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Editor/Writer: Leon Jaroff MAG
Leon Jaroff, 73, is a retired senior editor at Time magazine. He now writes occasional stories for Time, as well as the monthly column "Skeptical Eye, " in which he debunks popular myths and attacks what he considers pseudoscience. Here, he discusses how he combined a love of science and journalism for a long and productive career.
With such an interest in science, how did you end up working in journalism?
At the University of Michigan I was sitting in an engineering mechanics class - I think it was my sophomore year - and I looked around and there were all these guys in the room, and they were all dressed the same, in dungarees with slide rules hanging from their belt loops. I had just gotten out of the Navy and I was young, so I turned to the guy next to me and asked, 'Where are all the women?' He said, 'They're over at the Michigan Daily. ' And on such small things careers are built.
Where did you go from there?
I got my degree in electrical engineering and mechanics, went to work on the Michigan Daily and became the managing editor. Then I decided I'd try to combine my two learning experiences, so I worked for Materials and Methods, an engineering magazine in New York, for about six months. I didn't much care for it, and went to work as an office boy at Life magazine.
Were you active in journalism in high school?
In high school I wrote a humor column for the school paper called"Rambling at Random. " I also used to write little poems, though I was very interested in science.
How did you end up at Time?
I'd been a fan of Time since I was in high school. In college I used to have fantasies of being a Time correspondent out covering some foreign war, with one foot up on a shell casing and a notebook in my hand, dressed in fatigues, and feverishly scribbling notes while shells whizzed overhead.
It was a boyhood fantasy. I always wanted to write for Time and the way I got to do it was by starting as an office boy for Life. I worked there for many years before I switched. Eventually I became a senior editor at Time and was in charge of the Science, Medicine, Environment and Behavior sections. Over the years I wrote something like 44 Time cover stories.
How were you involved in the creation of Discover magazine?
While writing and editing the Times tories, I began to notice that the newsstand sales of issues with science or medicine covers tended to shoot way up. Around 1971 I started suggesting to Time, Inc. that they start a science magazine. It took a long time to make their decision. In the meantime, there were Science Digest and Science News, then Omni; all those started while Time was making up its mind. That made it a much more competitive situation, and it made it more difficult for Discover to survive. Oddly enough, although Time, Inc. eventually sold it, of all those magazines, it's the only one that still exists.
What was your role at Discover?
After founding the magazine, I was managing editor for four and a half years. Then I had a little disagreement with the editor-in-chief. He wanted more psychology and psychiatry stories, and I told him I didn't think they were very solid sciences. He fired me and sent me back to Time, so I took early retirement.
Why did you choose to take early retirement?
Well, I was 60. I had a chance to write under contract, which meant that I didn't have to be a corporate employee anymore and I could write at home, which I still do. I travel occasionally to do some reporting, but I've been writing cover stories for them.
I did one on the 50th anniversary of the so-called Roswell landing, so my story basically told what really happened there. Of course, the hate mail flooded in. The magazine loves me because I generate a lot of hate mail when I knock conspiracy theories and irrational thought.
Not all my stories are like that. For example, I did a story on prostate cancer and we put Norman Schwarzkopf on the cover. He has prostate cancer. It's only within the past few years that we've been able to talk about that with a reasonable degree of comfort. I do all sorts of regular routine stories, but this is my real hobby: bashing the irrational.
Tell me about your other interests.
I am one of the founding members of a group called CSICOP, and that stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It's now a thriving worldwide organization with headquarters in Amherst, New York.
How did CSICOP get started?
The impetus for it was really Uri Gellar's appearance in this country 25 years ago. At that point I was the senior editor in charge of science for Time. A source on the West Coast said, 'The people from the Stanford Research Institute are investigating this man who, by sheer mind power, by projecting energy, can cause an electron beam to be diverted, cause objects to levitate, cause metallic objects to bend. He can read minds. '
So I sent a teletype to a couple of sources in Israel, and I knew a few people on the staff of the Research Institute. It turns out this guy had been a nightclub magician in Israel and had started making all these claims of supernatural powers. A team of professors from Hebrew University had followed him around and exposed him as a fraud, but he came to this country and everyone, including the New York Times and Barbara Walters, was totally taken in. I wrote a story in Time describing all this, and the last line was, 'At week's end, it appeared that the prestigious Stanford Research Institute had been hoodwinked by a discredited Israeli nightclub magician. '
That got others interested, and we met together in a restaurant in Manhattan. One was Randi the Magician - the famous James Randi - another was the photo editor of Popular Science and there was a psychology professor from the University of Oregon. We decided it was important to form an organization to debunk some of these fantastic claims. And that was the beginning of CSICOP.
Do you still have an active position with this group?
I think I'm called a fellow. I've given a few speeches, and I just wrote a piece for a book that commemorates the 25th anniversary. It's now run by Paul Kurtz [Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo].
What is your current status with Time?
In the masthead I'm called a contributor, which I've been since 1987. In addition to the pieces I do for them, they've given me a column called "Skeptical Eye, "which was the title of my column at Discover magazine.
For the first four years, I had this column in every issue of Discover. I looked at something -usually science, medical research or the environment - that was, in my opinion, foolish or stupid. I dealt a lot with the paranormal. I knocked the irrational, the dumb.
The things you were skeptical about?
Exactly. The month after I left Discover they did one Skeptical Eye, then dropped it because they didn't have anyone nearly as skeptical as I am. So there was this interim period of 17 years.
Then Time put out a couple of special issues around the turn-of-the-century called "Visions, " where they tried to look forward to what would happen in areas of human endeavor. They called me up one day and said, 'We'd like you to do something on alternative medicine. ' I'm known as the corporate skeptic, so I said, 'You want me to do it? You know what my feelings are!' and they said 'Yes, write what you feel. '
So I bashed alternative medicine and said people should wake up and not be suckered anymore. As usual, the hate mail came roaring in, and Time was so delighted with that, they said, 'Can we do something with this?' And I said 'How about restarting my"Skeptical Eye" column?' So the first one was about the anti-vaccination folks.
I know you write for newspapers in eastern Long Island. Do you hold a position, or are these unpaid letters?
Basically, whenever I see something totally irrational in the local press I write a letter trying to keep things sane out here, because otherwise the nuts would take over.
Who are the people who have had the greatest impact on you?
Well, I guess Inoco, who was an engineer and basically taught me to letter properly and do mechanical drawings. That sort of headed me toward technology and influenced me to get more interested in science and medical research.
James Randi, the magician, probably the greatest hoax-buster, fraud-buster and debunker in the world. He's a guy with a near-genius IQ. He's very proud of [his] profession, and really resents people who use magicians' tricks to claim they have paranormal powers.
In college, when I got out of the service after World War II, I went to Michigan. I was 21, and met Dick Molloy, who'd been in the Army eight years and was 25, which at that time was really an old man in college. His father had been the publisher and editor of the Lorain, Ohio Journal. Dick taught me an awful lot about journalism, journalistic ethics and what news pegs were.
At Time there was an assistant managing editor named Ed Jamison who helped polish my journalistic skills.
One other person who influenced me was the guy who started Time magazine, Time, Inc. and the whole Time-Warner-AOL mega-corporation, Henry Luce. I was told to shepherd him around, because he's a great man and brilliant and all that, but he doesn't know how to handle routine things like making hotel reservations. And he asks a lot of questions, they said, so just be prepared.
And he did ask a million questions. I started to think, Maybe that's what makes him a genius, that he retained his childlike curiosity. Mr. Luce would say, 'I don't understand that; what's that?' I started to think maybe this was the secret to his success. So I have tried to remain very inquisitive and almost childlike in my wonder. And I think that helps.
What were the speed bumps on the road to accomplishing your goals?
Time, Inc. is like any corporation in that there's a lot of backstabbing. Maybe not as much as in some industries, but it's there, and I was stabbed in the back a few times. Instead of quitting or getting mad, I just gritted my teeth and decided I would move ahead. It happens to everyone; just look at anyone's career, anyone who you think is successful, and just look into their background and you will find episodes of despair and anger and disappointment. It happens to everybody. It happens to people when they get near the top, because that's when everyone's out with their long knives. It's a competitive thing, sort of a gentlemanly jungle.
Do you have any regrets, perhaps not having gone headfirst into science?
Only once in awhile, when I see what's happened in electronics and say, 'Boy, I wonder what I would have done, what innovations I could have made. '
On the other hand, I don't regret for a minute having gone into journalism. It's not as remunerative as almost anything else, but my experiences include having dinner with the King and Queen of Greece, interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower, traveling with Jack Kennedy during the 1960 primary and the election campaign, spending time with Mayor Daly in Chicago, and meeting George Romney, the Governor of Michigan and a former head of American Voters who was really not qualified to be governor of Michigan, much less President of the United States, for which he was being touted for a while. Dealing with some of the real famous scientists, the Nobel Laureates. James Van Allen, who discovered the Van Allen radiation belt, I've seen him a couple times. I did a cover story on him shortly after the discovery of the radiation belts, and we've been friends ever since. So that's been very exciting. Journalism makes you parasitic in a way, because you're reporting mostly on other peoples' achievements and tragedies. But I can't think of anything that could have been more interesting.
Is there one highlight to your career that has made everything worthwhile?
Oh, boy. I have written about all the perils posed to the earth by asteroids in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, and in many stories in Time advocating more money for the astronomers who are looking for these things, hoping to stop them in plenty of time. As a result, an astronomer in California got the International Astronomical Union to name an asteroid after me. It's 7829 Jaroff, five or six miles across and, just like me, it presents no immediate threat. I guess the thing that has meant the most has been having that asteroid named for me, because when I'm long gone, my grandchildren will know about that.
One of the most exciting projects was doing a cover story on the moon landing, because that occurred after our deadline so I had to write like crazy. Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moon and made a statement, and we were out the next week with a picture of him on the cover in a spacesuit, carrying an American flag. That was very exciting.
What was the first thing you did that really set people off?
I suspect the Uri Gellar story, that got me going after all these nuts.
And that started the ball rolling?
I began to realize how much nonsense was being promulgated on television and radio, in the press, and how people were just basically promoting irrational thought. For some reason, that really bothered me. I've always been a pragmatist, but I didn't realize how much nonsense was out there. I mean, astrology - it's totally stupid, and yet there are people out herein East Hampton today who are terribly offended when I poke fun at astrology. But it's fun, great fun.
Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists, scientists, skeptics or skeptic journalists?
Basically, try to tell the truth as you see it and be as honest as possible. There's no such thing as an objective person. There are some trying to be objective who succeed somewhat, but we all have our little prejudices and quirks.
And if you're going to have a scoop, if you're going to expose somebody, you have got to make sure every fact is correct, because if you make one little mistake on even a peripheral part of your story, the critics will seize upon that to try to undermine your credibility. So accuracy is tremendous.
But then, too, you have to be able to write in a way that will attract people's attention. You can be terribly accurate and terribly factual and boring as hell and people won't read you!
I wish you luck in your career because I think you have the curiosity and I think you'd be a worthy addition to journalism. So keep it up. Don't be tempted by other professions that will probably make you more money. You want to enjoy your work, you want to be thrilled by it, and journalism is the best way to do that.
Is that off the record?