New York Times: All the Pap That's Fit to Print
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November 19, 1964, Vol. X, No. 5
The Times: All the Pap That's Fit to Print
(The following article is by a former New York Times reporter who wishes to remain anonymous.)
The New York Times, depended upon for a century by citizens, civic groups, and government to reliably report the news of the day, has abandoned its traditional role and responsibility in the metropolitan area. The Times's city staff no longer produces news. It has become passive, waiting for someone to tell it what is going on. Times reporters who once kept a watchful eye on the doings and undoings of the numerous agencies supposedly serving the public are now scampering about the city on so-called non-stories, such as features and long background and mood pieces.
While these stories are easier to read and more pleasant reading, there is less reason to read them. The mood and the flavor of the city is being conveyed, but not its activities, be they a City Hall hearing or a Brooklyn Heights protest rally. The Times local news coverage is cute, but not very informative.
No longer do we have the "Timesman" availing himself to malcontents in city agencies, studiously following up leads, paying unexpected call on officials, and developing a reputation that readers can depend upon and tipsters can feed stories to.
To be sure, news events are covered -- but never uncovered. The Times still gives its special brand of exhaustive coverage to "spot" news, such as an air crash or the arrival of a President. And it pays homage to the press releases, sorting them out, rewriting them, putting them into proper perspective, and adding the needed background.
This new passive approach to reporting can be carried on by the Times in the metropolitan area without any serious repercussions in readership or reputation among the general population for the simple reason that the Times has no local competition to show it up. Most of the other papers follow the Times in their flimsy manner. Therefore, the Times's omissions are hardly ever noticed, except by those concerned with particular areas or topics no longer covered. On the other hand, the paper's foreign and national staffs continue their somewhat thorough reporting, presumably because in those areas competition still exists and there is a reputation at stake.
My understanding of these recent changes on the city staff, through conversations with reporters still on the paper, is that there is a drive on for better writing -- stories that can communicate themselves, stories that lend themselves to bright writing, and stories of general interest. The Times, obviously, has picked up the challenge of the Herald Tribune that a good morning newspaper does not have to be dull.
In this respect it has done well. Compared to a pre-strike copy (1962), the Times is a livelier paper. Its staid makeup remains the same, but its city stories are better written and brighter. There is more descriptive writing -- action and details are emphasized and the facts minimized.
In addition, the cute stories are the ones that are getting the space, that all important commodity in the paper. Just so many columns are allocated to metropolitan news a day, and the dull but important stories that the Times built its reputation on are the ones that are being cut to give more space to the mood or feature articles. This is becoming less of a problem, however, for fewer "hard news" stories are being produced by reporters to compete with the non-stories.
Not so long ago the Times had three men covering labor affairs in the city, including the incomparable A.H. Raskin. Now it has one -- and that person is occasionally taken off the labor "beat" for other assignments. As a result, he has little time to develop stories, a speciality that had marked the Times's labor reporting.
City politics was once covered by a superlative staff headed by the late Leo Egan. Its writing could have been better but not its fairness and thoroughness. After Mr. Egan's death, and changes in the emphasis in city reporting, Richard Hunt, perhaps the Times reporter most capable of replacing Mr. Egan, resigned. He was followed by another seasoned political reporter, Leonard Ingalls. Both made it clear that they thought the Times's new concept of reporting did not suit the paper's responsibility toward political coverage.
Earl Mazo, a veteran Herald Tribune political reporter, was hired, presumably to fill Mr. Egan's shoes. However, Mr. Mazo has instead concentrated more on the national scene, where he feels more at ease, and the gaping hole still exists on the local scene. This undoubtedly will get larger. Rumors, which now race through the Times news room like never before, have it that three remaining experienced and reliable political reporters are actively looking for other employment.
City politics is now left to reporters so anxious for page-one stories -- with an angle and with "color" -- that they are biting at every worm dangled before them by gleeful politicians. These stories embarrass the more experienced reporters. However, it is not the major stories that have been most upsetting, but the little errors of fact and omission that now creep into the Times's political coverage. The stories are naive and can no longer be relied upon.
But the reporting of politics has not been as bad as the coverage of city affairs. The Times once had two men at City Hall; one in the State Building, covering the state agencies and some city departments; another reporter on hospitals and health; a housing reporter whose beat took in the Housing Authority, the Housing and Redevelopment Board, the City Planning Commission, and related agencies; a Housing Court reporter who also looked in at the Departments of Real Estate and Buildings; and a few reporters who just wandered around the City Hall area dropping in to see old friends and somehow, day after day, coming up with a story that might have bored a Scarsdale matron but shook the foundations of City Hall.
For all practical purposes there is now one City Hall reporter and a part-time housing reporter. The Times now depends for most of its city affairs coverage on the Associated Press, which mans a few "beats" with newspaper hacks; the mail, though which press releases come; and the various department public relations men who will "let you know" if anything important breaks.
We are being informed only about the things the City wants to tell us about. The Times reporters who used to ask the embarrassing and pertinent questions are elsewhere, such as at the Brooklyn Bridge a few weeks ago to cover a publicity stunt at the bidding of a press agent or at a political rally to tell us with platitudes that they are still exciting. These stories are like wisps of smoke. Who really cares? And some of those split-page features are not much better, if not worse, than a highbrow comic strip. We are being entertained.
No longer does the Times have a Wayne Phillips or a Martin Arnold on the backs of the Planning Commission or the Housing Redevelopment Board. No longer can we depend on Edith Evans Asbury to track down a slumlord when the City fails, and then print his name and home address; or have a Samuel Kaplan expose a blunder by the Parks or Buildings Department. There have been fewer and less biting stories about the city's traffic mess since Bernard Stengren left. And no doubt State Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz is sighing with relief now that there is neither a Lawrence O'Kane nor a Sydney S. Schanberg wandering the halls of the State Building in search of a story. And who will tell us about judicial shenanigans now that Jack Roth is no longer lounging in the lobby of the Criminal Courts building?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
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