Inside the N.Y.
By MAURY ALLEN
All of us scribblers have a seminal moment when we
change from wanting to be a policeman or a fireman, an astronaut
or an athlete, flyer or a sailor to wanting only one thing: To
It came to me in the seventh grade, 11 or 12 years old, when
I devoured a book called "The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens."
Steffens was a crusading journalist from San Francisco in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries who was a muckraking reporter
intent on righting government wrongs from the dealings of Boss
Tweed to the shenanigans of so many local pols. Would that we
had a Lincoln Steffens in our midst today.
His life was one day of writing excitement after another, exposing
this fraud, attacking that wrong, spelling out the gory details
of how some move into the power elite for a single purpose, improving
their own lot at your expense.
I headed for journalism immediately after that with dreams of
saving the world. On a junior high newsletter, a high school
paper, a college weekly, Army Stars and Stripes and half a century
of professional writing and reporting, I kept Steffens always
Maybe I couldnt save the world but I could inform and entertain
with my stories and columns even if they were only about athletes
and flakes, my favorite subject matter for all these years.
I think Arthur Gelb with his wondrous diary called "City
Room" (G. P.Putnams Sons, $29.95) has come as close
to the excitement generated by Lincoln Steffens a century ago
as any journalists memoir.
Gelb has been joined at the hip to the New York Times for more
than 55 years as copy boy, reporter, editor and upper level administrator
of Times charities.
His book captures the glory and the gory of journalism over the
last half century with his tales of murder and mayhem in New
York and around, his political insight, his precise study of
the personalities that made the Times the Times in the 20th century
and his fascinating descriptions of the inner challenges of working
for the Valhalla of daily journalism.
Gelb clearly has that emotional love affair with his newspaper
that the best of us always have and I did with the Seymour (Indiana)
Daily Tribune, the Levittown (Pennsylvania) Times and the New
If you dont love your newspaper with all your heart, get
out. There are other ways to feed a family.
The book rises to its magnificent heights when Gelb spells out
the shortcomings of the Times, as a fair and objective reporter
is wont to do. Objective reporters can even criticize Mom.
In a study this reporter never experienced before, Gelb tells
how the Jewish-owned Times missed the story of the Holocaust
as millions were being incinerated by the Nazis.
Indeed, by any journalistic measure, most of the early
reports in The Times were insufficient, Gelb writes of
the Holocaust coverage. Unfortunately the countrys
mainstream press generally followed the Timess lead. To
my dismay and that of many of my colleagues, the stories about
the American liberation of prisoners that began appearing in
early spring of 1945--with only a couple of exceptions--were
not displayed on the front page. And there was scarcely any attempt
early on to put into perspective what was emerging as the genocidal
epic of modern times.
Among the most egregious examples of misjudgment by the
Times was the story it ran on April 13 announcing that American
troops of the Third army had freed inmates of Buchenwald. The
Times used only three brief paragraphs from the AP dispatch,
which was placed on the bottom of page eleven among other short
items, including one headed War Dog Honored Here.
Gelb said that early publisher Adolph Ochs, an assimilated Jew
from Tennessee, shied away from Jewish causes in his Times coverage
for fear the paper would be viewed as a Jewish paper
which he believed would undermine its image as an objective source
Gelb later comes down hard on ego rival James (Scotty) Reston
for blowing the Watergate coverage in the early 1970s in Washington
to the Washington Post. The Times tried to play catch-up to the
Post and never could.
Gelb blames Restons party hours with DC political honchos
instead of old fashioned shoe-leather reporting for that mistake.
Reston viewed the DC bureau as his own duchy with himself as
Il Duce instead of just another bureau in the Timess world
wide hunt for news.
"City Room" is at its best with the internal gossip
about the big names that filled the pages of the Times through
the years with their brilliant reporting and writing. He takes
a slap at David Halberstam for his refusal to chase a story in
Buffalo after a Pulitzer Prize for Vietnam coverage. He admits
that creative writers such as Gay Talese and Neil Sheehan never
would have reached their potential as journalists locked into
the Times system where editors are king and reporters are pawns.
I, personally, never wanted to work for the Times because I liked
the New York Post where the bylined guys were the stars and the
editors were second bananas. The ego clashes between writers
and editors are as old as the first scribble on an Egyptian stone.
One other entertaining Gelb story in City Room makes a lot of
us duck the Times. He tells the tale of a reporter called back
from his home to the office after a grueling day for committing
an outrageous crime: He forgot to say goodnight to his editor.
The Times always had several hundred more reporters sitting around
their news room than needed for a daily newspaper. When asked
once why so many reporters were there, an editor supposedly replied,
In case the Titanic sinks again.
On 9/11/01, the Titanic sank again. Nobody did it better than
©2003 by Maury Allen. The Maury Allen caricature is ©2001
by Jim Hummel. The book cover illustration is courtesy of Putnam's.
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