Updated: Feb 6, 2022
My first by-lines were in the James Madison Moment, a high school newspaper in a typical public school in Brooklyn, New York. In my senior year, I was made editor of the paper.
Alumni included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer. As well as Judge Judy. Schumer was only four years ahead of me. About 5000 students in the school, 800 in my graduating class, with attrition due to dropouts. Not every dropout went on to struggle-Chris Rock (not in my year) was one of them. There was no one that famous in my class. The only one I know who later got some fame was David Wohl, our leading actor and resident Groucho Marx impersonator.
I was far from a great editor. People who are good writers don’t necessarily make for good editors. There’s too much of a “This is the way I’d do it” bias, rather than letting writers speak with their own voice. Not that I was heavy handed. If anything, I had more age-appropriate focus-girls and being cool. Not very successful in either category, but I did become a pretty good photographer.
The faculty advisor was Robert Greenman, an English teacher who was very active in managing the newspaper. Which was helpful since I had the aforementioned adolescent priorities. The NY Post was my family’s newspaper-this was in the days pre-Rupert Murdoch when it wasn’t a schlocky tabloid. But Mr. Greenman (I still think of him that way), taught me to appreciate The New York Times and the quality writing that went into NY’s paper of record.
I remember one story where he taught me a somewhat shady journalistic technique I see repeated to this day. Using an anonymous source to say what you want to say. Due to safety concerns, the school had workers come to cut the sharp tips off the fence that surrounded the school. I wrote a caption that said, “Madison is now more pointless than ever.” He had me change it to, “As one student cynically observed, Madison is now more pointless than ever.” Watch Fox or MSNBC, and you’re guaranteed to see this anonymous quote technique applied frequently. “Some observers are saying…”
Another battle I remember was wearing a fedora to school and being ordered to remove it by one of the deans. Yes, I was way ahead on the fashion curve with my fedora, little knowing it would one day become a hipster badge of honor. I think I was linking it more to my idealizing Humphrey Bogart and the 40s. But I was outraged and had to remove it, and wrote a scathing editorial, “Hats Off to the Board of Education.” Though a tempest in a tea pot, it gave me a youthful taste of the power of the press. I got away in one editorial with calling deans “megalomaniacal.”
But looking back on the paper when I posted back issues to my class’s Facebook group, I was ultimately proud of the job we had done. Of course, we were against the Vietnam war, as it was winding down but there was still a draft. (I lucked out with a high enough lottery number making being called up less likely as the war was winding down). But we also devoted a lot of space to civil rights and issues like a rabbi punished for having “hippie length hair.”