Monthly Archives: June 2010

Larry King saved my life one night

So Larry King will be quitting his landmark cable chatfest in the fall. I can’t say that I ever watched a complete episode of Larry King Live during its 25-year run on CNN, and his column for USA TODAY, published weekly from 1982 to 2001, was a popular target for parodies — and homages, too. (Its three-dot spirit lives on, appropriately enough, via Twitter.)

But whatever King became in his later years on television, he was truly great in his original medium — radio. In fact, he may have saved my life once. Let me explain.

Back in the summer of 1986, I had a job as a bank courier. During one late-night run, I was fighting off sleep behind the wheel of the van when the A.M. dial  stumbled upon King’s radio show. He was interviewing Albert Brooks, and it was fantastic — smart, well-paced and hilarious. Like Johnny Carson and other great interviewers, King was unobtrusive, and he had a knack for asking questions that landed right in his subject’s wheelhouse.

Of course, a sharp wit like Brooks would be a great guest for any host, but King’s interview was special. This flawless bit of radio kept me awake until I spotted a truck stop and pulled in for a much-needed cup of coffee.

So thanks, Larry King, for keeping the company vehicle out of a ditch somewhere between Charlotte and Raleigh that summer night 24 years ago.

In Spy vs. Spy, the Russians still win

The arrest of 10 members of what the authorities are calling a sophisticated ring of deep-cover Russian agents is a reminder of an important historical fact: The Russians have always been much better at the spy game than us amateurs in the West.

From the nerdy efficiency of Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the USA’s first atomic bomb and then passed vital information to the Russians, to the cultured cunning of British spies Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, who did incalculable damage to the West from their perches atop the diplomatic and intelligence services, the Soviet Union scored a series of audacious espionage triumphs from the 1940s through the 1960s.  (If you’d like to learn more about Philby, MacLean and Burgess, The Cambridge Spies is an outstanding place to start.)

Even in the Cold War’s latter days, the Soviets were able to achieve the kind of deep penetrations that eluded America and the West. U.S. Navy officer John Walker sold the U.S.S.R. more than a million encrypted messages. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen betrayed the identities of dozens of agents, leading to the execution of many of them.

(At the time of his arrest, Hanssen was living near us in Vienna, Va. I used to take strolls through a park that was one of his “dead drop” locations. And Ames? His prime signaling spot — a chalk-marked mailbox at the corner of 37th and R Streets Northwest near Georgetown — is right in the middle of one of my favorite walking areas in D.C.)

So how damaging will these recent spying revelations prove to be? Journalistic opinions differ, but Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent who brought down Hanssen (Ryan Phillippe played him in 2007′s excellent Breach), tells ABC News that it’s “probably one of the most severe spy cases in American history.”

Considering the history, that’s not reassuring.

Song of the day: ‘Solace’

Here you go: A near-perfect rendition of Scott Joplin’s beautiful Solace:

The segment after the brief pause (about 46 seconds into the song) is especially evocative — sad and pensive, yet hopeful, too. It’s the essence of the blues. But then, the story of Scott Joplin, an American genius who went unrecognized as such during his lifetime,  is the blues incarnate  — a man engaged in a complex, painful, joyful, improvisational, stubborn and, ultimately, heroic struggle with the tragic limitations of life.

A college ‘football’ realignment plan

This idea from the Wall Street Journalmodeling American college football on English professional soccer — sounds great in theory. I don’t think it would work in practice, though.

Here’s how English professional soccer operates:  At the end of the season, the bottom three teams in the standings in the top division (the English Premier League) get demoted to a lower division (the Football League) for the following season, and the top three teams from that lower division are promoted to the top league.

Now, imagine that system applied to college football. It’s intriguing to consider what would happen if a Florida Atlantic had a great season and got to tee it up against big schools currently in the SEC the following fall.

But the Journal‘s plan would be doomed by the obvious difference between American college sports and English professional soccer — amateur university athletes in the USA graduate. Because the best college football teams are invariably laden with seniors, especially in the case of unglamorous programs that come out of nowhere to have great seasons, your small-college upstart that goes 11-1 one year and gets promoted to a higher division probably will have lost most of its star players when the next season rolls around. How long would a team with a decimated lineup last in the top level? Maybe one year.

It’s possible that a newly promoted team could get a boost in recruiting, but the best players will still gravitate to the biggest programs. Think about it. If you’re a high school all-star looking to go to the NFL, do you take your chances on an up-and-coming Florida Atlantic based on one great season, or do you just sign with the University of Florida? I’m pretty sure most players would still go with the elite football schools.

Compare that with an English soccer team that gets promoted to a higher division. If the ownership has the cash, it can go out and buy better players to ensure that the team is competitive in the more prestigious division. At the very least, management would spend money to keep the current squad intact.

For that system to work in college football, the NCAA would have to change its rules to allow colleges to either buy players or keep them on the roster past the end of their eligibility. Don’t look for that to happen anytime soon.

Still, give the Journal credit for creative thinking.

Anonymous posters: Threat or menace?

This Boston Globe piece on nasty anonymous Internet commenters certainly has inspired a lot of comments — more than 200 at this writing. (Here’s one, from “DoctorEvil”: “I have nothing to say other than that the Globe is the worst newspaper on the planet. Have a nice day.”)

It’s easy to abhor what passes for “dialogue” on news sites and popular blogs. It’s mostly insults, innuendo, slander, profanity, conspiracy theories, product pitches and worse. That’s why I rarely read the comments on blog posts or news stories.

And yet, I’m not sure about this:

Online postings can sway political opinion and heavily influence whether products or businesses thrive or fail. They can make or break reputations and livelihoods. On one side, anonymous comments give users the freedom to be completely candid in a public forum. On the other, that freedom can be abused and manipulated to spread lies or mask hidden agendas. With all that in the balance, the thinking goes, shouldn’t we know who’s saying these things?

Hang on a second. First of all, this makes it sound like anonymously influencing political opinion is a bad thing, which doesn’t extend much hope to the online citizens of places like Iran or China. Second, it should be obvious to anyone with a modem, TV, radio or subscription to the Boston Globe that anonymous commenters are pretty insignificant when it comes to opinion-swaying, reputation-breaking, lying and agenda-hiding.

But while the article strives to bring a human face to the deeply engaged readers who wish to remain anonymous on the Boston Globe‘s website, it also strains to imply that they represent a threat to civilized dialogue — they’re a “problem” that needs to be “solved” by ever-more-intrusive website registration procedures. (Not a single expert quoted in the story suggests otherwise.)

I’m sure a lot of the hand-wringing over comments is driven by a legitimate fear of the coarsening of public debate. I also suspect that most of it is driven by the shock of reporters and editors seeing readers dump all over their hard work in real time.

Either way, it’s fascinating to see some journalists — our leading free-speech advocates — cheering on ideas that dis-empower unfettered expression. If they had their way, they’d turn the simple process of typing “Teh Celtics suck!” onto a newspaper’s website into something nearly as complicated as registering to vote.

Which is another form of anonymous expression that seems to work pretty well, come to think of it.

Chris Washburn and me

Here’s a surprise: Chris Washburn, long-lost NBA cautionary tale, has resurfaced.

I’m glad he’s finally doing well. His life resembled an episode of Intervention for the past couple of decades — drug addiction, prison, homelessness — and now he’s teaching other NBA hopefuls to avoid the mistakes he made.

I’ve never met Washburn, but I’ll always remember him, because 21 years ago this month, I got my first taste of a fast-breaking major news story covering a sad landmark in his troubled career.

I was barely six months into my first newspaper job — sportswriter at the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record — when news came across the wire that Washburn, a Hickory native,  N.C. State basketball star and disastrous NBA draft pick, had been banned for life from the league for failing his third drug test in as many years. The 6-foot-11 Washburn was a local legend from his high school days, so this was big news.

We had about an hour to get a story together. Deep breath.

We jumped into our work, but it’s hard to get much done when you’re suddenly answering phone call after phone call from bigger media outlets. The Associated Press. Major newspapers across the state. A Raleigh TV station. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some guy who said he was from Sports Illustrated called. “Do you know if Washburn is in town? Where does he hang out when he’s there?”

My head was spinning. Where does Washburn hang out? I could barely remember his one standout season at N.C. State, for God’s sake, and I worked way too many hours a week covering American Legion baseball and prep sports to keep tabs on our one local superstar. I tried my best not to sound like a clueless rube, and probably failed.

I wasn’t totally in the dark about Washburn, though. One of my friends from college went to high school with him, so I knew that Washburn’s mother still worked at Hickory High School. A reporter called her, but she wouldn’t comment.

We got his former high school coach on the line for some forgettable quotes. Tragic story. Good kid. Tremendous talent. Praying for him and his family. The kind of platitudes that coaches can spout from instinct.

In the newsroom, the clock was running. We rummaged through the Washburn clippings file and rounded up some stats and anecdotes from his high school career. We weaved them and the coach’s quote into the AP story about his banishment from the league, rearranged the sports front to give the story prominent play, and worked with the news page designer to ensure the piece got significant promotion on 1A.

Somehow, we made deadline. “Good work today,” my editor said. Exhale.

Later that afternoon, in the tiny room I rented for $70 a week, I celebrated with a sausage biscuit and a long nap. Adrenaline leaves you hungry and tired.

Mini-review: ‘South to a Very Old Place’

Albert Murray‘s delightful  South to a Very Old Place (1971) defies easy categorization. It’s both stream-of-consciousness travelogue and impressionistic snapshot of the New South at the moment the Old South has just started to fade away. Either way, it’s a wide-ranging collection of thoroughly original essays.

If you’re interested in stories about newsmen, the book is a treasure. Murray travels to North Carolina to rap with future Pulitzer winner Edwin Yoder about editor and author Jonathan Daniels. He visits Georgia, where Ralph McGill agitated  for desegregation in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution long before it was acceptable. He stops in Mississippi to meet Hodding Carter, another crusading Southern journalist who editorialized for integration at great personal risk.

But South to a Very Old Place is not about journalism personalities. At its core, it’s an intensely personal journal. Murray’s improvisational reminiscence of his college days at Tuskegee flows like a literary jazz solo. It’s easily the book’s most engaging chapter. Another vignette describes the delightful cognitive dissonance he experiences after checking into a formerly segregated hotel in his hometown of Mobile.

The writing is all the more enjoyable because Murray, a black man, unapologetically embraces the subtle multiracial sophistication of his  Southern heritage, a down-home cosmopolitanism he rightly views as “incontestably mulatto” rather than irrevocably segregated. That cultural miscegenation is a vital gift to America, and it touches nearly everything — our music, language, law, sports, cuisine and much more.

That aspect of the South too often gets overlooked amid the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, but it’s a deeply humanizing perspective, and we should applaud Murray for sharing it with us.