By Maury Z. Levy
For a minute there, I was a household word. I spoke to a friend of mine who was working out on the coast for a week. “Hey,” I told her, “you missed my big splash in Washington.”
“Like hell,” she said, “I saw you on two different networks here in L. A. I loved the green suit.”
And the next day, in the New York Times story, I was the only member of the press mentioned, which, of course, finally made me an official person. And then I got home to find myself on the front page of the Bulletin. So much for stardom.
I had been called a few weeks earlier by somebody on Walter Mondale’s staff. Walter Mondale is the senator from Minnesota who is thinking of maybe running for President. Anyway, this person said that Mondale had just finished reading my story on black market adoptions [“The Baby Peddlers,” February]. The aide said that Mondale was very impressed and disturbed by the story and that, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, he was very interested in making a federal case out of it. And he wanted me to help him.
Having ducked the Vietnam war, I figured it was the least I could do for my country. I gave Mondale the names and phone numbers of many of the sources in my story, and even a few who weren’t in the story. And I was asked if I would be willing to come down to Washington myself to testify, if needed. I, of course, said yes. I thought it would be nice to see the cherry blossoms this time of year.
What I saw was the inside of a television studio. Well, it wasn’t a real television studio. It was actually this giant hearing room on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, lighted like the testimony scene in Godfather II. What had promised to be a nice little hearing in front of some concerned senators had turned into the biggest public circus since Watergate. I just wish they had told me about it. I would have tried to bring Maureen Dean to sit in back of me.
There were a half-dozen television film cameras on tripods and a few more hand-held jobs. And there were all these flash cameras and dozens of people with pencils.
I should have known better. My formal request to testify carried a command with it: “Subcommittee rules require that you submit 100 copies of your prepared written statement.” I called them down in Mondale’s office and asked them why they would want 100 copies of anything. I was told they expected to get a lot of press mileage out of this thing.
When I walked into the hearing room, blinded by the light, I was ushered to the witness row. It was hardly impressive. There were a couple of people from my story there and a lawyer and a couple of other press people who’d done some reporting on the subject.
“This is it?” I asked one of the aides. “This is the best you could do?”
“Well,” she said, “we’d hoped to have more time to find more people and more evidence, but we found out another subcommittee was planning to investigate the adoption hustles and we just didn’t want to get scooped on this thing. You know how it is.”
Yeah, I knew how it was, all right. Unfortunately, I’d gone through the same number when 1 was getting my story together. It made me pretty sick then, too. This is supposed to be public service. We’re talking about the lives of infants, about the life savings of parents. And there are just times like that in this business when you have to throw all the competitive bullshit aside and try to help people. But it just doesn’t work that way.
Before our story came out, Channel 10 here ran a series on black market adoption practices. Fine. There was only so much they could do. And we wanted to take our story passed that, to get more depth and fresher information. We called the people at Channel 10 and asked for their cooperation. The news director there let us see the series again. That was appreciated and credited several times in our story. But the reporter who put the thing together, one Jim Walker, withheld information. He had a letter from a lawyer that had been sent to an adoptive parent. The parent told us we could use the letter in the story, but that she had given her only copy to Walker. But Walker wouldn’t give it to us. He told us he thought he’d worked longer on the story than we had, and that he got it first. So much for public service.
Anyway, back to Washington, which at this point was starting to look more like Hollywood. As each witness got up and told of the further atrocities of the baby-peddling racket, the cameras rolled and the pencils were pushed. Various senators on the committee—Mondale, Randolph, Taft and others each made their official statements for the record. Each was appalled, of course, and each wanted some federal legislation to halt the practice.
Now, this is not to say their intentions weren’t honorable. It’s just to say that I was a little annoyed to have found myself to be an unwitting member of the circus troupe. If the honorable senators wanted to get themselves some good PR by “exposing” this thing on every television station and newspaper front page in the country, that’s their business. I don’t approve of it, but I’m just one humble taxpayer. What I am not is a PR man. There are times when I still consider myself a journalist. And the two are not to be confused.
I had a very nice written statement prepared for the senators. And 100 people had copies of it. And I threw the thing away and decided to ad lib. I told them of some of the practices we found in Philadelphia, how lawyers and their agents hung out in front of pregnancy-testing clinics using a lot of money to entice girls into selling their babies. And I told them the going price for a baby here was $17,000 now. And that’s the stuff that made the networks, and that’s the stuff that made the front page because that’s the stuff that was the good copy.
The senators didn’t look too happy when I told them, in front of those cameras and pencils, that I thought the whole thing was pretty much of a waste, that there was next to nothing that could be done by the federal legislation they were proposing because, when you got to the bottom line, baby peddling had little to do with the feds. It was a dirty-dealing practice consummated in some dark hallways of local hospitals, okayed by local judges who weren’t much up to investigating or asking questions. And the only thing federal legislation would really do is tighten the market a little and drive the prices even higher.
But nobody wanted to hear that. It wasn’t what they were there for. It wasn’t the kind of comment that would make them look good to the folks back home. So they chose to ignore it. And it will remain buried forever somewhere in the back pages of the Congressional Record. But that’s show biz. I only wished they had told me about their little road show before. If I had known I was going to be such a big TV star, I would have at least had my nose fixed.