Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Jay McMullen

We interrupt the usually silliness here to note the passing of one of our heroes, CBS News legend Jay McMullen, who more or less invented investigative journalism on television. We only met him once, 20 years ago, when we were working on a documentary about pesticides. Typically, Jay had covered the same ground 30 years earlier, and generously let us steal his best material.
During his 37-year career, all but two years of which was spent with CBS, Mr. McMullen posed as a prospective drug trafficker in Mexico, lived in a Chicago tenement to shine a light on African-American poverty and, perhaps most famously, recorded uniformed Boston police officers entering and leaving a betting parlor, disguised as a key store, in 1961. Mr. McMullen shot footage for the report inside the parlor using an 8-millimeter camera concealed in a lunchbox.

That Boston story, "Biography of a Bookie Joint," can be seen here. One person who watched that broadcast was our uncle, then 12, who decided right there that he wanted to do what this guy did for a living. Twenty years later, he was working at CBS Reports, with Jay McMullen. A decade later, when we ourselves were young and aimless, our uncle drafted us into the same line of work. It's fair to say that without Jay McMullen, the last 20 years of our life, up to and including this blog, would probably not have happened. For this you can thank Jay or curse him.

Like every legendary CBS journalist, from Edward Murrow to Don Hewitt, Jay was eventually tossed to the curb by soulless, oily-hided accountants.  Unlike most, Jay went out in unforgettable style. Our uncle picks up the story in 1983:

Right after Van Gordon Sauter took over the news division, his first objective was to dismantle the CBS Reports unit (which he eventually did with Sir Howard's help) and get rid of some of the old farts (read: giants of the documentary world, like Perry Wolff and Irv Drasnin) who were polluting the CBS airwaves. Jay was the first target because he had a clause in his contract that allowed him to be the on-air correspondent in his films -- and an old man was the last image the new guard wanted as the face of CBS News. Problem was, Jay had a contract that allowed him to do one more film, and Sauter and Ed Joyce were determined to see that did not happen.

I was sitting with him in his office when Jay got the call that Sauter and Joyce wanted to see him. He went to his typewriter and quickly knocked out a blue sheet. Jay was famous for his one line blue sheets ("Never tell those fools more than they need to know. They'll just screw it up") and this was one of his greatest.

He marched into Van's office and before either he or Ed could get off a word, Jay handed them each a copy of his blue sheet. "Here's my next film, gentlemen," he said with a smile.

The title in all caps read: AFTER ALL THOSE YEARS. The one line description: "This is the story of corporations that are forcing out older workers after years of devoted service."

When Jay got back to the office I asked him how things went. "Well, it's clear that Ed reads faster than Van because he grunted first."

The gambit left them speechless, and Jay went on to make "After All Those Years," a beautiful, touching film. His last.

After it aired, Jay never entered 555 W. 57th St. again.

That story came to mind 20 years later when we found ourselves being forced out of that same corporation - at a much younger age, after far fewer years of devoted service, and by a different passel of feckless bean-counters, but still. Of course, there was no question of making a similarly stylish exit; the difference between Jay's era and our own was that, in his day, it was still possible to shame people in management. All we could do was to order up a copy of Jay's film from the CBS archive (it hadn't been checked out in at least 15 years), have it copied to DVD at the company's expense, and leave the tape on our desk on our way out the door. Here it is - written, reported, produced, directed and narrated by the late Jay McMullen:

1 comment:

Crazy Rita said...

This truly awesome. Nice tribute.