Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bob Simon's Big Break

I knew Bob Simon, the longtime CBS correspondent, who died last week at seventy-three, in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties. He was reporting from Israel for CBS News and I was covering Israeli politics periodically for the New York Review of Books. It was the period of unravelling after the Camp David Accords, and we’d go out for dinner and exchange ideas, particularly about Menachem Begin’s by then familiar intransigence. It was a measure of Simon’s warmth and curiosity (and my diffidence, I suppose) that the initiative to meet came from him. Anyway, when I travelled to Tel Aviv for the 1981 elections, we sat at a beach restaurant for hours and he told me the story of his big first break at CBS. It may be of interest to people who admired him, and it seems to me a marker of what television journalism was then and almost never is today.

Simon told me that he graduated from Brandeis in 1962, won a Fulbright, and knocked around until he landed a job at CBS. This was in or near 1969, and the New Left had become inescapable enough for the major news organizations to take notice. Its bible was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, one of the first explorations of the culture of consumerism—totalitarian in its way, Marcuse wrote—that the major corporations had created, generating false needs that we compulsively satisfied. The book was first published in 1964 and slowly gained momentum as a Beacon Press paperback; by the late sixties it was something of a best-seller. So CBS wanted an interview with its author—no small ambition, considering that One-Dimensional Man’s key concepts were expressed in such terms as “repressive desublimation.” Also, Marcuse—a German-Jewish refugee, long associated with the Frankfurt School of Marxist criticism, but fascinated by Freud’s concept of Eros—was now seventy-one and in semi-retirement at the University of California, San Diego. Abashed by his fame, perhaps, he was refusing to meet with reporters.

The thing is, Marcuse had taught at Brandeis before moving out to California, and Simon had been his student. When Simon found out that CBS wanted to interview Marcuse, he jumped on the chance deliver him. He informed his editors of his connection, contacted his former professor, and (if I remember this correctly) flew out to meet with Marcuse, who soon wound up on air. This, then, was Bob Simon’s first scoop: bringing the author of a Marxian analysis of corporate consumerism to broadcast television. He was off to Vietnam soon thereafter.

It is hard to recall Simon’s story without something of sinking feeling—and not just for the loss of him. Imagine any of the major networks launching the career of a twenty-eight-year-old Fulbright scholar as payback for securing an interview with a former teacher. And imagine that the “get” is a radical, pedantic, Freud-inflected Marxist with a German accent. Comedy Central, perhaps.

Here is the New Yorker version