Long before she got fed up with the politics of network television, Carole Simpson was a happy warrior. I remember the time in the 70s when the circus came to town and Channel Five sent her out to the old Amphitheatre to do the story. Ringling Brothers was pitching the news angle that it was holding Chicago auditions for its clown school, and Simpson went all in. She did her stand-up wearing a funny nose, her face slathered in paint.
She e-mailed me the other day, "I have a photo in my album of TV stories with my clown face. God, I miss local news."
Simpson left Chicago in 1974 for bigger and better things, and her career followed a path Thomas Pynchon nailed in two words: gravity's rainbow. Or to put it more prosaically: the usual. At the height of her career she was weekend anchor for the ABC network news. In 1992 she moderated a presidential debate. Nightline sent her to South Africa to cover the twilight of apartheid. Well past its height, she became, and remains, a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.
Simpson was the first African-American woman to reach several journalistic high points, and her career entirely deserves the memoir she published this year, NewsLady. Who knows—with a little more detail and introspection, she might not have sounded quite so much like a TV journalist.
Simpson's opening pages are exasperating. Her maternal grandfather was a wealthy white Georgian who at the age of 16 had called at a black man's house to ask permission to court his daughter, who was all of 12. "No Negro girl was courted by a white man in the 1880's," Simpson writes. "If a man wanted to have anything to do with a black girl, he just had his way with her, and a black father better not complain." But this black father told the white kid, Frank, to come back in three years, when his little girl, Hilda, had grown up some.
That's what Frank did. He and Hilda married and had eight children (including Dorothea, Simpson's mother) before Hilda died in childbirth at the age of 29. Frank remarried another black woman, with whom he had 13 more children. When Dorothea was 13 a white man in town told Frank to turn her over or he'd take her. Frank stayed up all night with a rifle. The next morning he put the girl on the train to Chicago.
Simpson relates this family lore in seven pages. I'd have welcomed 70, but she says she needed to move the story along. "With the American public's attention span," Simpson told me, "even literary publishers told me to shoot for 300 pages." She came in at 284.
Her career troubles also could have been fleshed out. With rare exceptions, Simpson doesn't identify her adversaries—such as the NBC network president who said "he really didn't care what happened to me" and the bête noire she accuses of being "first to poison the well against me among top management" at ABC. ABC hired the latter away from the newspaper world to produce the weekend news in the mid-90s, and Simpson describes her as a hard, cold "control freak" who flattened all obstacles to get what she was after, control of World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. Simpson writes with relish, "She was so disliked by the staff and so difficult to get along with that . . . before long it was common knowledge she was out the door."
I wondered if Simpson left the names out to avoid litigation, but she said she personally wasn't worried about that. "These people wouldn't have the money to sue me," Simpson claims. "They're not making a lot of money now. I've lived long enough to see the people who were so awful to me get it in return."
Yet she claims she didn't write her book to settle scores. She's simply telling the story "of a young woman who wanted to be a journalist and here are her trials and tribulations." Despite her feeling that ABC kicked her around at the end, "I had a great career, I wouldn't have changed it." She says she didn't name names because she didn't want this message lost.
But with all due respect, who were they? I recognized the ABC control freak as an old friend of mine, someone else who left Chicago, followed gravity's rainbow, and at its far end became a professor of journalism—just like Simpson. Understandably, she doesn't want to respond to a book that didn't identify her and hasn't been widely reviewed. I could say who she is anyway and stir up trouble; but that would be, well, Murdochian.
But I wish Simpson had named her. Jabbing at unidentified old enemies doesn't feel high-minded; it feels coy and annoying.
NewsLady was published by AuthorHouse, a Bloomington, Indiana, press that releases thousands of titles a year and would gladly publish your book or mine if we paid them to. Self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma but fewer of its disadvantages, and Simpson has paid a price. But, she says, "It was the only route I could go." She says she wasted four years being turned down by agents who told her, "You're not on TV anymore." This struck her as stupid. She went off the air in 2006, but she says she's still recognized all the time, and four years ago everybody remembered her. She thinks the book itself scared agents off. "I was taking on ABC. I consulted libel lawyers who said 'Yeah, you are open to libel,' because even though I didn't mention people's names people would know who they were."
Furthermore, her manuscript wasn't sexy enough.
"I wasn't an addict who overcame [addiction]," she says. "I didn't sleep with some politicians. I didn't have any affairs. I didn't have any of the juicy stuff." All she had was the story of an African-American trailblazer. Eventually Simpson—feeling a little discriminated against—"decided to do it myself."
It's too bad. A commercial house might have given Simpson a shrewd, experienced editor who'd have said to her, "This family history is amazing. Give us more," and pointed out, "When you don't name names you're really pissing off your readers. So let's go through the manuscript and see how much more specific we can get without landing us in court."
And an experienced marketing department might have declared: "You're telling a great media story, a great race story, a great women's story. Six months before publication we're going into action. We want your book excerpted in at least three different magazines, and we want you doing interviews all over the country."
Commercial houses know how to promote books because they've invested money in them before publication and want it back. Publishers like AuthorHouse get their money up front from their authors. They don't have much incentive to promote the books, and they know that nine times out of ten the fewer people read them the happier the world will be. High-profile authors like Simpson who wander in are welcome to such marketing services as the publishers provide, but it's on their dime and the heavy lifting's up to the author. The big event for NewsLady was a visit to Chicago in May for a book-signing reception at Chicago's InterContinental Hotel, an event Simpson arranged herself. "I thought there'd be all kinds of people wanting to interview me," Simpson says. There weren't. She gave a couple of radio/TV interviews, but the dailies paid no attention.
And in Martha's Vineyard, where Simpson has a summer house, she didn't make the cut for the big August book fair. "I tried to enter," she says. "They said they knew me, they'd read the book, they'd liked the book, but their policy was not to present authors that self-publish."
On the plus side, she now has a story to tell about the decline of the commercial book industry. The National Association of Black Journalists meets next week in Philadelphia, and she's joining the panel on self-publishing.