How the press missed the hard news in Milton Berle’s passing

Last week, the Washington Post chronicled all the high points of Milton Berle’s career in its tributes to the late entertainer. With a front-page news piece and a Style section look-back, the paper noted the groundbreaking impact of Texaco Star Theater, Berle’s vaudeville-style variety show, and credited him with being the first man to appear on television in a dress. Berle’s distinction as “Mr. Television,” wrote Post TV critic Tom Shales in Style, “is his to keep, forever.”

The retrospectives were the work of a good family newspaper, filled with solid reporting, good writing, and even some edge.

But readers who recalled that “Uncle Miltie” was always packing something more than hokey jokes and costumes may have found the coverage in the Post and nearly all other major press outlets a bit limp.

For the full package on Berle, those readers had to go to the San Francisco Chronicle, whose pop-culture critic, James Sullivan, wrote, “[Berle] was said to be extremely well endowed, and we’re not talking about his financial portfolio. He claimed to take innumerable locker room bets, winning every one.

“When asked to reveal the true dimensions of his prize possession, he played coy: ‘I’ll never tell,’ he’d say. ‘I just take out enough to win.’”

Although such cockiness didn’t dominate Berle’s legacy the way his cigars and punch lines did, it wasn’t exactly a secret. In March 1988, Spy magazine put Berle on a list alongside historical giants such as Gary Cooper, Henry Kissinger, Robert Plant, David Lee Roth, and Secretariat. And like any proud man, Berle never shrank from questions about his legend. “I think he encouraged it,” says Bob Thomas, a Los Angeles-based AP writer.

Those factors, says Sullivan, convinced him to include the artful lowdown on Berle in his tribute. “It feels like you’re missing something if everybody knows that part of his legend and it’s not commented on,” he says. “Maybe it is just a San Francisco thing. We just have an audience that isn’t easily shocked.” The digression also helped enliven a story on a guy who wasn’t all that funny to begin with and hadn’t done much in about four decades. Sullivan says he received one complaint about the mention.

Post Style-section editor Eugene Robinson says that an allusion to Berle’s endowment “didn’t come up, so to speak.” If the issue had arisen, an editors’ huddle would have ensued. “We are a newspaper with this very wide circulation that cuts across all demographic and social lines, and so it’s something that we talk about on a case-by-case basis,” says Robinson.

In other words: The Post writes every day about Dick Cheney, but when the D goes lowercase, the paper’s taste cops rev up their delete buttons. In July 2001, Washingtonian magazine reported that the paper had killed a piece by Hank Stuever on Cynthia Plaster Caster, who since the ’60s has documented the instruments of rock stars with plaster molds. The decision, says Robinson, reflects “the tightrope we try to walk” between edgy and family-friendly.

Says Stuever: “If you work here a while, you begin to learn that the paper understandably has a nervousness with certain body parts, bodily functions.”

Shales never even considered lending a few column inches to his subject’s inches. “In writing about ‘Uncle Miltie’ upon his death I didn’t have any temptation to write about his schlong,” says the critic. CP