Front Page With a Human Face
Frankel pulls no punches--especially against his editorial predecessor and rival, A.M. "Abe" Rosenthal, who may have been a "masterful foreign correspondent" but whose manner as editor was "too often confrontational or condescending." (Rosenthal is now a columnist on the Times Op-Ed page.) Frankel reports that when Rosenthal was faced with "his executive mortality," he concluded his reign "in a Lear-like tempest." One of publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger's orders to Frankel as the new editor was to "make the newsroom a happy place again," which he followed by determining to be "not-Abe."
Nor is Rosenthal the only colleague to feel the sharpness of Frankel's pen: The venerable Arthur Krock was "the pompous head of The Times Washington bureau," Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty "a brilliant but callous self-promoter," former Sunday editor Lester Markel an "often abusive boss," while correspondent R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. had fallen prey to "pomposity and gluttony" before Frankel as editor "welcomed the challenge of reigniting his career." As I read such characterizations I began to wonder if this was indeed Max Frankel's autobiography or an updated version of Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power.
Frankel also deftly skewers non-Timesians such as former mayor Ed Koch, whose letters "rebutting even the most trivial imputations of error" were "Herzogian missives that had to be judiciously answered because all would be reprinted in his self-satisfying memoirs." Always the balanced reporter, however, Frankel doesn't spare himself hard judgments, admitting to being envious of Washington bureau chief Tom Wicker and lamenting "my own swelling sense of importance" in the heady days of JFK's Washington.
The main heroes of the story are Frankel's mentor, James "Scotty" Reston, "the most admired newspaperman of the day," who had "perfected his colorful, probing style as a sportswriter and war correspondent," and publisher "Punch," a "wise and witty" man who defended his editor and never asked him to bend to the complaints of any advertiser or concerns other than what was newsworthy.
What was "newsworthy" changed as the patriotic press stance of World War II--withholding news that might hurt or reflect badly on the government--was slowly altered. The alleged "newspaper of record" omitted from its pages knowledge it had of our U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union under Eisenhower, preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion under Kennedy and JFK's plan for blockading Cuba in the missile crisis. Vietnam brought the first refusal of the Times to honor the government's cover-ups. The paper refused JFK's demand that it take David Halberstam out of the war zone (for his negative dispatches); when the coup against Diem occurred, the Times printed on page one Frankel's exposé of government dissembling. In March 1971, when Neil Sheehan brought Frankel "a brown paper bag containing a small sample of the Pentagon Papers," Frankel was instrumental in gaining Sulzberger's support to publish them.
Frankel won the Pulitzer for his coverage of Nixon in China, rising in good old "Front Page" fashion to the President's "petty vendetta" against the Times (one of his many enemies), which was allotted but a single seat on the press plane to Beijing, a slight that "unwittingly stoked all my reportorial embers." Frankel covered events all day and wrote all night, with only an hour or two of sleep. Trying to compete with television, he devised "another kind of article that has since become a staple of Times coverage: a 'Reporter's Notebook' that mixed informal observation and commentary in ways not usually countenanced in conventional newswriting."
This was the kind of "new journalism" (though Frankel doesn't use the term) that had made Kempton's columns famous in the fifties, and that former Timesman Talese pioneered in Esquire in the sixties and inspired Tom Wolfe. After bringing this style to the formerly stolid, gray pages of The Times, Frankel "became more certain than ever that full and fair newswriting not only allowed but required a deft weave of fact and analysis, drama and humor."
He promoted less conventional news as worthy of page one--subjects that would have shocked the good, gray paper of old, such as trends in country music, changing hemlines and the "voice mail" revolution. The starchy Times had seemed appropriate for the fifties, when I felt it only right that their Columbia correspondent dress like a diplomat, matching the stately columns of the "paper of record." (It also seemed right that Kempton's adventurous prose appear in the casual format of the tabloid Post.) By the eighties, the Times and times were ripe for a Mets-rooting editor like Frankel, who wanted to tear down "the artificial wall between 'facts' and their meaning."
His own best writing is on display at the opening of this book, a harrowing tale of his family's escape from Nazi Germany against all odds that reads as much like a novella as any of Kempton's true stories in Part of Our Time. Joan Didion has said that Kempton's book should be required reading in all journalism schools; I agree, and I would add to that list of essential texts The Times of My Life.