When the first great book about the New York Times was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine in 1969, the magazine’s cover proclaimed its scoop with an imaginary Times headline: The One Major Story America’s Foremost Newspaper Has Never Covered In Detail: The New York Times.
The headline was accurate, and when The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese was published, it was an immediate sensation. In that far-off decade, the story Talese told was fresh and captivating. The Times’ own review said it was unlike any other newspaper book because it was “done in the novelistic style of Truman Capote, William Manchester and Theodore White, moving real contemporary men through real contemporary events … the book is rich in intimate detail, personal insights and characterization”.
When I read it as a teenager, it was one of the two books that made me want to write nonfiction. The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore H White, was the other.
Journalists have been waiting half a century for a worthy sequel to Talese’s book, and that is what Adam Nagourney has attempted with The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism, a history of the newspaper from 1976 to 2016, which he wrote with Talese’s encouragement and cooperation.
The new volume is the result of 300 interviews and years of impressive archival research by a veteran Times political reporter. But unlike its predecessor, it is almost completely without the shock of the new. This is not the author’s fault, bur rather an inevitable result in our time. Press criticism of the Times has been a gigantic industry over many decades, the New Yorker running long profiles of nearly every new editor and publisher and everyone from Vanity Fair and the Washington Post to Spy and Gawker contributing often vicious descriptions of the most political newsroom.
On top of that, almost every former top editor from Max Frankel and Gerald Boyd to Howell Raines have written either memoirs or long pieces about their time at the paper. And after a couple of its own worst screwups, the Times has sometimes analysed its own failings, including its disastrous coverage of alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and its seduction by a young reporter, Jayson Blair, who turned out to be addicted to plagiarism and invention.
As a result, if you’re a Times junkie, like I am, there are almost no completely new stories in the 478 pages of Nagourney’s book. Instead there are familiar anecdotes, bolstered by a few juicy new details produced by rigorous reporting.
The book begins with a portrait of the legendary Abe Rosenthal, top editor from 1969 to 1986. As I wrote after his death in 2006, Rosenthal “inspired more admiration, emulation and vilification than any other journalist of his generation”. Besides having the finest news judgement of his time, Rosenthal was famous for his homophobia, which kept every gay person who worked for him firmly in the closet. (Nagourney accurately names me and Richard Meislin, two former Rosenthal clerks, as members of this club.)
After he married his second wife, Shirley Lord, a former editor at Vogue with many gay friends in the fashion industry, Rosenthal pretended he had never hated gay people. But Nagourney has unearthed his true feelings, in a previously unknown journal entry:
“He wrote … that while he would hire a homosexual as a critic, he would not appoint one to cover a sensitive beat like the Pentagon or city hall. And he had a dark view of their presence at the newspaper. ‘The real problem of hiring homosexuals,’ Rosenthal wrote, was that they formed cliques. ‘The homosexual clique was a problem because it was usually subterranean, which gave it a kind of conspiracy atmosphere, and because homosexuals in the clique always were convinced or tried to convince themselves that they were wiser, more acute, “better” than the others – the old breed,’ he wrote.”
Rosenthal’s well-known prejudices often discouraged sycophantic colleagues from assigning stories on gay subjects, which led to the widespread belief that the Times botched its coverage of the Aids epidemic – even though Lawrence K Altman, the paper’s chief medical reporter, was the first to write about the new, still unnamed disease in a mainstream publication, in July 1981.
Nagourney endorses this point of view, noting the paper’s failure to cover an early fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis that attracted 17,601 people, and the fact the paper ran no page-one article about Aids until 25 May 1983. He also says the Times “largely refrained from writing … about anal intercourse, the sexual practice that was soon identified as a potent means of transmission of the virus”.
However, he misses a crucial article published in the Times Magazine 10 weeks before that uncovered fundraiser. Written by Robin Marantz Henig, Aids, A New Diseases’s Deadly Odyssey was a 6,000-word piece that was probably the most important, most useful and most comprehensive article on this subject published in any mainstream outlet up to that time. Even though the precise method of transmission had not yet been determined, the piece said Aids was probably a virus spread by blood and semen. Crucially, it also said many doctors had urged patients “to eliminate anal intercourse”.
In all there were 28 articles in the Times about Aids in the first two years of the epidemic, and 114 in the year after that.
The biggest problem with Nagourney’s book is the way he treats Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the Times during most of the period covered here and therefore the most important person in this saga. Nagourney repeats all criticisms of Sulzberger made by other critics, because of the executive editors he fired (Howell Raines and Jill Abramson) and a broad perception that he wasn’t completely ready when he took over from his father in 1992. But the true story of Sulzberger’s life is that all of his critics were wrong.
Nagourney does report the sense of conviction that distinguished Sulzberger from every other American newspaper scion of his generation. But he doesn’t give the publisher anywhere near the credit he deserves, because this was the core quality that would make him a success in an era when every other important American newspaper family would give up on the news business, including the Los Angeles Chandlers, the Washington Grahams and the Louisville Binghams.
Just two years after he took over as publisher, Sulzberger declared: “The paper in newspaper is not central to our function. My point is a simple one: I am absolutely agnostic regarding methods of distribution.”
In 2010, he once again showed the courage of his convictions by going against the advice of the man running the Times website and deciding to force online readers to pay to read his paper. And that decision was the whole reason that when his son, AG Sulzberger, succeeded him in 2020, he could toast his father this way: “The only publisher of his generation who was handed a great news organization and left it even better than he found it.”
The Times is published in the US by Crown