Friday, October 24, 2014

1400 The Humility Lesson -- Arthur Gelb and Ben Bradlee

Sometimes events come together and take you down a peg.  They sober you up.  They hose you down and wash off the hubris.

Two such things this week:  finishing reading all 672  pages of a book, and learning of a death.

The book is “City Room” by Arthur Gelb.  The death was that of Ben Bradlee.
Gelb was managing editor of the New York Times. He was part of a small team that brought the paper kicking and screaming into modern times. Bradlee was executive editor of the Washington Post. He took an OK local paper and turned it into a national powerhouse.

Both papers were bought out of bankruptcy on the cheap early in their lives.  Both rose to be influential, feared, loved and loathed.  Both set standards for their industry and kept raising them.

When Gelb was put out to pasture, he left with countless stories about names every reader knows and countless stories about events everyone knows about.  His energy remained in the newsroom and in retirement, he continued to propel the paper on the trajectory he and others had established.

When Bradlee left his paper, his energy hung in the room for awhile.  But the Post started its slow slide down the tubes… to the point that the long-time owners sold out to’s Jeff Bezos who seems willing and able to bring it back from the dead.

It’s a tough row for both papers to hoe.  The printed page, if not in its death throes, is on life support.

Old newspaper tales have a romance.  They’re about flesh and blood human beings. Interesting people. Quirky people. Quirky eras.

They are stories of times in which every employee wasn’t always looking over his or her shoulder hoping  the Pink Slip Gods weren’t stalking.

Many think Bradlee was trying to replicate the Times.  He wasn’t.  He was trying and ultimately succeeded in replicating the New York Herald Tribune.  Both were known in the trade as “writer’s papers.”  The Times was and is an “editor’s paper.”

There once was a place for both.  Soon there will be a place for neither.

The Times sets the news agenda for the rest of the industry and thereby for the American public.  The Post brought down Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers when the Times chickened out under legal pressure.

Gelb was a genius wildman out of the Bronx and a product of “the poor man’s Harvard” as CCNY was known at the time.  Bradlee was a genius wildman
out of the Boston aristocracy and the 53rd male member of his family to graduate from Harvard, as Harvard was known at the time.

Backgrounds as opposite as opposite can be.  But with the same built-in story hound and “get it right” mentality.

Gelb died earlier this year.  Bradlee died earlier this week, so at this writing the myth builders are still at work, as they were with Gelb soon after his passing.

Except the myths weren’t all that mythical.

Two guys who did the impossible in the service of informing us.

You can read about their specific accomplishments easily elsewhere.

But when some of us old school old timers think about our own impact, we realize that the marks we leave can’t measure up to either of these guys.


-The Post was credited with the Watergate story and rightly so... but without seed-spreading by the Associated Press and United Press International, it would have remained mostly local news.  The wires deserve some credit, too.

-For the first time in a century, the Times is being run by a frightened man, essentially a flyweight compared to his family predecessors. The newsroom is in the excellent hands of Dean Baquet, but he can’t do the job without the help of an expert publisher… which he doesn’t have.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2014

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