Editorial: Alfred A. Knopf.
Few American newspapers – and perhaps none at all in the view of some students of the craft – have matched the many excellences of the New York Herald Tribune. In the crispness of its writing and editing, the bite of its critics and commentators, the range of its coverage, and the clarity of its typography, the “Trib” (as media people and many of its readers affectionately called it) raised newspapering to an art form. It had an influence and importance out of all proportion to its size. Abraham Lincoln valued its support so highly during the Civil War he went to great lengths to retain the allegiance of its co-founder Horace Greeley. And President Eisenhower felt it was so significant a national institution and Republican organ that while in the White House he helped broker the sale of the paper to its last owner, multimillionaire John Hay Whitney.
From Karl Marx to Tom Wolfe, its list of staffers and contributors was spectacularly distinguished, including Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Virgil Thomson, Eugenia Sheppard, Red Smith, Heywood Broun, and brothers Joseph and Stewart Alsop. At the close of World War II, the Herald Tribune, which represented the marriage of two newspapers that had done more than any other to create modern daily journalism, was at its apex of power and prestige. Yet just twenty-one years later, its influence still palpable in every newsroom across the nation, the Trib was gone. It is this story – of a great American daily’s rise to international renown and its doomed fight for survival in the world’s media capital – that Richard Kluger tells in this sweeping and fascinating book.
It begins in pre-Civil War New York with two bitter enemies who, between them, practically invented the newspaper as we know it: the Herald’s James Gordon Bennett, a cynic who brought aggressive honesty to re-porting for the first time, and the Tribune’s Greeley, whose passion for social justice and vision of a national destiny made him an American icon and the most widely read polemicist since Tom Paine. These two giant figures loomed above a colorful, intensely competitive age, and with a novelist’s sense of detail and character, Kluger gives us an extraordinary picture of them and their time. Here is Bennett breaking new ground in 1836 with his extended coverage of the sensational murder of a well-known prostitute near City Hall… the Tribune scooping the War Department on the outcome of the Battle of Antietam in 1862…Greeley going upstate to testify in a libel suit brought against him by James Fenimore Cooper, then rushing back to the city in time to write a hilarious account of the trial for the next morning’s edition…the birth of investigative journalism as the Tribune’seditors cracked the coded messages proving that Tilden’s backers tried to fix the presidential election of 1876.
After the two papers and their two traditions – political and reportorial – merged early in the twentieth century, the fate of the Herald Tribune became intertwined with that of the pride-driven Reid family and its dynastic rule of the paper. In particular, it is the story of Helen Reid, the social secretary who married the owner’s son and became the paper’s dominant force, and of her two sons, whose fratricidal struggle for control helped bring about its downfall. To try to save it, one of America’s richest men lent his name and fortune as a last wave of staff talent redefined the limits and redesigned the look of U.S. daily journalism.
The Tribune’s story is populated with a Dickensian cast of characters: Ishbel Ross, the dainty little woman who was the best and hardest-working reporter of her time…the acerbic city editor, Stanley Walker, and his successor, L. L. Engelking, who set a standard of city-room fervor and ferocity for a generation of newsmen…Homer
Bigart, the stuttering copyboy who became America’s finest and most daring combat correspondent…the beautiful, bitchy, and intensely competitive Marguerite Higgins, who won a Pulitzer Prize by the time she was thirty…as well as modern figures like humorist Art Buchwald, crack drama critic Walter Kerr, straight-from-the gut reporter and columnist Jimmy Breslin, and superb science writer Earl Ubell.
Above all, The Paper is a rich and revealing work of social and literary history, and exploration of the “free” in free press, and an elegiac tribute to the fading world of print journalism that spawned and sustained what was, line for line, America’s best newspaper.
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
THE PAPER: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune. By Richard Kluger with the assistance of Phyllis Kluger. Illustrated. 801 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95. IT has always seemed to this observer a dubious notion that an institution can possess a life of its own. Any organization is the sum of its people, and to ascribe independent life to it is at best fuzzy-minded and at worst totalitarian. And yet, upon finishing ”The Paper” by Richard Kluger and witnessing in its closing pages the demise of The New York Herald Tribune, one feels as if one is mourning the death of a close friend. Perhaps the greatest compliment that one can pay Mr. Kluger’s monumental new book is that it forces one to get his categories mixed up and to be all the happier for that confusion.
The secret to Mr. Kluger’s success is of course the deftness with which he has interwoven in his narrative the history of the institution and the activities of the people who worked for it. He begins with a view of the paper’s third owner, Ogden Mills Reid, on a postwar tour of the Pacific in 1945, when The New York Herald Tribune was ”at its apex of power and prestige.” Thence he flashes back to the paper’s patriarch in the early 1850’s, the volatile Horace Greeley, who would lecture the young nation, and sometimes uplift it, through the medium of The Tribune’s editorial page: ”Seen even from the rear, his is the most conspicuous figure in Broadway’s midday throng as, swaying and rocking at high velocity, the twin tails of his very long, very loose, very worn white coat flying out behind him, he proceeds like a bent hoop, appearing to occupy both sides of the street at the same time.”
And then with a narrative sweep that is always absorbing and sometimes breathtaking, Mr. Kluger -who edited The Herald Tribune’s Sunday book section in the 1960’s and is the author of five novels as well as ”Simple Justice,” a nonfiction account of the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision outlawing racial segregation in the schools – works his way back to Greeley’s and his paper’s beginnings, then forward through The Tribune’s 131-year history. But the movement is not strictly chronological. Seamlessly, it knits together historical events with the stories that were made of those events, the people who wrote those stories and the stories of those people. For instance, in a typical section midway through ”The Paper,” the subject of the prejudice against women in the press leads to profiles of Margaret Parton, Judith Crist and Marguerite Higgins, which in turn brings up the Korean War and Ms. Higgins’s and Homer W. Bigart’s fierce rivalry in covering ”one of the saddest chapters in American military history.”
Such a narrative technique gives Mr. Kluger the freedom to range anywhere – from the allegorical meaning of the logotype, known as the ”dingbat,” that adorned The Trib’s front page for a century to A. Homer Byington’s coverage of the battle of Gettysburg; from the personalities of the many remarkable people who put out the paper to close-ups of Tom Wolfe’s and Jimmy Breslin’s contrasting innovative journalistic styles.
What emerges finally is not just the story of one paper but also a history of all New York City’s papers from The Sun of Benjamin Day to The Times of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger; and by extension a history of the heyday of print journalism, from the invention of the modern ”lead,” which was designed to transmit the essential news of the Civil War battlefield, to the coming of television and its effect on the ecology of newspapers.
And what invigorates this history is Mr. Kluger’s enthusiasm for his subject, which is apparent everywhere: in the loving detail with which he tells the story of famous stories (like Peter Kihss’s remarkable report on the B-26 Army bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945); in the vigor with which he challenges Gay Talese’s ”unexamined premise” in ”The Kingdom and the Power” that The Times in its 20th-century version ”was incomparably the best newspaper in America”; and in the liveliness of the prose with which he profiles some of The Tribune’s more unusual personalities. (Of John L. Denson, who edited the paper in the early 1960’s, Mr. Kluger writes: ”With a fearsome visage, eyes bulging, face flushing, teeth clicking as he worked, trimming text blocks he had ordered to fit a precise hole and dreaming up headlines of a kind no one else seemed able to get just right, he looked like a mad genius, wrapped in cigarette smoke, redoubtable and combustible and half the time on the verge of apoplexy over the exigencies of the clock and the ineptness of subordinates. They called him the Lone Ranger.”) In minor ways, the enthusiasm occasionally gets out of hand. He has a tendency to paint his heroes too bright and to shade his villains too dark. Too often his samplings of the paper’s more felicitous writing somehow fail to live up to their notices. Four times, in his zeal to streamline his prose, he employs the locutions ”At war’s end” or ”At year’s end.”
But in far more important ways, his passion helps him. Early in his story he foresees The Tribune’s doom in the ”very availability to it” of its various owners’ fortunes, which ”turned the paper into a hereditary possession to be sustained as a public duty rather than developed as a profit-making opportunity.” And yet, even recognizing this fate, he celebrates what The Tribune accomplished, particularly when it was closest to its death, in the 1960’s under John Hay Whitney’s stewardship.
The tension here verges on the tragic, because despite being doomed, the paper still struggled to achieve new ideals of journalistic art. It makes one understand why, when institutions die, people sometimes weep as if a living thing had expired.
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