Monday, August 19, 2013

PARANOIA: AS GOOD A REASON AS ANY TO BECOME A JOURNALIST

During my nearly 44 years in the newspaper business I was asked many times by colleagues and friends why I became a journalist.

Those of us who have been, or are still, in the business were attracted to it for a variety of reasons, none of which included getting rich. For some, it was a deep sense of commitment to serving the public or, perhaps, some notion that newspapering is an adventurous or even romantic career. Others may have been drawn to the business because they like to write or have an insatiable curiosity.

For me, all of those things came into play. However, what pushed me over the edge -- the final major contributing factor in my decision to become a journalist -- was a dose of raw, jangling paranoia, brought on in large part by good, old-fashioned, galloping Cold War jitters.

I remember very distinctly when and where my irrevocable decision came about.

It was late in the summer of 1964 while I was in the Navy and then a 20-year-old 3rd Class Gunner's Mate petty officer aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Douglas H. Fox, DD779.  At the time, we were participating in a hastily called North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) blockade of the island nation of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, where the trouble that had brewed for centuries between the divided country's ethnic Greek and Turkish residents was again at the near boiling point. It was our understanding, although we were never close enough to the island to see it, that we were on station off the northern coast and that, if necessary, we were to participate in the evacuation of U.S. personnel.

However, our access to solid, accurate information was highly restricted as all news incoming to the ship was tightly controlled and never released for consumption. To say the least, we were all edgy and apprehensive since there were rumors that the tension on the island could erupt into full-scale armed conflict at any moment.

To make matters even scarier, Cold War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union were backing different sides. We worried that if real fighting broke out on Cyprus, we might end up in serious confrontations with the Soviet ships that had been shadowing us around the Med on and off since we arrived there from our home port in Norfolk, Va., in July. In fact, in one incident two weeks earlier the Fox found itself playing "chicken" with a Soviet destroyer coming head on at us. At the last minute, one of the two ships, and we were never quite sure which one, veered ever so slightly allowing the two to pass in frightfully close proximity going in opposite directions. The ships were close enough that sailors on both vessels were able to run along the decks exchanging things like cigarettes, hats and, yes, a few taunts.

On top of all of this, there was an overlay of still more reason to be worried. At the time, the contentious U.S. presidential campaign battle between Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Republican opponent, conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was in full, ugly swing -- a mean-spirited duel in which both sides engaged in the ramping up of national nuclear war fears.

As part of the campaign, the implication was floated -- just before our news blackout -- that if Goldwater was elected, the nation could expect to possibly be at nuclear war with the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks.

Frankly, all of this scared the living bejesus out of me and, I am pretty sure, most of my shipmates, four of whom were with me sitting on a torpedo tube on the Fox's torpedo deck one sun-baked morning as we bobbed like a cork in the waters off the Cypriot coast. With me were 3rd Class Boatswain's Mate Petty Officer Harry Phillips, Gunner's Mate Seaman Dave Carter, 3rd Class Torpedoman Petty Officer George Post (who I heard was later killed in Vietnam while serving aboard a Mekong River patrol boat) and 3rd Class Fire Control Technician Petty Office Tim Stromm.

As the five of us stared southward toward where we suspected the unseen island nation was, we discussed our apprehensions and the possible worst case scenarios we might be facing. We all complained bitterly, as only G.I.s facing future uncertainty can do. The questions on all of our minds: What the hell do you think is going on and how likely is it that we are going to be in a shooting war at any moment?

Finally, after about 30 minutes of discussion and debate, I decided to make the announcement of what I would do with my future -- if I had one.

"This is bullshit," I declared. "When, and if, I get out of this man's Navy, I am never going to be this far out of the know again as long as I live. I'm going back to school to study journalism and become a newspaper reporter. That way, I'll always be right there to know what the hell is going on."

From that point on, I dedicated myself to the idea of becoming a newsman. It was a decision I've never regretted.

 
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Much of the nuclear war paranoia that gripped the nation during the 1964 presidential election campaign was engendered by a now famous (or should I say infamous) television commercial placed by the Johnson campaign. It has become a classic, known as the "Daisy Ad," and stands as what may have been the genesis of today's high level of underhanded, mean-spirited political campaigning. For those of you who remember it and for those of you who've never seen it, here is the hulu.com link to the commercial: http://www.hulu.com/watch/40606. For historical and journalistic purposes, it is well worth viewing even if you have to copy the link and paste it into your browser.

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Your comments are welcomed. In fact, it would be interesting if you would use the comments section to share your reasons for becoming a journalist. Thank you.



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