Detroit is Motor City and cars here are generally more personal statement than mere utility. But Berl Falbaum is into cycling. Ducking across a busy suburban boulevard on the way back to his office after lunch, Falbaum wants to take advantage of the gorgeous day. ’If a client hadn’t called me to a 3:45 meeting, I’d be heading out to put in 50 miles on my bike before dinner,’ says the Detroit newsman turned PR pro, journalism teacher and now, novelist.
Detroit is Motor City and cars here are generally more personal
statement than mere utility. But Berl Falbaum is into cycling. Ducking
across a busy suburban boulevard on the way back to his office after
lunch, Falbaum wants to take advantage of the gorgeous day. ’If a client
hadn’t called me to a 3:45 meeting, I’d be heading out to put in 50
miles on my bike before dinner,’ says the Detroit newsman turned PR pro,
journalism teacher and now, novelist.
’See, I’ve got the rack on my car,’ he continues, pointing not to the
expected Cadillac or Lexus but rather a mundane 10-year-old black Ford
Falbaum’s novel, A Matter of Precedents, is not about bike touring or
cars, however. Instead it lays open the ethics of business, labor
unions, PR, the media and the bar in a tale concerning a factory worker
dying from lung cancer, attributed to many years of asbestos-dust
The hero is Tim Kaufmann, vice president of communications for Thompson
Brakes, and wage slave to CEO George Simmons, the number one designated
villain and an unprincipled bully. Naturally the CEO and the company
lawyer, villain number two, try to sweep it under the rug rather than
simply pay up.
Kaufmann struggles to balance company loyalty with integrity and savvy
media relations while on the firing line with investigative reporters
egged on by the victim’s union local chief, who uses the issue to climb
the national union ladder. And in a further ethical twist to the
situation, the hero and the reporter, Sue Merriman, while arguing
ethics, have a love affair.
A writer and a scholar
The novel grew out of one of the wiry PR counselor’s sidelines -
instructing journalism classes at two Detroit-area universities. Prior
to Precedents, Falbaum had published four non-fiction volumes of
humorous memoirs about Detroit journalists, their hangouts and camp
’I wanted to try my hand one time at a novel,’ he explains, expressing
the secret ambition of many fellow scribes. ’But I knew my
I read a couple of novels, and they were all dialogue. I said to myself,
’I can do that.’ ’ As a result of his teaching, he also wanted to ’tell
a story about ethics in a corporation, PR and the media.’
Falbaum, 61, insists the characters in his novel are entirely fictional
and, outwardly at least, that seems to be the case. For example, apart
from the job, the CEO bears no resemblance whatsoever to one-time ’boy
wonder’ Bill Agee, who hired Falbaum in 1977 as his speechwriter when he
acceded to the chairmanship of Bendix - an auto and aircraft parts
maker. Agee later created a scandal in the business press by naming a
female staffer with no PR experience as his VP of PR, denying to
reporters a romantic interest and subsequently marrying her. Of this
real-life drama, there is nothing in Falbaum’s novel.
The book’s characters and dialogue seem real except for some unbroken
monologues about ethics between the book’s romantic duo, the PR guy and
his sometime-nemesis, an investigative reporter.
Overall, Precedents is gripping. Despite the preaching, the plot moves
along and the ending is both satisfying and plausible. The villains use
blackmail to try to win the case in court but, in the end the guy in the
white hat wins - or at least his personal code of ethics does. Of
course, he loses his job and his girlfriend in the process. Villain
number two takes the fall while villain number one slips out
unblemished. It’s corny, but a good read.
’Fiction is easier than journalism,’ the author notes, ’because you
don’t have to deal with facts.’
Falbaum’s background is a strange mixture of the highly unorthodox and
quite typical. ’Berlin, 1938,’ he answers when asked where and when he
was born. His father, a simple tailor, and his mother, a domestic, fled
Nazi Germany with their year-old son just before World War II broke
Jewish refugees had few choices then, and the Falbaum family wound up on
the other side of the world in Shanghai. ’China was the only country
which would accept persons without passports,’ he explains. Japanese
troops already occupied Shanghai in 1939. After the Pearl Harbor attack,
the city’s 20,000 Jews were crowded into the Hongkew Ghetto but
otherwise remained unmolested by Hitler’s allies.
After the war, the Falbaums emigrated with 10-year-old Berl to
He learned English quickly, becoming a translator for his parents. Today
he speaks unaccented Midwestern. ’I’ve always had a passion for words,’
This passion led Falbaum to write for his junior-high school
Through daily persistence, he wrangled a job at the Detroit News,
copyreading classified ads after completing high school. He attended
Wayne State University in Detroit, continuing part-time at the News
until obtaining his journalism degree in 1960. By then a newsroom
copyboy, he soon graduated again - to full-time reporter.
Falbaum had been the News’ city hall bureau chief for four years when he
quit to be press secretary to Michigan’s lieutenant governor. In 1974,
he entered corporate PR with Detroit Edison. His stint with Bendix
lasted from 1977 to 1983, when Bendix disappeared in a contested merger
with a New Jersey company.
Falbaum then served five years as VP of communications for the Perry
drug store chain, until he set up his own PR shop, with Perry as his
Today his 11-year-old, largely solo practice consists of speech writing
and media relations. His special focus is staging media seminars for a
variety of clients, including government agencies, corporations and
Falbaum took up cycling seven years ago because his joints couldn’t take
the pounding of running. His proudest achievement is depicted in
snapshots on his office wall: in 1996, with a group of 80 other riders,
he completed a 3,700-mile coast-to-coast bike journey in 51 days.
Is there significance to Falbaum’s unpretentious car, long-distance
cycling and obsession with ethics? Perhaps he marches to a different
drummer, or perhaps it stems from his upbringing, half a world away.
- A Matter of Precedents is published by Proctor Publishing, Ann Arbor,
Berl Falbaum - President, Falbaum & Associates
1970: Press secretary for Michigan’s lieutenant governor
1974: Enters corporate PR with Detroit Edison
1977: Speechwriter for CEO of Bendix Corporation
1983: VP of communications, Perry Drugs
1989: Founds Falbaum & Associates
1998: A Matter of Precedents is released.