Reflections

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Phyl and Fred

By A’Lelia Bundles ’76
Author and Columbia University Trustee
A’Lelia Bundles ’76 and Phyl Garland, Summer 2000A’Lelia Bundles ’76, New York c. 1976

By the time I arrived at Columbia in the fall of 1975, I’d been writing newspaper articles for more than half my life. I’d had a Newsweek summer internship, done a stint as a radio reporter and even hosted an in-house corporate television show. So I’d come to Morningside Heights, not to learn the five Ws, but to have the experience of living and working in New York City. I wanted to study with great professors at what I believed was the nation’s best journalism school. If I could manage to make some new friends and afford discount theatre tickets from time to time, all the better.

Almost four decades later, I can say I got what I came for and more.

The two professors who affected me most were Phyllis Garland and Fred Friendly.

During my thirty years as a network television news producer and executive, I carried Fred’s caveats in my head and tried to live by the ethical markers he instilled. When describing a reporter faced with the option of fudging the facts to enhance a story, Fred asked us to consider how we would handle a similar situation if there were no witnesses. For those who might have considered wavering, he had this answer: “Who would know? You would know!” To this day, I can hear those words booming across the room.

He often talked about the importance of getting one’s audience “in the tent.” He emphasized the need to craft a powerful lead sentence and to select an arresting piece of introductory video. Those lessons have worked for me not just in journalism, but in other situations where I’ve needed to be persuasive. I can’t help but think, though, that a man who resigned from CBS because the network refused to air Senate hearings about American involvement in Vietnam would be appalled at the recent morning show stunts to “get them in the tent.”

Today’s media landscape and journalism business models, of course, are incredibly different from those of the 1970s when there were only three major commercial networks and dozens of financially flush daily newspapers. We all are adjusting to a new reality that has a few bright spots and a lot of not so bright spots. Still, I believe Fred’s tent analogy—or at least my interpretation of his analogy—was intended to apply when one had something important to say. The goal was to inform and educate and sometimes to change hearts and minds. Because of Fred, I still want to hold on to that goal.

While Fred helped shape my approach to journalism ethics, Phyl Garland changed my life. At the time, she was the first and only black woman on the J-School faculty. Fortunately for me, she was also my masters project advisor.

As we met to discuss possible topics, I suggested what I’m sure were terribly clichéd ideas. She listened patiently, then said, “Your name is A’Lelia. Do you have a connection to Madam C. J. Walker and A’Lelia Walker?” My guess is that Phyl, whose mother had been an editor at the Pittsburgh Courier—one of the nation’s premier black weeklies—knew the answer. Perhaps she also knew that I was determined to have my own identity separate from a great-great-grandmother who had long been a legend among African Americans.

When I answered, “Yes,” she smiled that wry smile of hers and declared, “Well, that’s what you’re going to write about!” At the time, there were very few books being published by black authors. Alex Haley’s Roots wouldn’t become a bestseller and cultural phenomenon until the next year. The publication of an Alice Walker or Toni Morrison novel was a rare and highly anticipated event for readers like me. So I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me that I should write a book about my famous family members.

But Phyl validated the story. She believed it was historically important. She helped me believe it deserved to be taken seriously and that I could develop the skills to tell it. Because of Phyl, I’ve written two biographies of Madam Walker and am now writing one about my great-grandmother, A’Lelia, and her life in New York during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Without Phyl and Fred, my life would have been different, I am sure. Still good, I would like to think. But much, much richer because of them.

A’Lelia Bundles is a Columbia University trustee and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. She was a producer and Washington, DC deputy bureau chief for ABC News where she worked for 16 years. Prior to that she was an NBC News producer.

Posted by: AlumniAlumni, FriendFriend April 2012

5 Comments

  1. Maynard Eaton
    Posted 04.16.12 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    A’Lelia — I, too, fondly recall the lessons learned in ’72 and incredible impact of Fred Friendly on my career. Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your much deserved award.

    • Posted 04.22.12 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Thanks a lot, Maynard. I hope you will write an essay for “Reflections” and encourage your classmates to do so, too. The more stories the better!
      A’Lelia

  2. Posted 04.16.12 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Beloved, A’Lelia:
    What a Tribute, so memorable and full with memories for My Life also. Truly a Blessing to have shared Hon. Dr. Phyllis Garland. I’m grateful to have shared some moments with Phyllis before Her departure, sent some JAZZ to Her (Smile). There are no degrees of separation!
    Faithfully,
    Rev. June
    Monday. April 16, 2012 ~ 12:36 PM

    • Posted 04.22.12 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Rev. June,
      Phyl’s circle of friends clearly is far and wide. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be her students, friends and colleagues can keep her memory alive by continuing to share the story of her contributions, her generosity and her wonderful, room-filling laughter.
      A’Lelia

  3. Posted 04.17.12 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    It is always affirming to read about how impactful favorite teachers are in one’s life. There is much gratification in changing someone’s life permanently, and for the better. Hooray for the wise counsel provided to you by Phyllis Garland and Fred Friendly!

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