Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Great Journalism Leavened with Humor

I had the privilege to commit journalism in the tents of two of America's greatest newspaper publishers -- John S. Knight and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.

When "Punch" Sulzberger died last week at 86, the obituary writers unanimously declared his greatest moment as publisher of the New York Times to have been the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which he personally approved. The documentation of lies and deceit at the highest levels of government and the military during the Vietnam War took place while I was an editor at the Washington Bureau of The Times.

Parenthetically, when publication was temporarily enjoined while the case was argued before the Supreme Court, journalists at the bureau conducted a wagering pool; entrants had to predict the decision, the vote, the justices on each side and, as a tie-breaker, the day and time the decision would be announced.  I won the pool with a nearly perfect score, missing only by about four minutes on the exact time of the announcement that The Times had won the historic case.

On Punch's next visit to the Bureau, he sought out the editor who had "called the shot" on the Pentagon Papers court battle.  Given this rare opportunity to impress the Boss of Bosses, I began to pontificate about Potter Stewart's historic role on the court and blah, blah, blah.  When I paused for breath, Punch smiled indulgently and said, "In other words, blind luck."

Clyde Haberman's excellent obituary in last Sunday's Times rightly made much of Sulzberger's sense of humor, a trait he shared with Knight, whose chain of fine papers was a magnet for great editors and reporters

Both men were not averse to making themselves the butt of their jokes.  "Jack" Knight attended a meeting with his Detroit Free Press editors not long after he had been the subject of a flattering cover story in Time magazine.   When this was mentioned, Knight said, with just the right hint of a wry smile, "The piece called me 'crusty,' which I think means hard on the outside -- and empty on the inside."

Both men filled their newsrooms with outstanding editors and reporters, then let them do what they did best unfettered by concerns about what the publisher did or did not want.  Both men believed that the news columns belonged, not to the man who owned the presses, but to the readers.

Under their leadership, The Times, The Chicago Daily News, the Detroit Free Press, the Miami Herald, the Akron Beacon Journal and other fine papers practiced a kind of journalism that has all but vanished from these United States, leaving democracy the poorer.

I think probably it helped that the editors of those newspapers knew the top boss had a sense of humor.

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