- Historic Sites
The American newspaper: beleaguered by television, hated both for its timidity and for its arrogance, biased, provincial, overweening—and still indispensable. A Hearst veteran tells how it got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
I cannot imagine caring about television news the way I do about newspapers. My paper is the Times . I didn’t have much say in picking it. I came over when the Herald Tribune folded. But I live in New York, and so the Times is my paper just as the Giants are my football team. For good or ill they are a part of my extended social family. No one rages at the Times more than I do. It has a sports section that appears to be assembled at random, and I have yet to get to the bottom of an A. M. Rosenthal column. When it blows a story, I feel as if Lawrence Taylor had missed a tackle. When I am away, I miss the paper terribly and take back everything I said. When it gets it right, as it did recently with a series on scandals in education funding, the stories were so good they made my hair crackle. Newspapers get into trouble when their readers cease to care.
The ideal newspaper story is one that yokes celebrity with scandal in an action that can be simply stated.
Part of the special relationship exists because readers like to read. This sounds obvious but is sometimes forgotten even within the business. Anyone who writes for periodicals knows how the advertising department, after claiming a readership so well educated as to be made up entirely of graduates of the Sorbonne, complains to the editorial side that any story more complex than the annual appearance of the circus is over the heads of subscribers who only get to read while having their golf shoes cleaned.
Several years ago Gov. Lester Maddox was discussing state prison reform when he made the wonderful point that Georgia jails would not improve until they started getting in a better class of prisoner. Which brings me to the final piece in the equation, the newspaper reader. It is all right to get readers angry. I imagine I have left a wake of discontent with this article. It is even acceptable to befuddle them. I have rarely read newspaper articles with more interest and less comprehension than I did about the discovery of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. But you must engage their interest.
Readers have to play their part and not sit by passively. Too many are conditioned by the lethargy of television and want everything spelled out for them. A newspaper is a call to action. It cannot know all the answers, but it can ask the right questions so you can find the answers on your own.
If you aren’t getting all you need from a single newspaper, read more newspapers. The same day I read a charming account of the English actor John Gielgud in the Times I read in the Post that the actress Shannen Doherty was not going to wear a shirt in her next film. I read the Post the way a wino drinks muscatel. I know it isn’t good for me, but I can’t stay away from it. Besides, it has Phil Mushnick, who holds roughly the same position among sports media columnists as Shakespeare did among Elizabethan playwrights.
Back your newspaper reading up with magazines. Try The Washington Monthly . Its politics are, as the old joke has it, “to the left of whoopee,” but its reporting is wonderfully cogent. If you find the mainstream press too liberal, a subscription to The National Review is all the antidote you require.
I am always surprised at how well this ukulele of a press manages to get played. One of the local papers I read is the Putnam Reporter Dispatch . Like all papers in the Gannett chain, it’s on the soft side, but today it delivered thirty-eight pages of pretty good stuff. There was reasonable world news coverage from Bosnia to North Korea. Locally I read that Rep. Hamilton Fish, a strong right arm in Congress, is being criticized by another Republican who says Fish has become too liberal. There was some good political commentary and a spirited exchange between opposing columns on recent statements by Louis Farrakhan that took some editorial grit to run. Plenty of sports and my daily dose of comics, including “Doonesbury” and “The Far Side,” which I must have. I worked the bridge column and did the crossword puzzle. I read an interesting review of a new Edward Albee play, was warned by Ann Landers about the dangers of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, and found out which cooking oil heats best for Chinese food.
Not bad for forty cents.