Fifty years of journalism

Sam Smith

I actually started in journalism more than fifty years ago. At the age of 13 I began a family newspaper – first handwritten, then typed, that lasted some 20 issues and dealt with everything with my mother’s predilection for yogurt and wheat germ to UFOs, the H-bomb and the shocking fact that my youngest sister was allowed to ride her tricycle in the house while none of her five siblings had been.

I was further encouraged towards the trade when as news director of the Harvard radio station, I asked a reporter to interview Cambridge city councilman Alfred E. Velucci which helped cause the only riot of our time there. Velucci suggested “paving Harvard Yard and making it into a parking lot” and turning Harvard into a separate state “like the Vatican in Rome” The story made the front page of the Boston Globe. That evening, after someone threw a typewriter out of a window at the Lampoon, 2000 student gathered – quickly taking sides on whether Harvard should become a separate state like the Vatican in Rome as well as letting the air out of all four tires of Mayor Eddie Sullivan’s car when he came to quell the disturbance. Clearly journalism was where the action was.

A few other snapshots from my early days in journalism:

Being one of a handful of broadcast news reporters in town with battery operated tape recorder – so new that the engineers union wanted to send someone out with us to make them work.

Learning in a matter of months that America wasn’t quite as I had been taught, as I covered the Jimmy Hoffa, U2 and TV game show stories as well as some of the first sit-ins and civil rights filibusters.

Interviewing Louis Armstrong in a hotel room on 16th Street and John F Kennedy right after he announced for president.

Working for Roll Call newspaper, where editor Sid Yudain let me be the resident poet, including writing a Christmas poem that took a whole page printed over a background image of Santa Claus and included the names of all 435 members of the House of Representatives

Covering the attempt by police to shut down DC’s only coffee house – Coffee n Confusion – which was being ably defended by Texas lawyer Harvey Rosenberg who told us: “Personally, I must admit that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the way that numerous writers and poets have reached the French scene.”

Being told by the Saturday Review of Literature that they couldn’t run my ad because my publication was too radical.

Being mistaken at four different demonstrations for an undercover cop, the one pleasant confrontation being as I sat smoking a pipe near the Reflecting Pool and a long haired guy next to me said, “FBI?” and I said, “Nope” and he said “CIA?”: and I said nope and he said “Smoke much” and I said, “Half and Half all day long,” and he said “Cool” and gave me his love beads.

Having half our circulation department in jail and finding needles hidden behind stacks of papers in the office.

Having one of my advertisers – ex-CIA agent Harry Lunn, then running an photographic gallery, tell me in the aftermath of the riots that if anyone burned down his store he was going to burn down my house. And another advertiser, Len Kirsten of the Emporium telling of a woman who came in and saw the stack of Gazettes on the floor. “Isn’t that a communist paper” she asked and Len replied, “No, the editor is a communist but the paper isn’t”

Being visited at my office by a 9th precinct cop who would occasionally drop by to talk politics. Officer Donald Graham listened to me better in those days than he would later on.

Taking part in a day-long Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee boycott of DC Transit buses.

After my article on the action appeared, having the local chair of SNCC – another 20 something named Marion Barry – come over to my apartment to seek help dealing with the press.

Later, sitting in the SNCC headquarters as Stokely Carmichael announced that whites like me were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement.

Getting a call from an angry young guy who was working in a car wash, complaining about me running one of his photos without credit. I pointed out that it had been sent with a news release from a community organization and added, “You wanna be a real photographer? I’ll tell you how. Get a rubber stamp marked ‘Photo by Roland Freeman. All rights reserved” and I won’t run any more of your friggin’ photos without credit.” Two weeks later, Roland became the Gazette’s photo editor later becoming an associate of Magnum, author of a number of books, the first photographer to get a fellowship from the NEH and subsequently three from the NEA, the most recent last June.

Sitting in our smoky living room, watching the TV coverage of the riots, including what was going at that moment just four blocks north of us on H Street. Going the next morning through the neighborhood and feeling – as troops marched past the rubble – like I was in World War II Europe. Two of the four major riot strips were in our circulation area – 150 businesses and 52 homes in our neighborhood had been damaged and things would never be the same.

By the time all this had happened I had just hit 30 years of age. I thought, this is kind of an interesting life and so I just kept going.

It has been fascinating and fun but doing something different in this town can also be quite lonely. In my case, some people have taken it personally, as though I did what I did simply to annoy them. Or as though I were a mugger of the mind, come to rob them of that most precious possession: comfortable certainty. But it was really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:

“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances.”

In a nation ablaze with struggles and divisions, we are too often forced to choose between being a participant in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. But, as best as I can tell, my real impetus has not been so much duty, anger or virtue – but a truly manic, grandiose and cockeyed optimism – a child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rocks of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off.

Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could retain his values as he made his way through the church, “That’s easy,” replied Alinsky. “Just decide now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest.”

Mark Plotkin started his interview with me on WTOP this way: “How do you respond to those who say you’re just outrageous, off the wall, beyond normal?” Here’s part of what I told him: If you go back and read what I wrote ten, twenty or thirty years ago it’s hard to see what the problem was. The FBI, in a rare of moment of literary eloquence labeled those who fought in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.” In this town timing is everything. Phil Hart once described the Senate as place that does things 20 years after it should have. I think I was like a bad comedian; I knew the punch lines, I just couldn’t get the timing right. I came to think of myself not as a radical, but as a moderate of an era that had yet to come.

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