Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mike Wallace – The Unasked Question

The news bulletin scrolled across the bottom of my TV screen. In recent decades, I had become inured to such scrolls. When I was growing up, the phrase “News Bulletin” scrolling across one’s television set was a riveting signal. Housewives stopped ironing, shoppers congregated around display TV sets in department stores, and hearts skipped a beat, as a nation waited in anticipation to learn if a president had been shot, war was about to be declared, or a NASA launch had ended in tragedy. Today, the trivialization of newsworthiness in the public consciousness has led to news bulletins to alert us of inconsequential developments in ongoing made-for-TV dramas like the Casey Anthony or George Zimmerman trials, or details of the latest arrest of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton. So I did not expect my heart to skip a beat, as it did, when the scroll continued with the words “Mike Wallace has died.”

I had wanted to meet Mike Wallace for some time. The closest I ever came was a brief encounter with Lesley Stahl, which really didn’t count because at the time it would be another 14 years before she would join him on his 60 Minutes news documentary program. I was covering then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s arrival in South Florida on a campaign stop and they had cordoned off a section of the tarmac at a small airfield for members of the press. We were all jammed into close quarters, like sardines in a tin, without segregation by size, type, or prominence of the news organizations we represented. Sam Donaldson was there with an ABC News camera crew, a Miami Herald reporter was chatting with some photographers, weighed down by clunky 35mm cameras with intimidating lenses and camera bags that looked more like overnight luggage, but my attention was drawn to a reporter in a safari style leisure suit and a Jungle Jim hat. He was from a small shopper called The Hallandale Digest and my brief conversation with him made me realize Hunter S. Thompson did not have a monopoly on quirky, gonzo journalism. Lesley, however, exuded a palpable aura of professionalism. She struck me as a tough, no-nonsense, professional. To this day, I still recall the moment “Safari Sam” hit on her while were waiting on the tarmac for Carter’s plane to arrive. I don’t recall the exacts words he used, but I think it was along the lines of “hey, babe, why don’t we grab a drink afterwards.”  Lesley shot him a glance that was more powerful, more excoriating, than any wordsmith could pen. With naught but her intense countenance, she silently eviscerated the braggadocio, whose bluster dissipated faster than air escaping a punctured balloon.

Mike Wallace began his career as a radio announcer and game show host, but honed his interviewing skills as the host of several talk shows in the 1950s. Two of particular interest to me were the “Mike and Buff” show and “All Around the Town,” both featuring Mike Wallace and his then-wife Buff Cobb.  Mike and Buff began as a radio program called “Two Sleepy People” before moving to the nascent medium of television. It was one of the first morning shows and one of the first to be broadcast in color. Mike and Buff would debate a topic, interview experts, and strive for a consensus before the last sponsor’s commercial. The second program was an evening show in which they conducted live interviews from various New York restaurants. Buff Cobb went on to be a panelist on the TV quiz show “Masquerade Partyfor the next eight years. At some point during its run, she and Wallace divorced.

I had wanted to meet Mike Wallace for some time, not because I was a journalist or because of any admiration I had for him as a journalist. No, I had wanted to meet the famed reporter because there was a subject about which I longed to interview the man renowned for his decades-long career as an interviewer. I’d have settled for being able to ask him a single question. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to answer it, but then, those are the best kind of interview questions.

Since genealogy is one of my hobbies, I would often turn to my grandmother for tales of our family history. We haven’t had many writers in our family, but several have become attached to our family tree through marriage. My grandmother had an older cousin named Alton Brody, who married the daughter of the famous newspaper editor, humorist, and author Irvin S. Cobb. I once  stopped in Cobb’s hometown of Paducah, Kentucky and paid my respects at his grave. Elisabeth Cobb, also an author, is buried next to her father. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, before she wed my cousin Alton, named Patricia Chapman. Rather than following in the family tradition of writing, Patricia chose to pursue a career as an actress. Patricia settled on a stage name her mother Elisabeth had been known by... Buff Cobb.

I don’t know if Buff Cobb was a good actress; that was before my time. But over the years, I hunted down what few photos I could find of the now obscure actress. She was truly a captivating woman. I wanted to learn more about her, but in the pre-Internet era, my research was limited to Irvin Cobb’s biography and a photo-feature on Buff in the April 8, 1946 issue of Life magazine (why Life chose to put a giraffe instead on the cover and relegated young starlet Buff’s swimsuit photos to the magazine’s interior remains a mystery to me).

I’m sure one day in the not too distant future I’ll join Mike Wallace in whatever newsroom awaits us writers in the afterlife, and I’ll pin him down for that elusive interview and ask the question I never had the opportunity to pose. I won’t ask him about the stories he covered, the celebrities he interviewed, or his venerable career in my first chosen profession. I’ll throw him a curve ball by asking the uncomfortable question most men would chose not to address. “Mike,” I’d say, “tell me about your ex-wife. What was Buff Cobb like?”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Nuance Doesn’t Get Tweeted

The written word, in social media, often loses much of its context. “I’m going to kill you!” when said by your smiling friend after you beat her in a game for the fifth time has a completely different meaning from the same words uttered by a knife-wielding assailant. But a tweet that says “I’m going to kill you!”, unanchored by context, is open to inference by the reader. One may see a joke where another reads a threat.

A recent study talks about how the current generation of bloggers and tweeters are communicating predominantly through the written word – in texts, instant messages, e-mails, and tweets – rather than through phone conversations and face-to-face meetings. This has led to two results: (1) Readers are misinterpreting the writer’s intent because they cannot see or hear the nuance (a subtle difference, distinction or variation in something). Without context clues, such as a smiling face or the change in the rise and fall of a speaker’s voice pitch, they infer what they think the writer meant, often mistaking humor for seriousness or ill will. (2) Reliance on text communication has left them ill-equipped to pick up on non-verbal cues and body language when they do meet in person. In short, the more time we spend typing into our phones and computers, the more we are turning into a nation of socially inept geeks.

The study postulates our Internet-based society, despite having been enabled to communicate farther and faster than ever before, is losing the ability to communicate meaning, nuance, and depth. When we limit the dialogue to 140 characters, something inevitably gets lost in the transmission.

A popular Web site asks “Can you fall in love with someone you’ve only met online?” I don’t believe in love at first write. You may be able to get a better grasp of an individual’s thoughts and opinions that way, but eventually you have to meet and determine if that certain chemistry exists. The smile, the lilt in one’s voice, the twinkle in one’s eye… the subtle cues, dare I say, the untweetable  nuances?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jury Duty

I’m back from jury duty. What a surreal experience! I woke up at 3:30a.m. to catch the 5:51 train, which arrived an hour late. It dropped me off at 7:25 and I walked from the train station to the courthouse, arriving on time at 8a.m. The irony is there is a courthouse next to the train station near my home, but because I live across the county line, I was summoned for jury duty in my county’s main courthouse, far, far to the north.

Every since I saw the classic movie “12 Angry Men”, I’ve always wanted to experience the dynamic of a jury deliberation firsthand. It’s on my bucket list, and while I’ve been to court as a law student, an attorney, a defendant, and a plaintiff, I’ve never served on a jury. That’s not to say I haven’t been summoned. But every year, I never make it past voir dire (juror selection). Once the lawyers on either side discover I’m an attorney, they kick me to the curb. You see, lawyers dread the prospect of having another lawyer on the jury who knows the law as well or better than they do, who is uneasily swayed by their rhetoric, or worse, might sway other jurors toward his or her view.

Nineteen of us prospective jurors were led into the courtroom for voir dire. As the questioning began, three were immediately eliminated for bias. By my math, with 15 others remaining and only six people to be empanelled on a jury, there was no chance I would end up on that jury, despite the platitude of my old finance professor that “zero probabilities happen all the time.”

I listened as they called out the first five names, unsurprised mine was not among them. I waited for the sixth name, certain it would not be me summoned to the jury box, and yet… The clerk read the name and a woman seated in front of me rose. I sighed, a coalescence of relief and disappointment, preparing to leave with the other unchosen, when I heard the clerk’s voice “… and Mr. Darrell.”

I felt like the cowboy who had miscounted the shots from a six-shooter. Then I realized even though the judge had told us the trial would wrap up by the end of the day, this baker’s half-dozen included one alternate juror. I staggered to the jury box, as if stumbling through some alternate reality where the long shot could cross the jury pool finish line ahead of nine other odds-on favorites.

We were to hear a criminal case. I was struck by how young the participants were. A young man, about 20, was charged with DUI. The two female prosecutors were about 26, fresh out of law school. The arresting officer appeared to be in his early 20s. When did I become so old? I pondered.

The cop had arrested the defendant in my city, at 2a.m. after seeing his car weaving back and forth across lanes. He testified the defendant’s speech was slurred and he had alcohol on his breath. The defendant admitted he was weaving and had been drinking (at first he said four to five beers, but later claimed only two to three beers) but refused to take a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer test.

The case hinged on whether he had been driving while under the influence of alcohol to the extent it impaired his ability to function. The state had the burden to prove, not that he was drunk or had been drinking, but that he had been impaired by alcohol. With no hard evidence like test results, there was only the cop’s testimony.

I was troubled by the fact the cop’s dashboard camera had not been working that night, so he had to call for backup with a functioning camera. Much of his testimony involved what the defendant allegedly said and how he acted before the second camera arrived. I was also troubled by the cop’s lack of independent recollection of the incident. Many of his answers were “I don’t remember, it’s in my report” and the car’s color changed from white to gray. He explained he called it gray because it looked gray on the video, reinforcing in my mind that he had no independent recollection of the night in question. I can see for myself how it looks on the video; if you’re an eyewitness, I expect you to tell me what it looked like at the scene.

The prosecution, the cop, and even the defense made several allusions to the defendant’s bloodshot eyes being a sign of intoxication. Only I noticed the defendant, wearing glasses in the courtroom, was not wearing glasses in the video. When I spoke with him later, he confirmed what I had suspected: he wore contacts that night. He had been wearing contacts all day and all night: by 2a.m., his eyes were bloodshot.

He did not testify in his own defense. That was his right, but I thought his testimony would have helped his case, especially if he spoke with a lisp or slurred speech. I wondered if he had refused the breathalyzer because he suspected his alcohol content was over the legal limit. A reasonable man who knew who wasn’t intoxicated would simply take the test, pass it, and prove to the cop he was not impaired. Not only did he refuse, but on the videotape, I heard him tell the cop “I know where this is going.” That struck me as odd, unless he was speaking from experience. Had been arrested before for DUI?

I realized the tremendous responsibility I faced. A guilty verdict would deprive the boy of his driver’s license for a year, raise his future insurance premiums, and stay on his record for 75 years. Everyone agreed the car had weaved in and out of lanes and that he had been drinking. But had he been drinking to the point of impairment? Was he driving carelessly because there were few cars on the road at that time of night?  A not guilty verdict would return his license to him and place him back on the street, perhaps feeling cockier he had beaten the rap. What if the next time he drank and drove, there were no cop to stop him? What if he crashed into a tree and injured or killed himself. Worse, what if he injured or killed someone else? What apology could I give his victim’s survivors that could assuage my guilt for the role I might play in placing him back behind the wheel. It occurred to me he had been arrested driving in my neighborhood, on a street I frequented. Wouldn’t it be ironic if he were to crash into me one night after a few beers? Hah, what were the odds? Then again, zero probabilities happen all the time.

The judge instructed us to retire to the jury room to deliberate and render our verdict. We rose and stepped from the jury box. “Except you, Mr. Darrell,” the judge said. “You were the alternate. Thank you for your service. You may go now.”

I was tremendously disappointed I would not realize my lifelong desire of being inside the jury room, while at the same time tremendously relieved the albatross had been lifted from my neck. Had I been kicked off the island, or rescued?

I remained in the courtroom and waited, with the prosecutors, the defense attorney, and the defendant, for the jury to return. I spoke to the defendant and learned the truth of what happened, and why he made the choices he had, that fateful night. After 45 minutes, the jury returned its unanimous verdict. How would you have voted if you were on the jury? If you want to hear what he told me, how I would have voted, and what the verdict was, post a comment below. If there are no comments, I’ll assume no one is interested and go on to a new topic.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wanted: Dead or Alive!

The Internet is an amazing place. Today, my name showed up on one of those "Dead or Alive" Web sites. You know the sort –  the type of site you go to when you hear one of The Monkees died but you don't know which one, or after you've watched an old movie on late-night cable and you think "I wonder if she's still alive."

My first thought was, "Wow, someone actually cares if I'm alive!" which was followed by, "Wow, someone noticed I was alive in the first place." So, I clicked on the site out of curiosity. I wanted to make sure I was still alive and kicking. I also wanted to learn the identity of whomever it was who had been so thoughtful as to include me on the list, and to see if I was in good company.

I was a bit disappointed to learn I was not alive. I did breathe a sigh of relief to discover I was tallied in the "Unknown" column and not the "Dead" column. It could have been worse: 77 entries were designated "Not a Person". While some may argue whether I lack personality, my personhood is no longer in doubt. Then, I noticed the site was LibraryThing, and to my chagrin, I pondered whether "Unknown" might be a reference to my status as an author and not to my vitality. I spend too much time on the Internet.