Rothman At-Large

Zelig and The Art of Winning a Pulitzer

November 18, 2014

Imagine you’re with the Secret Service. A young Ohioan calls up and says he’ll be joining the Nazi Party. “I wanted you to know.” Wait—the story gets even better. The Ohio man already has been within shooting range of presidential candidates.

J. Ross Baughman isn’t a real Nazi, however. Instead he is a photojournalist for my old newspaper, and he is about to infiltrate the National Socialist movement. My friend is merely trying to keep his name off the Secret Service’s watch list so he can continue his campaign coverage. A letter co-signed by his editor does the trick.

The Nazis think Baughman is just your garden-variety defender of the master race, an obscure wedding photographer helping them honor the teaching of the Fuehrer. Meanwhile Baughman, a gentile of Swiss ancestry, is busy snapping Nazi-gothic photographs for a Jewish-owned daily in Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. No Zionist conspiracies. As a professional photojournalist, Baughman simply sees the darkness around him as a must-report story.

'Zelig' in his various guises (Photo by: J. Ross Baughman) 'Zelig' in his various guises

A fake “wife” even tags along to a “White Power” meeting to show what a respectable, family-oriented soul Baughman is. His attention to the details pays off. Baughman learns that certain Nazis are talking about killing ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “and eleven other prominent Jewish-American business leaders, most notably two Chicago real estate financiers, Arthur Reubloff and Philip Klutznick, along with Robert Sarnoff, former president of RCA, Jack Greenberg, a New York attorney for the NAACP, Paul Warburg, a banker and part of the Rothschild empire, and Howard Squadron, a leader in the American Jewish Congress.”

Nazis left over from Hitler’s Reich are part of the movement that Baughman ran across when highway construction led him to detour through an unfamiliar neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side. In some ways this might as well be a page from The Boys from Brazil. Not all the facts come out at the time, the late 1970s. But the story still makes the international news wires.

Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham are among those pushing the Lorain Journal’s Nazi series for the Pulitzer Prize. No luck. But within months Baughman will win the Pulitzer anyway, for his Associated Press photographs depicting torture in Rhodesia. Not bad for someone still in his 20s at the time. In fact, he’s the youngest pro to snare the prize. He’ll eventually go on to the Middle East and also to El Salvador, where he almost loses a leg to a land mine. Baughman will work, too, for Life and other big names in the magazine world. He will also teach at the New School for Social Research and become a photo-and-new-media-related editor at the Washington Times.

Oh, the memories and hard-won lessons Baughman can share in the classroom! While in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, he did not even have to infiltrate the infamous Grey’s Scouts. His subjects’ vanity could take him a long way. That is no small reason why he was able to fit in and to chronicle the torture scene on the cover of his just-published memoirs, Angle: Fighting Censorship, Death Threats, Ethical Traps and a Land Mine, While Winning a Pulitzer Along the Way.  Baughman even wore the Scouts’ uniform, all the better to distinguish himself from the Scouts’ enemies. He rode a horse and packed a gun.

Notice a pattern here? Like Leonard Zelig, the chameleon-like character in Woody Allen's comic movie of the same name, the slightly built Baughman can be anywhere and anyone in a life accurately described as “cinematic.”

Nazi-gothic scene from the American midwest. (Photo by: J. Ross Baughman) Nazi-gothic scene from the American midwest.

“He mingles with Hitler and becomes a Nazi,” Baughman writes of his sort-of doppelgänger. ”He goes to Africa, and even becomes an African American…” Baughman knew the late Mel Bourne, Allen’s art director for years before Allen filmed his 1983 movie. In Angle, Baughman wonders if Bourne perhaps mentioned “to his boss the many stories about me that used Chameleon for the headline.” Woody Allen can be rather shy about his creative process, and his PR woman never answered my query. Who knows if Allen knew? Still, in this world of "six degrees of separation," where Baughman is so often several degrees ahead in the game, anything is possible.

Baughman and I first met while he was a high school journalist fired up about the Vietnam War, student unrest and other issues and I was writing up the confrontations. Sorry for my botched cutline accompanying a story, Ross—the one where your name appeared with a photo of an even more uppity student. The Lorain Journal regrets the error.

In my own days at the Journal I might type into the dawn on my manual Underwood (“work-life balance” isn’t always the highest of priorities at a tightly budgeted factory-town daily), but Baughman outdid me after he signed on as a photographer. Then-Editor Irving Leibowitz recalled Baughman in a column headlined “When a Pulitzer Prize Is Not a ‘Fluke”: “I get to the paper most mornings at about 6 a.m. Frequently I’d see Ross Baughman wiping his eyes coming out of the darkroom. He had slept all night in the photo lab, which was okay with me until I discovered exactly where he slept. Each night, Ross curled up in a two-foot-square cabinet that photographers used to dry negatives. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any place to go. He did. He had his own apartment. And if he needed any cash, he knew where to turn. His dad was plant manager of Lorain Ford.” The Baughman family lived on the dividing line between Lorain and near-by Amherst, Ohio.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Ross Baughman studied journalism and psychology at Kent State University, the site of the 1970 massacre where National Guardsmen killed four students, an event that undoubtedly helped shape his worldview and certainly influenced mine, especially after I talked to survivors. Baughman is now in his 60s, with a son, Henry, to whom he dedicated the book.

Via email, I Q&A-ed Baughman on a number of topics—from photojournalistic ethics to whether young war correspondents should get married—and you can read his replies at Solomon Scandals.

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National Digital Library Endowment Plan: Do a Willie Sutton and ‘Go Where the Money Is’

June 9, 2014

Librarians and friends need to think like Willie Sutton, who supposedly said he robbed banks because "That's where the money is." The quote in fact is iffy, but not the logic.

Now America's libraries might be a little closer to the cash in the vaults. Here's an excerpt from a national digital library endowment proposal in the newest Chronicle of Philanthropy, the New York Times of its field, read by some leading donors--perhaps even Bill Gates himself:

"Civic-minded billionaires could get the endowment rolling with a goal of $10-billion to $20-billion for the first five years. The endowment could also help local libraries start Kickstarter-style campaigns through which local donors could send money to their favorite local library projects. The money raised would be crucial to improving school and public libraries—and the reading and math skills of America’s students. Much of the money could go to hire and train librarians, family literacy workers, and others, especially in the very poorest areas."

While the endowment could help fund digital content and related technology--U.S. public libraries can now spend only around $4 per capita on content of all kinds--the proposal also recognizes the importance of librarians and teachers if we want good e-books and the rest to be absorbed.

Making LibraryCity's national digital library endowment plan all the more timely is the news that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will phase out its Global Libraries initiative. The endowment replacing the initiative would be much bigger and, while tapping the expertise of Gates's talented people, could bring in others as well and expand the donor base.

To address one issue, yes, it would be wonderful if tax money alone could sustain libraries. But don't expect miracles, especially at the federal level. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan even wants to abolish the Institute of Museum and Library Services. And thanks to the City Council in my well-off hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, local funding for content is a disgraceful $2.60 per capital. This in Amazon's supposedly "Most Well-Read" city!

While there are zillions of other worthy recipients of funding, the American Library Association ideally will think big and pass a resolution at its convention later this month—supporting the national endowment. Think ahead. An endowment would be a win for many library projects.

The endowment could start as a nonprofit to allow experimentation and evolve into a government agency for maximum responsiveness and transparency.

Meanwhile here’s a reply to a sadly out-of-touch commenter on my Chronicle article.

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In Search of 'Wooden Watermelons’ and True Net Neutrality

January 15, 2014

Searching for Wooden Watermelons is a sweet indie flick about a bright 20-something in Beaumont, Texas, who is puzzling out her future. Hundreds of Watermelons-style films exist. Call ‘em Small Town Smart and Unhappy.

And yet I couldn’t take my eyes off Watermelons when I watched it on the Vanguard channel by way of the Internet and my Roku box. You’re welcome to disagree. But both the writing and acting resonated with me. Props to Wendy English, the scriptwriter-actor-producer.

Thanks to powerful Washington lawyers and lobbyists, however, the kind described in Mark Leibovich's This Town, quirky delights like Watermelons may vanish from our screens or at least be more expensive than need be to watch. The D.C. Court of Appeals has dissed the idea of Net neutrality. Very possibly, Vanguard will have to directly or indirectly pay up more to giants like Comcast. Meanwhile the big boys perhaps can more easily favor the mass entertainment they find most profitable.

I use the words “may,” “possibly” and “perhaps” quite deliberately, since it’s too early to know how things will ultimately shake out.  Susan Crawford, a visiting professor of law at Harvard, hopes that the FCC can tweak its rules to rebrand Comcast and the rest as “common carriage services.” Most likely the FCC will make the tweak or appeal to the Supreme Court. But though budget threats against the FCC and pressure on the Obama White House---thank you, telecommunications lobbyists---some on Capitol Hill will do their best to prevent that.

Let’s hope that congress members opposed to Net neutrality will reconsider despite of all the donations from Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and friends to candidates and both political parties by way of political action committees and executive contributions.

Granted, Comcast and the like have their better sides. MSNBC, while flawed, is a much-welcome alternative to Fox News, and Comcast’s program to get low-income people online is at least a start despite its shortcomings. More significantly, NBCUniversal, Inc., where English has been working as a producer, is now a Comcast subsidiary. Not everything from the majors is dreck, far from it (by way of disclosure, a draft script adapted from my novel The Solomon Scandals is floating around in Hollywood). But in this case, thanks to Comcast and friends, we’re talking about the risks of higher prices and fewer viewing, listening and reading options for all us.

Watermelons itself is really about choices of a different sort. And maybe Americans need to be more careful about still another kind---the choices we make in the voting booths. Regardless of how well-bought “this town” is (yes, yes, read Leibovich and look up your favorite politicians on OpenSecrets), don’t members of both parties portray themselves as pro-creativity, pro-innovation, pro-consumer and pro-small business? The court decision is anti in all those respects. Ideally people on the Hill would have allowed more consumer-friendly judges to be appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, one of the nation’s most important. Then the decision might have gone the other way, meaning less suspense at the FCC.

Small-town Tea Party types, especially, need to appreciate the unpleasant ramifications of the decision. Just study the plot of Searching for Wooden Watermelons.

The film is at least ten years old, and Jude Farnie, the protagonist, needs at the time to go off to Hollywood to be a television writer. Perhaps with a better-wired nation and more competition among Internet providers, which the demise of Net neutrality would reduce, she at least could have sold her first script or found an agent without having to leave Beaumont.

If nothing else, imagine what a boon Jude Farnie would have discovered Netflix, Vanguard and a Roku box to be---in studying Hollywood’s existing works to help hone TV and movie scripts. Jude’s lessons from VHS tapes were far, far less rich that what she’d enjoy today. She might also have taken advantage of 2014-level broadband to participate more easily in screenwriting communities online. Admittedly, being in Hollywood for real helps even now. Still, I think I’ve made my point.

This is just one example. From graphic artists to young software whizzes, the court decision could hurt America’s creative community---especially those members living in places like Beaumont and and elsewhere in Flyover Country.

Internet giants in the past have not always been kind to Beaumont. The last thing in the world we need is to loosen regulations on them.

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