West Bloomfield Township resident Berl Falbaum recently published a new book, “The Prince of Omerta,” written based on stories told to him by Giovanni Gambino, a Brooklyn construction worker. Gambino had heard the stories from distant relatives and wanted to develop them into a novel that focuses on omerta — the code of silence observed by members of La Cosa Nostra. While this marks Falbaum’s seventh novel, he does not only spend his time writing fiction. He spent 10 years as a reporter at an area daily newspaper, including five covering politics; four years as an administrative aide to a former Michigan lieutenant governor; and 15 years as corporate public relations executive. He continues working in PR and writing op-ed pieces for newspapers. He also currently teaches journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“Prince of Omerta” (Club Lighthouse Publishing, $6.99), will be your seventh book. Give our readers a snapshot of the novel, why you tackled this subject matter, and how you managed to rope in an inside source to help write it.
BF: Well, he is not a mobster. He is a 37-year-old Brooklyn construction worker who had some distant relatives — he was born in Sicily — who told him stories. Whether they were involved, I don’t even know. And he has a very creative mind. He is, in fact, as we speak, also working on a movie script, and that’s moving along nicely. How we met is a long story, which is not secret, just boring. He happened to be in the Detroit area, and a mutual business acquaintance that I was doing PR for introduced us. And we talked about writing, and he said, “I want to do this novel.” Well, to make a long story short, he and I hit it off. And in the next two or three years, he gave me little bits and pieces of the folklore stories that he heard, and I took those and I expanded them, developed a dialogue, and created a lot. He just gave me a little anecdote, and I used my imagination to expand it. So that’s basically how it worked.
Can you share any bona fide “goodfella” tales that were shared with you by your source as you worked on the project together?
BF: You mean specific incidents? Well, they are all in the book, so obviously I do. I’m trying to pick one that is short. For instance, when we met, his basic theme was he wanted to write a novel about a hitman who was committed to omerta, which is a code of silence. And he told me he wants this man to be totally committed — no matter what happens to him — that he will never talk, even to the point of being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, even though he was a hitman. He said, “I’d like to do a story that he goes to prison for a murder, but he will never talk.” So he gave me a couple paragraphs on that, and I created the whole scenario off of that. That’s how it worked. So there’s just one aspect of it. He told me that he wants all these organized crime figures to be ruled over by the Boss of Bosses, which happens, frankly, in the real world. And he’s a very violent man, very ruthless. And he gave me some characteristics that he wanted this man to have, so I worked from that.
Is there a favorite of yours among your books? If so, which one and why?
BF: Well, they’re all so different. No, it’s like asking which one of your children you love the most. They’re all highly different. The first one was a book of one-liners filled with humor, the next one was about the Anchor Bar downtown, which because of all the history in Detroit, it catered to journalists and characters. Then I did two satires about ethics in our society, and then a novel on corporate corruption. And then this one, which is my seventh. But no, each one is a little different. I enjoyed doing each one of them, and I wouldn’t say any one of them is my favorite.
As a journalist, you have written for a variety of publications, including a 10-year career with the Detroit News, primarily covering politics. What do you see as recent positive developments in the political realm, and what are the negative ones? What is one change you’d like to see at the state level? What, if anything, should be the media’s role in effectuating these changes?
BF: I don’t see a lot of positives. We seemed to be getting nastier and nastier in campaigns if you are talking about politics, whether they are national or local or whatever. I was a political reporter for the Detroit News. It’s a very, very tough business. You’ve got to have a thick hide. However, it seems to be getting nastier and nastier. We keep lowering the bar each year, and that is terribly disconcerting because it doesn’t serve anybody’s interests. And ultimately what happens, the voter not getting any positive information generally votes for the least of the offensive ones and that’s because all they get is the negative news. Look at what happened in Iowa now, which is just over a terribly, terribly negative campaign. And that’s the nature of our politics. I don’t see anything good coming out of it, and that’s regrettable. So there’s not a lot of good in the political world from my view, and the political structure in Washington (D.C.) is totally paralyzed by partisan politics. And it’s sad. So I don’t see a lot of good on the political horizons. I see a lot of negative.
Again, I’m going to be generic. I would like to see more positive cooperation and compromise on the political front, whether it’s at the state level or the national level. I’d like to see a reverse in what we just talked about. I would like to see a more positive tone — stop criticizing the opposition to the extreme, and each candidate sort of suggesting what they would do, etc. However, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It’s not realistic for us to expect that, but if you ask me what I’d like to see, that is what I’d like to see.
Nobody talks about (the media’s role in effectuating change) in the campaigns. The media is basically also at fault in all of this, and I’ve been teaching journalism at Wayne (State University) for 43 years (and am) still doing it. And the media’s role is that they always go for the negative. So they sort of promote indirectly that the candidates in order to get headlines, to get attention, know they have to be negative to attract the attention of reporters. A couple campaigns — half the time was spent about (Mitt) Romney putting his hand on the shoulder of — who was it? — Rick Perry and the $10,000 bet. I mean, it was meaningless things, but the media focuses on that. And so, absolutely, the media has a major role in unfortunately having created this environment. And the other unfortunate part of that is that nobody ever talks about that.
You also served four years as an administrative aide in former Gov. William Milliken’s administration, primarily working as a speech writer. In your opinion, how is Gov. Rick Snyder faring in his first year in office? Is he taking the right steps to straighten out Michigan’s economy? What other steps need to be taken to improve the job market and to keep our residents here?
FB: I think — I want to make it quite clear this is not a matter of partisan politics — but I think he has brought a different, more positive philosophy to the office. He does not criticize the opposition as is traditional in politics. He seems to provide a workful, cooperative environment. Whether you agree or disagree with him is not the point of this discussion, but he has shown tremendous leadership in what he has proposed. That is not to suggest I agree with everything or that everybody should agree with him, but he has certainly created an atmosphere that has been long awaited — some of what we were talking about earlier in this interview of creating a positive political environment. So this is, again, I want to stress this is not a partisan position, but an interpretation of his actions while he has been governor for little over a year now.
Well, I don’t know (how he is doing in straightening out Michigan’s economy). I’m not an economist. I’m a layman. I don’t know how you fix it. I’m a writer. I would not venture a guess to whether his recommendations to fix the economy are right or wrong. But I do like the approach that he takes in terms of trying to solve the problems.
No, (opining on steps to be taken to improve the job market) is not my field. I don’t know if we should raise or lower taxes, or do this or that. That’s not my field. I have a layman’s opinion, but that’s as good as anybody else’s. So that’s a complex problem. It involves so many indirect policies of international monetary issues, tax-based (issues) — so no, I do not. In fact, if I did, I think I’d run for governor.
You have been known to accuse the media of hypocrisy for trumpeting “the public’s right to know” while being selective in what information they may release themselves. How have media outlets responded to this criticism?
BF: I’m not sure I’ve done that. I’ve been critical of the media, but I’m not sure about that specific charge — I don’t know where you got that I said they were hypocritical. I’ve been highly critical of the media — and I teach it from that perspective — of many faults. But there’s a lot of things wrong with the media. One is what we’ve already talked about — emphasizing the negative for the sake of the story. That’s one negative. The lack of a corrective mechanism when they do make mistakes makes it almost impossible to correct the record. And (with) any institution, there are few that take the copy and steps to do that. But that’s a long discussion in and of itself. But I certainly am a critic of the media, primarily because I’ve spent my life in (the media). I have a passion for journalism. I teach it. And it bothers me that the media which holds everyone else accountable, from kings to presidents to senators, refuses a sense to hold themselves accountable. So yes, I’ve been a critic. I’m not sure about that particular charge, but I have been critical. And there’s lots of room for improvement.
As a professor at Wayne State University for decades, what advice do you give journalism students embarking on a career in the field? How do you view the future of journalism, specifically print journalism? What do newspapers need to do to stay afloat?
BF: Well, it’s a sad situation we have with newspapers dying throughout the country. And so, I tell my students at the orientation of each semester that they are going to have a tough time finding a job. Journalism right now in terms of career opportunities is scarce. Unless you know the Internet, and are versed in the Internet — I’m talking about Internet journalism — you won’t find a job. I think — and don’t hold me to the numbers — I just saw the numbers in Columbia Journalism Review that in the last 50 years about one-third of the daily newspapers have died in this country. Again, it may not be an accurate number, but it was an astounding number, and that’s sad for students in journalism and the public, frankly. So the future of journalism appears to be on the Internet. Now, there’s some good things about the Internet, but there’s also a bunch of bad things, so it’s not a good environment for the future students who are going into that field.
I don’t think (newspapers) can (stay afloat) because the answer of course is advertising — the bloodline for newspapers. And advertising has drifted onto the Internet, and I don’t think you can reverse the trend. Again, I’m not an expert on how to operate a newspaper, so I don’t know if there are solutions. As you know, the (Detroit) Free Press and the (Detroit) News have tried to curtail deliveries part-time to see if they can save some funds. We don’t know the end result of that yet because they haven’t reported if that has helped them financially. So I don’t know the answer to it, but as an observer I think it’s going to get worse in terms of the print part of journalism. I think broadcast journalism will hold its own, and the rest of the future — at the risk of repetition — I think is on the Internet.
You also have over 20 years of public relations experience, including starting your own firm and writing speeches for major American corporations. What have been some of the rewards and difficulties for you in that field? Tell our readers a bit about the different types of writing you do and how you are able to do them without compromising the integrity or effectiveness of the others. Of all the different types of writing you do, which is your favorite?
BF: Rewards come when you achieve the client’s objective and whatever they happen to be in the respective program. As I said earlier, my passion is really journalism. I sort of ended up in PR. (It’s) something I didn’t plan. I came from journalism to the governor’s office, which was a tremendous opportunity, and after that I really wanted to go back to journalism, but I ended up in PR. The rewards of PR is being able to achieve the client’s objectives and creating professional communication programs to achieve their objectives. And that’s really what you’re trying to do. In journalism, it is to get a good story and get your byline on page No. 1. In PR, it’s not that visible, but the rewards are if you do a very comprehensive and effective annual report or you do a speech that the client receives tremendous feedback on. That’s your reward.
I do different kinds of writing. I still write for newspapers, mostly op-ed pieces and political pieces. And then books and PR writing. It doesn’t involve integrity. There’s nothing duplicitous about doing an op-ed piece or a book or a speech. There’s nothing involved with integrity. There are no conflicts there. If there were conflicts, you’d have to decide what you are going to do, but I don’t see any conflicts. So I’m not sure the fact that I do different kinds of writing involves my personal integrity. So I’m not sure how to respond. I enjoy doing different kinds of writing. It’s certainly an intellectual challenge, you know, doing an annual report for a public company or then doing an op-ed piece, which are certainly two different pieces of writing and then doing a novel, but it doesn’t involve in any way compromising my integrity.
Journalism and the novels (are my favorites). The PR writing because you are writing for someone else, it’s not as intellectually satisfying. There you have to make some compromises to fit the personality of the corporation or the individual, and that doesn’t involve compromising your integrity. You just have to tailor it to them. But journalism, I’m writing under my own byline, while I work with editors who may change things. I still enjoy of all the writing I do. I enjoy the articles in papers and novels best of all because that’s me.