Saturday, December 22

When Detroit Sneezed

Damn! I’m getting old.

I’d like to think that I’m still learning, but one lesson came 33 years ago this month.

I was working for WJBK-TV, at that time the CBS affiliate in Detroit. Later Channel 2 became a Fox affiliate and O-and-O (although an ownership change is pending as I write this). Back then ‘JBK was the key station in the Storer Broadcasting empire. Back then there was a Storer and it was an empire.

It was Christmas, ’74. Many of my faithful (and fretful) readers weren’t even born yet, so a history lesson is in order.

Greatly simplified, the American economy had been sent reeling by something called the “Arab Oil Embargo.” For three weeks in October, 1973, Israel was at war with a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria: the “Yom Kippur War,” so-called because it began with an attack on Israel on that Jewish Holiday. Despite early setbacks, Israel had gained the upper hand when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in late October. In the middle of the war the Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries announced that it was cutting crude oil shipments to the west to punish Israel’s supporters. The U.S. was, of course, the primary target of the Arab Oil Embargo.

These numbers sound silly today, but back then they sent shock waves through the world economy: oil prices quickly jumped almost 20% to $3.65 a barrel. In the U.S. the price of a gallon of gas—which had been around 35 cents—rose sharply. Gas stations were running out; lines at the pumps stretched for blocks. Each newscast brought word of fistfights—even shootings—as angry motorists practiced vigilante justice on line jumpers. To try to ease the lines, stations started selling to drivers with odd-numbered license plates only on odd-numbered days. Back then the normal speed limit on the interstates was 70 M.P.H. Proposals were quickly enacted to cut it to 55 to save gas.

This country started on a path to recession and high inflation that persisted into the early 80s, and high oil prices that stayed with us until 1986.

Back in those days the words “Detroit” and “autos” were interchangeable. And the prevailing wisdom went something like this: If Detroit sneezes the American economy catches a cold.

Americans were afraid. They had been driving big gas-guzzling behemoths for years—it was The American Way, dammit! You can’t have a car without tail fins and whitewall tires, can you?

I could. I did. I was driving a Volkswagen Beetle with a 12-gallon gas tank. Now, don’t ask me to do the adjusted-for-inflation math. All I know is that a fill-up on my ’69 Beetle back then cost less than four bucks! I wasn’t alone. All of a sudden American drivers were looking at German cars—and even those new, tinny, rattle-trap Japanese cars—and wondering if they held the answer. I had a friend who bought a Saab, back before they had sex appeal: a three-cylinder Saab that sounded as if Briggs and Stratton were having a fistfight under the hood. Was this the next step for Detroit?

That’s what Ike Pappas wondered when he came to The Motor City in December, ’74. The embargo was over but the rising gas prices, the inflation and the jitters remained. Ike was a solid, seasoned correspondent for CBS News. He talked the brass into sending him to Detroit for a report to air Christmas week. The premise: Let’s examine Christmas spending and consumer attitudes in the one American city most tied to oil.

He must have done a good selling job. Those were the days of the three-person film crew: cameraman, soundman, lighting man (Sorry, not “persons.” No women in those days. Not my doing. Don't blame me.)

Ike Pappas came to town with two three-man film crews, a producer, and his own film editor out of New York. CBS shipped in a Steenbeck eight-plate film editing console (about the size of a meat freezer in your local supermarket). The union contract stipulated individual rooms (no doubling up), so that was nine top-of-the-line hotel (not motel) rooms for a week. Meals for all. Four cars.

Back in those days, with all the equipment (tripods, lights, batteries, mics, cables) everyone had his hands full, so frequently each packed only one small overnight bag. The crew bought the clothing they needed on location, and shipped the dirty laundry back home. CBS paid for it all.

But this was a big one. Ike and crew had been promised seven minutes on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Christmas week would be slow, there’d be room for an in-depth report, and everyone seemed to want to do this right.

And Ike and company busted their butts! They were all over town morning to night, talking to labor leaders, auto bigwigs (Henry Ford II himself), production line workers, shopkeepers, average Joes.

At WJBK, where we knew Michigan like the back of our hand (come to think of it, Michigan is shaped like a hand stuck in a mitten), even we were dying to see what Ike had to say.

Ike was given a desk in the back of the newsroom, next to mine, so we had several interesting conversations. All I remember is thinking what a decent, intelligent, straightforward professional he was.

The day before his piece was to air I walked to my desk and noticed Ike hunched over the phone. But something was wrong! The muscles in his neck were knotted. The back of his neck was beet-red. He started shaking. I’m thinking, “Am I watching a man have a heart attack?” I didn’t know what to do.

Just as I was about to step forward he hung up the phone, let out a huge sigh, and turned to face me.

“Ike, are you OK?”

“Kid, don’t ever take a job with a network.” (I think he actually called me “kid.”) “I was just talking to a junior producer at Cronkite. I told him about the mood of Detroit. He said, ‘That’s not the mood in Detroit. According to this morning’s New York Times this is the mood in Detroit.’ And he told me I have a minute-forty-five tomorrow night.”

Don’t know that I’ve ever heard a man more disheartened.

In the years since I never got the chance to take his advice: never got an offer from a network. I know several people who are happy—or say they are—working as network correspondents. It’s not for everyone. And in this age of multiple delivery systems the pressure to file and file and re-file your pieces is tremendous.

Ike Pappas should have taken his own advice. He later got screwed by CBS. He was never movie star-handsome, but he knew how to work a beat and tell a story, and he rose to become Pentagon correspondent. But under President Van Gordon Sauter, CBS News divided itself up into "yesterday" people and "today" people. Guess which list Pappas was on? In the end he was tucked away covering the "labor beat." Guess how much face time he got on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. He knew his stuff, and he delivered solid material, but there wasn’t much room for reporting that didn’t come wrapped up in a handsome package. Some years later Ike Pappas got caught up in one of those (seemingly interminable) rounds of CBS layoffs. Funny: the good-looking correspondents stayed, Ike Pappas was bought out of his contract. He found himself down-sized.

Here's another horrible irony. He was in New York to accept an award from the Greek Orthodox Church--former President Jimmy Carter was on hand--when he got word that he no longer had a job. The network he loved and served didn't love him back.

The Detroit auto industry has been down-sized over the years, too. Ike saw it coming in 1974. He told us so in a tightly-produced report that ran 1:45. Excellent reporting. It left me wanting more. That was 33 years ago this week.