Journalists like to picture themselves as fearless speakers of truth to power. They love it when the powerful try (and fail) to silence a lowly reporter doing his job. From martyr to victor -- that’s how icons get made.
David Halberstam made his bones as a journalistic hero when JFK tried to get the New York Times to move him out of Vietnam. Nixon’s pressure on the Washington Post during Watergate adds a touch of Hitchcock to the early pages of All the President’s Men. Would the Pentagon Papers be as famous if the New York Times had not fought an injunction all the way to the Supreme Court?
Then there is that class of stories that do not fit the template.
In this talk from 1997, Hilton Kramer recalls the reaction to an article he wrote on Hollywood and the Blacklist. (Starts at the 40.00 min mark). Because he did not show the proper feality to the Great Historical Concensus, Sy Hersh went to his editor and demanded that he fire Kramer. Hersh believed the article did not show proper respect to the Martyrs of McCarthyism.
Kramer had committed the cardinal sin of noting that there really were communists in Hollywood and that Lillian Hellman was not always honest. To Hersh this was a firing offense. That Kramer was right was of little consequence.
In 1965 Tom Wolfe wrote a two part profile of the New Yorker and its editor William Shawn for Herald-Tribune’s New York magazine. It was brilliantvintage Wolfe. It mocked the New Yorker’s pretensions but Wolfe had also done his homework. He knew more about how the New Yorker and Shawn operated than any other outsider. The piece was New Journalism but it was, at its core, very good journalism.
The New Yorker was a powerful media outlet and Wolfe took readers inside its walls, explained how that distinctive style was created, dissected the editing process that ensured every piece had that unique New Yorker tone. He also, boldly, suggested that the overpowering editorial system of Mr. William Shawn had preserved that quintessential style at the cost of missing the best writing in post-war America.
Much of ‘literary’ New York reacted with horror and outrage. All sorts of the right people suggested that New York should never have run Wolfe’s story. Richard Rovere the scourge of Sen. Joe McCarthy thought Wolfe had crossed a line. It was one thing to mock Henry Luce (as the New Yorker had) or to traffic in rumors about Tailgunner Joe (as Rovere had with glee.) But the New Yorker and Mr. Willaim Shawn were supposed to be off-limits.
The highlight for Wolfe came when his editor received a phone call from Richard Goodwin, now best known as Mr. Doris Kearns Goodwin, but then a White House muckety muck for LBJ. Wolfe describes the call in Hooking Up:
Three months after William Safire began writing an op-ed column for the New York Times, a former Times reporter wrote ‘Punch’ Sulzberger and demanded that Safire be fired.
“This is Richard Goodwin. I’m calling from the White House.
He preceded to tell Clay [Felker] what poisonous, gutterish, despicable stuff our New Yorker articles were. The bill of particulars was pretty famialar by now. The only thing that made Goodwin’s different was that he couldn’t let twenty-five words go by without interjecting “Here at the White House”. Golly, what were we to conclude? Johnson was already sending half a million American troops to Vietnam on the basis of a ten cent gunboat incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. What chance did we have? But by now Clay’s instincts and Jim Bellow’s were the same.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Clay, “but if you’ll do me a favor and write down everything you’ve just said on White House stationary and send it to me, I promise you we’ll print it.”
We never heard another word from Richard Goodwin there at the White House.
The letter was written by David Halberstam. Safire deserves the last word:
It is a very dishonest column and a shabby one. A few years ago when you had just taken over the paper you were handed a tough decision on the West Coast edition. You said“It’s a lousy paper. Close it.” So Punch, this time the play is to you. It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest one. So close it. Our you end up just as shabby as Safire.
The irony did not escape me. Halberstam had gained fame when an American President tried to get the New York Times to fire him for his out-of-step Vietnam dispatches, and here was that same reporter trying to get the Times’s publisher to ‘close up’ a point of view that, however shabby, was mine own.