Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about the future of journalism and a career at the Times
February 25, 2010

The Death and Life of American Journalism:
The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again

By Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols
Nation Books
334 pages, $26.95

Observing the quickening deterioration of journalism as we have known it, two media reformers—Robert W. McChesney of the University of Illinois and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation—have rushed forward with this tract, which contains their prescriptions for the reinvigoration of journalism as the lubricant of democracy. They conclude that the decline of the advertiser-supported mass news industry is irreversible.

It must be said that history supports their view, at least as it concerns the newspaper. For at least sixty years, Americans have become less and less a newsprint-reading nation. The inevitable result has been the decline and possible fall of our most long-lived news institutions. Not pausing to mourn, McChesney and Nichols address themselves to what institutions might rise to succeed the old, and how. They mention a range of ideas for news organizations that might survive by means other than advertising, and eventually conclude that there must be government support, even at the cost of breaching the wall that allegedly separates government from journalism. Forget the clichéd view of the First Amendment, they say—the idea that any relationship with government is anathema and leads to censorship.

The U.S. government has already offered many forms of support to the crumbling old media, ranging from postal subsidies to special antitrust arrangements. McChesney and Nichols, however, want something different: government funding that would support the creation of new and more democratic institutions, especially local ones. They particularly like the opportunities offered by l3cs (low-profit limited liability companies), an innovative structure that allows access to a greater variety of resources than the standard nonprofit setup.

The authors are careful to say that theirs are not the only proposals possible, and they credit others already working on the same problems, notably Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, authors of “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” (issued by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last fall), a paper that overlaps with this book in many respects. It all sounds splendidly promising. However, these proposed innovations have yet to encounter the real test—that is, convincing both the public and the government that must bring them into being.

God and the Editor:
My Search for Meaning at The New York Times

By Robert H. Phelps
Syracuse University Press
284 pages, $29.95

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This new memoir by Robert Phelps boasts a curious title, especially since the author is a nonbeliever. But Phelps asserts that journalism was his only religion, a position that softened only after the death of his wife of fifty-six years. The heart of the book involves the two decades the author spent working for his deity of choice, The New York Times. (Disclosure: he was a colleague of my spouse, and supported the discrimination suit that she and others filed.)

Phelps served almost entirely in-house as a supervising editor rather than as a reporter. His great ambition was to reach a major inside position, that of national editor. But during his years at the paper, the tide turned against desk people, and it was the famed former reporters who rose to the top: Abe Rosenthal, Harrison Salisbury, Max Frankel, Tom Wicker, Gene Roberts. Phelps abhorred Rosenthal’s imperial style, which kept reporters on a tight leash. Instead, he sought to be what he calls a “Partnership Editor,” with a lighter, more laissez-faire approach.

“My operating philosophy,” he recalls, “was to let the reporter write the story in his or her own fashion as long as it told the news with clarity and didn’t violate Times standards.” Self-effacement, it turned out, did not earn him promotions. Phelps ultimately moved to The Boston Globe, in the days before it was bought by the Times, and there ended his journalism career. The author provides a valuable window into the paper’s great feuds and crises (his retelling of the Times’s near-miss on Watergate is a particular treat) without making himself the center of the drama. Indeed, he frequently concedes that those who soared past him did a better job than he would have. God and the Editor is an afterthought to a long and honorable working life; the book came out as Phelps was on the cusp of ninety years old.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.