Humble is as humble does

Gonzo Meets the Press # 16 July 21, 2011

Watching the Murdochs embracing humility in London and reading Pete Hamill’s
new novel about the death of a paper in New York City has prompted Tom Krause to
write a love letter to newspapers.

I have had a lifelong love affair with newspapers.
This particular blog has been inspired in part by the demise of
the News of the World, a sad event in spite of the awful things done in
its now eternally besmirched name. The death of a newspaper is no cause for
celebration, because it means a part of the community is gone forever.
But this piece has also been spurred by the parliamentary inquiry fronted by Rupert
and James Murdoch and Rebakah Brooks and a new novel written by one of the best
columnists of our time, Pete Hamill. He wrote for years for a number of New York
newspapers, including the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch and
often criticised for its tabloid journalism. But like the News of the
World
, the paper’s circulation rose the more outrageous it became after
columnists like Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton left.
My favourite Post headline: “Headless body found in topless bar” sums up the way it
treats the news. And that tradition continues, with another headline written
only a few months ago, under the editorship of Australian Col Allan: “Osama bin
Wankin’!” referring to the discovery of porn videos in the Al Qaeda leader’s
last hideout. (I loved running that front page in the news update on Meet
the Press
!)
Pete Hamill’s new book, Tabloid City, is a thriller about the last day in the life of a fictional newspaper, the New York
World
, suffering from the malady affecting hundreds of papers in the US.
Hamill tells the story from the point of view of many of the characters who
people the novel, from the outgoing editor Sam Briscoe to a Muslim terrorist,
Malik Shadid, to a longtime rewrite journalist, Helen Loomis, to a NYPD
policeman, Ali Watson and many ordinary New Yorkers.
Witness the poignancy of the death of the World (the novel was published before the end of
the other World) in Briscoe’s farewell speech to his assembled troops:
“I want to thank every one of you for giving me the best years of my newspaper
life. You also gave New York a newspaper that added to this city’s knowledge and
intelligence and – for want of a better word – its genius. Not one of us who
worked here ever had to apologise for being part of the New York World. And that
was not because of me. It was because of you. Journalism is a team sport. And
you were the team . . .
“Now everything has changed. I don’t have to tell you
why. Don’t have to explain that the delivery system is changing by the hour.
That the recession has killed too much advertising revenue. You know all that.
But I hope every one of you gives everything to the World online –
everything that you gave to the newspaper. Make it real journalism, reported,
edited, where the facts are beyond dispute.”
That’s why I love newspapers, why I loved (and still love) reading the Philadelphia Inquirer and the
Philadelphia Daily News for its sports columnists, who were terrific
writers who just happened to be covering sport. It wasn’t just in Philly, where
Larry Merchant reigned (you might have seen him on ESPN boxing specials, a waste
of a great journalistic voice!), but in New York the literary promised land of
Damon Runyon, Red Smith and Jimmy Breslin, to name just a few.
I remember getting my first copy of the New York Times, after mass at our local
Catholic church in West Philly (I usually skipped the mass, but picked up the
paper to suggest I was there. My mother finally worked it out!), and I couldn’t
wait until I got it home. A huge paper with a great Book Review, arts section,
magazine, week in review, sports section, and a news section that had wonderful
background pieces from distinguished foreign correspondents in countries I had
never heard of. The newspaper stayed in my house or later my flat in New York
City until I could read it all.
I did the same with the Washington Post when I was in the nation’s capital, and in every other city I’ve ever
been to. In foreign countries like Spain, it would be the International
Herald Tribune
, another splendid paper. I still remember being in Barcelona
42 years ago this week and reading the Tribune and looking out the
window on that delightful city and saying to my companions: “Oh no, Ted Kennedy
will never become president. He’s driven a woman to her death at a place called
Chappaquiddick.” It was July 19, 1969, the day before the landing on the moon.
And much to my wife’s chagrin, I continue to hoard newspapers until I’ve
read them completely. At the moment, I have 15 Spectrums from the
Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Reviews from the Weekend
Australian
and two Australian Literary Reviews from The
Australian
– either unread or partially read — next to my home computer
(along with a lot of other articles and folders, I have to admit!).
Yes, I know, why don’t I just read the articles I missed online. Well, of course, I do
read newspapers and magazines online, but I still prefer the printed word on
paper, even if it does cost the world a tree or three (okay, it’s more than
that, but we do recycle all our papers in the hope newspapers use them again!)
and me a monthly newsagent bill.
But even I now realise the limitations of space. A former colleague of mine on The Australian, Brian Lee, got his
daughter, Natasha, who worked with me on Sky News, to give me back
copies of the New York Times that he had read. I loved them and read
them slowly, one by one as I picked them up from the boot of my car. I knew that
if I brought them into the house, I would get the boot. Sadly, I had to decline
any future offers of the NY Times, still worth reading a month after
its publication.
Which brings me back to the end of the World, as we know it. It was a fascinating couple of hours as Rupert and James Murdoch
were grilled by the Parliamentary Inquiry in London early on Wednesday morning.
Rupert looked all of his eighty years, not his usual alert and sprightly self.
The critics are now saying his memory lapses were just part of a ploy to evade
tricky questions, but I wonder. I know I have trouble hearing (and I’m 13 years
younger), and the Labour MP Jim Sheridan had such a thick Scottish brogue, I
think Mr Murdoch should have asked for a translator. Here is how Allison Pearson
of the London Daily Telegraph viewed the inquiry: http://tgr.ph/o8DrHA.
It was hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for Rupert Murdoch when he told the inquiry: “This is the
most humble day of my life.” It’s a shame it took the chairman and chief
executive of News Corporation so long to discover humility. But then it took a
long time for Scrooge to find the spirit of Christmas. James Murdoch was more
confident and assured as was Rebekah Brooks who was interrogated separately
after being given bail the day before. You can’t help but ask the question: how
could such experienced executives at the top not know what was going on behind
the scenes at the News of the World.
And the inquiry proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt: The Murdochs stick together. Never get
between Wendi Murdoch and a shaving cream thrower. Her open right-hand chop on
the protester’s face reminded me of then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s
classic left hook connecting with a farmworker who threw an egg at him during
the 2001 UK election campaign.
If the News of the World was still around, I can see their headline now: “Wendi pummels protester with a hand
sandwich.” The Independent, the Guardian and the
Express, all still in circulation, took a predictable line on their
front pages yesterday: “Murdoch’s humble pie.” Here’s the Guardian’s
view: http://bit.ly/qixqJ8
That’s why I love newspapers. As the British magazine Punch (from which the News
of the World
used small pieces as column fillers in the 19th century) said
in 1846: “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always
have been.

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