The Long Island Press, bowing to rising costs and increasing competition, ceased publication yesterday in its 157th year . . .
Mayor Beame said the closing of The Press was “indeed a sad occasion.” From its beginning in 1821 as The Long Island Farmer, a weekly, to its rise as a great metropolitan daily, he said, The Press “has been an enlightened voice serving its readers . . . ”
— The New York Times,
March 26, 1977
I’m having a hard time writing this. I think I’ve figured out why. I want it to be a eulogy, but I can’t stop kicking the corpse. I want you to care that another American newspaper has expired. But I wonder if I care.
I knew it, intimately. I can recall it, like an old lover: how it looked, and felt, and smelled, its rhythms and horrors and inside jokes. But that is nostalgia, not love. And since I’d fault it, first of all, for its lack of love, you can see my predicament.
Why bother, then?
For one, I feel a kind of allegiance. It was the first daily newspaper I worked for. That seems more important, after all these years, than its shortcomings (In just such a way I felt patriotic about America when I lived in Europe, and more my father’s son after he died. Whether the common denominator here is self-deception or true generosity, I do not know.)
For another, I’d like to resolve the conflict. (David Guy wrote in last month’s SUN that Paul Goodman “was the kind of person who says what he wants and then wants it.” I’m the kind of person who writes what he thinks and then thinks it.) Anyway, my ambivalence about The Press applies to the press in general: for example, I would defend ( to the death?) the right of a newspaper to print something loveless and worthless. Is this the measure of a democrat, or a fool? I cheered Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” but they lied to get the story, elbowed other reporters off the track, and, even at their best, treaded the same old journalistic mill that grinds life into Events and Personalities, reduces the world to a sadness of contradictions — reality, if you will.
* * *
When I quit The Press in 1969 I told my editors why:
Our obligation to the reader extends beyond stringing together quotations (which any reasonably intelligent stenographer can do), yet our “hard” news accounts are based on a distorted notion of objectivity which demands that equal weight be given to truth and untruth.
. . . trained reporters must write captions, make photo assignments, rewrite publicity handouts, read page proofs, write high school graduation stories, perform clerical chores such as typing the names of lottery winners, and rewrite the copy of beat reporters and bureau chiefs . . . It is not surprising that even the most enthusiastic reporter soon becomes demoralized and sloppy. It is because of this, and not low wages, that The Press does not attract, or long retain, good talent.
My first major political piece was a closeup on the Congressional race between Republican Sy Halpern and a Democratic and Conservative opponent. Having been warned by some colleagues to “be nice” to Halpern because The Press traditionally backed him, I was still somewhat surprised to find that we had run dozens of stories on his campaign activities but had mentioned his opponents only once. My article, a balanced account, drew a chuckle from an editor, who said he would run it “just to see how Sy (Halpern) reacts.” I later found out that Halpern himself was amused that The Press had finally run a straight story about him.
One reporter boasted that he and a colleague had . . . (nearly every local politician) tied up in public relations “contracts.” Perhaps he exaggerated, but how does one explain the comment of an editor, after informing me that yet another editor did public relations for a local Congressman, that “You’re getting into higher politics now, son.”
Sometimes we will use quotes around a word in a headline when the word doesn’t even appear in the story. When I asked an editor about this once, he explained that “we’re quoting ourselves.”
My memo had all the impact of the surgeon-general’s warning on a two-pack-a-day smoker. They kept right on doing it — out of habit, or pleasure — and I kept right on until I reached Morocco.
* * *
The Press was worse than a few papers, but better than most. This says a great deal about American newspapers. But to most publishers, a newspaper is no different from a shoe factory — except, regrettably, with rising paper costs, a newspaper makes less money.
But I’m dancing on the grave — and all I meant was to say a kind word: for the grease and the cogs, America’s bent back and broad middle. For The Press was a servant of the Middle, its bland face reflecting what its eyes perceived: the blessed mediocrity of the daily round. It was the newspaper of the Archie Bunkers — the small homeowners with mortgages and kids, those for whom the American century was the dreary armpit of the late shift, Church on Sunday, letters every week from Vietnam, night school, taxes — and it was American through and through, in its heroes, and hypocrisy, and democratic smile (strong in the corner, roguish in the curl; search my face, you’ll see). I was armed against it from the start —
“Tomorrow is the day, shoppers,” began a page one story recently. “What day — Why, the day to pump new life into your worn and weary budget — the day you can’t afford to miss. It’s the first of three Spring Jamaica Days . . . Whether it’s shoes, stockings, sofas, shorts or shampoo you need, you’ll find it at bargain prices in the savings spree sponsored by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce . . . ”
— seeing, out of my own narrowed eyes, an institution given over to profit and the easy answer, even as I quivered with my own solutions, and success. I’d been polished by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and so brought with me an arrogance equal to my skill — which, in the Sixties, we called idealism. I’d become a journalist not out of some abstract love of the craft, but to change society. Thus, my impatience with any assignment I could not turn into a polemic, however veiled, against the status quo. And there was nothing I hated more than the status quo (except, of course, myself).
* * *
Bent over my typewriter — a big, old-fashioned Royal, anchored to the well of my desk — cradling a phone between my shoulder and my ear . . . There’s a pipe, or cigar, or cigarette, in the ashtray, beside the coffee. No, that’s wrong. We didn’t have ashtrays. Magazine offices had ashtrays. We had floors. Grimy floors. To match the windows, and the walls. The desks were the sad steel-grey of tanks and winter skies, with histories written in coffee spills, sandwich crumbs, eraser flakes, pencil points, ashes, God knows what ( one legendary deskman kept to himself, until the night he quit, when, upon finishing his shift, he walked to the editor’s desk, unzipped his fly, urinated, and left). There was a perverse romance about the dirt; it suggested the “real world” more accurately than polished mahogany and chrome, at least that world of crime and strikes and social malignancy we judged most real . . .
* * *
“The news” was a romance, too, shaped by our assumptions about God and country, death and birth, the seasons of the planet and the race and ourselves. If we saw a world made up of separate objects and events, rather than the separate features of one event, that is what we reported. Marooned on our own dry sands, we saw an island universe, with walls and boundaries, and lives signed in grief. We drew our own line, between “in here” and “out there,” made the cops and politicians the arbiters of one and the columnists and editorial writers the priests of the other — all the time ignoring the vital intersection where “objective” and “subjective” flow endlessly into one another, and thoughts give birth to worlds. Right now, I’m reading a book by Jane Roberts called Psychic Politics. She puts it this way:
There is an inner landscape of the mind that produces dreams, experiences, and events, and this correlates with the exterior landscape. It’s extremely difficult to map this interior land because we confuse the brain’s activity for the power behind the brain, and because we do not consider the interior landscape as real as the exterior one. We’re also so immersed in the interior world that we take its natural elements for granted. Dreams, thoughts, and all mental experiences compose the natural phenomena of the inner reality. We travel through the psyche as we travel through time and across the face of the Earth. When we encounter events, they will appear differently according to our position within the psyche.
Many dream events are versions of waking ones — not distorted at all, just the dream version as the physical event is the waking version. While we accept the waking experience as the real one, It is no more or less real than the dream event.
* * *
If, on the front page, this was never acknowledged, in the city room, at least, dreams were large as “life,” personalities were worn inside out. We were more naked among ourselves than before any reader . . . The dayside editor’s note to the night editor with whom she shared a desk, complaining about the cigarette butts, and he going from room to room that night with a big trash can, filling it with every butt in the building, and dumping it on the desk before leaving . . . The nervous editor who chewed paper when he was under pressure and one night accidentally ate the lead story . . . The reporter who was a chronic liar, going so far as to use his father-in-law’s death as an excuse for staying out of work — a good enough excuse, if he had died, which he hadn’t . . . If we had abandoned our static writing formulas to reveal something of the real newsmakers — us — what copy we might have turned out! How many more newspapers we would have sold!
* * *
The Press is a ghost, but I live still with The Deadline. I court eternity, but the seconds tick away; the press next door is rolling and it’s time to end this, as abruptly as I began. Would more anecdotes have told the tale? No more than The Press’ ten thousand facts explained the world. Facts are facts, but the truth is something else. The Press tried to stretch those facts, like a pale skin of meaning, over the bones of the world. But the bones of the world are too big for that. The real story keeps poking through.