October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
I first met the writer whose essay on the American press dominates this issue one afternoon more than twenty years ago. I’d recently joined the staff of American Heritage , and he had just been hired to start a sister publication called Americana . “I’m Peter Andrews,” said a husky man about fifteen years my senior, stepping into my little tin office while he lit a cigar of preternatural vileness. “Good,” he grunted, leaned against the doorjamb, drew vigorously on the cigar a few times, then removed it from his mouth and regarded it fondly as it fed a mephitic blue haze into the dimming room. “You know—Richard, right?—a lot of people object to my cigars. They say they’re cheap, disgusting, awful, make them sick.” He scowled, shrugged, brightened. “But I say, ----’em. Let’s go get a drink.” Over it he told me he had been a newspaperman. I was not amazed.
It wasn’t a soft school that Peter came up in; when he started out, there were still plenty of veterans around who made the inhabitants of the city room in The Front Page seem squeamish by comparison. One of them gave Peter a comforting tip as the freshman reporter set out for the scene of a particularly grisly multiple murder: “It’s easy, kid. Remember—just count the heads, only the heads.”
This mentor would have learned the ropes in the days of the terrifying Charles Chapin, city editor of the New York “ World at the turn of the century, when the pace was so fierce it put young men under. “More than fifty of our staff went to their graves,” Chapin recalled with lugubrious satisfaction, “and nearly all of them were under forty.” Chapin showed a rare gleam of wintry pleasure when the photographer William Warnecke brought in the picture of the stricken Mayor Gaynor that appears on page 68. The editor rubbed his hands together. “Blood all over him,” he said happily. “And exclusive, too!” (When Chapin later killed his wife, his colleagues said they weren’t at all surprised their boss had figured in a murder but were astonished that he wasn’t the victim.)
That smoke-pickled, fast-talking, hard-drinking, consciously picturesque tradition seems finally to have waned with this generation. Peter himself no longer consumes virulent cigars, and he’s about as far from a city desk as you can get, living in a Federal-era farmhouse out in the suburbs and working on a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman. Yet his essay reflects the newspaper-inculcated virtues that make him one of our valued contributors: skepticism, a relish for detail, and the ability to pummel the most disparate facts into a narrative line. And don’t, by the way, be taken in by his modest assessment of his own career: Peter has won plenty of honors for his reporting over the years and was the chief national defense correspondent for the Hearst chain. His mannerly self-denigration merely suggests how long it’s been since his newspaper days.
But if, like so many of his sometime colleagues, Peter no longer fits Ben Hecht’s platonic conception of a journalist, his piece makes clear that the fascinating slattern of a muse those reporters served is still very much in business. Nobody on the Daily Graphic (widely known during its 1920s zenith as the “Porno”) would have been surprised by the sort of attention our tabloids have devoted to O. J. Simpson’s woes, and any big-city newsman during the Harding administration would have given an arm to run the New York Post’s immortal banner HEADLESS BODY IN TOPEESS BAR —if there had only been such a thing as a topless bar back then.
Of course, television has forever robbed the word extra of its urgency, but the next edition keeps hitting the street, and people keep picking it up—and, often as not, throwing it down again with exactly the mixture of disgust and exasperation their forebears would have felt about, say, some biased coverage of the Know-Nothing party. There is something heartening in the fact that the most volatile, idiosyncratic—the most personal —of our institutions is also one of the most enduring.