Oral History of Carl Stern
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Judy Feigin, and the interviewee
is Carl Stern. The interview took place at Carl’s home in Washington, D.C., on Thursday,
October 22, 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the first interview.
MS. FEIGIN: Good afternoon. You’ve had an amazing career, and I can’t wait to get to
it, but I want to put you in time and place, so let’s have a little sense of the
MR. STERN: They start with the dinosaurs.
MS. FEIGIN: How far back do you know your family history?
MR. STERN: Quite a ways. Probably at least to the 1700s, but you don’t want to go
back that far.
MS. FEIGIN: It wouldn’t be the first oral history that did but that’s not usually the case.
MR. STERN: My wife has managed to acquire her family history back to the 12th
MS. FEIGIN: Amazing! But let’s start with yours.
MR. STERN: I was born in Sunnyside, which is New York, in Queens. It’s part of
New York City. I grew up in Flushing and Jackson Heights, which are
also in Queens.
MS. FEIGIN: You were born when?
MR. STERN: August 7, 1937. My mother was a teacher. She was a fashion illustration
teacher in a New York City high school. In those days, oddly enough,
newspapers and magazines did not use photographs to illustrate fashions.
All the depictions of clothing for sale were sketched by artists. My mother
did it, for example, for Lord & Taylor in the early 1930s. So my mother,
during the Depression, got a teaching license and taught fashion
illustration. Her family came from somewhere along the German/Polish
border in 1848, as did many people. Curiously enough, she searched in
vain for a number of years trying to find records of their arrival, assuming
it would have been in New York, Ellis Island or such. Ultimately, she
found out by going to the Archives here that they had come in through
Baltimore. She had never thought to check that.
My father came to this country in 1928 from Munich, Germany.
That’s Bavaria, the beer drinkers. He had a degree in mechanical
engineering. When he arrived here, he studied civil engineering. He got a
civil engineering degree at Cooper Union in New York. In those days, as I
guess it is to some extent now, you have to have a sponsor to come to the
United States, and he was sponsored by Karl Laemmle, whose name
would be better known on the West Coast where Laemmle movie theaters
Karl Laemmle was the German immigrant who actually founded
the motion picture business in Long Island City and subsequently, because
he needed better weather, moved it to Hollywood. Karl Laemmle is
responsible for the movie industry being in Hollywood. In any event, Karl
Laemmle sponsored — he was called Uncle Karl Laemmle — he sponsored
at least 150 Germans that he had known in Germany to come to the United
States, including my father, and he would guarantee that they would have
employment when they came. So my father always said he came here to
be in the movies [laughter]. In point of fact, while he was studying during
the day, at night he earned his keep by going to the Laemmle facilities in
Fort Lee, New Jersey, to soup the day’s shooting through the chemical
baths, processing the movie film that had been shot that day. So he was
there at night cranking the film through the chemical bath. He said I came
here to be in the movies [laughter].
I have a twin brother. In fact, I should mention, Karl Laemmle,
that’s Karl with a “K.” I’m Carl with a C. I was not named for him.
When my parents had twins — in those days medicine was not as advanced
as it is today — having twins was a bit of a surprise. They had decided that
if they had a boy, they would name him George after a previous family
member, actually my mother’s father, or Carolyn, or Carol, for my
mother’s mother, depending on if it was a boy or a girl. Well they got
two. We’re fraternal twins, so my brother got George. I, fortunately, did
not get Carol [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Although there are men with that name.
MR. STERN: Yes, that’s true. In any event, that’s why I’m Carl with a “C.”
MS. FEIGIN: You started in Queens and then what?
MR. STERN: Thinking back to my childhood, I remember there was an apple tree in the
backyard in Jackson Heights which was good for climbing. I remember a
neighbor would give my brother and me a penny apiece for collecting
Japanese beetles off his roses and putting them in a can of kerosene. We
used to play ball on Dukes field, which was next to P.S. 148 where I went
to elementary school in Jackson Heights. In those days, there would be a
square block with no structures on it at all. This was a much more
primitive time. In fact, when I first started broadcasting on television, I
got a letter from a fellow in Baltimore saying if you were the worst right
fielder who ever played with the Jackson Heights Robins, I know you.
MS. FEIGIN: And that was you? [laughter]
MR. STERN: That was me. He had the right man [laughter]. It’s hard to explain, but in
those days, Jackson Heights for example had these empty fields. There
was no such thing as supermarkets and just down at the corner there were
a couple of shops including a little market. There was a butcher, a guy
named Gottesman. He had the first television set in the neighborhood,
black and white of course. He would invite patrons like ourselves – he
lived over the store of course — to come watch the Friday night fights or
Can You Top This, if you recall, a comedy show, on Friday nights. This
was in New York City, but this was a very, I can’t say rural, it wasn’t
rural, but it was sort of a low-key neighborhood. If we were going into
Manhattan, which was seldom undertaken, we would say we were going
into the city.
MS. FEIGIN: Jackson Heights now, and I’m sure you know this, I think it has the most
languages for any area its size in the country. It has over a hundred
languages. It’s just a polyglot of communities. It’s amazing now.
MR. STERN: In those days it was largely Italian and some German, Irish. I won’t call it
a low-income neighborhood; we would’ve called it middle class. There
were a lot of civil servants, police and firemen and so on.
It’s hard to explain what life was like back then. I can remember
as a kid lying in bed at night listening to the roar of engines being tuned up
at LaGuardia Airport, which was about five blocks away. These were
engines of flying boats that flew during the Second World War between
New York and Scotland. Flew over the Atlantic.
The building was a two-family structure. The fellow downstairs
was employed by one of the airlines doing mechanical things with
airplanes. My father had a place of business in College Point, which is a
community on a little peninsula that juts out almost under the Whitestone
Bridge. I can remember going to visit his office and passing the antiaircraft
batteries at Flushing airport that were there to help protect New
York City. I could go on forever. It was a different life.
MS. FEIGIN: So you were in Queens during World War II?
MR. STERN: Yes.
MS. FEIGIN: And do you have memories specifically related to the war?
MR. STERN: Other than the air raid drills, which were periodic, you had to pull down
the shades. In those days, you had to have black shades, black window
shades, and you would pull those down, and we’d all gather under the
dining room table until we got the all clear.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s incredible. How long did you stay in Queens? Until when?
MR. STERN: Until I was age 13, and then we all moved to Manhattan, to the West Side,
99th and West End, which is near Columbia where I ended up going to
MS. FEIGIN: Given how your career developed, I’m curious. Growing up you didn’t
even have a TV when you were very young.
MR. STERN: Actually, we were lucky. An uncle gave us a TV set, an Emerson I recall,
when we were 13, my brother and I, and we put it in our joint bedroom.
When I say we were lucky, we were lucky thinking that we were
privileged, we had a TV, but the lucky part was it didn’t really work. So it
didn’t interfere with our studying [laughter]. We went to Stuyvesant High
School, so I attribute whatever learning I have in life – and it’s not as
much as it should be — I attribute it to the fact that we had a TV, but it
MS. FEIGIN: Was it just the two of you or were there other siblings?
MR. STERN: Just the two of us.
MS. FEIGIN: Growing up, did you watch the news?
MR. STERN: Of course. My father would come home, probably around 6:00 or so. He
would always honk when his car was approaching our building because
that meant he was going to start looking for a parking space. That would
inform my mother that she could put the kettle on or whatever. So he
would come home with the The World Telegram and Sun, which was the
afternoon paper. We also of course got The Times in the morning. We
would flip on the TV at 6:00, and we’d watch the local news and then the
MS. FEIGIN: I want to follow up on two things you just said. First of all, there were
morning and afternoon papers.
MR. STERN: Indeed there were. The Daily Mirror, The Daily News. The World
Telegram and Sun was a consolidation of two newspapers. And The
Herald Tribune. The Times and The Herald Tribune were probably the
highest regarded publications.
MS. FEIGIN: I think The Post was an afternoon paper.
MR. STERN: I don’t remember The Post at all. It came and went through various
MS. FEIGIN: Right. I think it was owned by Dorothy Schiff who was very liberal.
MR. STERN: Yes. That may have been after I was a kid.
MS. FEIGIN: So there were maybe a half dozen newspapers in the city then?
MR. STERN: Yes. The Post, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Newsweek, Time,
U.S. News & World Report. In those days, we read them all.
MS. FEIGIN: Some of those are magazines.
MR. STERN: It was expected of us, and in fact to this day I shudder when I was
teaching not too many years ago, none of my students read a daily
newspaper. I was teaching at a university, and none of them were reading
MS. FEIGIN: Not even online?
MR. STERN: They may have. I wouldn’t even put my money on that.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s discouraging. In terms of the news on TV, correct me if I’m
wrong, but I think it was fifteen minutes of news a night, right?
MR. STERN: That’s right. Even when I was 21 years old and I went to work at a
radio/TV station, and this was in Cleveland, and we can get to that later, to
give you some idea, at 2:20 every afternoon we did a book report. Those
were not very exciting days in television [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: C-SPAN’s book show was considered highbrow [laughter].
MR. STERN: This was not C-SPAN [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: So the news was fifteen minutes, and there were only basically three
stations, correct, that everybody watched?
MR. STERN: Yes. The NBC station and the CBS station. In those days, ABC was
really not much of a presence, but Channel 5 in New York, the Dumont
station, was fairly well regarded, and, of course, there were some other
less-viewed stations, WOR Channel 9, WPIX Channel 11. Public
broadcasting had begun on Channel 13.
MS. FEIGIN: Back then?
MR. STERN: Roughly about 1950, early 1950s I would say. I’m guessing. I would
have to look it up. There were a lot of stations, but of course by today’s
cable standards, it was just a tiny bunch.
MS. FEIGIN: I also believe that television ended at midnight.
MR. STERN: Yes. I’m trying to remember. Maybe even 1:00 in the morning, but
you’re right. Things were so different then. Your mention of midnight
makes me think of the years in Cleveland when I was a broadcaster, again
pardon me for skipping ahead. In the evening I did a two-hour show on
radio in the beginning, and I was cautioned that if somebody said a curse
word, a profanity such as “damn” or “hell,” my instructions — I was alone
in the station at night, myself and an engineer — I was to take the station
off the air. I was to play the Star Spangled Banner, take the station off the
air, wait a few minutes, and then sign the station back on. That’s how
strict they were about broadcast standards. Today you could get away
with just about anything [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Well, on some stations. I’m not sure on all stations. I think way back in
the day when they went off the air at midnight or whenever, they played
the Star Spangled Banner, right?
MR. STERN: Yes. And when we signed on early in the morning. But those were
different days. My first producer when I started doing the radio show I
just mentioned, his original job at the station, he was the wake-up man.
He was to telephone at 5:30 in the morning members of the studio
orchestra to make sure they would be down in the studio by, I don’t know,
7:00 or whenever the station signed on. The large station that I worked
for, one of twenty-four clear-channel stations, had maximum broadcast
power so it was a big station, they all had music that they played which, to
some extent, was coming from their own orchestra.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s amazing.
MR. STERN: I remember Harold Arlen, the first announcer for KDKA. He worked for
Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. At night he was to wear a tuxedo. This is
radio [laughter] but he would have to wear a tuxedo. His instructions were
when visitors came to visit the studios, he was to serve them ice cream. I
don’t mean to suggest I was back there with Marconi, but I’m trying to
illustrate that the great leap forward that broadcasting has undergone – this
was quite a big leap.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s important to understand. I think that’s hugely important. People
today have no sense of what it was like then.
I know you’re anxious to get to Cleveland, so let’s quickly get you
there. But to finish up with New York, you went to Stuyvesant High
MR. STERN: I did. And I was a pre-med. I loved biology.
MS. FEIGIN: I should just say that Stuyvesant was a school you tested to get into, but it
was all male in those days.
MR. STERN: Oh, of course.
MS. FEIGIN: Of course [laughter].
MR. STERN: My recollection is we all wore neckties. This was a different time. I was
the editor of the literary magazine, something called Caliper. Little stuff
like that, but we were down in the Lower East Side of Manhattan near
Beth Israel [Hospital], which actually happens to be where I was born.
MS. FEIGIN: The Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is today sort of the center of the
universe, then was what?
MR. STERN: It was still in the late tenement stage. Today we don’t talk about
tenements. We talk about lofts and things like that [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: After four years at Stuyvesant, you went on to Columbia?
MR. STERN: Then I went on to college, yes. I was there as a pre-med for about less
than a year [laughter]. I discovered that medicine was a science and not a
philanthropy. My chemistry teacher was Linus Pauling, of some repute.
MS. FEIGIN: Quite!
MR. STERN: And I did not do well in chemistry. I don’t mean to suggest that I failed,
but it was enough to persuade me that that was not what I was going to be
doing for a living, and I became basically a government and history major.
MS. FEIGIN: Were you a commuting student at Columbia or did you live there?
MR. STERN: The first year I commuted, but thereafter I lived on campus in a fraternity
house. By the way, you seemed surprised about Linus Pauling. The
faculty then, and now I am sure, was unbelievable. C. Wright Mills for
sociology and Richard Neustadt for my government courses. These names
are probably not known to your readers, but these were the academic allstars
of that era.
MS. FEIGIN: Absolutely. My only reason for being surprised at Linus Pauling is
because when I paid more attention to Linus Pauling, he was out on the
MR. STERN: Promoting Vitamin C as the safeguard against all illness [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Well, the common cold at least [laughter].
MR. STERN: It didn’t do much for flat feet [laughter], but he was determined to get
people to take Vitamin C to prevent colds. You’re right.
MS. FEIGIN: Didn’t he win two Nobel Prizes?
MR. STERN: Two Nobels solo, all by himself. You’re right. I should tell you also
during that time I had other activities. I ran the campus radio station,
something that intrigued me. I was on the University Student Council as a
college representative. I was a Sachem, which was one of these secret
societies supposedly where you meet in the chapel crypt at midnight and
plot various things presumably to help the school. I would show you the
secret handshake, but then I would have to call for your assassination
MS. FEIGIN: Well it’s COVID era so we can’t do handshakes in any event [laughter].
MR. STERN: Those were very good years.
MS. FEIGIN: Did your brother go there also?
MR. STERN: He did. He was an undergraduate at the college as well and took a degree
in civil engineering at the engineering school and then went on to Harvard
Business School where I’m sure he was corrupted [laughter]. We have
eight Columbia degrees in our immediate family, and I know you have
one or more as well.
I then went on to journalism school, which was a graduate school
only. Journalism is not taught at Ivy League schools as an academic
subject. They regard it as a science, sort of like plumbing [laughter]. You
get an M.S. for studying journalism at the graduate level, not an M.A.
You might wonder how I found myself at the legal end of things. When I
was a senior at Columbia College, I had to write a senior thesis. We all
did, and I wrote mine at the law school on what the difference was
between right and wrong.
MS. FEIGIN: That sounds like philosophy.
MR. STERN: Don’t ask me to explain it today. And then I stayed at the Journalism
School, and I had to write a master’s thesis when I left there, and I wrote
that also at the law school, a paper on group defamation. Today I guess
we’d call it hate speech. That was a wonderful experience. I had some
great classmates: Lou Boccardi who went on to become head of the
Associated Press; Oleg Kalugin, a master spy. I don’t know if that name
rings a bell, but he lives here in Washington now. He was a KGB general.
He came as a sort of Russian exchange student. We all thought he was a
fighter pilot. I even had him in my home with my parents. He was KGB.
He finally turned on his Russian masters, so much so that to this day there
is a death warrant out for him should he return to Russia. But we all
enjoyed his company.
I did intern for a couple of weeks with Edward R. Murrow down at
CBS. I can tell you that in the two weeks I was there, Edward R. Murrow
never said one word to me [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Did you have a sense of him?
MR. STERN: Yes. He was obviously a towering intellect and towering communicator
but only in his writings and his broadcasts. He was not loquacious. He
didn’t talk much. I guess he considered that a waste of time. He was not
warm and fuzzy, but obviously we all regard him as a patron saint in the
broadcast journalism business.
MS. FEIGIN: What was he doing? Was he doing news? He also had his Here and Now
MR. STERN: They had him doing some really dreadful shows that were aimed for a
more popular audience, but when I was there, he was principally doing
radio broadcasts, which was his forte anyway. It was one of life’s
MS. FEIGIN: Before we leave Columbia, a couple of questions. People now don’t know
this and don’t believe it, but Columbia then was all male.
MR. STERN: Oh yes. Of course there was Barnard across the street, and that’s where I
met my wife.
MS. FEIGIN: Barnard is still across the street, but Columbia is now, and has been for
many years, co-ed.
MR. STERN: We all understood that Barnard women looked forward to taking classes at
Columbia, which they were permitted to do, and the men looked forward
to being in those classes that accepted women. We had ridiculous panty
raids and things like that which I ought not attempt to explain.
MS. FEIGIN: Actually I think that would be fascinating because that is something
nobody could imagine.
MR. STERN: The men from Columbia would assault the dormitories of Barnard across
the street. When I say “assault,” I don’t want you to take that too literally.
We would attempt, by one male student climbing upon another, to reach
through a window that you could get into in the Barnard dormitory. Then
the idea was to steal a piece of ladies’ undergarments which you could
then display to the world which presumably was quite interested to know
what you were getting from the Barnard dormitories [laughter]. Those
were panty raids. That was it. I could go on but it’s embarrassing as well
MS. FEIGIN: You graduated from Columbia what year?
MR. STERN: I graduated in 1958 and then I stayed another year at the Journalism
School which in those days had a one-year program because it was
assumed that most of the students were being sent there by their publishers
or by their newspapers and magazines to learn how to be better reporters,
and so I managed to wiggle my way in straight from the college. I have to
confess I was a lousy journalism student [laughter]. For example, we had
to spend an internship at the Middletown, New York newspaper, but only
for a couple of days. I was sent there and I was made a photographer and
so I was assigned on a given day to take some pictures of a flower show
outside of town. I dutifully got in the car and drove that way. As I was
leaving town, I passed a barbershop. I noticed something strange, state
policemen coming out the door of the barbershop carrying a cash register.
I said that’s odd. I’m going to have to check into that. But of course I
went on to my assignment. I came back into town and lo’ and behold, the
officers are back, bringing the cash register back in. I said that’s really
odd. So when I got back to the office I told them what I had seen. It
turned out that was the first bookie raid, a gambling raid, in Middletown in
about twenty years and here I was with my camera, and I had missed it
now not once but twice! [laughter] That launched my career in
MS. FEIGIN: One more thing about your Columbia years. It seems to me, or am I
wrong, those were pretty halcyon years at Columbia. Pretty quiet?
MR. STERN: So quiet in fact, without getting into partisan politics or where I stand
today, my brother and I both joined the Young Republican Club because it
was the only political club on campus and we were interested in
contemporary politics. Oddly enough, Columbia in those days was called
The Little Red Schoolhouse, as though it was packed with anarchists and
bomb throwers. I’m just trying to tell you that those were very quiet years.
They were the post-Eisenhower years. Eisenhower had already left. He
had been the president of Columbia
MS. FEIGIN: And he was president of the country of course by that time.
MR. STERN: Yes. Actually, my interest in politics started around 1948 when Tom
Dewey ran against Harry Truman. Harry Truman, who today we regard as
a wonderful, wonderful person. When I think of all the excesses in the
White House, I always remember Harry Truman kept on his desk a roll of
stamps so if he was going to send a personal letter to somebody, like a
critic criticizing his daughter’s music performances, he wouldn’t think of
the government paying for his personal correspondence. In any event, in
those days my father was quite a rabid Republican, so we were all for Tom
Dewey, but Tom Dewey, as history records, lost in a surprise to Harry
Actually when you think about it, it wasn’t much of a surprise. I
remember while the election was under way, Life magazine, which in
those days used to publish these spreads over two pages in the middle, in
the fold, pictures from the annual Governors Conference of the governors
meeting at White Sulphur Springs or The Greenbrier or someplace, and
they would have the governors stand in a chalk version done in tennis
court chalk of a map of the United States. They would each stand there
with a sign bearing the name of their state for this group picture which Life
would publish every year. I still remember in 1948 during the election
campaign the cutline in there – the caption under the picture — explained
that each governor could be seen standing in the outline of his state
holding the name of his state. (In those days it all would have been his
state.) Except for Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. You could
see the New York sign at his feet. When asked to hold the sign, he
responded, “I’m no sandwich man.” [laughter] Well maybe that’s the sort
of humility that cost him the election in 1948.
MS. FEIGIN: We should probably explain for people reading this down the road because
they may not know what the reference to “sandwich man” is because there
aren’t many anymore.
MR. STERN: Those were fellas walking around doing advertising, carrying signboards
on their presence advertising sandwich shops nearby where office workers
on their lunch break should go to buy their sandwich. They were called
sandwich men, walking around with these boards strapped in front and
behind which they put on over their heads in a sort of inverted “V” as they
MS. FEIGIN: Okay, so you got your master’s at Columbia and then what?
MR. STERN: I applied for a job at a number of radio and television stations, all of them
in the northeast, about as far south as Richmond maybe if we make that
the edge of the north and maybe as far west as Chicago. I had several
offers, but the one that was paying real money, I mean Cadillac money,
was Cleveland. Ninety-five dollars a week! Now probably to readers that
sounds like a relatively small sum, but when I went to work there, I lived
next door to the radio station in a hotel and I rented a room by the month.
It was a tiny room in the rear of the hotel but they did change the linens
every day, and I paid the princely sum of $75 a month for my room
[laughter]. So $95 a week! I went there saying I wanted to be a writer.
Then when I got there, I found out that if I actually aired one of the
newscasts — each day’s on-the-hour newscast that local stations do — they
would give me an extra $5 a day. That brought me up to $120 a week.
MS. FEIGIN: This was on radio?
MR. STERN: This was KYW radio, which today is in Philadelphia but in those days it
was in Cleveland. There’s a long story there but I’m sure not of interest to
readers, but yes, this was a big radio station.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you have a beat or what was your assignment?
MR. STERN: Initially I was assigned to work at night to go out in a news cruiser, a big
station wagon festooned with all sorts of lightning bolts on the side that
advertised the name of the radio station, and I was to do rounds checks.
That is to say you go to the police stations and hospitals checking in to see
if there’s something going on. My duty was to call in to the on the air
program twice an hour with a report of something that was going on in
town so that we could say we were covering the city at night. I did that for
about two months.
MS. FEIGIN: So there was something every hour? You had to come up twice an hour
with something new?
MR. STERN: Yes, but if you’re fairly resourceful – I never fibbed — it’s not hard. Now
some of those stories may be fairly uninteresting, but I did that for about
two months and then the person who was doing the radio show was
switched to another job, and because my voice was familiar to his show,
he was doing a night-time show, they put me in as the host, and that’s what
I did for the next two years. In those days, Cleveland was the ninth largest
market in the country. I don’t want to insult anyone’s hometown, but it is
I suspect now probably around 35th in the nation.
MS. FEIGIN: So you spent two years in Cleveland?
MR. STERN: No. I went on into television. All in all I did seven full years in
Cleveland, and my wife and I loved it and love it to this day.
MS. FEIGIN: Your wife is now part of the story, so when did you get married?
MR. STERN: I got married in 1960 when my wife graduated from Barnard. I always
say that she married me only because she wanted to live in Cleveland
[laughter]. She disputes that, but in those days Cleveland was a fabulous
city. It had the Cleveland Orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra is still
fabulous. But the Cleveland Art Museum and theaters, the Cleveland
Playhouse where my wife, who is an actor, was an ingenue on staff for a
year or so and was very active in theater life there. We just had an
enormously good time and did lots of things that we hadn’t done in New
York. My radio show was at night, which meant in the morning Joy, my
wife, and I had spare time so once in a while we’d even go bowling
[laughter]. In my day, kids from New York didn’t go bowling [laughter],
but we went bowling.
We had a wonderful time and made friendships there that we have
to this day. When you’re starting out in life, of course you build a life and
it becomes in a way much more like home to you than even the places
you’ve come from.
MS. FEIGIN: Right. So you transitioned to TV. How did that come about?
MR. STERN: It came about because the radio station reformatted. It went from
basically a night-time talk format to night-time rock and roll format. It
may startle you, but I’m not a rock and roll disc jockey [laughter].
Actually, the TV station was situated around the corner on the same floor.
I was out of work for about two hours. The news director came in and
said, hey, do you want to come work for us? So I took my hat and coat off
the stand and went around the corner and started working in TV.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you have a specific beat in TV?
MR. STERN: Yes. At that point I was basically a government reporter if you will, city
hall, county building, county administration building, that sort of thing.
MS. FEIGIN: Somewhere along the line you did law school.
MR. STERN: While I was doing the night-time radio show, we did a half hour every
Monday with lawyers from the Cleveland Bar Association so that people
could call in with their legal questions, and in those days, we didn’t put
people on the air in their own voice, so to speak. We were concerned,
even with a seven-second delay which is mechanically easy to do just by
threading the broadcast through a recording machine, but we were so
nervous, if you will, about letting people speak on our airways virtually
live. In fact, for about a year my wife would come down at night and help
me just by being in the control room to screen incoming calls to make sure
they were on target.
In any event, that half hour once a week where we had the lawyers,
I discovered that I had difficulty comprehending what questioners or the
lawyers were talking about. For example, somebody asked about a quitclaim
deed, real estate property law, and I would think they said quick
claim deed. So I thought it would be a good idea, and to be honest, I’d
always been interested in the law. I wrote my master’s thesis and my
senior thesis at the law school at Columbia.
I started going to a night law school there, Cleveland Marshall, and
to some extent knowing that I was studying law, I suppose that contributed
to the news director wanting me to cover legal things. In fact, after I had
been doing that for a few years, the station had been reacquired by NBC,
the network. It was not when I joined. It was a Westinghouse station
when I joined it. I was asked to do, and I did do, a three times a week
commentary on the NBC radio network out of Cleveland, and occasionally
I got to do some network reports into The Huntley-Brinkley Report. So I
was the first to do a piece on Jay Rockefeller when he ran to be secretary
of state in West Virginia, and I did the first piece on John Glenn when he
became one of the Mercury astronauts from New Concord, Ohio. I did the
first report on television on John Glenn.
We did a lot of stories but being in Cleveland is not the same thing
as being in New York or Washington, D.C. I recall at one point the first
Job Corps camp was open, if anybody remembers Job Corps. This is back
in the Kennedy era, R. Sargent Shriver. I was assigned to go down there
and do a story in extreme southern Ohio on the first Job Corps camp, and I
remember my newsroom boss told me to fly down there. He asked me to
arrange for a flight to take me and my crew to go down there because it
was too far to drive. I called the local aviation company, and they gave
me a quote of $250. I came back to my news director and told him, and he
said that’s way too much. He said talk to me tomorrow. So the next day I
asked him, and he said yes, I have it all arranged. I said how much? He
says $50. I said $50? He said, yeah. It’s an airplane that belongs to
Cleveland Freight Lines [laughter]. But we survived. Need I go on? I’m
MS. FEIGIN: So you did law school while you were still working?
MR. STERN: The answer is yes. What I ended up doing after the first year was I would
go to Western Reserve University in the morning from about 9:00 to
11:00, two courses. Then I would go to work. I would do a broadcast
about 6:15 on the television, and then I would go over to the night
program at Cleveland-Marshall. I was able to do it. The two law schools
had never really cooperated, but the dean of the night law school was the
mayor of Shaker Heights where I lived and which I covered as a reporter,
and the dean of the day law school at Western Reserve — now Case
Western Reserve — was Oliver Schroeder, who was a University Heights
councilman, who I also knew, so we worked it out. I actually have 50% of
my credits from Western Reserve and 50% of my credits from Cleveland
MS. FEIGIN: Where is your degree from?
MR. STERN: Cleveland-Marshall. I finally ran out of options to finish, which I did in
four years rather than three. I had to take the final courses at Marshall
which I did. Those were wonderful times, and obviously I learned a lot of
MS. FEIGIN: Interestingly, when I look at the reporters who cover the courts now, I’m
surprised that a lot of them are not trained as lawyers but I think a lot of
them take a course at Yale for a year, at the Yale Law School, even Linda
Greenhouse [former New York Times reporter] and Pete Williams [NBC
Justice correspondent]. I don’t think either of them was trained as a
MR. STERN: It’s a wonderful program. Let me just say that it was fairly easy to get into
Reserve in those days because — and I don’t mean to be unkind — but
many of the students were young men who were seeking a draft deferment
during the early days of the Vietnam War, and so they were not the most
motivated students. At the night law school, they were motivated, and it’s
interesting. I did very well in law school. I was a magna cum laude. In
those days, by the way, unlike how it is today, there was one summa cum
laude at graduation and three magnas.
I just want to make a couple of observations. We had a study
group, and I always advise young people going to law school to get into a
good study group of people who are smarter than you are. Of course you
don’t want to study with people who are dumber than you are. In our
study group we had five people and four out of the five of us ended up at
the top of the class like birds on the telephone wire, all in a row, so we
must have gotten something from each other by virtue of studying together
and to end after those years at such a place.
MS. FEIGIN: The poor fifth person! [laughter]
MR. STERN: He owned a hardware store and he was busy at the store. I also learned,
occasionally for example, I would go down to Columbus with one of my
professors who I liked and I’d hear him argue cases at the Supreme Court
down there. I can remember being with him, and I guess it wasn’t at the
Supreme Court, but he lost the case, and I couldn’t understand how he had
failed to win. His argument was overpowering I thought, and I remember
him saying to me “If you’re going to be a lawyer, you have to develop a
tolerance for disappointment” and that has stuck with me to this day.
MS. FEIGIN: I assume, by the way, a lot of the people were trying to avoid the draft, but
I assume that your class was almost entirely, or maybe entirely, male?
MR. STERN: Yes. Probably 90%.
MS. FEIGIN: So you think as many as 10% might have been women?
MR. STERN: Yes. But very few. I had some good stories during my time in Cleveland
I was able to feed into the network. I had one story about the Pepper Pike
police chief who had his patrol crews in the morning out distributing The
Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, and he of course was getting the
income from it. He explained that he was putting them on patrol but they
were actually delivering newspapers for him [laughter]. And I covered the
Sam Sheppard trial really from top to bottom.
MS. FEIGIN: You should say for people who won’t know who Sheppard was and what
that incredible trial was.
MR. STERN: There was, if you remember, the television show and movie The Fugitive.
They were fictional dramas, using as their springboard the real-life
conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard, an osteopath, for the brutal murder of his
wife Marilyn at their home in Bay Village, Ohio. He was convicted in
1954, but F. Lee Bailey, with whom I became fairly close in the years that
followed, took Sam Sheppard’s case. He got the Supreme Court of the
United States to overturn the conviction about ten years after Sheppard
had been convicted, on the basis of excessive adverse pre-trial publicity,
and that was quite an experience. I spent a lot of time on that case.
MS. FEIGIN: F. Lee Bailey was quite a character.
MR. STERN: That he was. I remember when Sheppard’s prior conviction was first
overturned and Bailey managed to get him out on bond. I remember he
had Sheppard come into the courtroom with his toiletries kit and plop it
right on the table in front of the judges, saying “My client is ready to go
back to prison tonight if you don’t grant bond” [laughter]. F. Lee Bailey
was a heck of a showman.
I still remember here in Washington in Duke Zeibert’s restaurant,
he used to have a cartoon at the front door. It showed these two inmates in
their prison stripes talking in the cell and one prisoner says to the other
“Your lawyer was Edward Bennett Williams? No kidding, my lawyer was
F. Lee Bailey.” So I have very vivid memories. Bailey was a superb
lawyer, at least in those days. He later fell into some misdeeds, I guess.
I can still remember he had the county coroner, Doctor Sam
Gerber, on the witness stand. This is in the second trial, and Gerber is
explaining how one of the things that led him to believe that Dr. Sheppard
was guilty was because there was a blood stain imprint from what
appeared to be a surgical instrument on a pillow in Marilyn’s bed where
she laid beaten to death. And Bailey said “What kind of surgical
instrument was it?”, and Gerber said “I’m not sure.” Bailey said “Did you
look for one like it?” Gerber said “I searched all over and I never found
one like it” and Bailey said, “Exactly.” That was the end of his cross
examination. Bailey was a marvelous lawyer.
I also kind of have this spooky memory still in my mind when
Sheppard was acquitted at his second trial. He was leaving the courthouse
with Bailey and as he left the courthouse — the courthouse was in a
building that was about 23 stories tall and also accommodated the county
jail — and in the half-light, this was at night, I have this memory of
Sheppard walking down the steps of the courthouse a free man for the first
time in many years. The prisoners up there, you could hear them
applauding as Sheppard was walking down the steps.
The only time I really recall anything like that, and we’ll get to this
later, was during Watergate when Leon Jaworski went to argue the Nixon
tapes case in the Supreme Court. He’s walking up the steps and the
passersby and the audience that had assembled, congregated on the
Supreme Court steps, were applauding and somebody from the crowd
yelled out “Go get ‘em Leon” [laughter].
Those were fantastic days. In the beginning, I should tell you, I
thought Sheppard had been wrongly convicted in 1954. But as I got to
know him and his character better along the way, I don’t want to suggest
that I’m convinced he was guilty, but I wasn’t convinced as years went on
that he was innocent. For what it’s worth, but I’m not going to convict
him postmortem or however you want to describe that.
MS. FEIGIN: Are there any other major cases that you want to talk about during your
MR. STERN: Of course I did moot court, law review, all that sort of stuff when I was in
law school. Moot coot, Blackacre and Whiteacre and all of that, and I
argued in Detroit. I think we lost, my partner and me. While I was at
Western Reserve, I wrote a paper on, believe it or not, ulcers — whether
ulcers should be a compensable injury under the workman’s comp laws.
There was a point where I had a little medical condition, it was not an
ulcer, but it was like an ulcer, and that got me interested. It was a point at
which the courts were just beginning to think about compensating nontraumatic
injuries. For example, there was a famous case involving a D.C.
transit owner, Roy Chalk, and his Trans Caribbean Airlines. His chief
engineer had been driven nuts by Chalk to get a plane back in service that
had a rusted wing or something and it got to a point where the engineer
back in his room had a heart attack. The question was whether that was an
on-the-job injury, and the court concluded that it was. It was really quite a
There was a similar case in New Jersey, I believe called Carter,
which involved an assembly line worker who just couldn’t keep up. There
was a case out of the Eighth Circuit involving a railroad track switcher up
in a tower. There was no sudden, traumatic injury in each case, but the
stress of the job was so great they were predisposed to illness as a result.
Employers looked to hire this type of responsible, eager people. Those are
the workers who are more likely to get these kinds of injuries. So I wrote
this paper at the Allen Memorial Library, the medical library, at Western
Reserve with the lyrical title “The Compensability of Non-traumatic
Ulcers,” which was then published in the Cleveland Marshall Law
Review. I can tell you that to this day no court in any jurisdiction has ever
cited that article for any proposition [laughter]. It was among the articles I
managed to do when I was doing law review.
MS. FEIGIN: To be able to do law review and have a full-time job, I can’t imagine.
MR. STERN: I should tell you, I did have one case for myself. It was not in court. It
was before the Internal Revenue Service, in their appellate division or
whatever they call themselves. When I was going to law school, I
deducted the cost of my education. My total law school education for four
years came to about $5,000. In any event, they challenged the
deductibility. The question was whether I was looking to enter another
plateau by going to law school. Did I want to become a lawyer, or was I
just trying to improve myself in the occupation that I had. And I
successfully argued that case. Fortunately I turned out not to be a liar.
They didn’t come after me [laughter].
I guess I am best remembered in Cleveland for the fact that when
I first went on the air there, I was very young. I was probably maybe 22
or 23 and I looked it and the boss saw me in the newsroom reading with
my glasses. I did not wear them on the air. He said you know you really
look older and smarter with your glasses. I tried it, but the glare from the
studio lights was too much. So I went across the street to an optician and I
bought a pair of frames and for years in Cleveland when I was on the air I
wore frames with no glass in them at all. My vision was still good
enough. The point of this story is no one ever caught it! I would reach
through and scratch the corner of my eye. I’d have an itch; I’d reach right
through the frames, and nobody ever caught it [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: That’s a great story. I thought it was only women who had to go through
appearance adjustments [laughter].
MR. STERN: I had wonderful training in how government works. Let me give you an
example or two. I learned that politicians exaggerate. I know you won’t
believe that, but it’s true. Governor James Rhodes was running for
reelection on an issue that if voters would pass a highway bond issue he
was advocating they would put a lot of people to work in Ohio. I went to
work one day and the headline in the paper says Rhodes says passage of
highway bond issue means 140,000 new jobs in Ohio. I thought, gee,
that’s an awfully large number. I looked at the U.S. Statistical Abstract
that said there were 135,000 construction workers of all types in the state
of Ohio. So I called the governor’s office, and I said where does this
figure come from? They said they didn’t know, ask the highway
department. I called the highway department and they said ask the
governor. That night the governor was in Cleveland. I went up to him
and I asked where does the 140,000 come from? He said that’s simple.
When you put a man to work – in those days it was men – we’ve got
maybe 7,000 men in the entire state working on these highways. He says
when you put a man to work, he supports his family, his wife, his kids, so
it’s like putting four people to work. Four times 7,000, that’s 28,000. But
this is a five-year program. Five times 28,000 is 140,000. So I learned
political math. That’s one thing I learned [laughter].
I also learned that politics is a business of getting along with other
people, even adversaries. I was with Mike DiSalle, the governor, the night
he lost to Rhodes, the two of us and a radio reporter from Cleveland. I
was sitting on his porch waiting. DiSalle knew he had lost, but we were
waiting for the final results to come in from Cleveland, Cuyahoga County,
the largest county. And Ray Miller, the clerk there, was sitting on the
results because he didn’t want to acknowledge that his Democratic
colleague DiSalle had lost. It was getting later and later. We’re saying
Mike, please, we want to pack it up and go to bed. And DiSalle said
“Look, it’s sort of like Timothy on his deathbed. The priest comes in to
give him the last rites and the priest says ‘Timothy being as you’re on your
deathbed, it’s time to renounce Satan.’ Timothy looks up at him and says
‘Father, being as I’m on my deathbed and not knowing where I’m headed,
I’m in no position to make enemies’ [laughter]. So that’s me and Ray
Miller.” I learned the business of politics and political math by being a
reporter in Ohio. And what I learned, of course, was that it’s no different
in the big time.
MS. FEIGIN: How did you get to the big time?
MR. STERN: Toward the middle of 1966, I was asked to cover a . . .
MS. FEIGIN: Excuse me. Let me pause you one minute. Before we get to that question,
it occurs to me you were in Cleveland during some really tumultuous
times. The Kennedy assassination, for example. Tell me about that.
MR. STERN: It pains me to do that. As a journalist, I always managed to be in the
wrong place at the wrong time. When President Kennedy was
assassinated, Joy and I had been in Washington. I was covering an urban
renewal hearing that concerned Cleveland. Joy was actually in the
Cabinet Room at the White House, a visit that had been arranged by our
congressman, seeing Jack and Jackie take off from the South Lawn to go
to Dallas. To make the story short, I got food poisoning, and I had to rush
home to Cleveland, and I was in bed when President Kennedy was shot in
The only thing like it was when I was with Martin Luther King in
Charleston in 1968 covering his various crusades and campaigns. And
there came a point where I called the office and said look I’ve done about
all I could do. I’d better go home. And I went home, and the next day,
Reverend King was shot and killed. And I was there the day before. So
timing is everything in life, and it’s amazing that I wasn’t canned by every
employer I ever had.
MS. FEIGIN: Wow. Okay, so we’re about to get to the big time.
MR. STERN: In 1966, I was asked to come to Washington to cover The World Peace
Through Law Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. I did a
piece on the air about that, and the bureau chief in Washington sounded
me out about doing more things in Washington, and the next thing I knew,
I was reassigned by New York, where NBC’s headquarters is, and the deal
was that if I stayed in Cleveland through the end of the Sam Sheppard trial
and the Congressional elections of 1966, then I was to move to D.C.,
which I did. I think my wife would tell you she’s still upset. In those
days, Washington, D.C. – I mean this is before White Flint, before
Watergate, before the Kennedy Center, before Bloomingdales – was not a
very exciting place to be. But obviously, for a reporter, it was a great
place to be.
MS. FEIGIN: What was your assignment to be in Washington?
MR. STERN: It also took an odd turn. I covered the Supreme Court and the Justice
Department, essentially the legal beat, and some other agencies. I had a
desk actually in the Justice Department press room, and I covered the ICC,
the FCC, the FTC, which were also there in the Federal Triangle.
MS. FEIGIN: Is there still a Justice Department press room?
MR. STERN: Yes. There is. In fact, my will is witnessed by the three pressroom
reporters from 1967. I hope they’re still alive. In any event, I primarily
covered the Supreme Court for radio, but I was not being used on TV
because in those days, this goes back to Huntley-Brinkley, if your readers
remember Huntley-Brinkley. Huntley did the national and international
news in his part of the show and he was on first. Brinkley did the
Washington stuff, but there wasn’t a lot for Brinkley, who was a wonderful
reporter and broadcaster. There wasn’t a lot for him to do because we had
a marvelous reporter at the Pentagon and a marvelous reporter on the Hill
and such, so Brinkley liked to do the Supreme Court stuff himself, as what
we call “readers.” So the bureau chief assigned me, and this was really
from the get-go, to be the number two person, the back-up man, to our
White House correspondent, Ray Scherer. So for the first year-and-a-half
I was in Washington, I fed Justice Department and Supreme Court stories
to radio and I otherwise worked as Ray Scherer’s backup at the White
MS. FEIGIN: What did that involve?
MR. STERN: A lot of radio pieces and occasional TV pieces.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you interact with the president? These were tumultuous times.
MR. STERN: Every time is tumultuous. I can’t really point to one that wasn’t. Of
course, when we get to that, and I know we’ll probably do that at our next
session, when we get to Watergate and things like that, then we’re really
going to talk about tumult. But it was tumultuous in another sense. The
Vietnam War era produced a lot of demonstrations in Washington and that
produced a lot of chaos and incidents of one kind or another.
I can remember standing with Attorney General Mitchell and his
press guy Jack Landau on the balcony just outside his office during one of
these anti-Vietnam demonstrations. It was swirling around the building
and the police were throwing tear gas at the demonstrators, some of whom
were throwing red paint or eggs at the building and so on, and I remember
Mitchell said to me “Looks like the Russian Revolution down there,
doesn’t it?” [laughter] Troops from the 101st Airborne were stationed in
the hallways on the first floor in case demonstrators tried to enter the
building, and piles of — I think it was calcium chloride — stacked like
sandbags on the first floor, which were to be used to dispel clouds of
teargas if they reached the building.
MS. FEIGIN: What year was it that you moved to Washington?
MR. STERN: I actually began working at the bureau the first of the year of 1967, and of
course I had to get accustomed to Washington. For a new reporter who
had never covered Washington, anything in Washington, it was a little
daunting. I recall the very first assignment I got I was sent by the
deskman, George Cheely, down to the State Department to cover Dean
Rusk’s weekly briefing. I forget what day of the week it was, but he
would hold forth up on the seventh floor, sort of an on background press
MS. FEIGIN: We should say Dean Rusk was Secretary of State.
MR. STERN: Right. Secretary of State Dean Rusk. And so I went there. Of course, I
had never been in the State Department before. I had never seen Dean
Rusk before. He holds forth, and I’m diligently taking notes, and when
he’s finished, I called in to Cheely on the desk. The first thing George
asked me is “Okay, Carl, what did he say that’s new?” Well that’s what
you would expect he would ask. I said “New? How would I know?”
[laughter] Which illustrates I think the importance of having veteran
reporters on these beats. So that was sort of my introduction to covering
MS. FEIGIN: Were you covering when President Johnson announced he wasn’t going to
MR. STERN: Yes. I lost a lot of money. I was betting he would.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you cover that story?
MR. STERN: I’m sure I did. But I want to back up just a step. In the Vietnam War era,
particularly when the Nixon administration came in, actually in 1969 and
1970, 1971, et cetera, for the Justice Department, that was quite a frenetic
era. It was an era of Guy Goodwin. His name is probably not even known
to you, but he was the prosecutor in I think the Criminal Division. I don’t
remember if they had a National Security sort of section then. In any
event, Guy Goodwin was the guy going after all the anti-war — what he
might have regarded as anarchists — bomb throwers, et cetera, Leslie
Bacon and the crowd that was over there around 18th and Lanier Place
who planted a bomb in the restroom at the Capitol building. The era of the
Berrigans who supposedly wanted to blow up the steam tunnels all over
Washington. All the madness of the anti-war era was being played out in
Washington. Almost all those matters ended up sooner or later in front of
the magistrate or judge in the District courthouse here. They even hauled
in Jack Anderson’s colleague, Les Whitten – Jack Anderson, the columnist
– because of the things Anderson was learning and writing about. It was a
very, very busy time period. So the idea that things were ever quiet, that’s
MS. FEIGIN: Guy Goodwin worked at the Justice Department or the U.S. Attorney’s
MR. STERN: He was Main Justice. Of course, he was not alone. There were others
with him, but he was sort of the head person. They were trying to
prosecute as many people as they could who they felt were endangering
the peace of the United States. The FBI, which I also covered then –
obviously it’s a component of the Justice Department – was also
extremely active. That was the era of going after the Weathermen
Underground and all of the fugitive hunts, the black bag jobs.
MS. FEIGIN: In those days, I believe, the FBI was housed in the Department of Justice?
MR. STERN: The Director was. The Director was also just around the corner [from the
press room] on the fifth floor, and from time to time, I would see the
Director. I remember when Martin Luther King came to visit and then
Hoover came outside afterwards and called him a goddamn liar and all
sorts of things. I managed to make Hoover’s no-contact list.
MS. FEIGIN: Explain what that means, a no-contact list.
MR. STERN: The instruction to the press office, what they called external affairs, was
not to be nice because of some stuff I had done, some stories I had done
about the FBI.
MS. FEIGIN: What do you think it was that angered him?
MR. STERN: It’s a little bit too complicated to explain, but basically something had
occurred. I forget what, and the FBI person with whom I was
communicating said the Bureau was not involved and then the press chief
of Main Justice told me they were involved. Hoover thought that I had
violated an off-the-record. His guy had told me they weren’t involved. I
said look, you guys are working for the same outfit. I’m just trying to get
the story straight. But that resulted in my making the no-contact list.
I had encounters with Hoover. I can recall one in particular. I got
wind that Hoover was going to appear before Congressman John Rooney’s
subcommittee, which handled his appropriation every year. It was time
for his annual meeting with Rooney’s subcommittee behind closed doors
and that he was going to reveal this so-called plot by the anti-war Catholic
group, the Berrigans, to kidnap Henry Kissinger and to blow up the
Washington steam tunnels under the Capitol and so on. We can talk about
the Berrigan trial in the next episode. I waited outside the room when
Hoover came out. I was the only reporter there, although there were a
couple of photographers, and as he came out, I accosted him with my tape
recorder and microphone trying to get him to talk to me. He said not a
word, just stoic, looking straight ahead to his car. Well, a photographer
took a picture of the two of us walking along and sent it to me. So I went
into the FBI press office, to the number two guy, Bud Leinbaugh, and I
said “Bud, I’m not so jaded that I wouldn’t like Hoover’s autograph. Can
you get me it?” “Yeah, sure, don’t worry about it.” So six months later, I
still don’t have a picture. I go in to see Bud and asked what happened to
my picture. “Oh, don’t worry.” Finally, Hoover dies. I go in to see Bud,
and I said, “Bud what happened to my picture?” He says, “Don’t you
know as long as Hoover knew you wanted something, you were never
going to get it?” He was holding out that picture to try to keep me in line
MS. FEIGIN: Oh man. Well that’s better than what he did to a lot of other people.
MR. STERN: Well that’s another story. That’s Cointelpro, which we also may talk
about in the next chapter.
MS. FEIGIN: Absolutely.
MR. STERN: What else can I tell you?
MS. FEIGIN: We have you still on radio and TV. Didn’t you segue to just TV?
MR. STERN: I did both. One of the secrets is that in those days, radio actually paid
better than being on TV [laughter]. It’s because in those days we were
paid by the piece. We had a base salary, which was the same for all of the
correspondents, $45,000 a year. They also had to keep track of how many
spots you were doing if the accumulated pieces exceeded your base pay.
A radio piece paid the same as a television spot. I could do twenty or
more radio pieces a week without difficulty. I might do one television
spot a week. I was making out like a bandit on my radio fees, so I
continued. I also did a radio newscast. They gave me one hourly. I think
it was 6:00 or 7:00 at night on the radio network from the bureau. I would
go in to do one newscast that I would write, a five-minute newscast, but
that didn’t always work out too well.
I remember, for some reason it would always happen about a half
hour before my newscast, there would be some catastrophic landslide in
some South American city where thousands of people had perished. I
can’t speak Spanish to save myself, and I could never pronounce the
names of the places where these catastrophes occurred. All I can tell you
is the catastrophes occurred, but that wasn’t noted until the newscast
following mine [laughter].
Once I had to substitute for Russ Ward on World News Tonight,
which was a ten-minute co-op radio newscast, co-op meaning the local
stations could drop in their commercials. The timing was very important
for the local stations to know when the network feed ended and where the
commercials would be, so timing was very important. You had to hit
certain times on the clock. The first time I did it, I thought it went very
well. In fact, I could see a bit of a commotion outside the glass-windowed
booth from which we did our radio broadcasts, and people seemed to be
waving at me. I really felt great. It turns out that I had run one minute
short [laughter] for which I compensated the next night by running one
minute long [laughter]. So you really wonder why anybody kept me on
MS. FEIGIN: [laughter] You ultimately left radio completely for TV?
MR. STERN: Well radio left us. NBC sold NBC Radio. If you ask me what year, I
would need some time to think about that. But eventually the NBC bureau
here did no radio broadcasts, or they may have done a few feature-type
things, but the daily coverage actually came out of a different floor and
ultimately a different building. I continued to file every day, two or three
maybe more reports, typed reports – on paper – which went to radio as
well as to TV, but generally I stopped doing radio when they split off
NBC radio network from TV.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you have any personal stories about the attorneys general you covered?
You covered some interesting people out of the Justice Department. Do
you have a sense of Mitchell, since we have been talking about that era?
MR. STERN: I can tell you a little about each of them; I covered fourteen attorneys
general. I don’t know how much tape you have here. Katzenbach was my
first attorney general, but he left shortly after I came, although I don’t
think that was the reason [laughter]. And then Ramsey Clark, and Ramsey
Clark was a very idealistic, very decent guy, really a privilege to work
I have one story that I don’t know that I’ve ever told. The main
actors are probably pretty well gone by now. During the search for Eric
Starvo Galt – do you remember Eric Starvo Galt? That was the name.
The FBI was looking for James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther
King. He had used the name Eric Starvo Galt. Lyndon Johnson ordered
Ramsey Clark to fly down to Memphis immediately with Deke DeLoach,
the FBI number three guy maybe – I don’t know if he was number three
but he was sort of the liaison with the White House – to try to calm things
down in Memphis. Apparently as they were approaching Memphis – this
is all second-hand – Ramsey asked DeLoach, “What can I tell the press?”
DeLoach said “Tell them we’ll catch the criminal within a week.” Clark
says “I can’t tell them that. What if you don’t?” They made a wager. The
bet was that Ramsey Clark was to get a case of sherry if the killer wasn’t
found within a week. He was – after three weeks. The result? On Friday
afternoons, we would go in to sit with Ramsey Clark in his office and have
sherry. It wasn’t contraband. It came from the FBI [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: That’s a great story.
MR. STERN: So these things happen.
MS. FEIGIN: Okay. I think that’s probably a good place to stop. You covered some
amazing trials in D.C., so next session I hope we can get to some of them
unless there’s anything you want to add before we sign off.
MR. STERN: I was just about to tell you something about the search for James Earl Ray,
which was in those days the FBI didn’t have an automated system to
whatever extent they have one now, and I recall the circumstances under
which they finally did identify James Earl Ray who was not arrested until
three weeks later, as I mentioned, in London. That’s another long story.
But in those days, FBI fingerprint records were kept literally in shoe boxes
in a building just beyond the Capitol building in Washington, in that area
where HHS is. They had millions of fingerprints and they had to start
somewhere. Somebody said, “Why don’t we start in the fugitive file?”,
and lucky for them, the fugitive file had only 40,000 entries. Literally
going through them one by one by hand, they found James Earl Ray. But
if the supervisor hadn’t had that thought to start with the fugitives, they
might still be looking.
MS. FEIGIN: Where was the fingerprint that they got?
MR. STERN: It was left on the windowsill of a bathroom from which James Earl Ray
had fired the shot. I think it was a thumb print.
I wanted to mention something about the perils of covering news
for audiences that were unlike the ones I knew in New York or Cleveland.
One moment was a real awakening for me – made me realize that I wasn’t
in Kansas anymore, to use the words from The Wizard of Oz.
I was invited from time to time by organizations to give a speech.
For a while I accepted money, but after a while I stopped accepting money
because I came to believe it was wrong. In any event, in 1969 I was
invited – this was my first speech invitation – to give a talk to the Medical
Association in New Orleans, Louisiana. At that point I had been covering
the Supreme Court for two years, and I gave what I thought would be a
valuable speech in which I was trying to explain that even some of the
most controversial decisions of the Supreme Court had really been
justified and even made sense if you really knew the facts of the case.
This was an era of “Impeach Earl Warren” posters and billboards and so
on, but I didn’t fully realize that. In any event, I went and I gave this
speech to the Association. It had a practice then of publishing the talk it
had received in its bi-monthly news publication. It would publish the text
of what the speaker had said. And they did. They published without
alteration the speech that I had given. But an editor’s note had been
inserted on the top of this article, and it read: “The views of the author are
held in disrepute by responsible conservative authorities, but we believe
even the views of our enemies should be heard.” That was my
introduction to another part of America.
MS. FEIGIN: That makes me ask one follow-up because ethics is something that’s
fascinating to me. You mentioned that you began by accepting
remuneration and then you decided it was wrong. Do you want to explain
that? What made you come to think it was wrong?
MR. STERN: There came a time when I was invited by telephone executives of AT&T
to address a regional meeting they were having in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. I went and I gave a talk, but I realized when I was there –
this was at a time of the AT&T breakup litigation – that in a sense they
invited me more because they wanted to color my impression of the
litigation for my reporting than that they really wanted to hear me talk
about the personalities in Washington. That was the first reason I decided
There was a second incident that occurred. I’m slightly loathe to
explain it because the person involved is still very active today in the news
business, but there was a case that involved a small college, Grove City
College in Pennsylvania, that raised a Title IX question. The question was
whether they were failing to do enough to give women students an equal
opportunity to engage in athletics. The legal question presented to the
Supreme Court was whether the federal government could cut off all
federal programming money to the school or just to that program. I went
up to Grove City College to do a story on that because it obviously had
ramifications for other schools as well. I brought with me several
clippings from the newspaper, wonderful articles in The Washington Post
by a columnist lauding this brave little school that was fighting this thing.
I brought those articles with me because they contained factual
information that was valuable to me in putting the story together. The
president of the college, when I was interviewing him for television, said
do you ever give speeches? I said yes. He said we just had so and so, and
he mentioned this fellow’s name. It was the guy who had written these
columns. The president said we just had him here a month or so ago and
paid him $15,000. I said – well, I didn’t say anything. That’s what finally
drove me out of this idea of accepting money.
I had first encountered it actually with the FBI, believe it or not.
When I was first in Washington in 1967, I was invited down to Quantico
to give a talk to new agents, to participate in a session about how to deal
with the media. Okay. I came back. A few days later, I get a phone call
from the FBI, from some administrative office, asking for my Social
Security number. I said “Why?”
MS. FEIGIN: You’d think the FBI would know it [laughter].
MR. STERN: But this is the administrative office. They said we’re sending you a check.
I said, “A check?” “Yeah, for $1,000.” This was when a thousand dollars
was money. I said “I can’t take money from you. I cover you.” They
said, “We do this all the time with news people who come down here and
talk.” Clearly, the Bureau should not have been doing that, and of course
reporters should not have been taking money if the FBI is anywhere within
the ambit of their journalistic activities.
MS. FEIGIN: Right, but for all we know it could still go on.
MR. STERN: I don’t know. I don’t want to say that because I don’t know it.
MS. FEIGIN: This was a personal determination by you as opposed to someone outside?
MR. STERN: Absolutely. I don’t want to be sanctimonious, but it’s improper. And I
was being properly paid by my employer. I have a wife to support me.
What do I care? [laughter]
MS. FEIGIN: [laughter] Okay. Thank you.