Self-Portrait from a Bubble Eye's View
In Pictures and Words
A picture's worth a thousand words, but I wound up wanting more. The summer after high school graduation, I became friends with Kenneth Siegel, a nephew of Cornell Capa, the founder of the International Center for Photography, and Robert Capa, the renowned war photojournalist who was killed by a land mine in 1954 during the French Indochina War. Ken loaned me a Kodak Retina IIIC camera and let me use his well-equipped dark room. I also learned from him what it should mean to be a photojournalist. That's what I wanted to be, at least in the beginning.
While majoring in leaves of absence at Queens College in New York, I became the principal photographer for Phoenix, the college's award-winning biweekly student newspaper. I got to travel and to document some of the most turbulent events in 1968. I covered Eugene McCarthy's presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire – which led to President Johnson's decision not to run for re-election. I covered the Vietnam war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (and suffered a bad knee injury while trying to escape a charging phalanx of club-swinging police).
And I almost won a ticket to Saigon as Phoenix's first war photographer; the paper was only able to raise sufficient funds to send two reporters (a "hawk" and a "dove"). That was when I started thinking I need to add words to my photographs.
I dropped out of college and eventually enrolled in a two-year professional photography and photojournalism program at Paier Art School in Hamden, CT. During the summer break, I acquired a macro lens and began photographing the wilds of my back yard and nearby parks and ponds. When my teachers saw my photos of bugs and other creepy crawlies, they pushed me to take them to Natural History and Smithsonian magazines.
“A Special Light to Steer By,” Natural History Magazine, December 1974
I finally screwed up the courage to make appointments with the magazines' photo editors. The editor at Natural History chose several of my photos to illustrate an article they had just accepted on how some insects use polarized light to navigate. He was also very interested in a series of photographs I had of fresh water hydra, a tiny pond-dwelling relative of jellyfish, corals, and other cnidarians.
He asked to keep the photos in order to find someone to write an article around them. Seeing a chance to have it all, I asked if Natural History publishes articles written by lay authors. He said yes and I went home, read a lot about hydra, wrote my first article, and made my first mistake so common to newbies: I wrote the article without considering the style of the publication I hoped would accept it. When it was rejected, I was crushed. Luckily, I had written it – unknowingly – in Smithsonian's style. I almost didn't bring it with me to Washington to show my photographs to Smithsonian's photo editor. When she asked to keep the hydra photos to show the editor, I dashed back to the car to fetch the manuscript and sheepishly offered it as well. Six months later, when two complimentary copies of Smithsonian arrived in the mail, I was astonished as much as I was elated to see my words in print with few minor changes.
Fresh water hydra with four daughter buds
"Hydra: versatile green predator," Smithsonian Magazine, April 1975
A mature daughter bud extends its body, attaches its tentacles
to the glass surface, tears itself free, and somersaults away.
While waiting for its publication, I pitched another photo story I was working on to Natural History. In the mid-1800s, a number of businessmen wanting to establish silk production in northeastern United States imported a strikingly large and beautiful bug from China called the Cynthia giant silkworm moth.
Newly emerged female Cynthia moth
“Silk Moth of the Railroad Yards,” Natural History, May 1975
Domestic silk worm moth caterpillars feed only on leaves of the mulberry tree and mulberry trees have difficulty surviving northeast winters. Cynthia moth caterpillars, however, feed on the leaves of ailanthus trees (also called the “tree of heaven”), which literally grow like weeds in the northeast. However, harvesting silk from Cynthia moth cocoons proved uneconomical and the moths were simply abandoned.
Unlike many introduced foreign species, the Cynthia moths were too choosy to become a destructive pest. The tree its caterpillars feed on generally thrives in the lots and yards of urban areas where there's less competition from other trees. In addition, Cynthia cocoons dangle from branches on long silk lines where they are easy fodder for birds and other bug eaters. So Cynthia moths usually are found only in blighted urban areas in the northeastern United States – especially in largely barren railroad yards where there are plenty of ailanthus trees and few insectivores. Like the Chinese immigrants brought over in the 19th century to build the railroads, this beautiful Asian moth followed the iron rails across their new land.
Cynthia moth mating and depositing her eggs
I learned about these gorgeous giant moths from Dr. Charles Reynolds, head of Yale University's Department of Entomology. The next winter, I packed my gear and went on a Cynthia hunt in the New Haven railroad yard where, to my delight, I found a treasure trove of cocoons hanging like Christmas tree ornaments from ailanthus trees along the tracks.
This time, when the editor at Natural History said he would eagerly consider my article, I invited Dr. Robert Pyle, an entomologist at Yale University to write the text.
Our Cynthia article was published in Natural History just a month after my hydra article appeared in Smithsonian. That double-barrel blast helped me land a part-time job as photographer for a human genetics research lab at Yale University led by Dr. Frank Ruddle and – from out of the blue – an invitation from Yale's Trumbull College to teach an undergraduate seminar on scientific photography. The class was so successful, it won approval for the maximum of three semesters. I was also engaged to teach four courses, Nature and Macro Photography, Intermediate Photography, Advanced Photography, and a Photographic Seminar on Independent Projects and Advanced Techniques, at Fairfield University's Center for Continuing Education for matriculated and non-matriculated students.
My ambition to publish words along with photographs had only been whetted. I got the far-fetched idea that I should go to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, which meant I had to get a bachelor's degree. I was able to do that in a year at a cost of only $420 thanks to the establishment of the Connecticut State Board of Academic Awards (now called Charter Oaks State College). However, I earned that degree without writing a single term paper. My only writing experience after high school was my hydra article, so I wasn't overly hopeful I would get into Columbia's J-school, let alone be able to handle its daunting writing work load. I was accepted into the class of 1981 and graduated with high passes in most of my classes. Thirty years later, I'm still pinching myself.
Following graduation, I freelanced for half a year before accepting a job as science writer for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, which brought another change of plans. I had no desire to write about medicine, but the position at the March of Dimes was too good to pass up. I wound up loving the job and got a solid education in how to evaluate medical research and communicate it to the public.
Giant waterbug feeding on a fish
Three and a half years later, I was offered a position as life sciences editor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I served as a public information officer for the School of Agriculture, the School of Medicine, the School of Veterinary Medicine, the Psychology Department, and the Department of Food Sciences.
Two years later, I accepted an offer to become associate science editor at the American Medical Association in Chicago. That job involved co-writing the weekly news release packets on articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the AMA's 12 medical specialty journals, as well as arranging media interviews with the journals' editors and authors. I also produced the weekly American Medical Radio News reports on research published in JAMA, doing everything but the voice overs. When an associate editor position in JAMA's Medical News & Perspectives section opened two years later, I jumped on it and finally got a chance to write and photograph as a journalist for a regular pay check.
In 1995, while on a 10-day trip to China to write about traditional Chinese medicine, I met Tai Zischer, acting dean of the Department of Journalism at Shanghai International Studies University. Prof. Tai invited me to return to China as a visiting instructor and teach western journalism in his department. I took a leave of absence from JAMA for six months (while working as a contract reporter) and went back to Shanghai to teach four journalism courses: Feature Writing and Broadcast Writing for 20 third-year students, and Editorial Writing and Science Writing for 31 seniors. I explained to my students that I had come to Shanghai International Studies University to “help train engineers who will build bridges of understanding between China and the West.” That lofty goal proved far more difficult than teaching photography to Yale University students.
Acupuncture at Beijing's Hospital
for Traditional Chinese Medicine
During nine years as an associate editor at JAMA, I wrote more than 230 articles on a wide range of topics involving clinical research and the ethics, politics, and economics of health care. I developed a penchant – some might say vulnerability – for investigative reporting. For example, after the publication of our hard-hitting expose on the snake-oils Deepak Chopra and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were selling, they hit JAMA's editor George Lundberg and me with a $194 million law suit. Although the frivolous SLAPP suit was dismissed in only eight months, the AMA – which had recently suffered a humiliating and costly defeat in a lengthy lawsuit brought by chiropractors – was not pleased, despite the Columbia Journalism Review Laurel and other honors our article garnered.
But the AMA kept me and I kept winning us awards, the most significant of which followed my last year at JAMA when I had been chosen as an inaugural Rosalynn Carter Fellows for Mental Health Journalism.
The former First Lady with one of the inaugural
Rosalynn Carter Fellows for Mental Health Journalism
For my fellowship project, I investigated how inmates with mental illness were treated in our nation's jails and prisons. That investigation led to the publication of three articles in JAMA and to the special series, “Death, Neglect, and the Bottom Line” in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. What followed was both bitter and sweet.
Correctional Medical Services (CMS), the largest for-profit provider of health care for the incarcerated in the United States, attacked our work and falsely accused me of “dishonest, fraudulent, and deceitful” conduct. They hired the high-profile legal attack dog Thomas Yannucci to demand satisfaction from the Post-Dispatch and the AMA. According to a September 2000 article in Columbia Journalism Review, Yannucci's letterhead instills fear whenever it “crosses a newsroom desk.” The article, “Tom Yannucci: On the attack,” focused on the lawyer's “ferocious” reputation for discrediting major news organizations, damaging journalists' careers, and bringing millions in settlements to corporate clients. The AMA acted quickly by firing me. The head of CMS then met with the newspaper's managing editor with a list of talking points, including one that read, "AMA fired Skolnick – what will you give us?"
What the Post-Dispatch gave them was a fight. The paper hired a prominent law firm that handles media law cases and submitted our series for independent review by Professor Theodore P. Frederickson, the William Allen White Foundation Distinguished Teaching Professor and Chair of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. CMS folded its war tents and went home. Not one word of our articles in the Post-Dispatch or my articles in JAMA had to be retracted or corrected. (I later sued Correctional Medical Services for libel and tortuous interference, which I withdrew following receipt of a settlement offer.)
In August 2003, Harper's Magazine included an account of our ordeal in an article by Wil Hylton on CMS's efforts to intimidate reporters who investigate claims of substandard and negligent treatment provided to correctional inmates, “Sick on the Inside: Correctional HMOs and the Coming Prison Plague.”
The Post-Dispatch nominated my colleagues Bill Allen, Kim Bell, and me for a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Journalism and Amnesty International USA presented us with a “Spotlight on Media” award.
Harvard University honored us as finalists for its Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism. We also received Missouri Press Association's Best Investigative Reporting Prize for Dailies and first prize in Community Affairs/Public Interest News Writing from Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors. The following year, the American Medical Writers Association awarded me its John P. McGovern Medal for Preeminent Contributions to Medical Communication.
One of the inspirational principles I learned at Columbia University's J-school was that journalists have a duty to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think I missed the lesson on how following that duty comes at a cost when the comfortable afflict back. Despite all those kudos, I couldn't find a staff job at a news organization, although – after CMS left us alone – I was able to get freelance work from the Post-Dispatch, Doctor's Guide, PeerView Press, and other media.
In 2004, when the SUNY-affiliated Center for Inquiry (CFI) asked me to become executive director of its newly created Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health, I moved to Amherst, NY. The Commission was established to educate the public about the dangers of unproven therapies and to take over publication of two research journals, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. As its director, I helped organize conferences, delivered lectures, gave press interviews, wrote op-ed pieces, and worked with Discovery Chanel on a documentary on Natasha Demkina, a teenage Russian girl who “diagnoses” patients using her “supernormal vision” to “see” inside their bodies. But I was unable to raise significant funding to support the commission's work. After two years, my job was eliminated.
“Medical psychic” Natasha Demkina at
the taping of the Discovery Chanel documentary
Since my premature retirement in 2006, I've kept busy raising, training, showing, and photographing dogs. I worked a year as a part-time pet training instructor at Petsmart and began designing web sites for dog clubs and breeders.
Sasha, Argos, Ben & Penelope
The renowned science writer and indefatigable skeptic Isaac Asimov complained that trying to save people from folly is like trying to snatch a chicken bone from a dog. I think he was wrong. No dog ever bit me when I tried to save it from harm.
Dogs have no use whatsoever for photographs or the written word. Even so, I admire their unimpeachable integrity and never have the need to expose their dishonesty. We're a match made in heaven.
Over the years, I've given many invited talks on journalism, health care reporting, and on how to investigate the claims of psychics, quacks, and other New Age flimflamers. While still living in New York City, I gave annual presentations to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's science writing class, in which I posed as a psychic and demonstrated what James (the Amazing) Randi called “miracles of a semi-religious kind,” before finally exposing myself as a charlatan and debunking the miracles I had just demonstrated. I gave similar invited performances and talks for psychology classes while I was life sciences editor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
The Fortune Teller
I've also given “psychic” performances on radio, most notably as “The Indubitable Duarfa” on WGN-Radio's “Extension 720” in Chicago, which led to my becoming a frequent guest on Dr. Milt Rosenberg's two-hour nightly talk show to speak about health care, science journalism, quackery and pseudoscience.
Wayfield's Young Argos, UD, JH, RE, ThD, WCI, NA,
NAJ, NAC, NJC, WV-N, CL3-R, CL2-H, CL2-F, TDI, CGC
However, since hooking up with my more talented partner Argos – a Labrador retriever with 25 earned titles following his name – I've only giving talks on canine communication and dog training to a variety of audiences, including classes at Canisius College, the Center for Inquiry's summer camp, and at nursing homes and hospitals where we make therapy dog visits.
That's Argos, down in front, with some of his Camp Inquiry fans.
That's me behind the camera.
And this one says it all: