Thursday, November 06, 2014

The most explosive entry in my resumé.

As some of you will know, I was once the head honcho (formally publisher/editor-in-chief) at The American Legion Magazine, the house publication of the veterans-service organization and the biggest little magazine that no one ever heard of, with a monthly circ of slightly over 3 million at the time. (That number has fallen considerably in the intervening years.) If you've seen my (skeletal) Facebook profile, the round-table discussion depicting a giddy Bill Clinton took place during my TALM period. So did other confabs with Clinton, Gore and/or various cabinet members and military higher-ups. These were among any number of wonderful perks that came with the job, which also included accommodations in top D.C. hotels and the opportunity to rub elbows with international dignitaries at glossy State Department functions...in a gorgeous ballroom* overlooking the steel-blue Potomac...while lifting fan-tail shrimp the approximate size of a catcher's mitt.

Anyway, I was thumbing through a bound volume of some of the magazines we put out during my nearly three-year tenure, and I came across the June 1997 issue, pictured here.

You should have no trouble reading the cover headline: "We Lost New York Today."

It's an investigative piece by Susan Katz Keating, and it describes a hypothetical future scenario in which New York City is victimized by a nuclear terror attack. The central action differs from that of 9/11, of course, but on balance the piece is remarkably prescient. (Even the illustration commissioned by long-time art director Simon Smith presages the truly spooky cover of that rap album produced just months before 9/11**.) Ms. Keating alludes to tantalizing areas of inquiry that don't even appear in the exhaustive 9/11 Commission Report, which had the considerable "benefit" of the 20/20 hindsight brought about by 9/11 itself.

We did some nice work then, I say without false modesty. Another piece that comes to mind is "St. George is Expendable," staff writer Ken Scharnberg's poignant and award-winning examination of the (literal) fallout from our nuclear testing program in the Nevada desert; said radiation wafted over parts of northern/western Utah in the 1950s and residents later cited disastrous long-term health consequences that are hard to dismiss as a "coincidental cluster." (Here's a link to a "bootleg" version of Ken's haunting piece. I can't vouch for its word-for-word accuracy as I no longer have a copy of the original, but I'm sure it's close.) But that causal relationship is still disputed in official precincts, just as the government and the VA have stonewalled at every turn in cases where large blocs of U.S. citizens or veterans claimed some ongoing hazard connected to government/military service. See under "Agent Orange or, more recently, "Gulf War Syndrome." In the latter case, I once stood in the back of a meeting room in a Boston suburb and listened as a VA functionary basically explained away the constellation of symptoms that the 100-or-so Persian Gulf vets in attendance described, one after another, in heartbreaking detail. The official offered a torrent of politicized, well-chosen words that seemed to reduce to one word, psychosomatic.

It was all in their heads

I'm pretty proud of my time at the Legion, in retrospect. A damn shame that TALM was never even in the conversation when my esteemed Manhattan colleagues*** got together over $17 martinis to celebrate our industry. One of our interns who went on to do quite well for herself in the magazine biz even omits TALM from her resumé, no doubt deeming it downmarket and declassé . Sad. Our reporting helped people who badly needed help, or advocated for people who badly needed advocacy... Tell me why such journalism is not at least as worthy of note as some shameless, overlong paean to an aging rock star or an advertiser-driven comparison of this fall's flashy new cars.
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* Officially it is known as the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room.
**I believe the album was pulled from shelves and redesigned before its scheduled November 2001 release.
*** for whose august publications I also freelanced on a regular basis, as per my arrangement with the Legion.

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