Black Mail: How the Nazis Used Direct Mail In America

By Ray Schultz

To the untutored, 1940 probably seemed like just another year ending in a zero. The movies Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were playing around the country. On the radio, one heard Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey band. But some people were not consoled by such entertainment. The Germans were overrunning Europe, the Jews were in peril. And at home, there was a struggle between isolationists like Charles A. Lindbergh, whose comments were tinged with anti-Semitism, and those who felt the U.S. had to help defeat Hitler.

Henry Hoke was in the latter category. The 46 year-old Baltimore native and Wharton graduate was a direct mail expert. He had run the industry’s trade group, The Direct Mail Advertising Association, and he published a magazine called The Reporter of Direct Mail Advertising. He was ever on the alert for frauds who abused the medium. And he felt he had uncovered just such a group.

The Nazis.

Yes, the Germans were using the U.S. mails to spread propaganda, and Hoke, whose son Pete had isolationist circulars shoved under his door at Wharton, took it on himself to expose them. As he wrote later, in a book titled Black Mail, “the German government, through mail issued by specified agencies to selected lists, was attempting to divide the country so that the United States would be helplessly unprepared for future military attack.”

Could he cite examples? Sure. For one, “the German Library of Information guided by Matthias F. Schmitz (assisted by George Sylvester Viereck), issued about 90,000 copies of a semi-weekly, well printed and written Facts in Review to ministers, school teachers, editors of college papers, legislators, publishers,” Hoke wrote in May 1940 in his magazine. “Purpose: to sell the National Socialist ideology and to prevent preparedness against attack.”

Then he added that “the German Railroads Information Office, guided by Ernest Schmitz, issued about 40,000 weekly mimeographed bulletins to hotel mangers, travel agencies, stock brokers, bankers and ‘small business men,’” to “convince Americans that the Nazi system of doing business was best.”

Hoke wasn’t done: “The American Fellowship Forum, guided by Friedrich E. Auhagen, assisted by George Sylvester Viereck, Lawrence Dennis, and others, issued pamphlets or bulletins to a ‘cultural class,’—educators, civic leaders, authors and a selected list of persons who might be sold the idea that the German mind was filled with nothing but the milk of human kindness for all humanity.”

It took courage to write that, even for an American tucked safely at home in Garden City, Long Island. E. Schmitz, from the German Railroads Information Office, wrote to demand that Hoke retract these “slanders,” and assured him that if he did, “a waiver will be given, releasing you and your publication from further claim.” Hoke noted that the letter “had been sent to my home…not to my office.” Were the Germans trying to intimidate him?

If they were, it didn’t work. Instead, Hoke published his exchange with Schmitz in a special mailing—“I refuse to be intimidated by you or by any German controlled organization. I refuse to have my family intimidated,” he wrote. And he got more outspoken as he realized the scope of the German operation.

“For the first time, it was possible to show how the Nazis had built a large mailing list (estimated at 250,000) of German Americans with relatives in Germany…how Japanese boats brought hulls full of printed material from Hamburg, Munich, Berlin…how these pieces were delivered under International Postal Union Treaties free of charge by the United States. (Under International Postal Treat, the country of origin retains the postage collected,” he wrote in Black Mail. “The country of delivery delivers free. A wash-out transaction to avoid bookkeeping).”

But the Germans were only part of it. Hoke found that Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the Montana Democrat who had broken with Roosevelt over his court-packing plan, was sending out isolationist mail under his free Congressional frank. Analyzing the addressing on the envelopes, Hoke traced the pieces to a German group: the Steuben Society, Also sending seemingly pro-Hitler mail, for free, was Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-NY), who in 1938 had met with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Europe, and reportedly said that Germany’s demands in Poland were “just,” according to Hoke.

Hoke, who was not Jewish, deplored the anti-Semitism expressed by many isolationists. “On April 25, 1941, in Omaha, Nebraska, Charles B Hudson, violently anti-Semitic publisher, admitted to reporters that he had distributed isolationist speeches under the Congress free mailing franks of Senators Worth Clark of Idaho, Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, and Representatives Oliver of Maine and Bolton of Ohio,” he reported.

Hoke wrote to Wheeler: “Unaddressed franked mail under your signature and under that of former Representative Jacob Thorkelson of Montana, has been distributed by your violent adherent Donald Shea at his anti-Semitic meetings and by Nazi-loving, Jew-baiting Joe McWilliams at Christian Front meetings. Recipients were instructed to address the franked envelopes and dump them into the nearest postal box, without payment of postage.”

Of course, isolationists had a right to circulate their views, although not under franked mail, Hoke argued. Wheeler fought back. “I am not seriously concerned about Mr. Hoke’s misrepresentations,” he wrote in a letter. “In the first place, Mr. Hoke is interested in direct mail advertising, as he himself says, and is opposed to the use of the franking privilege on general principles.”

Sen. Wheeler then claimed that “Mr. Hoke makes no reference to the fact that those in Government who apparently favor our intervention in foreign war sent out under various Congressional franks some 2,00,000 pieces of mail all over the United States, much of it distributed by the pro-interventionist committees and organizations.”

Wheeler also falsely wrote that Hoke was employed by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith, as if that discredited him. Meanwhile, Hoke reported that the supposedly good name of the Order of the Purple Heart was being used as a cover in the scheme.

Events moved quickly. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term in November 1940. On June 2, 1941, Hoke wrote, “a friend beside a news ticker called me on the ‘phone to beat the headlines…’Henry, you ought to be glad to know,’ he said, ‘the President of the United States has just issued an executive order closing the German Railroads…the German Library of Information…and the German Consulates.’”

Hoke was pleased, although this crusade had practically wrecked his business. But he kept after the Nazi sympathizers, using the techniques of his trade to undo them. For instance, friends wrote flattering letters to the appeasers, using dummy names, and soon received isolationist letters addressed to those names, fueling his investigative reporting. And more was to follow.

“We learned from a girl who worked in a locked and guarded room on the top floor of the Ford Building at N. 1710 Broadway in New York City that Ford Motor Car Company employees were compiling a master list of appeasers, anti-Semites, pro-Nazis and Fascists from fan mail addressed to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, to former Senator Rush Holt and to Representative Hamilton Fish,” Hoke wrote.

He added that “the lists, when compiled, were delivered to Bessie Feagin, circulation manager of Scribner’s Commentator. That explained how some of the dummy names used in writing to radio orators eventually got on the list of the American First Committee and Scribner’s Commentator. But why the Ford organization? But why…a lot of things?”

Feagin was eventually hauled before a grand jury, as were many others, including Hamilton Fish. “No one knows what Hamilton Fish told the Grand Jury on December 5, 1941,” Hoke said. “Someone was pulling every possible string to have the case buried.”

Two days passed. Then: “Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941, just as our little family sat down to dinner…the flash we feared came over the radio…Pearl Harbor!”

Myth has it that the country pulled together at that moment, but Hoke knew better. Isolationists blamed Roosevelt for the war, inferring that Japan was in its rights to attack. “Remember…these were statements made by Americans on the Sunday night of December 7, 1941…the blackest day in American history,” Hoke wrote. “Made by the same Americans who for months had been mimicking and distributing the printed propaganda of the enemy.”

And they continued. “By the fall of 1943…the volume of black mail had grown to alarming proportions and was increasing rapidly,” Hoke charged. “The average citizen, when told about it still said, “I don’t believe it.” He didn’t see many of the Hate Sheets of the vermin press—or he may have seen only one or two which he passed off as “crack-pot.’” Hoke cited several anti-Semitic publications, like The Defender, Destiny and The Mothers of Sons Forum Bulletin.

There were victories along the way: Multiple indictments for sedition and other crimes. Some resulted in convictions, including that of George Hill, secretary to Hamilton Fish. Hill was “that certain man,” sought by Hoke, who ran the massive propaganda operation. “He was convicted of perjury—but the evidence proved him guilty of conspiracy with Viereck and Dennet to use the Government Printing Office and the Congressional franking privilege for the dissemination of Nazi and Fascist propaganda,” Hoke wrote.

Then there was the case of George Sylvester Viereck, who had failed to register as a foreign agent. Hoke recorded the scene:

“11:30 P.M. Judge Lawes appears and the courtroom is filled with an air of dignity…and tension. The jury walks in a semi-circle at the side of the bench. Viereck stands before the jury and glares. The clerk reads each count and the foreman answers—‘Guilty’…six times. Vierecks lawyer asks that the jury be polled. Viereck glares at each juror as the question is put six times, an the answer six times is ‘Guilty.’ Seventy-to times Viereck hears his ‘fellow citizens’ say the word ‘Guilty.’ The big marshal standing behind George Sylvester Viereck takes out his handcuffs and the Nazi agent goes out through the back door. Court adjourned.”

Henry Hoke lived until 1970. His son Pete took over the magazine, and changed its name to Direct Marketing. Pete’s son Hank is now in charge of the Hoke operation. To paraphrase James Agee, let us now praise Henry Hoke for his selfless campaign. Why did he do it? “Because some people, some place…are running a campaign to destroy Democracy,” he wrote, concluding Black Mail. “Our destiny is better than that. Our boys and girls deserve a better future. Fight against this black mail. If we do not…we’ll not know the sweet of Freedom until we have lost it.”

Take The Best and Leave the Rest

By Ray Schultz

Max Shulman should be alive to see this. The creator of Dobie Gillis wrote a story in 1948 or so in which Dobie has to turn in an English paper or flunk out of college.

Fortunately, his girlfriend works in the library, and she loans him her pass. The night before the paper is due, he goes down into the deepest stacks, finds a dust-covered book of essays that hasn’t been checked out since 1920, copies one in its entirety and hands it in.

But this backfires. His professor is so impressed with the piece that he enters it into in a statewide competition. Dobie is a finalist, and wins a trip to the state capital. Then it turns out that one of the judges, a bearded, white-haired old man who can barely walk, is the author. Dobie has visions of the electric chair.

The winner is announced—it isn’t Dobie. But as he is leaving, the old man stops him and says, “Mr. Gillis. I’m very flattered that you chose my old essay to copy. Of course, you understand I couldn’t give you the prize.”

Such was college humor in the 1940s (as well as I can remember the story). And the punchline was that Dobie, who inspired a generation of high school goof-offs on TV, got away with plagiarism.

Not everyone does. You can be expelled from school, fired from your job, have your book recalled or be turned into a national laughingstock while your husband runs for president. But Benny Johnson has.

Remember Benny? He was fired by BuzzFeed in 2014 after readers found “41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites,” as editor Ben Smith put it in a blog post, according to Mashable. Unlike Dobie, who at least stole a distinguished essay, Benny allegedly copied listsicles and other trashy material.

It should have been a career destroyer. But he landed on his feet—he’s now working for IJReview. And he was outraged last May because Gawker threw in a little sneer about the plagiarism after he beat them on a story, according to Betsy Rothstein writing in The Daily Caller.

“This is the 4th time this year that Gawker has been forced to aggregate news that I broke,” he wrote on Facebook, according to Rothstein. “This must be hard for their editors who so joyously cheered my ‘demise’ in journalism. Every time they have to push one of my stories, they leave me a little love letter at the bottom of the article. Like Babe Ruth said, ‘It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.’”

These days, there are two capital offenses in journalism: making up facts, and plagairism. If you believe the folklore, both practices were more common years ago, and you were just as likely to be fired for missing a story while sleeping off a hangover.

How did Benny survive in the age of instant online scrutiny? Probably because he draws traffic.

Well, far be it from me to deny redemption to Benny, or anyone. But spare me the excuse that he never went to J school, as some apologists have suggested. Do you have to go to J school to learn that it’s wrong to murder or steal? Most of us are taught in first grade not to copy our friend’s test papers.

Related posts:

41 Shades of Gray

Enough Storytelling—Let’s Tell the Truth

Gay Talese Has a Cold

By Ray Schultz

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Haven’t the Twitter twits got anything better to do than beat up on 84 year-old Gay Talese?

Talese got himself in trouble last week by saying, in effect, that he was not, as a young journalist, inspired by any female reporters—an admission that created a firestorm in social media.

He made the remarks during a panel at Boston University. And he was promptly given a failing grade.

Jerks, fools, classroom-bound jackasses…get a life.

Here’s what happened. You tell me if our nonfiction master deserves to be pilloried.

As reported by Sridhar Pappu in The New York Times, the poet Verandah Porche put Talese on the spot by asking, “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who were most, who have inspired you most?”

Pappu continues, using transcripts provided by Boston University:

“‘Did I hear you say what women have inspired me most?’ Mr. Talese said.

“‘As writers.

“‘As writers,’ Mr. Talese said. ‘Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none. I’ll tell you why. I’m not sure it’s true, it probably isn’t true anymore, but my — when I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, long-form, we would call it, women tended not, even good writers, women tended not to do that. Because being, I think, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.”

It was a classic “gotcha” moment, almost as if Trump or Hillary had been caught in a gaffe. Talese, who does not own a cell phone, found out that he was infamous from a redcap at Penn Station, and then from his wife Nan, a prominent writer and book editor.

He tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with Pappu , mentioning that he once wanted to write like Carson McCullers. (A very high bar to set). But the flap was only beginning.

Roxanne Gay tweeted, “I hope no one expected Talese, who doesn’t wear jeans, to think well of women.” (What the hell does that mean?) There were wildly inaccurate headlines saying that Talese admires no female writers at all. Some self-publicists have charged that he hates women.

Let’s step back for a minute. What I think Talese was trying to say in Boston was that there weren’t many women journalists around when he was young, especially any doing long-form literary journalism. And if so, he was right, particularly on the paper he worked on, that Gray Lady, The New York Times.

Granted, there were a few women in the business. In those days, if the folklore is correct, the stereotypical female reporter was a wizened person who smoked cigarettes as she hunched over a typewriter.

On some papers, female writers were called “sob sisters,” because they were given human-interest stories to cover, and had free reign to write emotion-charged copy. Thus, the best writing in newspapers was not on the front page, but in the women’s section and the sports columns.

I’d argue that Talese, while he clearly transcended it, came right out of that sob-sister tradition: Although a fine reporter, he distinguished himself more as a writer than a scoop artist. And I have a confession to make: As a teenager, when I knew him only by his byline, I thought Talese was a woman. Who else would have a name like Gay, and who else could write these deeply sensitive portraits of people?

Then I learned that Gay is short for Gaetano, and that he happens to be a man. And, yes, he has tended to write about men—Sinatra, DiMaggio, Floyd Patterson, the heads of the so-called Bonanno crime family. And nobody has done it better.

As for his performance in Boston. I suspect that Talese is uncomfortable on stage: He’s too much the reporter. Asked a tough question, he floundered for a moment.

If he had been prepared for that query, which I bet was designed to cause the exact effect that it did, he could have named Janet Malcolm, Lillian Ross, Janet Flanner or Joan Didion, whether or not he had read them. And he would have gotten away with it, given the superficial level of this discussion.

But he was set up—and caught. And now a deadly academic sensibility is creeping into it. Every time you turn around, someone is naming yet another female writer Talese should have read when he was climbing out on girders to write about the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Why not Scheherazade, as one wag suggested?

It has turned into a feeding storm. It’s so easy for these coddled literary poseurs to attack a man formed in another era. They are, as author Katie Roiphe implied to ABC News, trying to police people’s inspirational influences.

Let’s not forget that Talese still writes deeply sensitive profiles that younger writers should emulate, and that his critics can learn something from him about accuracy.

For more about Gay Talese, click here.

The Grace of Gay Talese

By Ray Schultz

Corry. John Corry. A name easily remembered, easily forgotten.

Forgive me if I’ve gotten a single word of that wrong, but I read it decades ago. It’s the opening of a profile of John Corry, a New York Times reporter who covered the Kennedy-William Manchester book affair in 1967, by America’s nonfiction master: Gay Talese.

At that time, I could quote many such leads by Gay Talese, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one who could. He developed a flowing narrative style that resembled fiction but wasn’t, and left a permanent imprint on journalism.

Take his 1964 book, The Bridge, about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York. It was reissued last year. Far from being an engineering treatise, The Bridge is a classic about the men who built the structure: Courageous, hard-drinking itinerants known as boomers.

Talese follows them everywhere. In one chapter, Danny Montour races up the New York State Thruway at 90 miles an hour on a Friday night, on his way to a Native American reservation near Montreal. He’s sipping gin, and has already had several drinks in a bar. Talese presents this in a style similar to cinema verite. If he has any fear in the car, he does not reveal it, for he is there as an observer, not as a character in the story.

In another chapter, Talese gives a heart-rending account of Gerald McKee’s fall into the Narrows. My family distantly knew the McKees, and was horrified as I read this passage aloud. As Talese writes of the boomers, “All have seen death.” Yet he also captures the poetry and romance of the boomer’s life:

The boomer’s child might live in forty states and attend a dozen high schools before he graduates, if he graduates, and though the father swears he wants no boomer for a son, he usually gets one. He gets one, possibly, because he really wanted one, and maybe that is why boomers brag so much at home on weekends, creating a wondrous world with whiskey words, a world no son can resist because this world seems to have everything: adventure, big cars, big money and gambling on rainy days when the bridge is slippery, and booming around the country with Indians who are sure-footed as spiders, with Newfoundlanders as shifty as the sea they come from, with roaming Rebel riveters escaping the poverty of their small Southern towns, all of them building something big and permanent, something that can be revisited years later and pointed to and said of: “See that bridge over, there, son—well one day, when I was younger, I drove twelve hundred rivets into that goddamned thing. “

Talese wrote that while still a reporter at The New York Times, but he soon left to write profiles for Esquire, like his famous 1966 piece: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

Talese never interviewed Sinatra, but he managed to reconstruct the period in the singer’s life when he was turning 50. He observed Sinatra filming, recording, taping a TV show with a cold, cavorting in Vegas with the Rat Pack and confronting the writer Harlan Ellison over his attire in a private club.

But Talese also witnessed the effect of Sinatra’s work on people, as in this scene in which Sinatra’s record, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, is playing on the stereo in the club:

It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics – “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac.

That is justly ranked as one of the best magazine articles ever written. But it wasn’t easy getting so much on a reluctant subject like Sinatra. To do it, Talese had to hang out, spend time with people and conduct saturation reporting, habits that are in short supply these days, he complained in an interview with Dan Rather:

“When you go into a newspaper now, everybody’s behind a screen,” he said.“ And too much of their reporting is obtained through the communications, they can Google their way through the day almost, these people. And they’re not getting outdoors enough. They’re relying too much on the vantage point of the world that is the parameters of the laptop screen.”

Rather observed that Talese was of the school that depended on the telephone and shoe leather.

“… The phone? In the early 1950s when I came out of college and got a job [at the Times], the phone was the new technology, and those old timers said, ‘Never use the phone. You have to go there, you have to be there, you have see these people, you have to look at their faces, study their expression, their gestures, it’ll tell you more than just what comes out of their mouth.’ I believe there’s truth in that to this day, and I have adhered to that.”

Yes, he has, especially for books like The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, and Thy Neighbor’s Wife. But he broadened his approach with his 1992 masterpiece, Unto the Sons, adding scholarship and family memory to his literary skill set. To call this work a memoir is to trivialize it. It’s a history of Italy, from ancient times through the Risorgimento and the two world wars, and in it we encounter figures from Garibaldi to Mussolini, and a raft of Taleses who live in the Calabrian town of Maida.

Some of these family members escape their lives in Southern Italy. Talese’s father Joseph joins a cousin in Paris, works with him as a tailor, then relocates to America and takes over a tailor’s shop in Ocean City, New Jersey. where he starts a family.

Talese, whose humor has always been subtle at best, pokes fun at himself here to great comedic effect. In one scene, he describes his clumsiness as an altar boy, in another his botching of a test in school. And there are more laughs when his father tries to get him to wind spaghetti on a fork without using a spoon (and Gay gets validation in his own mind from an unexpected source).

But this is a serious book, written with a rare depth and grace. We end up caring very much about the Talese family, and understanding things that could not have been easy for Talese to express—for example, his father’s complex feelings toward Mussolini. While not a Fascist, Joseph takes Il Duce’s side in late-night arguments with a cousin in Brooklyn, when the children are drowsing and the younger wives are washing dishes.

What could Joseph possibly see in Mussolini, a Northern Italian who was reviled in the south of Italy?

 …Pride and defensiveness about his Italian origins made him resentful of those who debunked Italy—which, at long last, was now trying to rise above its reputation as an unmilitaristic nation of bad soldiers, retreaters, and imboscati shirkers. What a relief to have an Italian leader who invaded other nations for a change, as opposed to remaining at home and hiding in the hills waiting to surrender to yet another conqueror of Italian soil.

Young Gay Talese was more Americanized, and there is a shocking scene between father and son after the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino in Southern Italy. It’s the climax of this powerful book.

How is Gay Talese holding up in his 80s? Pretty well, judging by his articles in the New Yorker. He captures Tony Bennett recording with Lady Gaga, and describes how faith helped fuel the baseball career of New York Yankee manager Joe Girardi.

In his Sinatra profile, Talese observed, “Many Italo-American boys of his generation were then shooting for the same star — they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them: no O’Hara, no Bellow, no Cheever, nor Shaw; yet they could communicate bel canto.”

That’s the only thing on which I’ve ever disagreed with Gay Talese. What about Mario Puzo, whose pre-Godfather novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, has been compared to Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep? What about John Fante?

For that matter, what about Gay Talese? True, he’s of a younger generation, and has specialized in nonfiction, but for me, he’s in the same rarefied class as Cheever and O’Hara. How fitting that he found his way to The New Yorker.


41 Shades of Gray

By Ray Schultz

Another hot shot writer is in trouble for alleged serial plagiarizing. Benny Johnson was fired by BuzzFeed last Friday after readers found “41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites,” as editor Ben Smith put it in a blog post, according to Mashable.

There’s no reason for gloating, although I suspect some grizzled reporters are doing just that. I can hear them asking if Johnson, BuzzFeed’s viral politics editor, ignored the ethical training given out in J-school.

But it’s the wrong question, given the nature of BuzzFeed and Johnson’s alleged offense. Maybe Johnson didn’t even go to J-school.

He seemed to specialize in what are now called “listicles” – trashy, specious lists, as in: “7 Signs That Your Dog Is Having an Affair.” Like the best content curators, he borrowed liberally from others, but without crediting his sources, Smith admitted.

Yikes. It’s bad enough to plagiarize renowned works of fiction or history. But listicles?

Yet “curation” apparently is the basis of BuzzFeed’s business model. Adrian Chen wrote on Gawker in 2012 that BuzzFeed has “built a lucrative business on organizing the internet’s confusing spectacle into listicles easily comprehended by even the most numbed office workers.” Chen added, though, that “many are highly derivative rip-offs from other sites, cleaned up and reproduced without crediting their sources.”

Has it changed since then? Maybe. “Go to and click on any one of its lists. In very fine print, buried below each photo, there will be a link to another site — usually Reddit,” Dylan Byers sneers on

Byers also offers this explanation for how Johnson went wrong:

“When BuzzFeed reporters wrote, they were subject to the same rules as everyone else. Sure you could draw facts from elsewhere — everyone does — but you had to write it in your own language.

“At some point, Johnson probably got lazy and started inserting text into his posts the same way he had been inserting photographs — by pressing Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. His mistake was that he forgot to put quote marks around it and add “according to.”

That seems right, although it’s all part of a viral content system designed for people with short attention spans.

And let’s not forget Johnson’s worst alleged offense:plagiarizing Wikipedia.

I used to joke that I’d fire any reporter who used Wikipedia as a source. There are too many small factual errors (and probably many big ones). It’s a slipshod practice.

But if you do sneak it in, at least have the courage to admit it. I’d hate to be the editor who had run an apology for ripping off Wikipedia.

Don’t think this is limited to listickle writers—book authors and academics also quote Wikipedia, which in fairness doesn’t purport to be a primary source. When did everyone get so lazy?

Here’s some free advice. If BuzzFeed is indeed focused on curation, it should source everything—it’s as simple as that. There’s nothing wrong with compiling a content sampler if you attribute pickups and include links.

For their part, writers should follow Robert Caro’s rule and source every single quote or paraphrase. Don’t worry if it bogs the copy down.

And Benny Johnson? One can guess that he enjoyed his moment in the sun. Or maybe he didn’t—it had to be stressful. Either way, what’s his future?

Fallen journalists rarely make it back—there are too few jobs even for good reporters. But that may be changing, along with other things in publishing. A clever person with a good business head could start his own site, or find another one to hire him. And like other nine-day wonders on the Internet, he may find that he is forgiven as long as he drives traffic and dollars. So much for ethics.





Winchell in Runyonland

By Ray Schultz

No reporter of a certain age can pass up a book about Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, least of all one that promises to tell “The True Untold Story.”

Granted, there isn’t much left to be said about this duo. Winchell, the gossip columnist and radio star, has been picked apart by biographers; so has Runyon, whose stories inspired Guys and Dolls. Still, I sprang for Trustin Howard’s Winchell and Runyon: The Untold Story, because I’ll read anything I can get my hands on about them.

They were an unlikely pair, given their backgrounds. Winchell, Jewish, grew up on the Lower East Side. Runyon, a lapsed Protestant, was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and he was almost 20 years older than Winchell.

But those differences were outweighed by their similarities. Both were famous, both had come up the hard way. They loved the night life. And Runyon seemed to wish he was Jewish. He would go into Ratner’s, the dairy restaurant, and for breakfast order “Half a grapefruit, a big bowl of vegetables and sour cream, a big slab of boiled white fish, a bowl of kasha, an order of blintzes, a big piece of coffee cake and coffee as fast as you can refill my cup.”

Howard is a TV comedy writer who started with Joey Bishop. He’s no historian. The book is slight, amateurish in spots. And precision isn’t his strong suit.

To hear him tell it, Runyon and Winchell became friends just before World War II. But Runyon used Winchell as a model for his character Waldo Winchester a decade before that.

And unless I’m misreading it, Howard seems to imply Runyon got drunk with Winchell at Texas Guinan’s in the 1940s. In 1913, as several biographers have reported, Runyon woke up on a train without knowing how he got there and never took another drink.

Finally, it isn’t quite accurate to say that Franklin Roosevelt “took to the airwaves to declare war on Japan”—he spoke before both houses of Congress, and Congress issued a declaration that Roosevelt signed. But let’s cut Howard some slack: He’s not trying to be Robert Caro. What he’s done here is present scenes—vignettes, almost—that he says have eluded formal biographers.

There’s Runyon’s account of how he lost a bundle on a race at Saratoga. (The male horse he’d bet on stopped to romance a female horse). There’s Runyon telling Winchell he’s right about “that little German asshole” (Hitler).

There are their jaunts around the city on the so-called dawn patrol. There’s Winchell consoling Runyon over his failed marriage. “We’re complicated guys, Damon,” he reportedly says. “Our work is our life.”

The anecdotes are believable, even without sources. And Howard doesn’t try to mimic Runyon’s style, a weakness of many writers who tackle Runyon as a subject: He’s got a voice of his own.

That’s All?

All too soon, we get to the story of Runyon’s visit to the vet with his cocker spaniel Nubbin. (Howard calls her Nubbins, but I’ll stick with the version that Runyon used in his column).

Nubbin needed a tonsillectomy. And Runyon confessed that his own throat was bothering him. The vet offered take a look. What he saw alarmed him.

It turned out that Runyon had throat cancer. Doctors removed his voice box, but it was only a temporary reprieve. Winchell’s knees buckled when he heard the news, Howard writes.

Winchell was said to be a hard man—willing to ruin people. But he attended to his dying friend for nearly two years.

“The two of them truly become inseparable,” Howard writes. “And as Winchell promised a very sick Runyon, they are constantly at the track, the ball parks, the theatres, the nightclubs, just anywhere they can find some kind of action.”

The voiceless Runyon communicated by passing notes to Winchell. They exchanged good-natured insults. “I do not mind awaiting daylight in some pleasant deadfall but walking around is no good for me and Walter cannot show me that it is of any benefit to him, either,” Runyon wrote in his column. “Because while he walks around a heap, he always has a beef about not feeling any too well, and he gets balder by the minute.”

Runyon covered FDR’s funeral in April 1945, attended by a nurse, and continued turning out his column. “He writes on instinct,” Winchell said, according to Howard. “And no matter what he’s going through—his words never lose that edge.”

But Runyon was running out of time. He died in December 1946, at age 66, and Winchell honored him by starting the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. As Howard tells it, mob boss Frank Costello donated $25,000 and cons in prison sent whatever they could. Winchell and Runyon’s children dropped his ashes over Manhattan from a plane. And Winchell opened a note that Runyon had left him: “I found that an irresponsible reporter in front of a typewriter can do more damage than a drunken surgeon in an operating room.” What an epitaph. The book ends, and at this point I will pay Howard the greatest compliment any writer can get: “That’s all?”

Enough Storytelling–Let’s Tell the Truth

By Ray Schultz

Abraham Lincoln was in a good mood as he got ready to go to the theater. The war was over, he’d shown the Rebels. He threw back a shot of bourbon. Now it was time for some fun.

Now, what’s wrong with that paragraph, besides the fact that it’s a total fabrication? Two things. First, it trivializes a tragic historical event. Second, there’s no way to know what Abraham Lincoln was thinking.

Still, I expect some writer to concoct a scene like this because that’s what the market demands (or so we’re told). We’ve entered the era of storytelling. And there’s no room for anything that slows down the narrative–like truth or attributions.

Maybe they’re right. But since most narrative I see moves slowly anyway (some of it is interminable, in fact) I’d just as soon we return to the journalistic basics. There are worse things than being dull and honest.

An Inexact Science

H.L. Mencken of Baltimore was 19 or so when he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.” A rival reporter named de Bekker, rather than leave his barstool to report on a stevedore’s death, made up the facts on the spot, starting with the deceased’s name.

“Who gives a damn what it was?” de Bekker asked. “The fact that another poor man has given his life to engorge the Interests is not news: it happens every ten minutes. The important thing here, the one thing that brings us vultures of the press down into this godforsaken wilderness is that the manner of his death was unusual–that men are not kicked overboard by mules every day. I move you, my esteemed contemporaries, that the name of the deceased be Ignaz Karpinski, that the name of his widow be Marie, that his age was thirty-six, that he lived at 1777 Fort avenue, and that he leaves eleven minor children.”

All three journalists present reported those sad facts, “along with various lively details that occurred to de Bekker after he had got down another beer,” Mencken recalled. And since their accounts were identical, they were applauded by their editors the next day for their unusual accuracy.

Making up facts is the cardinal sin of journalism. And while it was charming in Mencken’s telling, it’s now a surefire career destroyer (except in the blogosphere).

Another form of journalistic distortion is found in posed news photos, and in Time Inc.’s old March of Time documentaries. Case in point: Time’s 1938 feature on life inside Nazi Germany. In one scene, storm troopers collect money from ordinary Germans. Another shows nuns in a prison cell. But both scenes were shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, as I learned during a panel discussion at MOMA featuring Time archivist Bill Hooper.

The New Journalism

Does that mean that March of Time’s stepchildren, TV shows like 60 Minutes, fake their coverage? Uh, I didn’t say that… But the more daring the storytelling, the more careful one has to be about adhering to the journalistic rules.

This issue was hotly debated during the era of the so-called “New Journalism.” Not that it was a new idea, but reporters like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin showed that non-fiction could be written in narrative form like fiction. To do it, they had to find what Wolfe called the “objective correlative”—the telling detail.

One seminal example of the genre is Breslin’s 1963 article,  A Death in Emergency Room One. The beginning:

The call bothered Malcolm Perry. ‘Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,’ the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctor’s cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The ‘STAT’ meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“‘This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,’ he said.

“‘President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,’ the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the President of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

To read that piece even now is to feel the enormity of the event. But Breslin wasn’t in the emergency room as it unfolded—that scene is, to the best of my knowledge, based on interviews with participants. Yet it was published within 48 hours of the assassination.

In another powerful story, Breslin profiled an unemployed Vietnam vet, a Congressional Medal of Honor holder, who had crawled through enemy fire to save wounded fellow solders. The hero’s life unravels as older men at the VFW ply him with drinks.

Were these accurate depictions? They apparently were, but they couldn’t have been easy to do, given that facts don’t always lend themselves to narrative. Even time sequences have to be exact, as writer Janet Malcolm found out—she was criticized for a scene in which the subject says in person things he actually said later on the phone.

Then  there’s the ever-present threat of libel. No wonder Breslin and Wolfe sought a larger canvas—in fiction.

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote moved in the opposite direction. His book, “In Cold Blood,” on the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, was the world’s first nonfiction novel, he claimed.

It doesn’t matter what it was called.  This was narrative the way it should be done, as you can tell from the very first paragraph:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Capote, one of our finest prose writers, finished  the book with a scene that brought closure to the story: The detective who worked on the case encounters a friend of one of the victims in the cemetery. “The message is clear: life continues even amidst death,” wrote Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke.

The only problem is that it never happened. Unethical? Most journalists would say so. But, as Norman Mailer observed at the time, “Truman must have his tone.”

Sorry, Kid, You’re No Truman Capote

Some might wink at Capote’s transgression—he wrote an American classic. But consider what has followed. These days, everything has to be written like fiction, even history, yet few writers have Capote’s gift for narrative or Breslin’s flair or reportorial doggedness.

Writers must now entertain above all else. Serious topics take on a storybook quality—it’s almost as if readers lack the attention spans to handle more complex forms of information. But not everything can be dramatic or entertaining.

At least a few journalistic malefactors—those caught making up stories—were driven by this need to startle and/or amuse, I believe. Not that this makes it forgivable—or even sensible. Few writers can invent anything better than what happens in reality.

Egregious factual liberties are also taken, I suspect, with that staple of self-help magazine articles: The composite character. They are simply not believable. How can you check?

Then there’s plagiarism. Some well-known historians have been caught using almost identical language to that of other writers. I wonder if they left out attributions that should have gone in because they got in the way of the story.

 What does this have to do with custom content? Just this: It’s wrong to publish misinformation about anything, even in a marketing piece. It’s also disrespectful to the reader. Does someone on the hunt for a $500,000 solution need to have facts distorted or presented in dumb-dumb terms?

Hype (mild, at that) may be permissible in ad copy, but not in custom content. In narrative, as in all other forms of nonfiction writing, there are no substitutes for precision and clarity.