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November 26, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 158




Margot Patterson Not always the best

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

I grabbed My Times: A Memoir of Dissent (Seven Stories Press, September 2003) on the run. I was going to the doctor and wanted a book to read as I waited.

Almost from the opening page, I was hooked. John L. Hess' memoir of his quarter-century working at The New York Times as reporter, editor, international correspondent and food critic provides absorbing reading. Hess begins his record of mishaps small and major at the Times by saying that when he was there The New York Times was the most edited paper in the land and the least efficient. Bureaucracy created more problems than it solved; frustration was constant (Rewrite man Tom Buckley is quoted: "We had a nice human-interest story going there, but the desk caught it just in time.") All of this is in service of Hess's larger point: The New York Times may be the biggest, most influential newspaper in the world, but it's not the best.

The rest of the book tells why. Hess covers stories The New York Times let get by it: Watergate, The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (rather than question it, the Times' Washington bureau chief Scotty Reston advised President Lyndon Johnson on how he thought it would be received); U.S.-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala that the Times chose to turn a blind eye to. Far from critically reporting on the government, the newspaper was often in collusion with it. Hess reports publisher Arthur Hayes Sulzberger let the CIA station agents in an undetermined number of Times offices around the world; his nephew Cyrus L. Sulzberger, Times bureau chief in Paris, went by the CIA code name Fidelis. The Times pulled its punches on the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis at President Kennedy's request and was slow to report the My-lai massacre.

There were successes to be sure; publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War, some of the Times' coverage of the civil rights struggle, but in Hess' account errors were constant and abundant. The Times provided uncritical, adulatory coverage of developer Robert Moses; was hoodwinked by Henry Kissinger about the Paris peace talks; and as often countenanced corruption as exposed it. Investigative reporting was the exception, not the norm.

"The Newspaper of Record recorded a century of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind, generally as a faithful voice of the Eastern establishment. It supported all its wars, hot and cold. At the cutting edge of major events, it could be found against women's suffrage, against unionism (always), against minimum wages and national health insurance," Hess writes. Elsewhere, "The Times is great, except on anything one happens to know something about."

For journalists who haven't worked at the Times but are curious about it, this is a delicious read. For Times readers, too, it's an intriguing, often entertaining portrait of the personalities behind the bylines. Hess is a muckraker who dishes up the dirt on almost everyone. Former executive editor Abe Rosenthal loved to surround himself with loyal mediocrities; save for the noble Iphigene, the Sulzbergers were a family of philanderers and bumbling managers who succeeded in spite of themselves.

Hess leaves few sacred cows untouched. A die-hard liberal who for many years was a regular contributor to The Nation, he has critical remarks to make of Presidents Kennedy, Carter and Clinton, knocks the imperialism of columnist Thomas Friedman and censures Daniel Patrick Moynihan for promoting racism. (The latter, according to Hess, disseminated the damaging canard that blacks are anti-Semites.) He discusses racism at The New York Times and contrasts the Times' approval of New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whose administration, Hess writes, was marked by flagrant corruption and incompetence, with its rough treatment of David Dinkins, New York City's first black mayor. (One example he cites: Koch reduced the police force by a quarter; crime rose during his administration. Dinkins began community policing in New York and not only restored the number of police but added some. Crime dropped during Dinkins' term as mayor, but Dinkins was always portrayed as soft on crime and Koch as tough.)

My Times: A Memoir of Dissent is a sometimes captious but always compelling look at America's most powerful and prestigious newspaper. Even those who aren't interested in the press per se will find fascinating the history it covers and what the memoir reveals about how that history is made and molded by the media.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at

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