Sidney Zion is a friend of mine, and I can’t be sure whether my affection for him has perverted my judgment of his book. In real life, he is lots of fun; he is also maddening, contentious, brassy and opinionated. If there were such a thing as aggreeable offensiveness, Sidney Zion would own it.
Read All About It! (and I hope you do) is a collection of pieces published (Zion tells you all about how) and unpublished (Zion tells you all about why) about the Supreme Court and criminal justice, partisan politics and political conventions, sports, pop music, the Middle East and Jewish gangsters. Nobody could dislike a man who is consistently interesting on so broad a range of subjects, though a lot of people do. Most of all, though, Zion writes about reporting, his abiding passion: “A press card,” Zion says, “unlike a lawyer’s license or anything else provided a front row seat to the lively doings of the world; it was an entree to everything, including the shadows. And when you got the story, you didn’t go home and tell your wife and friends, you printed it, right out there for all to read, under your own byline. What could be better than that?”
Zion is at his most engaging when he writes about the editors and publishers whom it is his pleasure to tickle and torment. He is never loath to name names–the names in this case being those of editors who cause most writers to tremble, for which reason Read All About It! should be read by anyone remotely interested in journalism.
Zion was the guy who blew the whistle on Daniel Ellsberg. He found out (read all about it) who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The Times‘s Neal Sheehan and, although he was a reporter without a paper to report to, lost no time in telling the world about it via radio and television. This may not strike you as adorable–it made Zion quite unpopular in liberal circles for a while–but he had his reasons. Some of these may seem vain and self-serving, but they’re certainly not mealy-mouthed: “In answer to one of the innumerable questions as to why I went after the story, I said, ‘To satisfy my ego.’ There was truth to it–if no ego, what’s a byline for? but I was stupid to say it….I looked like a scoundrel.” On the other hand, “What the hell is a reporter doing asking another reporter why he broke one of the big stories of the time?”
As for Jewish gangsters: Well, Zion prefers not to have Jews come in the shape of victims, even if the alternative is for them to be con men. Such troublesome questions as how many nice Jewish kids became victims of drugs peddled by mobsters, for instance Zion doesn’t address. Nor did these questions vex me in more than a subliminal way until long after I’d read his romantic profiles of Meyer Lansky and Izzy Schwartzberger — which may say something about my moral laxity, but which also says something about Zion’s style, so vivid, so (I knew I couldn’t avoid the cliche for long) Runyonesque. Here’s Schwartzberger:
“Why did I become a criminal, was I crazy? Yes. I’m a psychopath, I’m an egomaniac, what are you talking about? You mean I shoulda gone straight? Go away!
“I need action…Where I grew up on the Lower East Side you either became a judge or went to the electric chair. I’m the happy medium.”
As for the Middle East: If you own rigid opinions on this subject, Zion is likely to drive you crazy. He believes that “there is and has been a Palestinian nation since 1946…that nation, is now the Kingdom of Jordan.” He also asks us to believe that when she was editor of The Times‘s OpEd page, Charlotte Curtis (“an old friend”) “had fallen for the Palestinian line plain for all to see. She was running what I called the Fatah page of the Times.” So naturally he decided “to set her up, old friend or not.” He took his Palestine-is-Jordan piece directly to publisher Punch Sulzberger, who ran it. Take it or leave it.
As for pop music: I yield to no one in my devotion to Frank Sinatra. I love him completely and forever until I die, and I don’t care whom he does or does not hang out with. But I don’t make the leap Zion does (in what he prides himself is one of the most controversial pieces ever published in The New York Times Magazine), which is that rock music was hyped and sold to kids who would otherwise be listening to Lena Home and Lady Day, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. I’m not entirely sure Zion knows the difference between the Beatles and The Who, and his case has holes in it big enough for Basie’s band to swing through–but, like everything he writes, it’s fun to read. And, like everything he writes, the central argument can’t be dismissed out of hand.
Freedom of the press is, in many ways, what Read All About It! is about: if you’re going to have a free press, you’re going to have big mouths like Zion. If he makes you mad, he also restores your faith in the possibility of honorable people honorably disagreeing. One doesn’t feel small or querulous when one disagrees with Zion, and that is a measure of his expansiveness and generosity.