The Book of the Week is “The Times of My Life” by Max Frankel, published in 1999. This autobiography describes a journalist originally from Germany who came of age during WWII.
The author’s Jewish parents were citizens of alternately Polish or German territory, but their passports were Polish. So in October 1938, Hitler deported them and the author, then about ten years old, to Poland. But for the incredible survival skills of his parents, that led them to eventually flee to the United States after many hardships, the family would surely have perished during the war.
When he wrote of the their final destination, Frankel recounted two curious perceptions held by Europeans at that time: Three major New York institutions included Franklin Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia and Columbia University, and “…millions of Jews live in New York and were unafraid to speak Yiddish, not just in the streets, but on the radio!”
Frankel caught the journalism bug in high school, thanks to an inspirational English teacher. In the early 1950’s, as a sophomore at Columbia University, he was afforded a unique opportunity to work as a journalist for the New York Times, covering campus news. His pay was almost double the school’s tuition. Newspapering was time-consuming and labor-intensive then, what with penciled-in headlines, carbon copies and pneumatic tubes to transport articles on paper to typesetters.
The author stayed with the New York Times for decades. The 1950’s found him reporting on the U.S. government. The McCarthy Era was Hitlerian for him. Senator Joe McCarthy and his partner in crime, Roy Cohn acquired presidential power when they were granted access to personnel records of government employees to spy on them– the kind of abuse of power that smacked of Germany’s dictatorship. News gatherers in those days merely conveyed information, practicing neither introspection nor analysis. However, Frankel described all journalists in history: “We enjoy disaster, murder, riot, revolution.”
The author covered Moscow in the late 1950’s, Cuba in the early 1960’s, and Washington again in the mid-1960’s. He wrote brilliant legal arguments for his employer’s case when it printed the Pentagon Papers. He recounted a 1980 political joke, whose concept will remain relevant for decades: In an alley, a voter is accosted at gunpoint by a pollster and asked, “Carter or Reagan?” After a momentary pause, the voter says, “Shoot.”
In the late 1980’s, the author achieved the position of executive editor. He spent a chapter on how he changed the hiring practices of the paper with affirmative-action type initiatives. A separate, longer chapter was spent on homosexuals. He lamented over the constant conflict all news organizations encounter between staying profitable and maintaining neutrality when conveying information about their financial supporters– advertisers, readers/viewers/listeners who purchase such information– and stockholders.
Read the book to learn the details of Frankel’s extreme and diverse experiences.