Say It With Feeling: Megastars, Media Tsars, Trailblazing TV: Memoirs of a Prime Time Warrior

Born and raised in the Mid-West, Gerald Stone, whose father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who got his start in America as a bootlegger, moved to Australia in 1962 with his family and began writing for the Sydney Mirror newspaper.

Here are some highlights from this 2011 book:

* Journalists in any country tend to treat various types of newsworthy events in the same way over and over… As a newcomer I brought the precious asset of a fresh pair of eyes, along with the sharpened perception of a stranger eager to make his mark. My writing styles stood out as different from what Australian readers were used to and I made an extra effort to explain things that my colleagues regarded as too commonplace to bother with… At this stage many Australians were still burdened by the reticence of their British heritage, unused to discussing their feelings, and that reluctance to delve too deeply was reflected in the press coverage… As a recently arrived American, I was constantly being made fun of for the stereotypical image of an entire population obsessed with psychoanalyzing itself, but my background did make me more prone to pursue issues most of my Aussie colleagues treated as taboo…

* Australians treated their beaches with the reverence of open-air reverence cathedrals.

* When mates got together, they did so on the basis of absolute equality… Wives and girlfriends immediately introduced an unsettling point of differentiation, in their looks and manner commonly seen as an important measure of a man’s success in life…

* Americans…earnest and idealistic, Aussies more reserved and skeptical… [Aussies are] less burdened by sentimentality and over-eagerness to please, more skeptical and quick on the draw with a deflating remark…

* [In 1964 in Sydney, John] Lennon [asked]: “How’d you get into this country? I thought they had a White Australia Policy.”

* [Picture theater manager Samuel Raymond said:] “If he’s got Abo blood, he’s got only one place and that’s with the other darkies. They all smell, are ignorant, and drink too much. People from the outside just don’t understand what they’re like.”

* The Aussies by comparison [in Vietnam] could only seem like ragamuffins, slogging around camp in mud-stained shorts, boots, floppy hats and singlets. By US military standards, their relationship with their officers bordered on the mutinous.

* Australia in 1967 had been ruled for 18 years by conservative parties by then riddled with faction-fighting and running out of energy and ideas. The Labor opposition had long since been reduced to a snarling rabble fighting for scraps of patronage doled out by entrenched union bosses… Governments at the state level were rife with petty corruption… The media…was largely dominated by four wealthy dynasties with no interest in change… Even the ABC was under the tight control of a clique of well-connected old boys who thought of themselves as career public servants…

* I was entranced by the visual medium’s far greater emotive impact compared to print — how something as simple as a momentary pause or tightening of the lips could alert the public… [Through TV one relates to subjects intuitively rather than intellectually.] In those first few months I often thought back to my UPI days and how keen I had been to make the facts come alive for the reader by injecting my copy with that spine-tingling electric ripple. The visual medium, in contrast, was like working amid the giant dynamos of a veritable power station. My job as an on-air reporter was to put all the elements in place and then know exactly when to get out of the way so as not to stand between the viewer and a high-voltage moment… Seeing is believing…

* The Packers were considered the most right-wing of all the Australian media dynasties.

* Rupert Murdoch was as relaxed and open as Kerry Packer was uptight and guarded. Murdoch had bigger ambitions.

* David Frost was as charming and charismatic in person as he came across on screen, but not for a moment longer than he needed to be. The veins in his temple were as easy to read as a stopwatch — flashing purple to let you know precisely to the second when your time with him was over. Then it was back to business for him, moving on to devote himself to another one of perhaps a dozen other projects… As his producer, I was expected to come up with a format guaranteed to make the maximum use of him doing interviwes and pieces to camera, but within a minimal amount of time.

* David Frost…was a quintessential TV personality, a skilled performer trained to communicate with his viewers at every level: not just through the words he chose but the varying rhythm and pitch of his intonation. More than with voice alone, he spoke with his eyes, the tilt of his head, his every expression and gesture… It was in the [Thai] poppy field, when I experienced my epiphany. Journalists might be highly trained in the art of gathering information, but they weren’t half as effective communicators as David Frost… The facts…didn’t sell themselves. It took someone willing and able to use every trick in the trade to get their message across to the audience — to say it with feeling.

* Shortly after coming to power in 1971 Amin expelled the country’s entire Asian community — merchants, factory owners, doctors, lawyers and civil servants — leaving the economy close to ruin… By the time we arrived, shops were empty of goods, food scarce…

* [TV news reporters at 60 Minutes] needed to become as warm and animated in their delivery as they might at a lively dinner party with close friends. Whatever the story, tell it in a way that made each viewer think you were speaking directly to them — with such feeling that they couldn’t help but listen and care.

* George Negus was the first to emerge as a star…little wonder, given his readiness to throw aside the old conventions demanding journalistic detachment and give vent to his feelings… Ray Martin’s ABC training made it more difficult for him to break free from the self-imposed restraints of a cool and collected newsman.

* TV stardom is the ability to come across as the kind of natural, friendly person anyone could easily relate to.

* Aussies tend to take life less seriously than Americans and are much less prone to hold strong views on personal-choice issues such as sexual morality or religion.

* Journalists in Australia were forever wishing that they could operate under American-style defamation laws…but in a federal system of 50 states, these laws were built on a house of straw.

* Australia and America are about the same size, but Australia’s population is far more homogeneous in their customs and outlook. One could travel from Brisbane to Perth hearing pretty much the same accent, eating the same foods prepared the same way, able to expect a common standard of behavior and common attitudes about the most important things in life. American society…retained strong regional differences not just in accent and dietary preferences but in fundamental values… There was, however, a more sinister side of living in a country where individual communities employed their own police forces and enforced their own standards of law and order, where a stranger travelling through couldn’t be confident of the quality of justice accorded him should he have a car accident or become caught up in a misunderstanding with a local shopkeeper…aka Easy Rider and Deliverance…

* Along with the overdue changes in race relations, I found that the United States had also come a long way in improving welfare payments…though generally nowhere near the levels in Australia. Many Americans, even those in low-wage obs, still retained an almost paranoid suspicion of creeping socialism…

* There was another element of the American dream that most Aussies would have found beyond the pale. Success, as defined by many middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans, was not just based on how much wealth one accrued. Their competitiveness went on to encompass their personal lives at every level: exclusive country club, being recognized as among the biggest donors to their church, ensuring that their wives turned eyes at ever function with their expensive clothes and jewelry, and that their children attended the most prestigious universities… Given this preoccupation with money and status, many Americans pronounced themselves astounded at the way Aussies would “waste” so much of their time on sport and leisure.

* Americans put a lot of time and effort into food. Back in Sydney, if I were holding an urgent production meeting that ran over, I would call for some chicken or ham-and-cheese sandwiches and not expect to hear a murmer of dissent. In New York in a similar situation the entire meeting would grind to a halt as a selection of menus from the nearest fast-food stores was passed around to ponder — one person to order Mexican, another Chinese…

* America is surely the most dynamic society — pulsing with an energy that almost makes you tingle.

* I was also responsible for overseeing a five-day-a-week, half-hour program called A Current Affair. The name was borrowed from the Australian original, but there all similarity ended… The brain child of Peter Brennan, an Aussie brought to New York by Murdoch, it prospered on a heady mix of gossip and sensation… Brennan was able to detect the stifling layers of guilt and repression infused through the society at almost every level. All too many Americans led double lives: holier-than-thou in their public persona, yet fascinated…in the more carnal of human impulses. Nowhere was this pretentiousness more evident than among the journalistic elite working for the national networks. For the most part they insisted on adopting an oh-so-serious front, pushing news stories they thought people should watch rather than the earthier stuff they were really interested in.

* The United States had its own yellow press, but nothing compared to the cutthroat Aussie version, with its utter contempt for scruples…

* ACA could hardly be judged a successful program if it was damaging the best interests of the network that had established it, scaring away major advertisers, causing many big-name celebrities to boycott Fox.

* I found the south-western states — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona — to share more of the characteristics of Australia…more oriented to outdoor lifestyle, less preoccupied with self-examination, rawer in their humor, and not quite as intense and earnest as most of their countrymen…yet even they suffered from tippy-toe syndrome [fear of litigation]… A misjudged word, a joke overheard in a bar, a compliment interpreted as a slur — any one of them could be enough to damage someone’s promising career…

* Each of us carries a certain amount of psychological baggage throughout our life, the burdens we put on ourselves to live up to the expectations of our parents or be seen as successful by our peers or regarded as respectable citizens in the communities we live. Americans, though, seem to carry more guilt per brain cell than almost any other nationality… It was easy to see why they should take such a liking to the Aussies, with their freer and easier manner and absolute refusal to censor themselves for fear of causing offence. They still cracked jokes about nymphos and poofters and gammy-legged cripples and blacks with big swinging dicks… Canadians see both Aussies and Yanks as brash, aggressive, materialistic, and chauvinist…

* The one talent the Americans had that left the Aussies for dead was their unrivaled gift of the gab. If they spent far too much time pondering what they should eat for their lunch, they were positively insatiable in their need to talk things out…

* In my ten years as head of Australia’s most influential television program, I was never once phoned by a friend to ask if I might consider giving a job to one of their grown-up children. As soon as I hit the ground in New York, I started receiving such pleading calls… Personal ambitions, like everything else in Australian life, were usually tempered by the unspoken rule of never allowing yourself to appear too pushy.

* Another unexpected disappointment for me was the [timid] behavior of the middle-level executives.

* Americans tend to view whatever military campaign the nation embarks upon as a God-given mission, not something decided by men alone.

* Many of the Americans who joined Fox in New York would have been wary of how far the Australians were prepared to go in trashing tried and true journalistic traditions. Typically, though, spurred on by that extremist streak that runs through so much of American life, they soon came to embrace the new genre of tabloid television with all the passion of religious converts…

* In Australian culture [fair play] ranked as the most important of all virtues, to Americans much less so, given their heavy dependence on courts of law to determine the boundaries of acceptable conduct… In Australia, a handshake was still widely regarded as a bond of honour.

* I was simply not cut out to serve as a high-level manager within the American corporation, prepared to do whatever was required to advance the company’s interests… That kind of iron-willed executive — the Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap prototype — is virtually non-existent in Australia… “The corporate ethos does not really fit into the Australian culture that emphasizes personal pleasure about all else. This inhibits a full commitment to the firm.”

* I preferred a society where men weren’t just created equal, but remained equal in each other’s eyes…

* Channel Ten was aimed at the youth market. Nine was seen as representing wealth and power… Seven represented suburban families… At Nine, the secretaries in the executive suite tended to be big-breasted blondes clicking loudly along the corridors of power in the highest of high heels… At Seven they were sedate suburban ladies of a certain age named Meryl and Beryl.

* Not until late 1960s, after Sir Frank Packer bought The Bulletin, did his new editor, Donald Horne, order the slogan “Australia for the white man” to be deleted from its masthead.

* Australians willingness to put common cause before self is so different from the ethos of individualism in America.

* I suspect as we move further into the 21st century, issues like nationality and patriotism will start to matter less and less. Even the concept of “homeland” may need to be redefined. We’ll begin to pledge allegiance to worldwide communities of shared interest…

* Book review: “The print media has always been a hybrid business. It is about selling space to advertisers to reach prospective customers. But early on newspaper proprietors realised that those prospective customers were more likely to read the ads if they were surrounded by interesting and entertaining information. News is perennially interesting. Media historian Mitchell Stephens has written that he has not been able to find a society, past or present, that lacked a hunger for news.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Australia. Bookmark the permalink.