Full disclosure: I am one of that nationwide brotherhood of folks who cannot get along without the New York Times. Though 450 miles and two states removed from New York City, I still devour the Times as a starving man would devour a hearty meal.
It is good news for us Times junkies that Arthur Gelb's recounting of his career at the paper, published to considerable acclaim last year, is now out in a paperback reprint. The book is not without flaws, but Gelb tells his personal story with gusto and weaves it deftly into the lore, traditions, triumphs and crises of the paper itself.
Gelb joined the paper at age 20 in 1944 as a copyboy. He worked his way up through the reporting ranks, covering police, hospitals and various other beats, then spending many years in the cultural department, dealing with the paper's critics of art, theater, architecture and music and covering the nightclub scene himself. Then they made him metropolitan editor (Times-speak for city editor) and by the time he retired in 1989 he was managing editor. He leaves the impression that life in the rarefied air of the paper's higher echelons was not to his taste –-- he longed to be back in the city room, covering news and writing about it on a daily basis.
Gelb's book is discursive and anecdotal. He goes into too much detail about many things and has a tendency to get sidetracked from the main thrust of whatever crisis he helped to report or cover by some alluring but peripheral topic that pops up out of nowhere. He has a hundred stories to tell, and he tells them all, come hell or high water.
His rise through the paper's ranks was propelled by his own obvious talent, plus a flair for self-promotion, a take-charge attitude under stress that fit the needs of a major newspaper, and a shrewd ability to ingratiate himself with people who could do his career good. The pattern was set at the very start, when Gelb was looking for a way to set himself apart from the other copyboys who shared his desire to become a reporter. A sympathetic older staffer suggested he start an internal staff newsletter. He got right on the case and did the job well enough to eventually earn promotion to the reporting staff. In the process he even met his future wife. Not a bad parlay!
One point that Gelb emphasizes will surely seem odd to present-day journalists on other newspapers: He constantly emphasizes how, in his reporting days, police, press agents and government officials seemed actually eager to give the Times inside information and helpful spoonfuls of hot news. How times have changed! Today these functionaries generally work hard to make a reporter's job more difficult, or to feed him only self-serving puffery. Perhaps the solution to this mystery lies in the fact that the New York Times, is, after all, The New York Times. Those who work for lesser papers are treated accordingly (I speak from experience).
A great virtue of Gelb's book is his humanizing of his fellow reporters, critics and editors. Bylines that we have read for years suddenly become well-rounded people with interesting histories and weird habits. And Gelb is not shy about venting his disapproval of some very big names who he feels made his life more difficult than it needed to be (Lester Markel and James Reston, to name just two). He is generous in his praise of others, notably his longtime friend A. H. Rosenthal and publisher Arthur Ochs ("Punch") Sulzberger.
There are some fascinating vignettes along the way. Do you know, for instance, that the Times briefly but seriously considered publishing an afternoon paper as a kind of counterweight to its lordly morning self? And the spectacle of seven high-ranking Times editors trooping down to a porno theater to personally inspect the notorious sex film Deep Throat makes for truly diverting reading.
Gelb was unhappy at the Times' slowness to report on Nazi atrocities during World War II, and he was highly critical about the paper's lackluster performance during the Watergate scandal. Tension between the New York office and the Washington bureau is a recurring theme, with much of the blame being laid upon Reston.
The book ends on a note of regret and nostalgia, the standard lament of the old hand who feels put out to pasture, that things are not what they were in "the good old days."
Gelb is a good storyteller, though like many storytellers he tends to go into too much detail and ramble (I lost count of how many times he and his associates had lunch at Sardi's). There is also a large dose of standard "How We Got The Big Story" reminiscing, but in all honesty, much of it is darned interesting.
CITY ROOM is essential reading for us Times junkies, and for anyone else who thinks newspapers are still at the top of the media profession despite the rise of television. One cannot imagine a similar book about a television station, that's for sure.
Reviewed by Robert Finn on December 27, 2010