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A tragic tale of journalism with a South Buffalo twist

Biographies more often than not provide far more information than just the life of the person in the title. "CBS's Don Hollenbeck" is no exception. In fact, Hollenbeck offers a glimpse of the good guys vs. the bad guys during a period of journalism history that soiled the profession.

Hollenbeck, as the subtitle suggests, was the good guy. The bad guy was Jack O'Brian, the issue of South Buffalo, a feisty, fist-swinging Irishman who rose to fame, of sorts, in the no-holds-bar world of New York City journalism.

Loren Ghiglione says it took him 35 years to complete "Hollenbeck," a project he started while editor and publisher of a Massachusetts newspaper, then revived 20 years later as a dean and professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. Along the way he conducted more than 120 interviews and did voluminous research, all compiled in 49 pages of citations and a 27-page bibliography.

But despite the dissertation-like attribution, "Hollenbeck" reads nothing like an academic treatise. Instead, Ghiglione gives readers a detailed look at a tragic figure in American broadcast history while offering an enlightening glimpse into a tragic era of American journalism.

Hollenbeck, whom the author never met, was intriguing because he was so talented. He rose from newspaper reporter to radio and television broadcaster fortified by his mellifluous voice and his ability to write crisply.

That made him a natural for the airwaves, but his outrage over what he saw as injurious to his craft often got him in trouble. Like the time his news program was preceded by a syrupy commercial for razor blades, and Hollenbeck opened his newscast by telling his listeners, "The atrocity you have just heard is not part of this show."

What apparently led to his downfall, and perhaps his death, was "CBS Views the Press," a program through which he commented on the state of New York City journalism. He took newspapers to task when they got facts wrong, hyped stories and just plain let editorial comment seep into news pages. Ghiglione writes:

"Hollenbeck's press criticism asked newspapers to do only the possible. Report honestly about the truly newsworthy. Avoid publishing propaganda, phony photos, and press release. Write clearly. Be fair. Monitor one another."

Enter O'Brian, who emerged from the First Ward, where he was a day laborer and grave digger, to stints as a reporter for the Buffalo Times, Buffalo Evening News and Buffalo Courier-Express. In 1943, he took a job in New York City as drama reporter for the Associated Press, then moved on to radio and television columnist for the New York Journal American.

That's when the journalistic paths of Hollenbeck and O'Brian crossed. And Ghiglione chooses a unique way of distinguishing the good vs. the evil that followed. Chapters about Hollenbeck appear in regular typeface. But when writing of O'Brian, the words appear in italic type, a kind of literary image of a black hat.

And from Ghiglione's telling, the typeface was most deserved; O'Brian might even have been responsible for Hollenbeck's death.

O'Brian and his newspaper were staunch defenders of Joseph McCarthy, the infamous senator who ruined lives and careers by attacking from his senatorial post what he perceived as the infiltration of Communism in the United States. Hollenbeck worked for CBS and with Edward R. Murrow, the journalist most credited with pulling the cloak of deceit from McCarthy. That made Hollenbecck a target for O'Brian's stinging attacks on "pinkos" and "pro-Commies" and, as Ghiglione writes, " 'too damn slanted' journalists who failed to applaud McCarthy's anti-Commie crusade."

It was a period when critics such as O'Brian castigated journalists opposed to McCarthy's tactics as unpatriotic and un-American. Kind of has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

Hollenbeck, by any measure, was no saint. He had a sometimes uncontrollable temper. He went through three divorces. He drank to excess. And, probably most damaging, he was emotionally fragile.

But, as Ghiglione reports, his colleagues admired his journalistic talents, applauded his journalistic ethics and supported his outrage at what he deemed unfair in society. O'Brian did not see it that way. He pestered O'Brian in his Journal American columns, urging CBS to fire him and Murrow.

Hollenbeck took his own life in 1954, opening the gas stove jets in his New York City apartment while most likely in a drunken stupor. He was portrayed in George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" as a man who sought solace from Murrow about the constant attacks he was receiving from O'Brian.

"He is killing me," the movie-screen Hollenbeck says, all too prophetically.

Lee Coppola is the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.

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CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism

By Loren Ghiglione

Columbia University Press

352 pages, $29.95

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