Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Howard Ziff: A Giant is Gone

Over the past thirty years I've had published in print hundreds of sharply pointed Letters to the Editor, perhaps 150 columns in the Amherst Bulletin, and now almost 2,000 posts here in cyberspace; yet I have only once hesitated to hit the publish button (or in pre-Internet days the "send" button on a fax machine):

My family and I had just toured the Chinese orphanage where Kira was cared for in the 16 months leading up to our adopting her.  We had made an appointment weeks in advance but it was obvious they had forgotten it when we showed up that oppressively hot summer morning.  Thus we got a close up look (and smell) of a typical day in the life for a hundred abandoned kids cared for by the state--and it was far from pretty.

The orphanage director told me to stow the camera as he assigned an employee to give us a tour and another one to keep watch over us.  The scenes were so stark, the smells so pungent, capturing it in the minds eye and then translating it all into words was effortless.   The only important question is, do I publish...from my hotel the People's Republic of China?

The Chinese government does not take well to criticism and they have an amazing power to monitor and control the Internet.  Years earlier a french TV crew used hidden cameras to expose deplorable conditions in Chinese orphanages which enraged more than embarrassed top officials.  The same top officials who ordered tanks to clear student protesters from Tiananmen Square.

But I, eventually, hesitatingly, published anyway.  Truth to power.

So I did not sleep well that night, anticipating a loud knock at the door with the Chinese version of "Open up, this is the police".  Booting my computer the next morning I wondered if the Internet would still work.  To my relief the routinely familiar AOL homepage materialized. The first new email with the comforting subject line "keep up good work" had a somewhat familiar edu address, "journ.umass", but who the heck was HMZ?;

Sent: Thu, Jul 10, 2008 6:33 pm
Subject: keep up good work

Good work. Get home to Amherst soon. We need you.
Howard Ziff

Well at this point, bring on the Chinese police, military or tanks, Professor Ziff complimented my work!

I had audited Howard's Ethics in Journalism class in 1986 and like almost everyone serious about journalism, was smitten by his combination of battle hardened experience softened by a genuine love for the craft of reporting.

We were political allies over the years on a few local Amherst issues, most notably the downtown Boltwood Walk Parking Garage where Howard was the final speaker on the floor of town meeting.  He invoked FDR's analysis that a good compromise is one where neither side goes away perfectly happy.  Howard closed by calling the emended garage proposal, "close enough".  The measure passed.

Howard was also passionate about the First Amendment and as such had concerns when Amherst wanted to ban posters/flyers in the downtown due to their messy appearance.  I spoke against the proposal at town meeting, addressing my remarks almost directly at Howard who was sitting in his usual spot--second row behind the piano, which could not hide his burly frame.

I used the anecdote about a reporter who misspells a name undermines the entire article; and if small businesses creates an unattractive flyer, it reflects poorly on the entire business and drives consumers elsewhere.  In other words, let the free market decide. Howard, with that unmistakable gleam in his eye, punched the air with his right fist.  The ban failed.

I had not heard from Howard in years, and in fact was surprised that a guy with ink his veins even had an email address.   But his encouraging note could not have come at a better time.  Howard Ziff was a thoughtful man, who made such a difference in shaping lives.

I'm not sure what the family will etch on his gravestone for a final epitaph, but his only email to me is on the shortlist for mine.


The newspaper he guided remembers

Facebook friends remember


Anonymous said...

He wrote the most entertaining and insightful letters to the Bulletin.

He did his part to keep classic cinema alive in our area, with his show on WGBY57 on Saturday nights, a cause that I have come to appreciate as I get older.

He clearly had his own mind on a variety of topics.

He will be missed.

Rich Morse

Dan Miller said...

The last time I saw him was in 2008. I stopped by his house ostensibly to talk about getting a letter of recommendation from him as part of my grad school applications. We drank coffee on his back patio and talked about the defunding of the library bookmobile, and books. Unfortunately he fell ill a few months later. I called him on the phone and he told me he had had a stroke.