The Bonus Book of the Week is “City Room” by Arthur Gelb, published in 2003. This large volume presented the highlights of the author’s 45-year New York Times career. There were two short passages that might cause confusion for the reader: when the author discussed health department and city infrastructure programs in 1947 or 1948, and also, “After covering Colombo’s murder during a rally in Columbus Circle on Columbus Day, June 28, 1971…”
In 1933, president Franklin Roosevelt insisted that the White House press corps get his permission to quote him directly. The journalists accepted that condition with nary a protest. Having grown up in East Harlem and the Bronx, New York City, Gelb began his career as a copy boy at the Times in May 1944. At the newspaper, writers and editors were always at odds over editorial control. Subjectively, the copy of each was ruined or improved by his counterpart.
In August 1956, the author described how he solicited enough money to keep Joseph Papp’s non-profit, Shakespearean theater organization alive by reviewing a partially rained-out production of the Taming of the Shrew. The following year, the Shakespeare Workshop won its lawsuit against New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses, obtaining a permit to have free shows in Central Park.
In 1966, the Times reported on the classic problems of education in the city. Mayor John Lindsay controlled the nine-member school board. Minority parents and civil rights groups thought he was indifferent to educating their children, as “… 85% of minority students in the city read far below grade level… The teachers’ union was perceived by some in the community as virtually a Jewish institution and racist as well.”
In spring 1970, a former law-enforcement official hired by the Times took six months to write a three-part series on extensive corruption in the New York City police department. It took that long to collect and verify all the information in the articles. “… we had numerous sources and stacks of documents and tape-recorded conversations corroborated what we had published.”
And the journalist assigned the series, David Burnham, declined to write a book on the whole sordid affair, “… ethical to the bone, [he] did not feel he should profit from having performed a public service.” Mayor Lindsay was furious that the Times exposed his poor record on corruption; he tried to pressure the paper not to print it.
In spring 1971, it took almost three months for numerous Times employees working around the clock, to prepare the Pentagon Papers for publication. Newspaper executive A.M. Rosenthal was pleasantly shocked that they were able to keep the project secret for that long!
There ensued prolonged, torturous and tortuous legal wrangling over how much the public has a right to know about the government’s nefarious activities. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of free speech.
In a nutshell: old-school journalism used to be comprised of an alcohol-lubricated male-dominated field of workaholics, some of whom were investigative reporters– critical thinkers who asked intelligent, probing questions (like, ‘How’s the building of “the wall” coming along?’).
If this was fifty years ago, the Times would have a reporter personally go to “the wall” and have someone write a human-interest story about what they saw and heard. With their own eyes and ears. Maybe even a detailed, two-part series. And follow up every month or so.
Not now. Can’t afford to send anyone anywhere anymore to get a firsthand account, to write any fact-filled article, rather than an opinion-filled one. Neither can any other media outlet. This, for a host of reasons that have been accumulating for decades. Everywhere Americans try to get honest, factual information– TV (including cable), radio, newspapers, magazines, internet, rallies and political (junk) mail– they can’t. Trust is at an all-time low.
For years, readers, listeners and viewers have read, seen and heard contradictory stories, and video and audio clips. Sometimes fanciful ones. Additionally, quotes have been taken out of context, words have been deleted, and the rest, spliced together. Which ones? Only the editors know. Sure, some websites do fact-checking, but the audience gravitates toward the sites simply to confirm their beliefs, not really to get the truth.
Now it’s all unctuous political hacks with fertile imaginations, whose goal is to get a candidate elected, reelected or to cut down political enemies– not to educate the populace. Such nonsense comes from both sides of the aisle.
As is well known, one slogan of the 1992 presidential campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.” The 2020 election might well say, “It’s the media, stupid.” Wait. That should be rephrased: “It’s the stupid media.”
Eventually, dissatisfaction with this sorry state of affairs will reach critical mass. There will be sufficient backlash to reverse the trend. Because the audience will stop paying attention until influential parties inspire value in honesty and fact-checking again.
Anyway, read the book to learn about the adventures of Gelb and his colleagues.