Brief Encounters

Short reviews of a new history of NPR, Denys Wortman's cartoons, and Laurie Hertzel's memoir
February 23, 2011

This Is NPR: The First Forty Years by Cokie Roberts and others | Chronicle Books | 271 pages, $29.95

This glossy heavyweight volume commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of National Public Radio, which went on the air in April 1971. It is probably closest in approach to a college yearbook—self-congratulatory, chummy, and a little disjointed. The book offers a kind of history of NPR, but cut into so many snippets that it is hard to tell sometimes who wrote a particular page. Worse, events have passed it by. The veteran news chief so prominent in these pages has resigned, a victim of her much-discussed firing of the commentator Juan Williams for something he said on another network. Indeed, there seems to be a political chill in the air for NPR. But, as these accounts make clear, the network has always found ways to survive and thrive.

Starting small, it now reaches an audience of 27 million, who listen to 910 stations. Moreover, only a fraction of NPR’s support now comes, even indirectly, from government. Its amiability, dependability, intelligence, and courage are suggested in the articles by such veterans as Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro, and in cameos by many others. There is also an enclosed CD with a brief selection of notable broadcasts, including the debut of All Things Considered with its coverage from the street of the massive antiwar demonstration in Washington on May 5, 1971.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston with an introduction by Robert W. Snyder | Drawn & Quarterly | 288 pages, $29.95 paperbound

In 1924, Denys Wortsman (1887-1958) took over a single-panel feature in the New York World called “Metropolitan Movies.” Each drawing was a vignette of life in New York City; the captions were wry or pointed, never jokes. Sometimes the figures were adapted from photographs his wife took on the streets. After the World closed in 1931, Wortman continued drawing for its successors and, later, syndicates. Altogether, he produced more than 9,000 drawings, of which 5,100 are now archived at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.

Thanks in part to the work of his son, Denys Wortman VIII, Wortman is receiving attention as an artist, a descendant of the Ashcan School. His drawings have recently been exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York, and this collection offers 287 of them. Many deal gently with the rigors of the Great Depression; among the most poignant is one showing a mother resting her head on a tenement kitchen table; her young daughter says, “Don’t cry, be little, and I’ll be your mother.”

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News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist by Laurie Hertzel | University of Minnesota Press | 206 pages, $22.95

In this equable memoir, Laurie Hertzel looks back to her youth (well, she isn’t that old) as a neophyte newspaperwoman at the Duluth News-Tribune on frigid Lake Superior in Minnesota. Still a teenager, she started in 1976 as a clerk, then moved on to the copy desk, and ultimately became a full-fledged regional reporter. She makes it all sound wide-eyed and inadvertent, and her personal rise is winningly told. But she also tells a story that recapitulates much of what happened to the American press at the start of its long decline.

A medium-sized newspaper in a medium-sized city, the century-old News-Tribune in the 1970s was entering an era of change. Hertzel was interviewed by a batch of “quivery old men,” but when she went to work she found the newsroom’s energy was focused in four recently hired women, who in a sense cleared the way for her and others. But they didn’t stay. As a makeup editor, Hertzel saw the end of the lead-type era in the composing room and the start of the digital age: printers pasting up stories created by electronic typesetters and making corrections with razor blades. And of course hard times came knocking at the door. The paper’s evening edition closed; editors and reporters were let go and those who stayed had more to do.

Ultimately, the paper got caught in the collapse of chains and ended up as the property of a group based in Fargo. But it survived. So did Laurie Hertzel. She left the paper in 1994 and, despite her vow to remain loyal to her native Duluth, moved to the Twin Cities, where she has done quite well, thank you.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.