Gelb's `City Room': the tapestry of the N.Y. Times

October 12, 2003|By Paul Duke | Paul Duke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

City Room, by Arthur Gelb. Putnam. 672 pages. $29.95.

The recent upheaval at The New York Times stemming from a reporter's elaborate fabrications shocked the journalistic community everywhere. After all, such things weren't supposed to happen to the good gray lady long regarded as the queen of American newspapers.

The scandal evoked a torrent of questions about the Times' policies and whether its golden reputation was overblown. Arthur Gelb, who started out as a copyboy and worked his way up to managing editor over a 45-year span, gives a generally glowing review of the paper's achievements while taking us on a revealing and captivating walk through the City Room.

But to his credit, Gelb does not gloss over a less laudatory side. There was The Times that was remiss in its coverage of Nazi atrocities against the Jews in World War II; that was tardy in recruiting black reporters and women staffers; that was abysmally slow in pursuing the Watergate scandal; that was resistant to innovation and reluctant to abandon its stodgy rigidity for a more up-to-date brand of journalism (perhaps best illustrated by the prudish refusal to mention the words "penis" and "vagina" in stories about sex).

Nor does Gelb shy away from criticizing some of the paper's most celebrated stars. He is particularly harsh in discussing the legendary James "Scotty" Reston, longtime Washington columnist and briefly executive editor in the late 1960s. As Gelb sees it, Reston was "shrouded in Presbyterian rectitude," and his close association with the famous and powerful, notably Henry Kissinger, "skewed his news judgment."

In truth, Gelb's own views may well be skewed because of a tumultuous battle waged by the Times' high command to take control of the paper's last free-wheeling fiefdom in Washington - a power struggle that "was unequaled in the history of the news department."

This, of course, is the umpteenth book about the Times, and it is not in the class of Gay Talese's definitive 1969 history The Kingdom and the Power. But it is an exuberantly sentimental journey back into the good old bad days of newspapering, when reporters sometimes wrote their stories in an alcoholic haze, occasionally got into fistfights, played poker into the wee hours, and unashamedly padded their expense accounts (yes, even at the Times). There are rollicking vignettes about newsroom antics and intimate glimpses of editors coping with blackouts, strikes and internal politicking.

Gelb was instrumental in liberating the paper from its hidebound ways and expanding the news coverage with enlivening new sections on the arts, health, business and sports. He is rightfully proud of this creative breakthrough although a tad too self-glorifying. He also has a tendency to drift into trivia and to go overboard in describing his many personal relationships - do we really need to know how many times he had drinks at Sardi's restaurant with his office pal Abe Rosenthal?

The editor needed an editor, one who would have chopped the book down to, say, 500 pages. Still, Gelb's memoir succeeds impressively in capturing the smells, sounds and snafus of the big-city newsroom, making it clear that gathering all the news that was fit to print was never easy but nonetheless one helluva fascinating job.

Paul Duke, a senior commentator for public broadcasting, is a veteran political reporter. He began his career as an Associated Press writer and later was congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and NBC. For 20 years, he was moderator of PBS' Washington Week in Review. He recently received the John Chancellor Award for lifetime journalistic excellence.

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