Another riotous backstory provides further insight into the magazine business. In an early piece for Life, Mitford explains how her family and friends have refined an elaborate system of collect calling, geared toward conveying messages without paying phone companies a cent: “If the operator announces, ‘Person-to-person call, collect, for Minnie S. Oder,’ it is clear to the husband who answers that his wife has arrived in Minnesota . Wishing to know whether any important letters have arrived, the wife may ask for Esther Annie Mehl?” (In Mitford’s complex moral system, cheating the phone company of a few dollars was okay—she did it to disseminate information, after all, the same reason she wrote articles—whereas cheating individual citizens of thousands of dollars, in the style of the Famous Writers School, was not. Perhaps her Communist leanings explain this attitude.) The telephone company that advertised in Life was, however, less than amused. “A friend who worked at Life told me all about it,” Mitford writes, quoting this informant:
“The telephone company called all the brass at Life on the carpet and ordered them to show cause why the phone company should pour millions of dollars into advertising in Life only to be knifed in the back like this.” What happened? I asked. “Well, first we fired Murphy.” Murphy, my friend explained, is a fictitious Life editor who is always fired whenever some high up in politics or business complains of being maligned in an article. To further assuage the phone company’s injured feelings, my friend continued, Life arranged to produce a special eight-page color spread on the company’s contribution to the space program.
Mitford scrutinizes other forms of media, too, often focusing on how they handle (or in some cases, staunch) the flow of information. Interviewing the literary radical George Jackson, she presses him on how he managed to publish a book in prison, despite abundant censorship. (The book, Soledad Brother, comprised letters that Jackson mailed from jail. The guards altered or confiscated many, but eventually Jackson’s lawyers managed to prohibit such tampering.) One of her finest pieces examines NBC’s decision to block production of a television special meant to clarify details about a particular sexually transmitted disease. Before doing so, the network ordered a series of cuts and substitutions that range from amusing to problematic:
“As is your custom, please exercise caution when showing the interns staring appreciatively at the group of nurses passing by. In addition, please eliminate Dr. Tyler’s speech, ‘If she is not anybody’s kin—and nobody’s sister—I would like to scrub with her.’” “Please delete ‘a case of syphilis’ and substitute ‘this disease.’ ”
Mitford provocatively titles her article “Don’t Call It Syphilis,” both echoing and rebutting NBC’s efforts to hide unpleasant facts.
Tracking truths is Mitford’s passion, and her notes reveal her despair when she misses an especially good one. After she published her piece on the Famous Writers School, for example, she found out the teachers had been sending pupils cleverly camouflaged form letters. Having overlooked this tidbit gave her nightmares for years. And yet, for someone so devoted to facts, she is surprisingly enthusiastic about strategic mendacity: “Ethics is not one of my strong points,” she explains. She continues:
In general, I think that if you have promised anonymity to the person you are interviewing, or if it is agreed in advance that he is speaking “off the record,” such agreement should be respected. Better, however, to steer him away from such untoward thoughts, which can often be done by fast and dexterous talk about the matter at hand, so that the problem does not arise.