What Are They Reading?
MY TIMES: A Memoir of Dissent.
By John Hess. Seven Stories.
272 pp. Paper $16.95.
John Hess, who, it should be said, is one of The Nation's oldest friends and severest critics, once complained to me about an "editor's choice" blurb I'd written, which contained a brief mention of a book by a conservative literary critic. In the present political culture, he lectured, the right already has too much media space, so don't waste on them the limited space we have!
Now Hess is reclaiming his political space from the New York Times, where he toiled, effectively but disaffectedly, from 1954 through 1978, first as a copy editor and then as an investigative reporter--a term spurned by the Times style book, which cavils: Don't all reporters "investigate"? Actually, Hess says, the term is regarded warily on West 43rd Street because real investigative reporting carries the danger of offending the powerful people whom the Voice of the Establishment prefers to flatter.
John Hess's basic rap on the Times is that it "was never 'the greatest newspaper in the world,' nor even very good, except, like the vicar's egg, in spots. What it was and continues to be is the most influential newspaper in the world, the most relied upon source of information in the most powerful nation in the world." From his testimony, we can sketch a portrait of the subject's modus operandi: Balance a troublemaking story to death, or at least to innocuousness; inform by sheer volume of facts rather than by wit, selection, intelligence; always be available as a catch basin for leaking statesmen.
Well, that's harsh, given the many good reporters who write good stories for the paper--when they're given a chance. Also, Hess's tenure was arguably during a more timid era--or rather, a more toadying one, especially in the late 1960s and '70s, under the stewardship of A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, a premature neocon. According to one of his successors, "Abe would always say, with some justice, that you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer to the right or it'll drift off to the left."
Times change and the Times changes, though slo-o-o-wly. And the more it changes the more, in some ways, it reassuringly remains the same. Even twenty-six years later, Hess still has an insider's knowing eye for the paper's recurrent foibles.
Hess's critique of his alma mater is interesting because it is substantive--avowedly political from a leftist perspective. While copy editors were fussing with reporters over ledes and style, "monstrous falsehoods were passing into print, unchallenged." Hess retells the story of how Kennett Love, the paper's man in Tehran, covered up the CIA's role in the 1953 coup and recites other examples of missed stories on the US Imperialism beat now in the public record. There is the factitious Tonkin Gulf attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on US destroyers (never questioned by the Times), the My Lai massacre (eventually exposed by obscure freelancers) and so on. There were different reasons for each of these fumbles, but an important one was, in Hess's view, "the Times's allergy toward sources that challenge the establishment's truths."
He recalls working out of the Paris bureau in 1968 when Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre were presiding over a war crimes "commission." Later, he learned that the story of My Lai had come up in testimony. At the time the big-foot reporters covering the Paris peace talks (Anthony Lewis, Hedrick Smith) had disdained to attend this obviously left-wing event (and so did Hess). He wonders (perhaps too speculatively), What if the Times had run down the story and printed it before the 1968 presidential election that handed Nixon and Kissinger a license to continue the killing? Would revelation of the massacre have changed the result?
Of course, the Times did, eventually, publish the Pentagon Papers, to its eternal credit. But again, this was a case of volume crashing into history when a timely, smart, enterprising story might have had a more telling impact in stalling a bad war. What if the Times had not fudgified Tad Szulc's story of the preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion (already reported in The Nation)?
Hess also tosses darts at the Times's coverage of government in its own home town. Too many reporters became cozy with the pols who were their "reliable sources," he says; conservatives like Rosenthal and his satraps were loath to offend City Hall. Again, there were shining moments, including Hess's own exposés of the scandalous conditions in nursing homes.
But the paper's record on municipal corruption was, well, spotty. Hess recounts investigations that hit a snag at the copy desk or upstream. Deputy city editor Sidney Schanberg (who later left because of his own moral differences with management) told Hess "that my trouble was that I was trying to cover New York as if I were still a foreign correspondent. When he was in Southeast Asia, he explained, he could write that a government was corrupt--'but you can't write that the government of New York is corrupt.'"
Eventually, Hess too was driven to move on by too many shootdowns of ideas, too many editorial adulterations. His departure set him free (most of the time) to express his political beliefs. Now, in My Times, he marshals them to show how the good Gray Lady of 43rd Street has steadfastly purveyed its own biases under the lofty guise of objectivity.