in Asia in 1951, they forged a life together that fed their mutual curiosity and hunger for adventure. It was all so Bogey and Bacall. Two dashing Americans falling in love in post-colonial India and the promise of its new democracy.

He was a breezy foreign correspondent. She, a posh former reporter-turned-public affairs officer. After marrying in Bombay and honeymooning in Rome, their whirlwind life took on all the intrigue and romance of a movie as they trailed after news from one exotic port of call to another. There was travel to fantastic spots. Hong Kong, Delhi, Darjeeling, the North Pole. Interviews with compelling world figures. Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama. Memorable sights. The Taj. The Himalayas. Meeting visiting Chinese and Soviet premieres. Visiting palaces, temples, ruins, museums. Haggling in crowded bazaars. Rushing to catch trains, planes, boats, ferries. And, always, hurrying to meet deadlines and beat the competition.

Just like they broke the mold with Bogey and Bacall, they don’t make couples like the Hlavaceks anymore. What a match they made. He with his boyish enthusiasm, rakish charm and rugged good looks. She with her fresh, feisty, unspoiled spirit and down home wile. As exciting and enchanting a lifestyle as they led, what made it more storybook was that when Pegge met John, she was a widowed mother of fraternal twins she had with her first husband, who was killed in China. Gallant John took on the instant family and he Pegge soon added three children of their own.

 

 

 

The Hlavaceks’ years chasing stories and kids are told in two new books authored by Pegge, Diapers on a Dateline and Alias Pegge Parker, a pair of great reads written in her clean, colorful prose style. She actually wrote the manuscripts in the 1960s, but when she could not find publishers she put them away. After being stricken with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, John, who still cares for her at their Rockbrook area home in Omaha, unboxed the pages, read them again, and impressed, sent them off to an editor friend, who agreed they deserved a life in print. John then got them published via iUniverse, a vanity press in Lincoln, Neb.

Now 86, Hlavacek is proud of his wife’s work and glad, after all these years, to have finally seen her accounts of their rich lives on bookshelves. “She is a much better writer than I am,” he said. “Pegge has the gift of putting down in words a picture. She’s an excellent writer. I’m just a journeyman.” In a reflective mood these days, he’s writing his own memoirs from the diaries he kept and the letters he wrote during his early years overseas. In conversation, this unadorned man blithely recalls one fascinating chapter after another of his and Pegge’s foreign adventures, leaving the listener, if not himself, awed by the sheer magnitude of their stimulating lives.

A native of LaGrange, Illinois and a graduate of Carleton College (Minn.), where he was a star athlete, Hlavacek originally came to the Far East in 1939 to teach English in Chinese mission schools. He went on a fellowship from the Carleton-in-China exchange program, which his football teammates signed him up for while he recovered from appendicitis. The way it all came about, he said, is indicative of “how accidental my whole life is.” It was not the last time his life took a major detour as the result of some seemingly random act. Not a religious man, he chalks up all these events to “serendipity,” saying: “I’ve got a little star following me around. All of my life, nothing’s been planned. It just happened.”

Going to the other side of the world then was far from routine. “My folks were not too thrilled with the idea of my going,” he said. “In 1939…all they knew about China was famine and disease, and they thought they would never see me again. It was like going off to war.” War came soon enough.

In Peking, he took intensive language courses. By the end of his stay at the mission schools, where his status as the only American made him “a celebrity,” he spoke passable Chinese. On holidays, he traveled widely in-country and also got his first glimpses of India and Pakistan, visiting Rangoon, Calcutta, Agra, Dehli, Peshawar, the Khyber Pass and Kashmir. The first of two schools he taught in was comfortably outfitted. “We had a cook and a bearer and a valet.” At the second, situated on an old temple site, life was more “primitive,” he said. “I just had a little room for my office and another room for my bed. We had vegetable oil lamps.” He enjoyed his time over there. “I liked the Chinese. I got along with them very well. I had a ball.”

With the outbreak of WWII, he felt compelled to help the beleaguered native populace and, so, he signed on with the International Red Cross. He “fell in” with a group of Welshmen driving medical supplies over the Burma Road, a “rugged” job, as daunting for the red tape as the conditions. “Every time we went out, we had to get permits from the local officials to show where we were going and what we were doing,” he said. “Much of the road was mountainous, with switchback turns. Trucks had accidents. They got stuck in mud. Springs broke. Batteries died. But, fortunately, none of the people I was with ever got killed.”

He saw flashes of the war from places like Chintang and Chungking. “Japanese bombers would go over us, heading for Chengtu. One time, I was fortunate to survive a bombing raid,” he said.” We were down in a hotel dugout when a bomb landed on the front of us and another on the back of us. There was a lot of explosions.” After his Red Cross duty ended, he applied his language skills to the U.S. military attache as a decoder and interpreter, helping track troop movements.

In another example of the way things have fallen into place for Hlavacek, he was in a Chungking hotel one “cold, dreary, wet night” in February 1943 when he struck up a conversation with John Morris, eastern manager for the United Press news service. Hlavacek recreates the scene: “We had lots to drink and we were sobering up in the morning in front of a big fireplace when I said, ‘Mr. Morris, what does it take to be a United Press correspondent?’ He said, ‘What have you done?’ And I told him, ‘I’ve taught English and I speak Chinese.’ ‘You’re hired,’ he said. Thus, without a shred of newspapering experience, Hlavacek talked his way into a foreign correspondent’s job he made his life’s work the next 25 years.

One of his early assignments overseas saw him covering the American 14th Air Force commanded by Major General Claire Chennault. “I got a big scoop. I was the only American journalist when they evacuated the city of Heng Yang. The Japanese were coming down from Changsha. I was in the last jeep leaving the city.” On their way out, U.S. forces destroyed key installations to spoil the invaders’ advance, and by joining-in the patriotic Hlavacek found himself part of the story. “We blew up an airfield. We threw grenades into buildings to make them burn up,” he said. “It was a great story and I sent it in and they (UP editors) killed it. It never got published. You see, we had censorship at that time.” But his actions were recognized when he received a citation from Gen. Chennault for aiding the military.

It was not the last time Hlavacek aided those in need. His wife writes about a 1955 episode in which he and another journalist pulled wounded Indian protesters to safety after Portuguese troops fired on them. It was all in the line of duty, he said.

After Heng Yang, Hlavacek fell ill. Recuperating back in the states, he got a baptism-by-fire on the UP’s New York night cable desk. Sent back abroad, he rose through the ranks to bureau chief in Bombay, getting news from London by Morse code, editing and printing it off and then sending it out to papers via bicyclists. His territory extended across all of India and into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon. He employed stringers, but also reported, snapped pics and, later, shot TV footage himself, often doing all three on one story. “I got to know how to do all this just by doing it,” he said of his self-taught news career. It helped, he said, “to be nosey.”

He was there for the press conference announcing the partition of India. He lived through the Bombay riots of 1946 and ‘47. He once walked two hours with Mahatma Gandhi. He saw Nehru’s rise to and fall from grace and power. Everywhere he went, the big affable American was known for his good humor and winning way with kids. Besides a few scrapes with rebels, including being imprisoned in Nepal, and some bouts of dysentery, he emerged from Asia unscathed. The bachelor lived and breathed news in his UP post, which saw him cover everything from riots to celebrations and untouchables to heads of state, but nothing prepared him for the dark-haired American girl who stole his heart.

 

 

 

 

A native of Harrisburg, Pa., the former Margaret Lyons displayed an early aptitude for spinning tales and seizing opportunities, like the time, at age 17, she convinced the publisher of the Harrisburg Telegraph to start a youth column, Teen Topics, which she wrote while still a high school student. She wrote under the pen name Pegge Parker, which remained her non de plume the rest of her writing life. The column proved so popular that when she decided to try her luck in Washington, D.C., the publisher kept it as a regular feature. In the nation’s capital, Pegge landed a night reporting job with the Washington Times Herald, where she became a pet of its owner, Cissi Patterson, who liked the way she took the measure of congresswoman Clare Booth Luce in a piece. Plucky Peg’s wartime reporting from the homefront included first-hand features she did on maneuvers with the Tenth Armored Division and the Paratroop School in Fort Benning, Ga., complete with pics of “the Amazon girl” atop a Sherman tank and harnessed in a control tower chute.

One of the biggest exclusives she scored was an interview with Margaret Mitchell, who had retreated from public life after the sensation of her book, Gone With the Wind, and the mega-hit movie made from it.

Soon, however the beltway beat’s political wrangling and society finagling grew tiresome for Pegge. Her restlessness peaked so much that, in 1943, she got as far away from Washington as possible by taking a reporting job with the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska. The great white wilderness, then not long removed from its untamed gold rush days, proved a rich news source for the young journalist, who met its salty characters, viewed its rough-hewn beauty and traveled to its remotest regions, even venturing to the Aleutian Islands and the North Pole. One of her stories, about a lottery awarding a gaudy cash prize to anyone guessing the exact time the ice breaks on a river, was published in the Readers Digest. Years later, Pegge said of her time in Alaska, “I loved every minute of it.”

Wanderlust called again in 1949 when, without knowing a word of the language, much less a single solitary soul, she embarked for China. She went, minus even a reporting gig, on pure blind faith things would work out. They did, too. The New York Daily News picked up the stories she filed from the Great Wall, Shanghai, Peking and the frontier mountain regions. Even though he didn’t know her yet, Hlavacek appreciates the spunk she exhibited then as “the girl on the go. Where I just kind of went along with things,” he said, “she went out and pursued them.”

It was in China she met and married her first love, Doug Mackiernan, an American scientist serving as an American vice consul in a distant and politically sensitive part of China. She bore him fraternal twins. When Communist-fired tensions rose there, she and the twins went to live in America, where Pegge got the news he’d gone missing. Weeks passed before it was confirmed he was killed by Tibetan border guards while fleeing China. At the time, the Chinese publicly accused Mackiernan of being a spy, allegations Pegge and U.S. officials refuted. Years later, it was revealed MacKiernan had indeed been a CIA agent.

Grief-stricken, she accepted her husband’s old post. Leaving the twins in the care of his parents in Boston, she went off to serve as a vice consul in Lahore, Pakistan before ending up a public affairs officer in Karachi. It was in Pakistan she met John. Despite a testy first encounter, the news hounds knew they’d found their match.

“We didn’t like each other at first. You have to understand, she was working for the government and I was a reporter, and there’s a natural antipathy there,” he said. Then there was the way he upbraided her for leaving her children at home while she went gallivanting about Asia. She explains in Diapers on a Dateline how, at first, she was enraged at his impudence. Then, she felt guilty, because she knew he was right. Finally, she was fascinated by this man who took such interest in reuniting a mother and her children. The die was cast. Their Bombay marriage took place in 1952 in the chapel of St. Xavier’s College, presided over by a friend of Hlavacek’s who was a Spanish Jesuit priest.

Headstrong personalities are bound to clash, and while John and Pegge have enjoyed 51 years of marital harmony, there’ve been times they’ve butted heads. “We’ve had our fights,” he said. “We’re both competitive.”

Raising five kids largely in a downtown Bombay hotel, with the family’s suite also serving as an office to Papa John, who was often away on assignment, the Hlavaceks somehow made it all work. Pegge ran things while he was gone, the ever-present typewriter strewn with diapers and toys. As if not hard enough making ends meet with seven mouths to feed, 11 counting the family’s bearer, driver, cook and their beloved aiha (nanny), Tai Bhai, the UP’s chintzy pay and shoestring budgets made matters worse. Pegge writes humorously about her obsession with shopping for bargain trinkets and relics from the wallas (peddlers-merchants) she could never refuse. The couple’s many homes have been adorned with the artifacts and just plain junk they’ve acquired over the years.

What hardships the family endured, they will tell you, were more than made up for by the enriching experiences they shared among themselves and with the world.

The Hlavaceks broke some of their biggest news stories in India. John befriended Tenzing Norgay, head sherpa on Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic Everest ascent, and told his tale for the first time in a UP story syndicated around the world. When John learned famed Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossillini, then married to Ingrid Bergman, was having an illicit tryst with a much younger married woman, he enlisted Pegge to get the scandalous goods, and she did. Pegge also made a splash when she co-authored a story with Nehru’s sister about the Indian prime minister.

 

 

 

 

When the rival Associated Press cut into UP’s India market, John lost his job in 1957. With things looking bleak he then received — “out of the blue” — the Council of Foreign Relations’ Murrow Fellowship at Columbia University, a windfall, he said, “which saved our bacon.” The family lived a year in New York. Hankering to be where the action was in the Cold War, he studied Russian for an expected Eastern bloc assignment, but instead he and Pegge followed their nose for news to the Caribbean and the region’s growing political strife. The family lived in Jamaica, a haven for the rich, the famous and the infamous.

From their hillside bungalow near San San as their island base, John fed radio and TV reports to NBC News and he and Pegge filed stories for Time-Life. They did pieces on exiled dictators Juan Peron and Zeldivar Batista, who despaired to the Hlavaceks, “They call me a murderer,” and John nabbed a world beat exclusive on the assassination of Rafael Trujilla. On a lighter note, the couple cultivated stories on famed composers Rodgers and Hammerstein, fading matinee idol Errol Flynn, evangelist Billy Graham and James Bond author Ian Fleming and they hobnobbed with the vacationing Kennedys and Johnsons and Princess Margaret.

With Castro’s ascent to power in Cuba, John went there as NBC’s primary correspondent, getting jailed and deported once for pressing too hard on a story. He interviewed all of Castro’s cabinet, but never “got to” the leader himself.

By 1964, Hlavacek’s network contract was up and his search for a news gig brought him and his family to Omaha’s then-NBC affiliate, KMTV, for whom he became a news analyst and roving correspondent. In a rare move for a local station, then news director Mark Gautier and general manager Owen Sadler let Hlavacek, with Pegge at his side, go far afield for news gathering sojourns, including trips to Vietnam, Africa and Europe. His Vietnam dispatches from the battlefront, which profiled ordinary GIs from the heartland, proved popular. He was a one-man crew, too — reporting, writing and filming. Between his field reports and analysis, he was part of a serious era in local TV news that’s long gone. “Well, it’s all fun and games now. Mark Gautier was a strict newsman. He didn’t believe in the happy talk that’s all the rage now,” said Hlavacek, who marvels at the instant news allowed by today’s digital-satellite technology and “the big production” TV makes of things.

Pegge’s pen was busy, too, as she wrote columns for the Sun Newspapers and Council Bluffs Nonpareil, among other publications, and hosted a radio show.

 

 

 

In the ‘70s, Hlavacek, a Democrat, scratched an itch to run for public office, losing a Congressional bid before winning a seat on the Omaha City Council. By showing his political colors, he found his journalism career closed. “Nobody would hire me,” he said. Still needing to earn a buck and looking to stay put in Omaha, where the family had put down roots, he started a travel agency, TV Travel, that capitalized on his and Pegge’s globetrotting expertise. After selling the business in 1983, he and Pegge remained in Omaha but continued hopscotching the world for pleasure, including several trips to China, where they visited old haunts and new sites.

Their grown children, all Westside High grads, are doing well. Two are doctors. One’s an airline pilot. Another’s in e-commerce. And still another’s an author.

Now, John’s days revolve around Pegge and memories of their high times. He takes her to an adult day care, after which they go to the Swanson branch library, where they pore over newsapapers. “We’re news junkies,” he said. “She’s at her best in the morning. She knows who I am and everything else. But at night she’s not quite sure whether she’s in Harrisburg or in Omaha. It’s rather discouraging…this terrible disease. I don’t know how many more years we’ve got.”

Rummaging through a lifetime of mementos at their home, everything he comes across evokes a story from their halcyon days as reporters. “I’ve got lots of stories,” he said.

Howard Rosenberg’s Much-Traveled News Career

June 2, 2010 2 comments

Edward R. Murrow at work with CBS, 1957.

Image via Wikipedia

I am a sucker for stories about fellow Omahans who have left this place and made successes of themselves on a national scale. One such subject is Howard Rosenberg, a much-honored newsman whose career in investigative journalism has seen him break major stories over the past three decades or more.  I did this profile on him for the Jewish Press in Omaha and I share it here because Rosenberg’s life and career add up to a good yarn that I think a general readership will find interesting.  You be the judge.

Howard Rosenberg’s Much-Traveled News Career

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

The pursuit of a hot story brought ABC news producer Howard Rosenberg from the network’s Washington, D.C. bureau to his hometown of Omaha in mid-September. He was on the trail of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an avid Husker football fan who attended the September 15 Nebraska-Southern Cal football game.

Thomas’ wife, Ginni, is a native Nebraska and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln grad.

While in state Thomas was interviewed by ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg. Rosenberg produced that segment as well as other recent interviews Greenburg conducted with Thomas, who’s plugging his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. The Thomas segments produced by Rosenberg ran October 1 on Good Morning AmericaWorld News Tonight with Charles Gibson and Nightline.

Growing up in Omaha, Rosenberg and his family attended Beth Israel Synagogue. His late parents were Monroe and Pearl Rosenberg. His two siblings, Marilyn Tripp and Maynard Rosenberg, reside in Omaha.

A veteran print and television journalist, Rosenberg’s been on the hunt for news since entering the U.S. Navy in 1972. He went in on the promise his nascent journalism skills, first developed at Omaha Central High School, would find good use in the service. They did. He edited a service magazine and freelanced.

For much of his news career he’s done investigative reporting, perhaps the highest calling for a journalist. It’s a mission he takes quite seriously. He said while “there’s a solitary aspect” to the research “there’s also an excitement to it; that you’re on the chase and you’re really searching for something and you’re looking for that moment, for that document, for that bit of information that’s going to make a difference. It’s very satisfying in that regard.”

He’s uncovered some major wrongdoings in his time, from top secret documents revealing illegal U.S. government-sponsored human experiments to tapes implicating key players in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages operation.

After more than 30 years in the business, including a long stint at CBS, he remains remarkably unjaded, especially given he’s spent much of that time in Washington, D.C. He possesses the healthy skepticism necessary to do his job, but not the cynicism you might expect. At 55, he retains the same faith in his profession — and the difference it can make in people’s lives — that he did when he first got into it.

“The end result and the objective is to help people understand something or learn something they didn’t know before,” he said. “There’s a concept in Judaism, that sort of underpins the ethos of the faith, of tikkun olam, which means repair the world. And anytime you meet a young journalist they generally all have the same sort of idealism — that they’re going to go out and change the world.

“I think of it very much as a calling and something that is a useful career for people like us to do because I think in some small measure you accomplish a minor repair by stitching up a hole of knowledge on something that’s important.”

His repairs have come for many prestigious news groups. He’s written pieces for Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Progressive, Parade, The Washington Post and The New York Times. He’s produced in-depth segments for the CBS Evening News60 MinutesABC World News TonightPrimetime Live and Nightline. None of it might have happened, though, without his hitch in the Navy. He was 21 and unsure what to do with his life. All he had going for him was an ability to write. The Navy gave him a focus to perfect his craft.

“Navy recruiters were so anxious to get someone who could write a declarative sentence, which I could, they guaranteed me I could be a Navy journalist,” Rosenberg said from the Regency Marriott he stayed in during his recent visit. “They also gave me the rank of E3 out of boot camp, which meant I made more than my fellow recruits, which was fine with me.”

His reason for joining the Navy, rather than another branch of service, was quirky.

“Truth? I don’t like to wear ties and with a Navy uniform you don’t have to wear a tie. It’s as simple as that,” he said, smiling broadly.

He had enlisted in the service after “a very undistinguished academic career” at UNL, where he piled up lots of credits in creative writing and journalism, but came away with little else to show for his time there.

The Navy “was a fantastic turn of events for me,” he said, “because it gave me time to mature and I worked in a very interesting job.” The experience gave him a training ground to “hone” his skills for his subsequent news career.

After his honorable discharge he studied journalism at George Washington University, an elite private college in the nation’s capitol. “I could never have afforded to go,” he said, “without my Uncle Sugar paying the tab.”

The 1976 honors grad soon landed his first big break — as an associate editor of the late muckraker, Jack Anderson, in Washington, D.C., where Rosenberg’s been based his entire career. He, his wife and their two sons live in Chevy Place, Md.

Before Rosenberg ever went to work for Anderson, he’d been told he was cut from the same prickly mold as the crusading news hound.

“There was a lieutenant — one of the last commanders I worked for in the particular (Navy) division I was in — who saw me as somewhat of an iconoclast. I was a bit of a troublemaker, And one day this lieutenant said to me, ‘You know, Rosenberg, you’re kind of a (epithet) and you ought to go work for that other (epithet) — Jack Anderson.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s not a bad idea,’ and so I did.”

Rosenberg joined a group of idealistic journalists flush with power-of-the-press ambitions in the wake of Woodward-Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate cover up.

 

 

Jack Anderson

 

 

“Jack had at that point won a Pulitzer Prize and he had a staff of young turks who were all in their 20s, many of whom went onto careers in journalism,” he said. Besides Rosenberg and the lofty credits he’s since accrued, there were: Howard Kurtz, now a Washington Post reporter; Brit Hume, an ABC correspondent; Gary Cohen, a Pulitzer-winner with the Baltimore Sun and now an L.A. Times reporter; and Hal Burton, part of the Pulitzer-team at the Seattle Times.

“A lot of good journalists came out of there,” Rosenberg said. “It was a great place to work. I was 25 years old and I had a press credential that got me into press conferences at the White House, where I would go and ask questions of the President of the United States. It was very exciting.”

In Anderson, Rosenberg found “very much a mentor.”

“He was a Mormon, so he was very paternal. You know, ‘We’re all a big family.’ We played together, we worked together. I learned a lot,” Rosenberg said.

Looking back, the Omahan was fated to be a writer and a storyteller, which is how he ultimately thinks of himself.

“I had an interest not just in journalism but in writing, much of which was encouraged both by my late mother and by a teacher I had at Omaha Central High School named John Joseph Francis Keenan. He was just an inspirational teacher.”

The late Keenan preceded Rosenberg in the school’s hall of fame, whose distinguished ranks include many notables in the fields of arts and sciences. Rosenberg was accepted to the hall in 2005.

Rosenberg’s mother, the former Pearl Schneider, was a Central grad herself. Her inclinations sparked his own passions. “She was a great fan of moviedom and I loved to go to movies. She took me to movies when I was a child,” he recalled. What fascinated him most weren’t the actors but the stories. Somebody had to write the scenarios, after all, and thus began a lifelong interest in screen writing. “I always liked that aspect of the medium and thought a lot about it,” he said.

Rosenberg wrote a book, Atomic Soldiers (1980), “hoping it would become a movie.” It did. The book details how American servicemen were recklessly exposed to harmful levels of radiation during Cold War atomic weapons tests. It relied in part on classified documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It took a lot of digging, a lot of persistence. With docs in hand he felt emboldened, as his old boss Jack Anderson used to say, that “now the story can be told…”

“I was very interested in what happened to these soldiers,” he said. “The story of the atomic tests on soldiers had never really been told in the mass media since the time it happened…and then it was cast in a very controlled way by the federal government because it was all part of a Cold War propaganda strategy.”

Atomic Soldiers began as a magazine article but the more research he did the more he realized it was a subject that demanded a more thorough telling. The process of  going from page to screen took longer than he imagined. Nine years to be exact. He said it took so long because the ultra-conservative political climate then was not receptive to learning that American servicemen were used as human guinea pigs by their own country in tests that compromised their health. The soldiers were not told of the risks they faced. His book’s subtitle says it all: American Victims of Nuclear Experiments. “A lot of political ground had to be covered. There was not a lot of interest in taking on that subject anywhere,” he said. “It was a very difficult movie to get made.”

Screenwriter Tom Cook (China Syndrome) eventually adapted the book for a 19889 TNT cable movie called Nightbreakers starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. The film version pleased Rosenberg.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “You know how authors always say, ‘Ah, they butchered my book.’ I didn’t feel that way at all. I mean, Tom (Cook) wrote a fictionalized teleplay and it was its own work of art…his own artistic vision of the story and the best way to tell the story. It was like a dream come true in the sense that here was a story I had written that was made into a movie. My only regret was that my mother didn’t live to see it.”

As often happened in his career, one project led to another. His book research got him onto another story he then developed into a cover expose for Mother Jones, which in turn first brought him to the attention of network TV news.

 

 

Howard Rosenberg

 

 

“The article in Mother Jones grew out of a minor, sort of sidebar I learned about in writing my book,” he said. “It was about these children who were taken to a chamber” at a federal cancer care center in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “and (unwittingly) exposed to total body irradiation in an effort to cure them of various forms of blood malignancies — leukemia and so forth. These human experiments were conducted on behalf of NASA and the old Atomic Energy Commission” from 1957 to 1974 and “used nuclear sources on children.” The article suggested some of the children were denied conventional therapy in favor of the radical radiation treatment. “Every one of them died,” Rosenberg said of the young patients.

He can still hardly believe what horrors the children suffered in the name of science. The more he dug, the more it resembled Frankenstein or, more chilling yet, the Nazi medical experiments of World War II.

“It was almost like science fiction,” he said. “The more I Iearned about it it seemed like something out of someone’s imagination. Not to disparage him, but one of the physicians who ran this clinic had a deformity…a hunch back.”

Rosenberg was so struck by the story he revisited it 12 years later — this time as producer of a 60 Minutes segment. “I was able, through a source I had, to get into the chamber” where the experiments were done. The space was now a storage room. “I took back a woman who had lived in that chamber with her child while he was being irradiated, so she was irradiated, too.” The woman he brought to the site of so much grief was the mother of Dwayne Sexton, who died at age 6.

The Mother Jones story “got a lot attention. All three networks did stories on their nightly news broadcasts about this story I had written,” he said. New opportunities soon presented themselves. One came from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which approached Rosenberg and colleague Howard Kohn to open a Washington bureau. The two journalists, collaborators on Rolling Stone and Outside Magazine pieces, directed a year-long project on nuclear arms policy. By this time Rosenberg had become identified as an expert on the topic.

“I learned a lot about nuclear weapons — how they’re made, what effects they have, who the people are designing them, what the national security plans and implications of having a nuclear arsenal are. It was all part of my research.”

Thus, he said, he got “pigeonholed…every time somebody wanted to know something about nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons policy or testing, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go to the guy that wrote that book.’”

His specialization paid dividends when the networks came calling.

“A certain light went on and I started asking myself, Well, why not cut out out the middle man? And that was really kind of one of those seminal moments where you sort of figure things out and say, This could be a really stimulating way to go — to combine my limited skills as a writer with my interest in visual media,” he said.

For his first forays into TV he still kept one foot in the print world, filing stories for both magazines and the networks.

“In those days the networks were interested in expanding their reach into investigative reporting,” he said. “But there weren’t a lot of people in television who were familiar with the kind of rigorous and mind-numbing work you have to do in investigative reporting. There was a fellow who worked at the time for the CBS Evening News who had an idea to go to people who were doing investigative reporting and form partnerships with them.”

 

 

 

 

The way it worked was a publication like Mother Jones and a network like CBS would work cooperatively on select projects, combining resources to break stories at the same time. The idea appealed to Rosenberg as it introduced him to the way television news is done, got his foot in the door at the networks, netted his stories bigger audiences and compensated him better than before.

“It was fine with me because investigative reporting is not just tedious and labor intensive, it’s time intensive,” he said, “and so you spend an awful lot of time for a relatively modest return in terms of financial renumeration.”

He began at CBS, then the most respected name in TV news. Icons abounded. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace.

“It was really a very heady place with just a storied history,” he said. “There were just a lot of wonderful reporters there. George Herman, Robert Shackney. All these legendary names. People with great pipes, great voices.”

He began by working directly for Rather, who’d just taken over the anchor slot, from Cronkite, on the CBS Evening News. Rosenberg was one of the producers of the taped segment that preceded Rather’s famously contentious 1988 interview with then-candidate George Bush. He eventually moved over to 60 Minutes. He found working for the original news magazine, “a very, very rewarding experience.” His mentor was its creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt.

“I learned a lot from Don Hewitt, whose mandate was, ‘Tell me a story.’ Some people describe 60 Minutes as formulaic and mean it as a disparagement, but at the same time it is a formula that works in terms of storytelling. It has its limitations, as all of us as storytellers do. It is in some ways very black and white. You’re got your good guy and your bad guy and there’s not a lot of gray.

“There’s a certain pattern of the process that’s in some ways quite predictable. But at the same time it’s very comfortable.”

He worked on too many stories he liked, including several included among Classic 60 Minutes, to easily name his favorites. “The truth is usually the story I’m working on is the one that I like the best,” he said.

Pressed, he cited the story about the human experimentation at Oak Ridge. “That’s one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “I was very proud of that. The first story I ever did for 60 Minutes, called ‘The World’s Biggest Shopping Spree,’ was sort of a tour of these giant warehouses that covered hundreds of acres of Defense Department supplies in storage since the Korean War.
That’s one of my favorites.”

Then there was Olliegate.

“It was only a minute and 30 seconds, but it had quite an impact,” he said, referring “to the story of the security system outside of then-Colonel Oliver North’s house that ended up getting him indicted and sort of unraveled the entire criminal enterprise. All of the people involved in that (Iran-Contra operation run by North) were indicted under federal conspiracy charges.”

 

Oliver North

 

 

All the convictions were overturned on appeal, he added.

Other Rosenberg segments for 60 Minutes range from the controversial “Confessions of a Tobacco Lobbyist” to “The Letter,” a two-part probe of jury-tampering during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

In’ 97 he left CBS for “a better offer” from ABC. The new post allowed him more time at home with his family. Not long into his ABC tenure he found himself in the awkward position of investigating former friends and colleagues at CBS. Rather had come under fire over a 60 Minutes report that offered documents purportedly showing President George W. Bush shucked a portion of his National Guard service.

Rosenberg said, “It was actually quite ironic in the sense that I ended up not just reporting on it but discovering the information that ended up unraveling the entire cover up by CBS” — hence known as Memogate. “I found two document examiners who had been consulted by 60 Minutes and by Dan Rather’s producer. They warned CBS the documents could not be authenticated. I also visited with the nation’s finest expert on typewriters. He said very explicitly it was impossible for any typewriter of that particular vintage to have created a superscript ‘th’ in the way it appeared in the documents. That was only possible in the computer age.”

“It was a joyless scoop,” said Rosenberg, as the fallout from the ABC report “ultimately led I think to Rather’s fall. I have a lot of personal affection and admiration for him. He is a person of great personal courage and great integrity.”

The two men have since met and spoken about the affair “and to his credit,” Rosenberg said, Rather “did not hold it against me because he understood himself as a journalist that the ultimate arbiter of what we do is the truth.”

Nightline assignments keep Rosenberg on the move. In the past year alone he’s been to: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Afghanistan; Lebanon and China. He’s produced segments featuring the first network TV interviews with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and coverage of the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse.

His ABC credits also include: writing/producing the hour-long specials, “Rumsfeld’s Rules of War” and “9/11: Moment of Crisis;” co-writing/co-producing the hour-long reports, “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden,” “Attack on the USS Cole,” “American Terrorist: In His Own Words” and a special Nightline edition, “The Lost Convoy” — the story of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company ambushed in Iraq.

He’s often asked, what does a producer do? His answer: “Whatever you have to do to put the light in the box.” Any news segment, he said, is a team effort and “I can’t say enough about how important each part of the team is to the process, from the editors and audio engineers to the graphic artists to the producer to the correspondent. To the guy you hire to stand there at the entrance to the hotel with a flak jacket on and a semi-automatic rifle to make sure nobody comes in.”

“The collaborative nature of television is what I find most exciting and satisfying because unlike the solitary tedium of investigative reporting, you’re part of a team and there’s a real team spirit, especially in a show like Nightline. And especially when news is breaking or when you’re in a war zone, it’s just such an enveloping feeling. People bring different strengths and skills to the process.”

Ultimately Rosenberg is a journalist because of his undying “curiosity,” the same quality, he said, “that makes for any good journalist and makes this a great career for people who are interested in learning. When I talk to young people and they ask me about journalism I say…it’s a great career for people with short attention spans and…for people who like to go to school. What you do is you learn everything you can possibly learn about something and then you have a final exam, which in this case is you write your story or produce your segment. And then you forget about it and go on to the next thing. It’s like you’re a student all the time.”

It all sometimes seems too good to be true.

“I just feel so fortunate I want to pinch myself and say how lucky I am. Wow. And I’m getting paid to do this,” he said.

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