Howard Rosenberg’s Much-Traveled News Career
I am a sucker for stories about fellow Omahans who have left this place and made successes of themselves on a national scale. One such subject is Howard Rosenberg, a much-honored newsman whose career in investigative journalism has seen him break major stories over the past three decades or more. I did this profile on him for the Jewish Press in Omaha and I share it here because Rosenberg’s life and career add up to a good yarn that I think a general readership will find interesting. You be the judge.
Howard Rosenberg’s Much-Traveled News Career
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
The pursuit of a hot story brought ABC news producer Howard Rosenberg from the network’s Washington, D.C. bureau to his hometown of Omaha in mid-September. He was on the trail of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an avid Husker football fan who attended the September 15 Nebraska-Southern Cal football game.
Thomas’ wife, Ginni, is a native Nebraska and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln grad.
While in state Thomas was interviewed by ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg. Rosenberg produced that segment as well as other recent interviews Greenburg conducted with Thomas, who’s plugging his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. The Thomas segments produced by Rosenberg ran October 1 on Good Morning America, World News Tonight with Charles Gibson and Nightline.
Growing up in Omaha, Rosenberg and his family attended Beth Israel Synagogue. His late parents were Monroe and Pearl Rosenberg. His two siblings, Marilyn Tripp and Maynard Rosenberg, reside in Omaha.
A veteran print and television journalist, Rosenberg’s been on the hunt for news since entering the U.S. Navy in 1972. He went in on the promise his nascent journalism skills, first developed at Omaha Central High School, would find good use in the service. They did. He edited a service magazine and freelanced.
For much of his news career he’s done investigative reporting, perhaps the highest calling for a journalist. It’s a mission he takes quite seriously. He said while “there’s a solitary aspect” to the research “there’s also an excitement to it; that you’re on the chase and you’re really searching for something and you’re looking for that moment, for that document, for that bit of information that’s going to make a difference. It’s very satisfying in that regard.”
He’s uncovered some major wrongdoings in his time, from top secret documents revealing illegal U.S. government-sponsored human experiments to tapes implicating key players in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages operation.
After more than 30 years in the business, including a long stint at CBS, he remains remarkably unjaded, especially given he’s spent much of that time in Washington, D.C. He possesses the healthy skepticism necessary to do his job, but not the cynicism you might expect. At 55, he retains the same faith in his profession — and the difference it can make in people’s lives — that he did when he first got into it.
“The end result and the objective is to help people understand something or learn something they didn’t know before,” he said. “There’s a concept in Judaism, that sort of underpins the ethos of the faith, of tikkun olam, which means repair the world. And anytime you meet a young journalist they generally all have the same sort of idealism — that they’re going to go out and change the world.
“I think of it very much as a calling and something that is a useful career for people like us to do because I think in some small measure you accomplish a minor repair by stitching up a hole of knowledge on something that’s important.”
His repairs have come for many prestigious news groups. He’s written pieces for Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Progressive, Parade, The Washington Post and The New York Times. He’s produced in-depth segments for the CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, ABC World News Tonight, Primetime Live and Nightline. None of it might have happened, though, without his hitch in the Navy. He was 21 and unsure what to do with his life. All he had going for him was an ability to write. The Navy gave him a focus to perfect his craft.
“Navy recruiters were so anxious to get someone who could write a declarative sentence, which I could, they guaranteed me I could be a Navy journalist,” Rosenberg said from the Regency Marriott he stayed in during his recent visit. “They also gave me the rank of E3 out of boot camp, which meant I made more than my fellow recruits, which was fine with me.”
His reason for joining the Navy, rather than another branch of service, was quirky.
“Truth? I don’t like to wear ties and with a Navy uniform you don’t have to wear a tie. It’s as simple as that,” he said, smiling broadly.
He had enlisted in the service after “a very undistinguished academic career” at UNL, where he piled up lots of credits in creative writing and journalism, but came away with little else to show for his time there.
The Navy “was a fantastic turn of events for me,” he said, “because it gave me time to mature and I worked in a very interesting job.” The experience gave him a training ground to “hone” his skills for his subsequent news career.
After his honorable discharge he studied journalism at George Washington University, an elite private college in the nation’s capitol. “I could never have afforded to go,” he said, “without my Uncle Sugar paying the tab.”
The 1976 honors grad soon landed his first big break — as an associate editor of the late muckraker, Jack Anderson, in Washington, D.C., where Rosenberg’s been based his entire career. He, his wife and their two sons live in Chevy Place, Md.
Before Rosenberg ever went to work for Anderson, he’d been told he was cut from the same prickly mold as the crusading news hound.
“There was a lieutenant — one of the last commanders I worked for in the particular (Navy) division I was in — who saw me as somewhat of an iconoclast. I was a bit of a troublemaker, And one day this lieutenant said to me, ‘You know, Rosenberg, you’re kind of a (epithet) and you ought to go work for that other (epithet) — Jack Anderson.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s not a bad idea,’ and so I did.”
Rosenberg joined a group of idealistic journalists flush with power-of-the-press ambitions in the wake of Woodward-Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate cover up.
“Jack had at that point won a Pulitzer Prize and he had a staff of young turks who were all in their 20s, many of whom went onto careers in journalism,” he said. Besides Rosenberg and the lofty credits he’s since accrued, there were: Howard Kurtz, now a Washington Post reporter; Brit Hume, an ABC correspondent; Gary Cohen, a Pulitzer-winner with the Baltimore Sun and now an L.A. Times reporter; and Hal Burton, part of the Pulitzer-team at the Seattle Times.
“A lot of good journalists came out of there,” Rosenberg said. “It was a great place to work. I was 25 years old and I had a press credential that got me into press conferences at the White House, where I would go and ask questions of the President of the United States. It was very exciting.”
In Anderson, Rosenberg found “very much a mentor.”
“He was a Mormon, so he was very paternal. You know, ‘We’re all a big family.’ We played together, we worked together. I learned a lot,” Rosenberg said.
Looking back, the Omahan was fated to be a writer and a storyteller, which is how he ultimately thinks of himself.
“I had an interest not just in journalism but in writing, much of which was encouraged both by my late mother and by a teacher I had at Omaha Central High School named John Joseph Francis Keenan. He was just an inspirational teacher.”
The late Keenan preceded Rosenberg in the school’s hall of fame, whose distinguished ranks include many notables in the fields of arts and sciences. Rosenberg was accepted to the hall in 2005.
Rosenberg’s mother, the former Pearl Schneider, was a Central grad herself. Her inclinations sparked his own passions. “She was a great fan of moviedom and I loved to go to movies. She took me to movies when I was a child,” he recalled. What fascinated him most weren’t the actors but the stories. Somebody had to write the scenarios, after all, and thus began a lifelong interest in screen writing. “I always liked that aspect of the medium and thought a lot about it,” he said.
Rosenberg wrote a book, Atomic Soldiers (1980), “hoping it would become a movie.” It did. The book details how American servicemen were recklessly exposed to harmful levels of radiation during Cold War atomic weapons tests. It relied in part on classified documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It took a lot of digging, a lot of persistence. With docs in hand he felt emboldened, as his old boss Jack Anderson used to say, that “now the story can be told…”
“I was very interested in what happened to these soldiers,” he said. “The story of the atomic tests on soldiers had never really been told in the mass media since the time it happened…and then it was cast in a very controlled way by the federal government because it was all part of a Cold War propaganda strategy.”
Atomic Soldiers began as a magazine article but the more research he did the more he realized it was a subject that demanded a more thorough telling. The process of going from page to screen took longer than he imagined. Nine years to be exact. He said it took so long because the ultra-conservative political climate then was not receptive to learning that American servicemen were used as human guinea pigs by their own country in tests that compromised their health. The soldiers were not told of the risks they faced. His book’s subtitle says it all: American Victims of Nuclear Experiments. “A lot of political ground had to be covered. There was not a lot of interest in taking on that subject anywhere,” he said. “It was a very difficult movie to get made.”
Screenwriter Tom Cook (China Syndrome) eventually adapted the book for a 19889 TNT cable movie called Nightbreakers starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. The film version pleased Rosenberg.
“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “You know how authors always say, ‘Ah, they butchered my book.’ I didn’t feel that way at all. I mean, Tom (Cook) wrote a fictionalized teleplay and it was its own work of art…his own artistic vision of the story and the best way to tell the story. It was like a dream come true in the sense that here was a story I had written that was made into a movie. My only regret was that my mother didn’t live to see it.”
As often happened in his career, one project led to another. His book research got him onto another story he then developed into a cover expose for Mother Jones, which in turn first brought him to the attention of network TV news.
“The article in Mother Jones grew out of a minor, sort of sidebar I learned about in writing my book,” he said. “It was about these children who were taken to a chamber” at a federal cancer care center in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “and (unwittingly) exposed to total body irradiation in an effort to cure them of various forms of blood malignancies — leukemia and so forth. These human experiments were conducted on behalf of NASA and the old Atomic Energy Commission” from 1957 to 1974 and “used nuclear sources on children.” The article suggested some of the children were denied conventional therapy in favor of the radical radiation treatment. “Every one of them died,” Rosenberg said of the young patients.
He can still hardly believe what horrors the children suffered in the name of science. The more he dug, the more it resembled Frankenstein or, more chilling yet, the Nazi medical experiments of World War II.
“It was almost like science fiction,” he said. “The more I Iearned about it it seemed like something out of someone’s imagination. Not to disparage him, but one of the physicians who ran this clinic had a deformity…a hunch back.”
Rosenberg was so struck by the story he revisited it 12 years later — this time as producer of a 60 Minutes segment. “I was able, through a source I had, to get into the chamber” where the experiments were done. The space was now a storage room. “I took back a woman who had lived in that chamber with her child while he was being irradiated, so she was irradiated, too.” The woman he brought to the site of so much grief was the mother of Dwayne Sexton, who died at age 6.
The Mother Jones story “got a lot attention. All three networks did stories on their nightly news broadcasts about this story I had written,” he said. New opportunities soon presented themselves. One came from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which approached Rosenberg and colleague Howard Kohn to open a Washington bureau. The two journalists, collaborators on Rolling Stone and Outside Magazine pieces, directed a year-long project on nuclear arms policy. By this time Rosenberg had become identified as an expert on the topic.
“I learned a lot about nuclear weapons — how they’re made, what effects they have, who the people are designing them, what the national security plans and implications of having a nuclear arsenal are. It was all part of my research.”
Thus, he said, he got “pigeonholed…every time somebody wanted to know something about nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons policy or testing, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go to the guy that wrote that book.’”
His specialization paid dividends when the networks came calling.
“A certain light went on and I started asking myself, Well, why not cut out out the middle man? And that was really kind of one of those seminal moments where you sort of figure things out and say, This could be a really stimulating way to go — to combine my limited skills as a writer with my interest in visual media,” he said.
For his first forays into TV he still kept one foot in the print world, filing stories for both magazines and the networks.
“In those days the networks were interested in expanding their reach into investigative reporting,” he said. “But there weren’t a lot of people in television who were familiar with the kind of rigorous and mind-numbing work you have to do in investigative reporting. There was a fellow who worked at the time for the CBS Evening News who had an idea to go to people who were doing investigative reporting and form partnerships with them.”
The way it worked was a publication like Mother Jones and a network like CBS would work cooperatively on select projects, combining resources to break stories at the same time. The idea appealed to Rosenberg as it introduced him to the way television news is done, got his foot in the door at the networks, netted his stories bigger audiences and compensated him better than before.
“It was fine with me because investigative reporting is not just tedious and labor intensive, it’s time intensive,” he said, “and so you spend an awful lot of time for a relatively modest return in terms of financial renumeration.”
He began at CBS, then the most respected name in TV news. Icons abounded. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace.
“It was really a very heady place with just a storied history,” he said. “There were just a lot of wonderful reporters there. George Herman, Robert Shackney. All these legendary names. People with great pipes, great voices.”
He began by working directly for Rather, who’d just taken over the anchor slot, from Cronkite, on the CBS Evening News. Rosenberg was one of the producers of the taped segment that preceded Rather’s famously contentious 1988 interview with then-candidate George Bush. He eventually moved over to 60 Minutes. He found working for the original news magazine, “a very, very rewarding experience.” His mentor was its creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt.
“I learned a lot from Don Hewitt, whose mandate was, ‘Tell me a story.’ Some people describe 60 Minutes as formulaic and mean it as a disparagement, but at the same time it is a formula that works in terms of storytelling. It has its limitations, as all of us as storytellers do. It is in some ways very black and white. You’re got your good guy and your bad guy and there’s not a lot of gray.
“There’s a certain pattern of the process that’s in some ways quite predictable. But at the same time it’s very comfortable.”
He worked on too many stories he liked, including several included among Classic 60 Minutes, to easily name his favorites. “The truth is usually the story I’m working on is the one that I like the best,” he said.
Pressed, he cited the story about the human experimentation at Oak Ridge. “That’s one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “I was very proud of that. The first story I ever did for 60 Minutes, called ‘The World’s Biggest Shopping Spree,’ was sort of a tour of these giant warehouses that covered hundreds of acres of Defense Department supplies in storage since the Korean War.
That’s one of my favorites.”
Then there was Olliegate.
“It was only a minute and 30 seconds, but it had quite an impact,” he said, referring “to the story of the security system outside of then-Colonel Oliver North’s house that ended up getting him indicted and sort of unraveled the entire criminal enterprise. All of the people involved in that (Iran-Contra operation run by North) were indicted under federal conspiracy charges.”
All the convictions were overturned on appeal, he added.
Other Rosenberg segments for 60 Minutes range from the controversial “Confessions of a Tobacco Lobbyist” to “The Letter,” a two-part probe of jury-tampering during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
In’ 97 he left CBS for “a better offer” from ABC. The new post allowed him more time at home with his family. Not long into his ABC tenure he found himself in the awkward position of investigating former friends and colleagues at CBS. Rather had come under fire over a 60 Minutes report that offered documents purportedly showing President George W. Bush shucked a portion of his National Guard service.
Rosenberg said, “It was actually quite ironic in the sense that I ended up not just reporting on it but discovering the information that ended up unraveling the entire cover up by CBS” — hence known as Memogate. “I found two document examiners who had been consulted by 60 Minutes and by Dan Rather’s producer. They warned CBS the documents could not be authenticated. I also visited with the nation’s finest expert on typewriters. He said very explicitly it was impossible for any typewriter of that particular vintage to have created a superscript ‘th’ in the way it appeared in the documents. That was only possible in the computer age.”
“It was a joyless scoop,” said Rosenberg, as the fallout from the ABC report “ultimately led I think to Rather’s fall. I have a lot of personal affection and admiration for him. He is a person of great personal courage and great integrity.”
The two men have since met and spoken about the affair “and to his credit,” Rosenberg said, Rather “did not hold it against me because he understood himself as a journalist that the ultimate arbiter of what we do is the truth.”
Nightline assignments keep Rosenberg on the move. In the past year alone he’s been to: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Afghanistan; Lebanon and China. He’s produced segments featuring the first network TV interviews with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and coverage of the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse.
His ABC credits also include: writing/producing the hour-long specials, “Rumsfeld’s Rules of War” and “9/11: Moment of Crisis;” co-writing/co-producing the hour-long reports, “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden,” “Attack on the USS Cole,” “American Terrorist: In His Own Words” and a special Nightline edition, “The Lost Convoy” — the story of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company ambushed in Iraq.
He’s often asked, what does a producer do? His answer: “Whatever you have to do to put the light in the box.” Any news segment, he said, is a team effort and “I can’t say enough about how important each part of the team is to the process, from the editors and audio engineers to the graphic artists to the producer to the correspondent. To the guy you hire to stand there at the entrance to the hotel with a flak jacket on and a semi-automatic rifle to make sure nobody comes in.”
“The collaborative nature of television is what I find most exciting and satisfying because unlike the solitary tedium of investigative reporting, you’re part of a team and there’s a real team spirit, especially in a show like Nightline. And especially when news is breaking or when you’re in a war zone, it’s just such an enveloping feeling. People bring different strengths and skills to the process.”
Ultimately Rosenberg is a journalist because of his undying “curiosity,” the same quality, he said, “that makes for any good journalist and makes this a great career for people who are interested in learning. When I talk to young people and they ask me about journalism I say…it’s a great career for people with short attention spans and…for people who like to go to school. What you do is you learn everything you can possibly learn about something and then you have a final exam, which in this case is you write your story or produce your segment. And then you forget about it and go on to the next thing. It’s like you’re a student all the time.”
It all sometimes seems too good to be true.
“I just feel so fortunate I want to pinch myself and say how lucky I am. Wow. And I’m getting paid to do this,” he said.
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