Friday, October 24, 2014

Ben Bradlee Inspired Many a Journalist

Don’t count me among the legions inspired to become journalists by Ben Bradlee and his then-young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It’s not that I didn’t admire this trio of Washington Post muckrakers. It’s just that I had decided to become a reporter three years before Watergate entered the public consciousness.

My muse was another editor at a different Post, along with the writing behind the exposure in Chicago of official corruption, albeit the fictional kind. 

I was motivated by James Wechsler, the bow-tied editor of The New York Post. Now, don’t be put off by your thoughts about today’s New York Post. Back in 1969, The Post was still a bastion of liberal, progressive thought wrapped inside standard police-fire-and-general-mayhem tabloid fare upfront and a superlative sports section in the back.

The death earlier this week of Bradlee, retired executive editor of The Washington Post, has brought forth the expected tributes about his defining role in the paper’s dogged investigation of the Watergate break-in (initially criticized by Republicans, a big shrug-of-the-shoulders by almost everyone else) and his eventual triumph and vindication with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. It is not too far a reach to state, as others have, that Bradlee-Woodward-Bernstein begat a new generation of journalists, each seeking to leave his or her mark by exposing and toppling members of the power elite. 

I started my pursuit of a career in journalism a full three years before Watergate after being brought up reading The New York Post every day. As a youngster I would read the comics—Nancy, Mutt & Jeff, Dennis the Menace. As I grew older, the sports columnists Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Milton Gross, Paul Zimmerman and Leonard Schechter romanced my interests in baseball and football. Next I delved into the social columnists, the Entertainment Tonight-Perez Hilton-TMZ of their day: Leonard Lyons, Earl Wilson, Sidney Skolsky, whose signature line in every weekend celebrity profile was whether she or he slept in the raw, an impressionable image for a hormonally stimulated early teenager. 

Finally, with more maturity, I absorbed the political mavens: Wechsler, Max Lerner, Mary McGrory, Art Buchwald, William Buckley, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson, Murray Kempton, and a newcomer, Pete Hamill, a counter to Jimmy Breslin’s man-of-the-street prose in The Daily News

It was a column by Wechsler, a review of a 1969 revival of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page that ignited my interest in being a reporter, an upgrade from my position as editor of Calling Card, a Brooklyn College newspaper. 

On one of our early dates I took Gilda to see The Front Page revival starring Bert Convy and Robert Ryan. To this day I revel in watching two movie adaptations of the play—the 1931 film starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, and the 1940 adaptation, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell—about star reporter Hildy Johnson’s desire to leave the Chicago Examiner to get married, all the while trying to overcome the machinations of managing editor Walter Burns to keep Johnson on the payroll. Along the way they expose the corruption of the mayor and sheriff who want to execute an innocent man. 

I don’t mean to suggest my life as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor and publisher matched the frenzied excitement of The Front Page. But I had my share of stimulation and sensationalism. During my time as a reporter for The New Haven Register, I covered the largest industrial arson in the nation’s history, interviewed U.S. senator Lowell Weicker during a break from his duties on the Watergate Committee, profiled a survivor of an Eastern Airlines crash in the Everglades and a pilot who vied with Charles Lindbergh to be the first to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, to name a few memorable stories.

When I interviewed to be a field editor on Nation’s Restaurant News in Manhattan in 1977, the group vice president coyly asked me if I preferred a job at The New York Post, by then a Rupert Murdoch property. Just say the word and he’d call a friend there. I resisted the bait, telling him only after experiencing the job as a business-to-business writer would I be able to determine if I found the task rewarding. I must have, as I stayed with the company for 32 years, all but that first year on Chain Store Age.

It was rewarding, both financially and emotionally. To be sure, I rarely covered politicians, except when they got involved in minimum wage or other issues affecting the retail and restaurant industries. So when candidates for my Chain Store Age staff would inevitably ask for my comparison between the gratification of working for the consumer press and a trade journal, I would respond that my ego was stroked by getting to know many of the men and women who, every day through their stores, catalogs and Internet sites, touched the lives of most Americans. My magazine also provided insight into many merchandise and systems suppliers that have transformed the way we shop. I was fortunate, I would tell them, to work in a publishing house that allowed, encouraged actually, probing editorial that dissected retail strategies and exposed them when they didn’t work.

We didn’t topple any retail empires. No president, even of a retail company, resigned because of our reporting. That was not our mission. But I take pride and comfort in what Fred Barbash, now the Morning Mix editor of The Washington Post, wrote back in January 2000. Under the headline, “Investing tip: Read the trade publications,” Barbash repeatedly referenced an issue of Chain Store Age to detail how article after article informed his knowledge of the stock market. “When it comes to getting ideas for buying stocks before the whole wide world knows about them, when it comes to resources that cost little or nothing compared with some of the pricey newsletters, I think you can’t beat …”  

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