Inside the WGBH Open Vault

ABC Newsman John Scali Talks About the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Elizabeth Deane   |   Thursday, September 27, 2012
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ABC's John Scali (WGBH)
This Month from the Vault: An interview with ABC Newsman John Scali

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, and we revisit the events that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster in two specials on WGBH 2 (see below). In the archives, we found a gripping interview about that fate-of-the-planet drama of October 1962. It hints at high-level espionage but unfolds amid convincingly mundane details (a baloney sandwich, the coffee shop in Washington’s Statler Hilton Hotel), and it makes you feel as if you’re in the center of the storm as President Kennedy and his advisors struggle to avert nuclear war. The story held a respected place in the annals of the missile crisis for decades. But it turned out to be a blind alley. How it unraveled gives us a glimpse inside the fog of war.
Producers from WGBH’s ambitious 13-part series War and Peace in the Nuclear Age interviewed former ABC reporter John Scali in February 1986, where Scali describes his involvement with a high-ranking Soviet Embassy contact at the height of the crisis. 
But with the help of hindsight, consider the backstory to this back-channel encounter: Desperate for information about Soviet intentions, President Kennedy and his top advisors took Scali’s story very seriously. It seemed to be the first sign that the Soviets wanted to back off, and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk devoted considerable time to drafting a reply. When the crisis ended a few days later, the deal announced by the Kremlin seemed to reflect much that Scali and his Soviet contact, Aleksandr Fomin, had discussed.
The secret story of the Scali-Fomin back-channel negotiations was revealed in 1964 in a book by Rusk’s head of intelligence, Roger Hilsman. It remained mostly unquestioned until 1989, when both Scali and Fomin (now identified by his real name, Aleksandr Feklisov) were present at a conference in Moscow. Feklisov disputed Scali’s account completely. It was Scali, he said, who floated the famous proposal; it was Scali, not he, who was fearful, and so on. Scali heatedly disputed these claims.
book cover
One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro On the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs
Thus began the unraveling of the Scali-Fomin myth. When scholars drilled deeper into the crisis in the ensuing decades, the significance of their secret meetings was shattered. As journalist Michael Dobbs described it in his brilliant 2008 book about the crisis, One Minute to Midnight, the Scali back-channel was “a classic example of miscommunication between Moscow and Washington at a time when a single misstep could lead to nuclear war.” The author concludes that “there is no evidence” that Scali’s message to the Soviets “played any role in Kremlin decision-making on the crisis, or was even read by Khrushchev.”
The late ambassador Richard Holbrooke, reviewing Dobbs’ book, added a layer of disdain, describing the Scali-Fomin back-channel as “a self-generated effort by an ambitious spy to send some information to his bosses in Moscow, as well as self-promotion by an ambitious journalist, who parlayed his meetings with the KGB agent into a public legend that eventually led to his becoming the American ambassador to the United Nations.” 
Holbrooke is pretty harsh, but even without his slant on it we can begin to see how dangerous this was. The demolition of the Scali story is only a small part of a revolution in thinking about the Cuban missile crisis. Confusion reigned in Moscow and Washington, and as JFK and Khrushchev searched for a way out (with Washington jumping on the Scali story), their military machines were headed for war. 
As James Blight, a leading missile crisis scholar, put it—referring not only to the Scali story but to the revelations of recent research—“the crisis [seems] far more dangerous, and its peaceful outcome far more miraculous, than ever before.”

Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH

The Cuban missile crisis is brought to life on October 23rd with two PBS programs: 

Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War at 8pm 

Secrets of the Dead’s The Man Who Saved the World at 9pm

Julia Child: On Location in France (1970)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
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Rock 'n' Roll Legend Dick Dale on the Origins of Surf Guitar Music

By Elizabeth Deane   |   Tuesday, July 17, 2012
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July 17, 2012

Although we're in the midst of summer, we’ll try not to get sand in the massive hinges of the WGBH vault as we open up a terrific interview from the 1995 PBS series “Rock & Roll.” It’ll take you back to the early days of surf music, that massive guitar-driven sound that reverberates all the way down through heavy metal, and the unforgettable theme under the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s film "Pulp Fiction." The Beach Boys may have surpassed this artist in popularity, but he alone bears the title "King of the Surf Guitar."

This Month's From the Vault: An interview with Dick Dale

Three selected clips from the original WGBH interview with Dick Dale for the award-winning series "Rock & Roll."

dale and elsa
You’ll see immediately that Dick Dale isn’t anywhere near the surf in this interview. He’s in the California desert, where he raised lions and tigers. (Really.) But he has his custom Fender in hand throughout the discussion, and some of his demos take you straight to the beach, as he shows in one clip how the sounds of surfing influenced his music. Watch also for the moment when he talks about drummer Gene Krupa’s influence on his technique, and his demonstration of the way the sound of his lions turns up in his music as well.

In the last clip, Dale talks about the origin of his legendary version of the song "Misirlou." Bostonians might be surprised to learn where he first heard the tune that would become the theme song for "Pulp Fiction."

You can find the entire uncut interview with Dale on Open Vault, the website of the WGBH archives. For guitar aficionados, you’ll find there a tour of his guitar and the story of the development of the Showman amplifier, designs he perfected with legendary guitar maker Leo Fender.

Finally, near the end of the full interview, let Dick Dale take you back to his days as a surfing god and guitar hero in Southern California:

There was times I’d get out of the water … and everybody’s inside, like at the Huntington Beach Pavilion … and I’d come running up the stairs with my surfboard, still in my trunks … [I’d get] behind the stage, towel off, put on a T-shirt and I still had my trunks on. I’d be in my bare feet and I’d be playing my guitar on stage.

Today Dale, now 75 and a cancer survivor, is still on stage playing. He’s been touring since April and will be performing this week in Massachusetts.

Listen to Dick Dale talk about growing up in Quincy and his annual visit to Mass. on 89.7 WGBH Radio's Morning Edition.

Dick Dale's Massachusetts Tour Dates

Wednesday, July 18
The Beachcomber
Wellfleet, MA

Thursday, July 19
The Middle East
Cambridge, MA

Elizabeth Deane was the creator and executive producer of the 10-part, Peabody Award–winning series “Rock & Roll.” She says about the experience, "Like many viewers, I brought a general knowledge of rock history to the project, but it’s interviews like this one, produced by Dan McCabe and Vicky Bippart, that deepened our treatment of the music and set the series apart from other rock histories. We focused on the innovators, like Dick Dale — the people who changed the music — not only artists but also producers, songwriters, studio engineers and session musicians. The series premiere in 1995 was a big event for WGBH and our partners at the BBC, who produced five of the shows; we’re proud to have this opportunity to show off this rock 'n' roll gem from the archives."

The licensing rights to the epic 10-part series (1995) have lapsed; however, WGBH Archives has a small grant from the Grammy Foundation to preserve the uncut interviews for the five programs produced by WGBH.

Video: The ZOOMers Sing at Fenway

By Cristina Quinn & Elizabeth Deane   |   Thursday, June 21, 2012
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June 22, 2012

BOSTON — Today is Kid Nation Day at Fenway, a day where the little Red Sox fans get to hang out at the park and meet the players. Back in 1999, the cast of the WGBH kids program ZOOM got the chance of a lifetime — to perform the national anthem at Fenway. We were curious: where are they now?

The stands were filled with parents and pint-sized Red Sox fans eating Cracker Jacks and wearing baseball caps they’d eventually grow into. The field was filled with baseball greats like Pedro, Nomar and Wally the Green Monster, signing autographs and taking photos. The WGBH Archives has video footage from that day, shot by ZOOM producer Jim Johnston on his home video camera. Alisa, David, Jared, Lynese, Pablo and Zoe are wearing oversized matching jackets with the word ZOOM embroidered on them — and they're barely able to contain their excitement.

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Mike Wallace and the Early Days of TV News

By Ted Canova   |   Wednesday, April 11, 2012
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April 12, 2012

BOSTON — For most of us, "60 Minutes" was appointment television in a time before 700 channels, Tivo and endless reruns. When news reached me of Mike Wallace's death, it took me back to the days when you actually had to get up to change the channel. It also took me back to the night I appeared in a "60 Minutes" story, ever so briefly.
Wallace was a merciless interviewer. On Sundays we'd see him confront a newsmaker. On Mondays, we'd all talk about it. But for all the ambushes, the pointed follow-up questions and the celebrity interviews, Wallace was a big believer and a strong advocate for making you, the news consumer, more responsible.
His death led us into the WGBH Vault, a climate-controlled room where thousands of archives are carefully stored. It is here where our team found a 1970 seminar at MIT in Cambridge. The topic centered on television news, which was still in its infancy. So the audience was suspect and ready to take on Wallace as if he were the spokesman for the entire industry.

Mike Wallace at MIT

"Catering" to short-term sensation      

"Do you really think that in fact the profit motive of exactly appealing to your audience isn't accelerating, isn't teaching people to have a shorter time span, and to want more sensational things?" one attendee said. "Aren't you really reversing all the things that people learn from kindergarten to 12th grade about how to really appreciate complex issues by your catering to the sensational short-term, let's-do-this-and-move-on-to-another-thing type news broadcast?"
Wallace said television news was "getting better" but admitted, "We err sometimes, still."
At the time, the country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and college campuses were the focal point of anti-war rallies against President Richard Nixon and Vice President Agnew. Television news was getting battered from both sides, as Wallace noted, referencing a disparaging comment recently made by the vice president.
"I could hardly believe I would have to come to Cambridge to find so many allies of Spiro Agnew," Wallace retorted. "In three separate seminars today, it's become painfully obvious to me that the MIT community looks askance at television news just about as much as Agnew does, although for different reasons."
Wallace responds to the critique
Long before personal computers, cellphones and "apps," Wallace knew the audience's attention span was pivotal.
"If we in broadcasting fail at the mass communication of complicated issues, and I think we should plead guilty, we fail because first of all, the attention span of our viewers is probably minute," Wallace said. "If we delve too deeply, or linger too long on something difficult, we lose our audience — the ratings prove it. Second …  there is almost no chance to savor and test an idea before another proposition has replaced it on the tube. And finally the average viewer or listener finds so many issues so overwhelmingly complicated to begin with that he despairs of understanding them anyway and says to hell with it and settles for a movie or a paperback whodunit or an episode of 'Mission Impossible.'"
But the audience isn't off the hook
In the WGBH Archives, I'm struck by the give-and-take, Wallace's comments and audience laughter, and think of a simpler time in journalism. But whether it was 1970 or throughout his career, Wallace always believed that you, the audience, held a powerful responsibility.
"We can sketch the outlines of the story. We can convey its feel. We can get the citizen involved, whet his interest, make him want to know more," he said. But for the complications and intricacies, the viewer would have to go deeper, "to the newspapers and journals, to the magazines and books, to public conversations and to private thinking — and in the final analysis, of course, that’s where he must go: to himself."
Wallace added, "It's hard work to learn about complicated issues. It is easier to pin the tail on the mass media for failing to keep us informed than to suggest that we ourselves lack the discipline to inform ourselves." 
Which gets me back to my flash frame on a "60 Minutes" broadcast — when Wallace became interested in a situation that followed when my television station delved into complicated issues on the air.
Judging journalism
In 1996, after a year's worth of work by top-notch, respected journalists, my station aired an investigative series on Northwest Airlines detailing safety issues, sizable fines and a culture that prevented employees from coming forward. We also had whistleblowers (something that, coincidentally, Wallace would come to know in his controversial story on big tobacco).
To this day, I believe Northwest knew the story would hold up in court. So instead of staging a legal battle, the airline filed a grievance with a public watchdog group called the Minnesota News Council. Its criticism of our investigation was lengthy; our defense was equally thorough. The result was a very public airing of journalism standards, tactics and techniques in newsgathering. We didn't stand a chance.
Over the years, I had testified before the council and defended news stories. But this case was different. Wallace was advocating for a national news council, where aggrieved subjects could take their case before a similar group. So when Northwest filed a complaint, Wallace came to town and "60 Minutes" covered it. Sunday night. Appointment TV.
A Wallace effect?
There was plenty of intrigue before and after the council ruled against the story. Did the glare of "60 Minutes" impact the council's decision? Was my station being held to a higher standard? How would Wallace's own, famously aggressive newsgathering tactics hold up in front of an ad hoc panel of former newspaper people and community members? Not well, I bet. 
When the council ruled, there was celebration at the airline and a chilling effect in our newsroom. We realized that a news story could win in the courtroom but lose in the court of public opinion. The next night, my station won an Emmy for the Northwest investigation.
In subsequent years, instead of ignoring News Council complaints as my competitors did, I returned to the lion's den to defend more stories — none of which, I believe, we won. But it was important to face this "jury" even if its decisions seemed off the mark. The News Council disbanded in 2011 after 41 years.
Mike Wallace's passing could be the end of a conversation about journalism standards and the public's role. Or it could be a fresh start.
I'd like to know what you think. Tell me in the comments or email your thoughts to

Ted Canova is the executive editor for news at WGBH Radio.

John Updike -- The Cartoonist?

Friday, March 16, 2012
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March 16, 2012

On March 18, author John Updike would have turned 80. Most famous for his Harry "Rabbit" Angstron series of novels, Updike died in 2009. In this 1978 interview clip from WGBH's Open Vault, Updike tells reporter China Altman he secretly wished to be a cartoonist.

See the full 30-minute conversation on WGBH Open Vault, where Upike reads from his work and tells stories about growing up in Pennsylvania, life at Harvard, working at the New Yorker and how he developed the writing habits which enabled him to produce a book a year.

Updike lived his final years in Massachusetts. Read more of his biography.

About Inside the WGBH Open Vault

Open Vault is the WGBH Media Library and Archives (MLA) website of unique and historically important content produced by WGBH's public television and radio stations. It provides online access to video, audio, images, searchable transcripts, and resource management tools —available for individual and classroom learning. Learn more:

About the Authors
Elizabeth Deane
Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH Boston.


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