Sunday, December 21, 2008

Farewell, Sweet Prince

We don’t get many mentors. There are parents, sure, and for some the parents we wish we had. A fortunate few get a great teacher who just keeps on teaching long after you have parted company. In our professional life, it is even less likely that someone will have the generosity and temperament to take in interest in a pup without any house training in whom they somehow see some promise.

I am among the luckiest. My mentor was a man named Arthur Spiegelman. Art’s importance to journalism, and to the world he made a better place with his fearless, righteous and unfailingly accurate reporting, is legendary to those of us who worked with him and not nearly well known enough to everyone else.

Arthur died on Saturday after a long bout with lung cancer. Illness made it impossible for him to speak, depriving those around him of his incredible conversation and infectious laugh. But Arthur was receiving calls, made to a cell phone of a close friend at his bedside, who would hold it up to his ear. To his last breath, Arthur was doing what made him a journalist’s journalist. He was listening.

Unspeakable talent surrounded me during my years at Reuters, by reporters who calmly reported from battlefields, jungles and board rooms. Nobody had anything on Arthur, and everybody knew it. Nobody did it better. Arthur was known as “Dr. Lede” – if you were stuck, one call to the doctor would yield a passage of the exact story in 50 words or less, and the doctor was always in. Arthur’s leads would prompt professionals who saw his stories first to just stop reading, to go over those first few perfect words again and again.

Still, great instincts and abilities (and his renowned inability to spell or touch type) are not what set Arthur apart. He had a childlike quality that freed an apprentice of self-consciousness along with a visceral intolerance for bad writing and insufficient reporting.

Arthur took an interest in a certain young aspiring reporter and it is fair to say whatever I do manage to bring to the game is because of him. He allowed me to write for the wire when I had no right to, pushed me into greater challenges than I cared to face, gave me assignments he knew, in the right hands, would be plums.

Arthur gave me a high-profile assignment during the contentious 1992 New Hampshire primary: the improbable and nearly king-toppling candidacy of Pat Buchanan. Irwin Arieff covered Clinton. Both candidates came in second, declared victory of a sort and set the tone for the rest of the campaign of Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” and Bush as a tragically weak incumbent, waiting to be blown over. Our coverage won considerable kudos. Arthur, the chief political correspondent, took the wholly unglamorous assignment of desking our copy from a small hotel room.

A few years earlier, I pitched an idea about Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” the novel that earned the author a cleric’s death sentence. How was it selling, I wondered? Among other things Arthur, who ran the New York City bureau at the time, was Reuters’ unofficial book critic and literary maven, so he freed me from boring desk duties to wander the city’s book haunts, big and small. I discovered that the best-selling book “was nowhere to be seen in this book-buying Mecca.” I was very proud of the story -- and lede I hoped would make Dr. Lede proud. The look Arthur gave me from across the room, leaning back in his chair with wide eyes, head tilted and a small, hopeful grin told me I had nailed it. No feedback from anyone, before or since, has meant more to me.

I saw Arthur for the last time about a year ago, during an visit he made to New York from Los Angeles, his base for many years, that served as an impromptu farewell to a man who was not at all dead and not even retiring. I traveled from DC but others came from the UK and even Australia. The private room we hired at a mid-town bar was packed, and a cadre of Reuters’ luminaries paid him tribute.

As I got ready to leave Arthur and I did our personal schtick one last time. “Boss! Chief!” I would always greet him in the worst Boris and Natasha accent imaginable. “Youth!” he would reply, this time no longer appropriate for me at 50.

As we embraced I told him that the tributes were all very nice but that all those people had no idea how important he was, how important he was to me.

"Somebody did it for me,” he said. “Now you do it for somebody else."

That won’t be possible. There will only ever be one Spiegs.

See also:

Monday, December 8, 2008

What’s The Story, Pulitzer Folks?

The Pulitzer Board has decided to open up qualifying publications to include some web sites, which is a step in the right direction. But it continues to exclude magazines, broadcasters and their respective websites -- which seems painfully quaint.

The Pulitzer Prizes are meant to celebrate journalism — well, U.S. journalism, but that’s another story. When they were created newspapers were arguably the best gene pool of quality journalism. They were also a major source of slipshod, opinionated, careless writing — which does nothing to explain the Pulitzer Board's current Two Internets policy. The term "Yellow Journalism" was coined during Joseph Pulitzer's New York City newspaper war with William Randolf Hearst, for heaven's sake, an era which saw tabloidy excess that would make today's least conscientious blogger shudder.

But — and it seems almost ludicrous to argue what seems so obvious — newspapers are no longer the exclusive or even main conduit for quality journalism anymore. Corporations that own them describe themselves as media companies which happen to own newspapers. Many long ago began buying up broadcasters — to subsidize their bleeding newspapers.

At the same time magazines — The New Yorker and Time and Newsweek and many others — routinely do impactful journalism (which may or may not originate on their respective websites), as do broadcasters. And, in the main, they remain considerably more viable as businesses. They will be around to do journalism when there aren't any newspapers (or whatever they decide to call themselves) anymore.

Any remaining divide in the definition of who does journalism is plain silly. Will newspapers have to be completely in their death throes until the Pulitzer people decide to embrace journalism, wherever it is done?

That day of reckoning seems to be approaching. The New York Times is worth only a little bit more than $1 billion (almost half the price at which some people thought Google would have been brilliant to pick it up) and is doing a re-fi on its new headquarters to get through 2009. The Christian Science Monitor is abandoning print. And, on the day the Pulitzer Board announced its changes, the Tribune Co. -- publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times — said it was applying for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

I have the appearance of conflict, so disclosures are in order: remains ineligible for a Pulitzer, as does sister Condé Nast publication The New Yorker. While I have no illusions about ever doing or supervising Pulitzer-caliber work (no offense, team) the continued ineligibility of my extremely talented colleagues seems absurd.

How absurd? Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer for exposing the My Lai Massacre on the pages of the New York Times. A quarter-century later he again "set the political agenda," according to the New York Times, by reporting about the mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib — on the pages of The New Yorker.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday in the Perk with MSNBC

NBC, Third Floor
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

Apparently all is forgiven at MSNBC even though I won't soon be forgetting my embarrasing faux pas with Contessa Brewer.

I got a call Saturday afternoon from a producer for an 8:30 a.m. Sunday hit. The call went straight to voicemail. So did the followup call from the publicist, on vacation in Florida. I was not playing hard to get. I was in a matinee performance of "Equus" with the family on my daughter's (day after) birthday.

When I finally powered up my mobile they were still interested in having me on and, since I have become increasingly enamored of the sound of my own voice (and maybe enjoy the application of professional makeup just a little bit too much, though not to a Sarah Palin degree) I was glad this opportunity had not passed me by as I tried to process Harry Potter as a sexually confused teen.

I gratefully accepted the car both ways and, since we had just been in town all day and my daughter had lready spent nearly every last cent to her name at Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and H&M, the family would not be coming with me this time. It was going to be a quick round trip: out of the house at 7:15 and back three hours later.

When an MSNBC booking producer asks if you are available for an interview they put it in the most genteel way: "We were hoping you could join us ..." is the phrase. That, the limo, the lovely hair & makeup people (always very conversational and informed on my topics; why they just don't book the sylists is beyond me) conspire to make even the lowliest of talking heads such as myself feel a little, well, important.

And since my arc at MSNBC is having a definite upward trajectory I admit I am becoming a bit adicted to the commentary dodge: My first appearances on MSNBC were from a secure but undisclosed location in Washington where I had a disembodied interaction with the anchor in New York. Pros know how to do this so that the viewing public is uaware of the slight audio delays which convey either what seem like awkward pauses or a strangely aggressive cross-conversation.

My second appearance was in the New York studio, not on the stage itself but off to the side at a pedestal table where you also face a lens and talk to it as if that were the most natural thing there was. At the MSNBC studio the so-called flash cam is at the anchor's 5 o'clock and about 20 feet away, so the interviewee has an excellent view to the left of the back of the anchor's head, and she does not have to look at you at all.

This time, though, I got "face to face" -- at the desk, actually speaking to the anchor, at her 11 o'clock and only three feet away. Alas, it was Ms. Brewer's (extremely well deserved, I must say) morning off so I could not attempt to make further amends, but I was delighted to chat with Alex Witt.

At first, however, I convinced myself that my boorish reputation has preceded me. When I was ushered on to the set during a taped segment Ms. Witt did not look even in my general direction. Uh-oh, I told myself: Contessa told her not to bother about niceties with that one. I waited patiently through the piece and then a live interview which preceded mine in which an AU professor (in that secure and undisclosed location) explained why these hard times were like and unlike those FDR faced.

Then, with no warning, I was up: Ms. Witt and I bantered amiably about iPods and the recession. I think I elicited a genuine chuckle when I made some remark that possibly reduced sales figures would nevertheless not be a sign of the Apocalypse. As we spoke I imagined that her friendly demeanor was for the audience's benefit and not mine, my penchant for poor social graces now being legendary in the halls of Rockefeller Center.

After the segment, though, Ms. Witt smiled broadly and reached across the desk to shake hands, and she even apologized for not welcoming me when I first sat down. I didn't miss a beat this time. "Not at all!" I said, in my best imitation of courtly manners. "It was a pleasure to meet you!"

Yes, I am enjoying my upward mobility, I must confess. Maybe next time I get a weekday hit to which I can actually walk from my office -- not that I am complaining, lovely people of MSNBC. And please do send my regards to Ms. Brewer.