Thursday, October 30, 2008

Getting to chat with two of the best New York Times writers ever

My press ethics class with David Margolick meets every Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. I never know exactly what to expect, as the class tends to easily spin off onto free-wheeling ethical tangents. Such is the nature of ethics, I suppose-- slippery.

One of the best things about the class is Prof. Margolick's ability to put us in touch with some of the greatest journalists around. We talked to the Arkansas reporters who covered the Little Rock Nine and school desegregation. We talked to New Journalist Joe McGinniss who found himself under attack in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and The Murderer, a seminal text on the parasitic relationship between journalists and their subjects.

This week, we had the incredible opportunity to talk with Gay Talese and John McCandlish Phillips, considered to be two of the best journalists ever to work at the New York Times. Talese is known for his books on the mafia, Americans' sex lives, and the building of Staten Island's Verrazano-Narrows bridge, as well as his magazine articles on Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Floyd Patterson, and Joe Louis. "Frank Sinatra Had A Cold," written for Esquire Magazine, is considered to be a perfect piece of magazine work.

John McCandlish Phillips is not a well-known name; he wrote for the New York Times for 21 years starting in the early 1950s. Among writers, he's considered to be one of the most talented to have graced the craft. Towering over us all at six feet, five inches, he was skeletally thin. His voice choked with age. He was there to talk to us about an article he wrote in 1965 where he revealed a Ku Klux Klan leader's Jewish background. The subject of the story killed himself the day the story ran on the New York Times' front page. In answer to our questions, Phillips said he was "not a deep thinker." He did stories as they were assigned to him and that was that.

Gay Talese has an incredibly powerful personality. Dressed to the hilt in a three piece suit, his presence seemed to fill the room from the moment he entered. He led the discussion off on all kinds of tangents, though he returned again and again to his disgust with the New York Times' present Washington bureau. He was emphatic about the need to eliminate anonymous sources from stories.

Talese named the three worst stories of the last few years: 1. The Los Alamos spy story; 2. the anthrax story; and 3. the Duke lacrosse scandal. "The Hester Primming of those boys was disgraceful."

An interesting point raised by Talese was the need for class differentiation between journalists and their sources. He said it was different for him and Phillips in the 50s and 60s. Talese went to the University of Alabama, while Phillips never went to college. They were on the outside looking in, and had a distance from their assumedly more elite and powerful sources. Journalists nowadays though often come from the same places and top schools as those in power. Talese objects to reporters' social lives being so intermingled with those of their sources. I definitely saw a lot of this in Washington.

In a really beautiful moment, Phillips read a story to us from City Notebook, a collection of 60 of his articles. All but one was published in The New York Times. This is the one he read to us. It recounts the artistry of a Ringling Brothers clown, Otto Griebling. Phillips tried for years to write about Griebling for the Times, but they would never approve it. In 1972, one editor finally agreed to run an article on the clown, but when Phillips called the circus, he discovered Griebling was in the hospital. The circus promised him access to Griebling as soon as he recovered, but Griebling died. Phillips' greatest regret is that the clown was never recognized for his artistry in the pages of The New York Times.

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