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Zelig and the art of winning a Pulitzer: Q&A with J. Ross Baughman, photojournalist
Categories: Media

nazisphotographedbyjrossbaughmanImagine you’re with the Secret Service. A young Ohioan calls up and says he’ll be joining the Nazi Party. “I wanted you to know.” Wait—the story gets even better. The Ohio man already has been within shooting range of presidential candidates.

J. Ross Baughman isn’t a real Nazi, however. Instead he is a photojournalist for my old newspaper, and he is about to infiltrate the National Socialist movement. My friend is merely trying to keep his name off the Secret Service’s watch list so he can continue his campaign coverage. A letter co-signed by his editor does the trick.

The Nazis think Baughman is just your garden-variety defender of the master race, an obscure wedding photographer helping them honor the teaching of the Fuehrer. Meanwhile Baughman, a gentile of Swiss ancestry, is busy snapping Nazi-gothic photographs for a Jewish-owned daily in Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. No Zionist conspiracies. As a professional photojournalist, Baughman simply sees the darkness around him as a must-report story.

A fake “wife” even tags along to a “White Power” meeting to show what a respectable, family-oriented soul Baughman is. His attention to the details pays off. Baughman learns that certain Nazis are talking about killing ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “and eleven other prominent Jewish-American business leaders, most notably two Chicago real estate financiers, Arthur Reubloff and Philip Klutznick, along with Robert Sarnoff, former president of RCA, Jack Greenberg, a New York attorney for the NAACP, Paul Warburg, a banker and part of the Rothschild empire, and Howard Squadron, a leader in the American Jewish Congress.”

Nazis left over from Hitler’s Reich are part of the movement that Baughman ran across when highway construction led him to detour through an unfamiliar neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side. In some ways this might as well be a page from The Boys from Brazil. Not all the facts come out at the time, the late 1970s. But the story still makes the international news wires.

Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham are among those pushing the Lorain Journal’s Nazi series for the Pulitzer Prize. No luck. But within months Baughman will win the Pulitzer anyway, for his Associated Press photographs depicting torture in Rhodesia. Not bad for someone still in his 20s at the time. In fact, he’s the youngest pro to snare the prize. He’ll eventually go on to the Middle East and also to El Salvador, where he almost loses a leg to a land mine, resulting in the hospital scene below. Baughman will work, too, for Life and other big names in the magazine world. He will also teach at the New School for Social Research and become a photo-and-new-media-related editor at the Washington Times.

jrossbaughmanhospitalscene

Oh, the memories and hard-won lessons Baughman can share in the classroom! While in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, he did not even have to infiltrate the infamous Grey’s Scouts. His subjects’ vanity could take him a long way. That is no small reason why he was able to fit in and to chronicle the torture scene on the cover of his just-published memoirs, Angle: Fighting Censorship, Death Threats, Ethical Traps and a Land Mine, While Winning a Pulitzer Along the Way (related Website to debut in 2015; old blog here).  Baughman even wore the Scouts’ uniform, all the better to distinguish himself from the Scouts’ enemies. He rode a horse and packed a gun.

Notice a pattern here? Like Leonard Zelig, the chameleon-like character in Woody Allen’s comic movie of the same name, the slightly built Baughman can be anywhere and anyone in a life accurately described as “cinematic.” Just look at the photos below.

“He mingles with Hitler and becomes a Nazi,” Baughman writes of his sort-of doppelgänger. ”He goes to Africa, and even becomes an African American…” Baughman knew the late Mel Bourne, Allen’s art director for years before Allen filmed his 1983 movie. In Angle, Baughman wonders if Bourne perhaps mentioned “to his boss the many stories about me that used Chameleon for the headline.” Woody Allen can be rather shy about his creative process, and his PR woman never answered my query. Who knows if Allen knew? Still, in this world of “six degrees of separation,” where Baughman is so often several degrees ahead in the game, anything is possible.

Baughman_news_photographer_coverBaughman and I first met while he was a high school journalist fired up about the Vietnam War, student unrest and other issues and I was writing up the confrontations. Sorry for my botched cutline accompanying a story, Ross—the one where your name appeared with a photo of an even more uppity student. The Lorain Journal regrets the error.

In my own days at the Journal I might type into the dawn on my manual Underwood (“work-life balance” isn’t always the highest of priorities at a tightly budgeted factory-town daily), but Baughman outdid me after he signed on as a photographer. Then-Editor Irving Leibowitz recalled Baughman in a column headlined “When a Pulitzer Prize Is Not a ‘Fluke”: “I get to the paper most mornings at about 6 a.m. Frequently I’d see Ross Baughman wiping his eyes coming out of the darkroom. He had slept all night in the photo lab, which was okay with me until I discovered exactly where he slept. Each night, Ross curled up in a two-foot-square cabinet that photographers used to dry negatives. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any place to go. He did. He had his own apartment. And if he needed any cash, he knew where to turn. His dad was plant manager of Lorain Ford.” The Baughman family lived on the dividing line between Lorain and near-by Amherst, Ohio.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Ross Baughman studied journalism and psychology at Kent State University, the site of the 1970 massacre where National Guardsmen killed four students, an event that undoubtedly helped shape his worldview and certainly influenced mine, especially after I talked to survivors. Baughman is now in his 60s, with a son, Henry, to whom he dedicated the book. Via email, I Q&A-ed Ross, and here’s our exchange:

Why Angle as the title? 

Since it is also one of the physical laws of photography, my kind of investigative journalism adopts only one point of view at a time. 

The old guard prefers to see itself as a judge, pretending to be fair and in hot pursuit of truth with a capital T. I stick to one angle, which is most often matched to my subject’s bias.

Just why did you take far, far more risks than most journalists would?

A strong headline makes a promise to the viewer. I will not only talk about the crux of the question, but show it happening, too. If the story involves dangerous events, there is no other choice but to show people in the midst of those decisive questions. The story demands what must go into it. No excuses. Risks can be minimized, but a good investigative journalist must be ready to take them at a carefully considered pace.

And are you still going out on dangerous assignments, even today? Why or why not? 

In the 1990s, I switched to being a full-time editor as well as a father. That wasn’t an easy transition, but I have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of assigning others to my kind of work.

How did you get drawn into the Nazi story?

I stumbled on their bookstore and headquarters on the west side of Cleveland by accident. My curiosity drew me in, and every time I saw a chance to wade in deeper, I took it.

Just how close did the Nazis come to carrying out the plot? Without the Journal alerting the FBI, would they probably have succeeded in killing Henry Kissinger and "eleven other prominent Jewish-American business leaders”? 

The ad hoc splinter group called the National Socialist Liberation Front seemed to be the ones most determined to carry out the killings. Since editor Irving Leibowitz and I always doubted the Nazis’ seriousness and capabilities, it’s very hard to say what was actually about to happen. The fact that one of the NSLF members did commit murder (albeit one month ahead of schedule) shows both their intentions and their amateurish limitations.

They hoped to use Zyklon B or another gas but presumably would have settled for more workable alternatives? 

Raymond Lee Schultz, the Chicago Nazi who jumped the gun by one month, used cyanide gas to murder the first person on his list.

The Lorain Journal withheld your byline, at least at one point, due to concerns over your safety. Even today do you worry about your old Nazi acquaintances, especially if Angle catches on big?

Not so much. 

Why not?

There have been other groups I’ve covered since then that give me more cause for worry. There is no need to poke any of them with a stick at this point in my life.

The U.S. government used certain war criminals for intelligence purposes and allowed them to live in the States. Do you think any of them were involved in the plot the FBI thwarted?

Yes, without a doubt.  Several of the Cleveland members who gathered to sing the Horst Wessel song were introduced to me as former members of the original SA (NSDAP Brownshirts) and Waffen SS.

You’ve spent your share of time in dysfunctional and violent countries. Could America eventually see a major growth of Nazi-like extremism if economic disparities keep on growing? 

I doubt they will use overt reminders of 20th century fascism, but we will very likely see increasing references to ethnic and religious purity, as well as American exceptionalism. The real hallmarks are a failure of empathy, along with the quick willingness to be aggressive, intolerant and brutal.

You almost lost a leg to a land mine in El Salvador. What can governments and news organizations do to reduce the risks to journalists without keeping them away from the action?

Stop pretending that journalists have some bullet-proof, safe-conduct immunity during war. I got hurt because my editors expected me to commute everyday across the No-Man’s Land between soldiers and guerrillas who were trying to kill each other. Groups from every side of the fence must believe that journalists can help to show new sides of a story. This should not be confused with blind public relations. After insisting on unrestricted access and full disclosure, publishers and editors must be willing to embed their reporters and photographers and exercise great patience before the reports are released.

Tell us about the circumstances under which you took that Pulitzer-winning series of shots in Rhodesia.

While the foreign press corps in Rhodesia resigned itself to rumors and second-hand reporting, I introduced myself to fire-breathing, anti-communist mercenaries who had all just left America’s lost war in Vietnam. They gathered every Saturday for private barbecues, and knew I worked for the Associated Press. But because I asked to see their angle on this new guerrilla war, first hand and up-close, they were willing to take me along with the last fighting cavalry in the world.

What censorship challenges did you face in Rhodesia, and why?

The Salisbury government monitored every story and every photo transmitted. Any journalist who violated security secrets or even lowered national morale could be jailed or expelled, and their whole bureau shut down. Rhodesians perfected their own version of the British government’s Military Secrets Act; and even Margaret Thatcher adopted their strategies completely when the press corps was blocked from covering the Falkland Island War with Argentina. When I was called back from the front lines in Rhodesia, government censors thought they had confiscated all of my film, and eventually shredded the lion’s share of it. Luckily, I anticipated this and managed to hide three rolls of film, smuggling it out of the country.

And speaking of censorship, do U.S. news organizations make themselves more vulnerable to it when they rely on locals rather than Americans to report overseas news?

In Syria, one of the greatest dangers is not knowing what agenda that the freelancer may be harboring. Will they send old photos with fake dates?  Fabricated situations that serve as propaganda?  Most U.S. news organizations have stopped hiring local freelancers because they don’t know who to trust.  Due to ethical and legal liabilities, the same media companies don’t want to risk American freelancers either. The end-result is a black-out, and the purest kind of veto-censorship there is.  

How close did you come to getting killed in Rhodesia?

I felt the greatest danger from the white troops I accompanied, who might have killed me by their recklessness during the original patrol, and later on out of revenge. If the course of events hadn’t unrolled so quickly, and any of them had managed to corner me alone, it all could have turned out very differently.

You carried a gun while reporting from Rhodesia and even wore the uniform of the infamous Grey’s Scouts. Why? How would you respond to critics?

Critics who think journalists haven’t worn uniforms or carried guns during combat don’t know what they’re talking about. Several correspondents during the American Civil War carried Colt revolvers, and others joined the assault up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. Ernest Hemingway and Walter Cronkite both fired machine guns at Germans during World War II. Peter Arnett carried a fully-automatic broom-handle Mauser in Vietnam while working for AP, and Winston Churchill carried the same gun while working as a war correspondent during the Boer War.

As for me, the gun imposed was the price of admission. The Rhodesians insisted that I wear subdued, camouflage clothing so I would not stick out and give away my movements with the troops. The Rhodesians were also trained to shoot on sight any of the mismatched Cuban and Warsaw Pact uniforms that the guerrillas pieced together. The gun was required for the Rhodesians’ peace of mind, just in case I became cut off from the unit. Moreover, I willingly wore the uniform so I could reduce the troops’ self-consciousness. I wanted them to behave as naturally as possible.

Compare yourself to Zelig.

Strangers have long been pointing it out to me: Zelig goes off on improbable, courageous adventures, seeming to pop up anywhere and everywhere all at once. He mingles with Hitler and becomes a Nazi. He goes to Africa, and even becomes an African American. The practice of clinical psychology is another important theme in the movie. I have no idea if Allen had ever heard of me. The similarities may have been entirely coincidental.

Explain the Heisenberg Effect and how it’s related to your work and your own Leonard Zelig acts.

A German physicist warned that measurement devices interfere with and therefore taint the results of even the most careful observation. Inserting a simple thermometer will absorb some of the heat while taking a measurement, therefore never showing perfectly the true natural condition. In a similar way, journalists worry that the camera’s presence causes people to behave in artificial, exaggerated ways, nothing like they might have been in private. I say people will only stray from their true nature if they feel they are being judged. I allow a brief interval for subjects to get used to my presence, but have seen over a 40-year career how soon they stop thinking of me as an outsider.

Just why should we distinguish between "blending in" and "agreeing with" (or "approving of")?

The virtue of “blending in” helps an observer to be as invisible as possible as events unfold. There is a big danger, however, that our subjects want approval or encouragement for the choices they make, and this relationship develops most easily during extended interviews. Journalists should seek out genuine, decisive action related to questions proposed by the headline. If subjects crave validation, journalists must be totally opaque. The goal is to avoid flattering, one-dimensional puffery.

What about Janet Malcolm’s depiction of  journalists as "preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse"? Guilty as charged? Or is there more to it? How would you respond, based on your experiences?

The real danger is our temptation to judge. In earlier projects, such as the Nazis and Rhodesians, my subjects felt deceived by the final report. After a couple of years, however, I realized that I should restrict myself to an angle that ethically matched the same attitudes held by my subjects.

What responsibility—or lack of one—does a photographer have to rescue a subject whose life is in danger?

If I’m walking down the street, just like any other citizen, and see trouble unfolding, I will continue to react out of a kind, empathetic, caring concern. If, on the other hand, I am on duty, and dedicated to answering a tough, headline question, I must bear witness to that event, no matter what the outcome might be, even if I suspect or hate to imagine what’s about to happen. I must be especially disciplined about it when or if I might have any chance to influence the outcome.

Baughman-related examples?

Do cops ever use excessive or deadly force? If I was allowed to ride along, I could easily make the cop feel inhibited. Then I’d never find out the answer to my question. Instead, I should seek out the precinct where trouble has been happening most often, and introduce myself to the officer who faces the most difficult patrols, explaining how I want to show what he or she faces. I can wait until my presence is no longer a novelty, and for long nights when we are in the midst of hectic and pressure-filled neighborhoods. Then we’ll see what’s really happening. That’s a story I’d love to see, and it’s really no different than what I did in Rhodesia.

Should a young war journalist who wants to be in the field regularly even think of marriage?

To be effective and successful as a war correspondent, I focused all of my energy and attention on the challenges at hand. Choices about whom to trust, what risks to take, which rock to hide behind, and how long to stay have entirely different answers when taking a loved one into account. Not the least of these remains:  Is any of this worth it? Compared to what?

To be a loving and attentive spouse, one can no longer do that kind of work as intensely. A marriage could work well as long as the spouse already shares the same values, for instance on social justice, and perhaps might even team up for some of the same projects. In my own family, the arrival of a baby changed these decisions completely. My son would be needing me, and rightfully never want to be second place behind any other calling. That’s when I turned to being an editor.

As a photojournalist, how do you feel about citizen journalism in the era of the Internet? If you could put the Net back in a bottle, would you?

No. Back in 1978, I predicted that one day ordinary folks would have an unlimited forum for sharing their stories. Full disclosure? I predicted it would happen on community access cable TV. To live up to the full potential of the Net, we’ll all have to become much better with our cameras, and much more eloquent story tellers

Has the rise of the videographer diminished the role of the photojournalist (if we limit the term to still photography)? 

Practically speaking, yes; but on a neurological level, we now know that the brain stores memory in still images. They are discrete assemblies of symbols that are cemented together by emotion. The iconic moment caught by Eddie Adams when a Vietcong prisoner was shot point-blank in the head exists as both a newsreel and a still photo. When asked to recall it, people describe the photo because that’s how we retrieve all images. The most memorable YouTube videos of the future will combine action with moments over which we can linger as long as we like.

Best preparation for earning a living as a photojournalist, especially a war correspondent?

Be thoroughly well-read, especially with unconventional sources. In addition to the Atlantic and Mother Jones, American journalists should study VICE.com, the BBC, al-Jazeera, Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV.

Education?

As crazy as tuition has become, and tempting as it might be to skip out of class, there will still be times later in life when a bachelor’s degree is the non-negotiable ticket to go where you want to go.

Pick your first love and then combine that equally with a devotion to journalism. A specialist in medicine, foreign diplomacy or key languages who then becomes an educated and skillful storyteller will be the most valuable person for editors to hire.

Favorite books?

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell is an excellent introduction to universal story making.

Minamata by W. Eugene Smith remains my favorite single title, fully cinematic in it’s scope and emotional satisfaction. Big, life-long impressions were left by required school reading from high school: Animal Farm and 1984 by Orwell; Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury.  A later favorite was Dispatches by Michael Herr.

How else can young photojournalists improve the odds?

AngleCoverIt’s crucial to find a project that holds personal, long-term satisfactions. If you have a calling for snowy mountains, tropical jungles, or animals in the sea, listen to that and don’t let go. Just don’t show them in the typical way. By slowly applying high analytical standards along with those built-in, emotional and aesthetic values, time will respect what time has made. That’s the impression that editors and viewers will link to you for a long time.

You recommend going for stories that the crowd isn’t doing. But is that enough, when editors so often want to go with the pack?

Even though we see so many journalists crowded into the pack, I’m convinced there is no future in that. Maybe it’s just my instinctive dread of working that way.

At the extreme other end, however, we can’t be marooned at that strange, exotic story that no one has never heard of. That won’t be enough. I can’t relate to some far-off tribe when it is presented in a dry, clinical or preachy way. The best stories tie into large, universal themes that we all share, ones that explore our primal emotions, but that haven’t been forthrightly and succinctly explored so far.

Any thought on the best equipment to use in various situations?

I wish iGlass hadn’t been stigmatized so soon. The public often feels repelled by new technologies when there’s actually little change compared to what we’ve had for a long time. Airbrushing in Photoshop? Flying cameras on drones? During most of my assignments, I always tried to remain as quiet, self-contained and invisible as I could.

And what about digital vs. old-fashioned?

Evaluate the photo based on what’s actually there for the viewer. Otherwise, how it was achieved holds little interest for me.

The issue of permanence, the long archival life of the images, is very important. I’m grateful to all the technicians who work so hard to make photography as much like our own vision as possible. I don’t tackle that side at all. I prefer to concentrate on the strategies and stories.

Why did you self-publish your present book and do it as an e-book rather than a paper book? As a beta–in preparation for a paper edition?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         This new publishing venture by Amazon is an unusual hybrid. They set limits on file size, and how the photos had to be prepared. We negotiated a commission and went over a variety of publishing options. Then I submitted my typescript. They converted it into their own format for the Kindle edition. Because my book would have a high profile and I included 200 high impact photos, they decided to use the book as a promotional piece for the introduction of their new Voyage e-reader, and as a free premium for anyone subscribing to their new flat-rate book subscription service, Kindle Unlimited. So far, I have been very pleased with the promotion Amazon has given it. The price of an eBook makes it much more likely that a broad audience will see it, and the most important clincher for me was that they didn’t try to shrink the book’s length. This allowed me to cram 40 years of my career into one volume. With any other publisher, it would have been cut by half or two-thirds.

Now that I’ve successfully issued this e-edition, I’d be happy to see it in print or as an audio book or converted into stories for the small or big screen.  

If confession is good for the journalistic soul, what have been your own mess-ups?

Across the years, I placed the importance of the story above all else. That may just be my own crazed way of focusing on one thing at the expense of all others. I’m sure that concessions could have been made for the sake of people—subjects, colleagues, editors, readers—but I refused. I wonder now if I could have alienated fewer people but kept telling stories that were just as strong.

(Thanks to Baughman for permission to publish the photographs here, including the 2011 self-portrait above. Media people and others can reach him at jrossbaughman@gmail.com.)

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