behind the news

Always an ink-stained wretch

William Kennedy on his life as a journalist
November 26, 2013

On October 9, William Kennedy delivered the following musing on his career and on journalism today to mark the 40th anniversary of the journalism program at SUNY Albany, where he taught until 1982.

I was not privy to the arrival of the Journalism Program at the University at Albany, and I heard it had a somewhat uncertain birth. The program as Bill Rowley conceived it was pragmatic, professional, idealistic, literary, and peppered with journalists from the real world of news reporting. This opposed another idea that was on the table in the English Department: to present journalism as a textbook course, with excursions into municipal history, the history of journalism and who knows what else? Bill’s idea prevailed, I don’t know why, but he was a persuasive and insistent fellow. He wanted his students to step lively into their journalistic careers after graduation, but also to be educated in history, politics, literature, and, above all, to know how to write when they did so.

Bill was my colleague in the 1950s when we were on opposition Albany newspapers, he on the Knickerbocker News, a Gannett paper, and me on the Times-Union, a Hearst paper. We covered stories together, and I always admired Bill’s intelligent reporting. One day the two of us interviewed General James Van Fleet at the Albany Airport after he had left his command in the Korean War, and a picture of the three of us appeared in the next day’s paper. I don’t remember anything Bill or I wrote about that day, because that picture has blocked out all talk of the war, and that historical moment is now about our hats. The general wore a dark homburg. Bill and I wore reportorially stylish fedoras. I invoked the memory of these images in my speech when Bill retired from teaching in 1984. I wrote the speech as a news story and I’ll quote you my lede:

At his retirement party yesterday at Alumni House on the campus of the State University at Albany, William. E. Rowley, veteran newsman and professor of journalism, was not wearing a hat.

What I didn’t know about Bill back when we were on the papers was that he was slowly taking off his reporter’s hat after all his years in journalism to become a teacher. The story goes that one day he told his managing editor that he was getting ready to leave the paper to teach at the brand new State University. His editor smiled but then wondered a bit condescendingly, did Bill really have any academic chops? Bill, always low-key, said he sort of did: a BA from Harvard, taught history at Amherst, now finishing his PhD dissertation, also Harvard. And then off he went, away from the ink-stained wretches in the city room and into the tweedy corridors of the University’s English Department.

After a few years of teaching English and a journalism seminar, Bill in 1973 designed an expanded plan–for a second field in journalism, 18 credits, to begin in the spring semester of 1974. He admitted this might seem somewhat vocational, but it would be executed “in the context of a liberal arts education.” Bill’s field was history, and his marvelous Harvard dissertation on the immigrant Irish as they lived in Albany between 1820 and 1880 is a scrupulous piece of reporting and also an illumination of the politics and class conflicts of the age. He brought reporters, editors and TV people to his class, on some days mounting exposes of corrupt Albany politicians, but by semester’s end bringing in some of those targeted politicians to let students attack them with questions and give the pols a chance to rebut.

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Bill was politically frantic–probably the most ardent fan ever of I.F. Stone, the independent political pamphleteer. He was a radical on Vietnam, a civil rights fanatic, and at age 89 he was still teaching writing and history to convicts in the Coxsackie prison and attending anti-war rallies in his wheelchair.

In late 1973, a few months before the journalism program made its debut, Bill asked me to teach a class in this new department. I’d been a journalist since high school, wrote for and became editor of my college newspaper and magazine, spent three years as a sportswriter/columnist–one year in Glens Falls and two years on an Army weekly in Germany during the Korean war. I then worked seven years as a reporter, columnist, and sometime city editor in Albany, San Juan, and Miami. I became the Time-Life correspondent in Puerto Rico in the late ’50s, and wound up managing editor of a new newspaper there, the San Juan Star, which published its first edition November 2, 1959. I quit the editorship in 196l to work half-time, and some people thought I’d been demoted; but I was desperate for time to write the novel I’d started, and I found I couldn’t write and also run a newspaper. I stayed on as weekend editor and then in 1963, for family reasons, quit the Star and moved back to Albany, took another half-time job on my old paper, the Times-Union, as a feature writer. I worked seven years writing whatever took me by the throat–historicizing Albany’s neighborhoods, muckraking about slums, civil rights, Black Power, the rise of the black voice in Albany, the Federal poverty program and how it was changing Albany and America, and the life of street bums. I also interviewed the area’s literati, and I anointed myself as a movie critic in order to attend the New York Film Festival, writing about movies for two years.

But my most enduring undertaking in the 1960s was chronicling the Albany Democratic political machine, run in those days by two men, the working-class Irish-American political boss Dan O’Connell who, by getting elected as a city assessor in 1919, founded the new Democratic party that took City Hall in 1921 and has never let go of it–the longest-running political organization in the history of the world. Dan remained Party leader until he died in 1977. Then Dan’s mayor took over–Erastus Corning II, the longest-running mayor in American history: 11 consecutive terms, from 1941 to 1983, and Erastus left City Hall the only way Democrats ever left office: feet-first. My ongoing subject–in my journalism, my fiction, and one of my plays–for more than 45 years, has been these Democrats, but also their enemies, the fangless and moribund Republicans who, with about five exceptions, have elected nobody worth electing since Warren Harding and the dawn of Prohibition.

By the time Bill Rowley hired me to teach, I had left the Times-Union and become a freelance writer for major magazines and the book critic for Look magazine. I’d published my first novel, The Ink Truck, in 1969, and was under contract for the second, Legs, which would appear in 1975, the year after I began teaching in this department. My course was advanced journalism, magazine writing, and the new journalism. I thought of it as literary journalism, not critical analysis–a writing workshop. Students had to write eight stories a semester and I used two texts, a fine one that Bill was using, called A Treasury of Great Reporting, edited by Louis L. Snyder and Richard B. Morris; and also The New Journalism, as codified by Tom Wolfe. I urged students to read, and maybe emulate, stories by Dickens, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Kipling, H.L. Mencken, Damon Runyon, Hemingway, Ernie Pyle, and A.J. Liebling; also the so-called New Journalists, among them Gay Talese, Michael Herr, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe himself. I added a few stories that I favored, by James Agee, Lillian Ross, Norman Mailer, and the greatest of all sports writers, Red Smith. We also explored the reigning heroes of the day, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who had spurred great student interest in their investigative reporting, which had brought down Richard Nixon and 40 members of his administration over the Watergate burglary and other dirty tricks.

Wolfe had championed the new journalists as “Huns”–invaders who had come charging into our era with the first new direction in American literature in half a century, and he said they were dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre. “Damn it all, Saul,” Wolfe wrote, “the Huns have arrived.” He meant Saul Bellow, one of the supreme novelists of that age. Wolfe argued that the New Journalists had taken over the ’60s and forced the literary world for the first time to regard nonfiction as an artistic form; also that novelists had abandoned social realism, as it been practiced in novels by writers such as Emile Zola. This was all overstatement, but the Huns definitely shook up journalism and opened it to new methods of writing news and nonfiction.

Wolfe summed up the Hun method in four “devices”: scene-by scene construction of a story, in the way fictional stories are traditionally told; recording the dialogue of people in the story as fully as possible; using a third-person point-of-view, with scenes unfolding through the mind and emotional reaction of particular characters; and using “status details”–the characters’ gestures, phrases, clothing, behavior, poses, walking styles, servants, furniture etc.

These methods generated a band of oppositionists who mistrusted fictional-type news stories because they sounded like fiction; and there was a long history of fake stories even among notable journalists like H.L. Mencken and Ben Hecht. Also, how could the reporter possibly know what emotions a character was experiencing? Wolfe offered a suggestion: Ask him what he was thinking and feeling, and then write it.

I liked Wolfe’s book and so did my students; they felt freed from tradition, which is what I wanted them to feel; for that’s what I’d been pursuing since I began reporting: to lift the story out of the ordinary whenever possible, make it new, funny, urgent, make its tone and its impact grow out of the story’s content, whether it was a fire that trapped and killed three young children, the expose of a slumlord, a rambunctious Governor on the stump for reelection, or the funeral of a saloon cat.

Gay Talese wrote articles that read like short stories. Hunter Thompson delivered his tales like nobody else, broke all the molds, and created a school of imitators who all fizzled out; he was inimitable. Mailer also made himself the center of almost everything he wrote and became a stellar and singular journalistic presence in the last half of the 20th century. He was brilliant and inimitable, and no one since he stopped reporting has occupied his chair as America’s major public intellectual.

My students were challenged by all this freedom of form and style, but they did step out, even before graduation, as interns on local papers, and then as reporters. At one point Bill and I had students at the Knick News, the Times-Union, and 10 on the Troy Record. We called it the Alumni Center. Some went on to major papers–the Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Time magazine, Forbes, and so on; some published nonfiction books and novels, some ran magazines or newspapers or TV stations. I’ve lost track of all their achievements.

But the world has changed spectacularly since I stopped teaching here in 1982, and it’s a whole new planet for students aspiring to journalism today. Times have been disastrously tough for newspapers, which was the only part of the planet where I truly wanted to work. Most afternoon papers have disappeared all across the country. All papers are in decline, and there’s no relief in sight, only hopeful online transformations of the traditional form into something new that makes money. Major papers have been sold to local owners at a huge loss, and the buyers may be buying some of them for their real estate values; and the Graham family sold the Washington Post (for $250 million, a hefty price) to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who said that almost all print newspapers will be extinct in 20 years. (So why did he buy it?) All these papers had heavy downward trends in advertising revenue, the Post down 44 percent in six years. TV networks have catastrophically diminished their foreign coverage–CBS in 1970 had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 mini bureaus, and stringers in 44 countries; but by 2005, they had only three bureaus and eight foreign correspondents, four of them in London doing voice-overs for video feeds from the AP and Reuters. And all the TV networks seem to have slid into the swamp of celebrity and are paying homage to entertainment values that diminish the role and value of the news.

Newsweek‘s print edition is gone. Time Inc. (which includes Time, Fortune, People, and Money magazines) is surviving, but is now, according to one media critic, “the tattered print unit” of Time-Warner’s vast entertainment holdings, and may be spun off on its own.

Lately I’ve been wondering–if I were on the cusp of a career choice, would I still choose journalism? And what has survived of what I originally wanted from it. My early impetus from high school and college was to find a way to the center of action; I was so bored by office work. I wanted to cover foreign wars, the White House, and report on whatever took me by the throat–murder trials, heavyweight fights. I wanted to interview the people who ran the world, and get to know Ava Gardner. I’d never be bored. I wanted to be a reporter, but I also wanted to be a columnist, and I became one as a sophomore in college. I didn’t seriously know anything about anything, but I wasn’t deterred. I believed I’d discover what I was writing about when I wrote it. I was an early believer in the question E.M. Forster asked himself: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”

I had no political agenda, no causes or movements to advance, I didn’t want money or power, didn’t want to save the world, or run it; I didn’t even want to run a newspaper. But I kept becoming an editor, ever since college, and it was always an offer I couldn’t refuse. I worked on the startup of three newspapers from scratch, an army weekly and two dailies in San Juan, one of which lasted nine months, the other 49 years. It was great work, great sport, but I never fell in love with the job. All roads led back to my typewriter.

But Puerto Rico and Miami changed me, immersed me in politics. My beat on the Miami Herald was the Cuban revolution as it was being waged among revolutionaries based, or in exile, in Miami. In San Juan for Time magazine I covered Nixon back from being spat on in Venezuela and Jack Kennedy looking for Puerto Rican support for his Presidential campaign. I was constantly tracking the Cuban plutocracy that came to San Juan in exile after the success of the Castro revolution and following exiled Dominican radicals trying to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo with the help of the CIA. I worked on a Time magazine cover story about Puerto Rico’s wildly popular Governor Luis Munoz Marin, one of the great social democrats of Latin America, and the father of the island’s new political status–the Commonwealth, known in Spanish as the Estado Libre Asociado. This venture was a lesson in saturation reporting. I worked with a wonderfully manic reporter named Sam Halper, who never had enough copy. We produced 70,000 words, he mostly, for the cover story, a file the size of The Great Gatsby. A writer in New York reduced it to 4,471 words. The rewrite system was in effect at Time: reporters didn’t write the finished copy and writers didn’t report. This was one of several reasons I never wanted to work for the newsmagazines.

This was 1958. The next year we started the San Juan Star, funded by Gardner Cowles, the owner of Look magazine, who was expanding his journalistic empire. The editor/publisher was Bill Dorvillier, who’d been covering the White House for Puerto Rico’s major daily paper, El Mundo, for 20 years, and now ran a weekly business newsletter. He was a fanatic about press freedom and independence, a terrific newspaperman. He’d been born into the era when newspapers were rabidly partisan in political matters, the prevailing condition in newspapers throughout the 19th century, and this was also the way it was in Puerto Rico. But though Dorvillier was a longtime friend of Governor Munoz and an admirer of his politics, the Star did not endorse him, or anybody, a rare, and probably unique stance that was a gesture toward press independence and objectivity.

But in our first election campaign, 1960, two Catholic bishops in Puerto Rico wrote a public letter to the Catholic flock advising them it was sinful to vote for Munoz, whose administration condoned divorce and birth control. Dorvillier wrote a strong editorial against the bishops and we put it on page one; and in subsequent weeks the paper carried two dozen more editorials about the circus that ensued. Bill and the Star won a Pulitzer for editorial writing. Munoz was reelected in a landslide.

When I returned to Albany in 1963, I found that both the city and its two newspapers had turned inside out since I’d left seven years earlier. Hearst had bought out Gannett and now the two papers were under one roof, with Gene Robb of the Times-Union the publisher of both. And he was feuding with the Albany Democratic political machine, run by Dan O’Connell and Erastus Corning. This hadn’t happened since the 1920s, when the brand new Democratic organization was establishing its control over Albany and the press objected to the way it was spending money. Dan O’Connell and his minions tried to buy off a paper back then, but it didn’t work. Then they got tough and pressured advertisers and put one paper out of business. “Those newspapers,” Dan said of the press of that day, “are the most un-American thing in the US.”

Then the machine changed tactics and used legal advertising as carrot and stick to control the competing papers, and that’s what I remember from the 1950s. They divided from $50,000 to $300,000 between the two papers, and if one paper got out of line with negative coverage of the city or county (the machine controlled both), they’d withdraw its ads, giving the other paper an edge in income. The machine also put city hall and court and police reporters from both papers on the city payroll, without objection from any of their editors, who were all serious machine Democrats. And so for a generation or more harmony reigned between press and machine until consolidation of the papers. And then Robb, free of restraint, opened editorial columns and letters to the editor to critical comment, and editors stopped squelching or burying stories of police brutality or fraudulent county purchasing practices.

When this started, the Machine withdrew all its ads and published them in its own brochure. It also convened grand juries to investigate the press’ attacks on its integrity. Eight reporters were called to testify 19 times; Robb himself was called 10 times, and one reporter on the Knickerbocker News, Ed Swietnicki, was indicted for second-degree perjury, not because of his reporting but because of conflicting testimony to the jury about what he said to his editor. He was tried and acquitted, and the adversarial relationship continued and branched out to other hostile targets–social workers, clergy, civil rights advocates, grassroots organizations battling to get the city to upgrade their neighborhoods; and about this time I arrived from San Juan and started reporting on much of this.

We were in a new age for journalism in America. Alternative newspapers like the Village Voice seemed to be breaking establishment taboos in every issue. They pioneered the reviewing of off-Broadway plays and rock music, reported on the drug culture, the newly-visible polymorphous sex life, on transgender lore, the anti-war movement, how to get high smoking bananas, and they reviewed a concert by a naked female cellist, with accompanying photo. Street language was being published without asterisks and before long The New York Times started reviewing rock music, and The New Yorker came face to face with a four-letter crisis. The magazine was about to publish an excerpt from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Autumn of the Patriarch, but it contained a word that The New Yorker had never published, and an editor asked the great translator, Gregory Rabassa, if he might substitute the word “feces” for the unprintable noun. Gregory said no; if they wanted the excerpt, they had to take it as it was written. And so they did, and Garcia Marquez thereby broke the shit barrier at The New Yorker.

In Albany there were similar cataclysmic breakthroughs, the newspapers in the forefront of the quest for social justice, a rat-tat-tat of editorials, investigative articles, exposes, attacks on all governments that were lagging in implementing the anti-poverty program, the code enforcement laws on housing, especially in the slums, the machine playing cozy with slumlords, the neglect of black neighborhoods even to the point of not picking up their garbage. Also afoot was the community organization of protest groups in neighborhoods to propel the city toward improvement, but the machine’s response was to fire protesters, or threaten to fire them, from their city jobs, or evict them from public housing, cut off their welfare benefits, and more, if they joined with the city’s attackers.

I was in the middle of this and wrote a long series on slums and slumlords, another series on housing integration in the whole city. I covered the arrival and development of a group of young black men who banded together after one of them, Leon Van Dyke, picketed the laborers union by himself to protest never being hired after six weeks of showing up daily for the job call. They called themselves The Brothers, and they became a new voice in town, the black male asserting his visibility. They fought slumlords, fought for jobs, ran for public office, spoke out with strong and challenging language that frightened some people. But they changed the minds of a lot of people who hadn’t heard that voice before, or hadn’t listened to it. Bill Rowley was one of their supporters and helped them put out their newspaper, The Liberator. They also created a lot of enemies, the machine and the police in the forefront of those, and they were targeted one by one, and arrested, beaten, had their headquarters shot up, and more. And slowly the group faded away, but quite a few of the members continued working in social agencies or government bureaus or any way they could for civil rights and social justice.

As to the reporters covering this, I received a lot of hate mail for what I wrote, and people thought I might get thrown in the river; but I stayed dry; Scott Christiansen at the Knick News exposed the rampant thievery, fraud, arson, gambling, and more, during the building of Nelson Rockefeller Plaza, the South Mall; and he was followed, targeted for seduction, given a job offer that would have taken him far out of town; but he survived and kept writing. I know that one of the state or federal intelligence agencies worked with a reporter on the Times-Union staff; he eventually half confessed to me about it. So we were monitored from within and also by photographers and agents of local and state police who tracked us when we were reporting these goings on. I’ve written much about all this in a book called O Albany! my expressionistic history of the city, if you’re interested in more detail. I also put the Brothers and one of the matriarchs of the neighborhood group movement into my last novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, and so there’s that.

I’ve been looking around as I was writing these remarks, to see what journalism looks like today on the internet, and it’s foreign territory–Julian Assange as a publisher, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning as investigative reporters. And then there’s that bicyclist who became angered by cyclists who won by doping themselves, interviewed a chemist about it, wrote a 13,000 word article, blogged it across the internet, and brought down the King Kong of cycling, Lance Armstrong, and his empire along with it.

There’s no way to keep track of the websites that disseminate news, or celebuzz, or interviews, or film and book reviews, or pontifications. That urge I had to be a columnist and critic, those vocations are still realizable–you just keep writing to see what you think, or review every movie you see for no money, then blog it all into outer space. And maybe your penniless career is under way.

I have hope that print newspapers will survive, and I’m sure they’ll survive as mutants on the Web. Jeff Bezos’ prophecy of the print version being gone in 20 years does not seem unreasonable, only unthinkable. I had a prophetic dream a long time ago that the place I lived in was being taken away. It was all abstract and I didn’t know who or what was doing this, or where it all was going, or why. But the dream so moved me that I transformed it and put it into the final scene of my first novel, The Ink Truck.

Bailey, my protagonist, is a newspaper columnist on strike against his newspaper. The Guild, his labor union, buckles under, and the strike looks lost; but Bailey fights on and tries to bleed the tank truck that arrives with the ink to print the newspaper. He fails to bleed it and the strike soon ends. Bailey doesn’t capitulate. He keeps picketing, alone. He goes to the Guild room where the strikers had held meetings, and it’s empty, furniture gone, nothing there. Even the dust in the closet has been taken away. Bailey, manic and irrepressible, is with two reporter friends, and he asks them a riddle: “I know the sound of one hand clapping,” he says, “but what is the fruit of the fun tree?” They are sitting against the wall where a sign used to deliver a silent command: “Do not sit here.” The sign is also gone. Bailey and his friends ponder this and then they get up and leave.

It’s a sad ending. But I think if I were Bailey, and in some ways I am, I would not despair over all that nothingness. After all, nothing is something. And how do you know what you have until you don’t have it any more? I think Bailey goes back to walking that picket line that no longer exists. Something will come along. Writers have to believe that.

Related reading:
Stefan Beck gives the Second Read treatment to William Kennedy’s
O Albany!, in which the author pays homage to the hard-to-love city that is his novels’ greatest hero.

William Kennedy is a former journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and professor emeritus at the University of Albany.