Requiem for The New York Times

New York Times
Requiem for The New York Times – by Mr. Fish

NEW YORK: I am sitting in the auditorium at The New York Times. It is the first time I have been back in nearly two decades. It will be the last. The newspaper is a pale reflection of what it was when I worked there, beset by numerous journalistic fiascos, rudderless leadership and myopic cheerleading of the military debacles in the Middle East, Ukraine and the genocide in Gaza, where one of the Times contributions to the mass slaughter of Palestinians was an editorial refusing to back an unconditional ceasefire. Many seated in the auditorium are culpable. 

I am here, however, not for them but for the former executive editor they are honoring, Joe Lelyveld, who died earlier this year. He hired me. His departure from the Times marked the paper’s steep descent. On the front page of the program of the memorial, the year of his death is incorrect — emblematic of the sloppiness of a newspaper that is riddled with typos and errors. Reporters I admire, including Gretchen Morgenson and David Cay Johnston, who are in the auditorium, were pushed out once Lelyveld left, replaced by mediocrities.

Lelyveld’s successor Howell Raines – who had no business running a newspaper – singled out the serial fabulist and plagiarizer, Jayson Blair, for swift advancement and alienated the newsroom through a series of tone deaf editorial decisions. Reporters and editors rose up in revolt. He was forced out along with his equally incompetent managing editor. 

Lelyveld came back for a brief interim. But the senior editors who followed were of little improvement. They were full-throated propagandists – Tony Judt called them “Bush’s useful idiots” – for the war in Iraq. They were true believers in the weapons of mass destruction. They suppressed, at the government’s request, an expose by James Risen about warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the National Security Agency until the paper found out it would appear in Risen’s book. They peddled for two years the fiction that Donald Trump was a Russian asset. They ignored the contents from Hunter Biden’s laptop that had evidence of multimillion dollar influence peddling and labeled it “Russian disinformation.” Bill Keller, who served as executive editor after Lelyveld, described Julian Assange, the most courageous journalist and publisher of our generation, as “a narcissistic dick, and nobody’s idea of a journalist.” The editors decided identity, rather than corporate pillage with its mass layoffs of 30 million workers, was the reason for Trump’s rise, leading them to deflect attention from the root cause of our economic, political and cultural morass. Of course, that deflection saved them from confronting corporations, such as Chevron, which are advertisers. They produced a podcast series called Caliphate, based on invented stories of a con artist. They most recently ran a story by three journalists — including one who had never before worked as a reporter and had ties with Israeli intelligence, Anat Schwartz, who was subsequently fired after it was disclosed that she “liked” genocidal posts against Palestinians on Twitter — on what they called “systematic” sexual abuse and rape by Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions on Oct. 7. It also turned out to be unsubstantiated. None of this would have happened under Lelyveld.

Reality rarely penetrates the Byzantine and self-referential court of The New York Times, which was on full display at Lelyveld’s memorial. The former editors spoke — Gene Roberts being an exception — with a cloying noblesse oblige, enthralled with their own splendor. Lelyveld became a vehicle to revel in their privilege, an unwitting advertisement for why the institution is so woefully out of touch and why so many reporters and much of the public despise those who run it.

We were regaled with all the perks of elitism: Harvard. Summers in Maine. Vacationing in Italy and France. Snorkeling in a coral reef at a Philippine resort. Living in Hampstead in London. The country house in New Paltz. Taking a barge down the Canal du Midi. Visits to the Prado. Opera at The Met.

Luis Buñuel and Evelyn Waugh skewered these kinds of people. Lelyveld was part of the club, but that was something I would have left for the chatter at the reception, which I skipped. That was not why the handful of reporters in the room were there.   

Lelyveld, despite some attempts by the speakers to convince us otherwise, was morose and acerbic. His nickname in the newsroom was “the undertaker.” As he walked past desks, reporters and editors would try to avoid his glance. He was socially awkward, given to long pauses and a disconcerting breathy laugh that no one knew how to read. He could be, like all the popes who run the church of The New York Times, mean and vindictive. I am sure he could also be nice and sensitive, but this was not the aura he projected. In the newsroom he was Ahab, not Starbuck.

I asked him if I could take a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard after covering the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, wars that capped nearly two decades of reporting on conflicts in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

“No,” he said. “It costs me money and I lose a good reporter.”

I persisted until he finally told the foreign editor, Andrew Rosenthal, “tell Hedges he can take the Nieman and go to hell.”

“Don’t do it,” Andy, whose father was the executive editor before Lelyveld, warned. “They will make you pay when you come back.”

Of course, I took the Nieman. 

Halfway through the year Lelyveld called.

“What are you studying?” he asked.

“Classics,” I answered.

“Like Latin?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I said.  

There was a pause.

“Well,” he said, “I guess you can cover the Vatican.”

He hung up.

When I returned, he put me in purgatory. I was parked on the metropolitan desk without a beat or assignment. On many days I stayed at home and read Fyodor Dostoevsky. At least I got my paycheck. But he wanted me to know I was nothing.

I met with him in his office after a couple of months. It was like talking to a wall.

“Do you remember how to write a story?” he asked, caustically.

I had not yet, in his eyes, been suitably domesticated.

I walked out of his office.

“That guy is a fucking asshole,” I said to the editors at the desks in front of me.

“If you don’t think that got back to him in 30 seconds you are very naïve,” an editor told me later.

I did not care. I was struggling, often through too much drinking at night to blot out my nightmares, with trauma from many years in war zones, trauma in which neither Lelyveld nor anyone else at the paper took the slightest interest. I had far greater demons to battle than a vindictive newspaper editor. And I did not love The New York Times enough to become its lapdog. If they kept it up, I would leave, which I soon did.

I say all this to make it clear that Lelyveld was not admired by reporters because of his charm or personality. He was admired because he was brilliant, literate, a gifted writer and reporter and set high standards. He was admired because he cared about the craft of reporting. He saved those of us who could write — a surprising number of reporters are not great writers — from the dead hand of copy editors. 

He did not look at a leak by an administration official as gospel. He cared about the world of ideas. He made sure the book review section had gravitas, a gravitas that disappeared once he left. He distrusted militarists. (His father had been a conscientious objector in World War II, although later became an outspoken Zionist and apologist for Israel.) This, frankly, was all we wanted as reporters. We did not want him to be our friend. We already had friends. Other reporters.

He came to see me in Bosnia in 1996 shortly after his father died. I was so absorbed in a collection of short stories by V.S. Pritchett that I lost track of the time. I looked up to find him standing over me. He did not seem to mind. He, too, read voraciously. Books were a connection. Once, early in my career, we met in his office. He quoted from memory lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse”:

…A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.   

Better go down upon your marrow-bones   

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones   

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;   

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet   

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen   

The martyrs call the world.

“You still have to find your voice,” he told me.

We were the sons of clergymen. His father was a rabbi. Mine was a Presbyterian minister. Our fathers had participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. But that is where our family similarities ended. He had a deeply troubled childhood and distant relationship with his father and mother, who suffered from nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts. There were long periods when he did not see his parents, shuttled off to friends and relatives, where he wondered as a child if he was worthless or even loved, the subject of his memoir “Omaha Blues”.

We rode in my armored jeep to Sarajevo. It was after the war. In the darkness he talked about his father’s funeral, the hypocrisy of pretending that the children from the first marriage got along with the family of the second marriage, as if, he said, “we were all one happy family.” He was bitter and hurt.

He writes in his memoir of a rabbi named Ben, who “had zero interest in possessions,” and was a surrogate father. Ben had, in the 1930s, challenged racial segregation from his synagogue in Montgomery, Alabama. White clergy standing up for Blacks in the south was rare in the 1960s. It was almost unheard of in the 1930s. Ben invited Black ministers to his home. He collected food and clothing for the families of sharecroppers who in July 1931 after the sheriff and his deputies broke up a union meeting had engaged in a shoot-out. The sharecroppers were on the run and being hunted in Tallapoosa County. His sermons, preached at the height of the Depression, called for economic and social justice. 

He visited the Black men on death row in the Scottsboro case — all of them unjustly charged with rape — and held rallies to raise money for their defense. The board of his temple passed a formal resolution appointing a committee “to go to Rabbi Goldstein and ask him to desist from going to Birmingham under all circumstances and desist from doing anything further in the Scottsboro case.” 

Ben ignored them. He was finally forced out by his congregation because, as a member wrote, he had been “preaching and practicing social equality,” and “consorting with radicals and reds.” Ben later participated in the American League Against War and Fascism and the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy during the Spanish civil war, groups that included communists. He defended those purged in the anti-communist witch hunts, including the Hollywood Ten, spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ben, who was close to the communist party and was perhaps at one point a member, was blacklisted, including by Lelyveld’s father who was running the Hillel Foundation. Lelyveld, in a few torturous pages, seeks to absolve his father, who consulted the FBI before firing Ben, for this betrayal.  

Ben fell victim to what the historian Ellen Schrecker in “Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America” calls “the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history.”

“In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism, a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anticommunist activists hounded an entire generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the institutions that offered a left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture,” she writes.

This crusade, she goes on, “used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.”

Lelyveld’s father was not unique in succumbing to pressure, but what I find fascinating, and perhaps revealing, is Lelyveld’s decision to blame Ben for his own persecution. 

“Any appeal to Ben Lowell to be prudent would have instantly summoned to his mind the appeals made to Ben Goldstein [he later changed his last name to Lowell] in Montgomery seventeen years earlier when, with his job clearly on the line, he’d never hesitated about speaking at the black church in defiance of his trustees,” Lelyveld writes. “His latent Ezekiel complex again kicked in.”

Lelyveld missed the hero of his own memoir.

Lelyveld left the paper before the attacks of 9/11. I denounced the calls to invade Iraq — I had been the newspaper’s Middle East Bureau Chief — on shows such as Charlie Rose. I was booed off stages, attacked relentlessly on Fox News and right-wing radio and the subject of a Wall Street Journal editorial. The message bank on my office phone was filled with death threats. I was given a written reprimand by the paper to stop speaking out against the war. If I violated the reprimand, I would be fired. Lelyveld, if he was still running the paper, would not have tolerated my breach of etiquette.

Lelyveld might dissect apartheid in South Africa in his book, “Move Your Shadow,” but the cost of dissecting it in Israel would have seen him, like Ben, blacklisted. He did not cross those lines. He played by the rules. He was a company man.

I would never find my voice in the straightjacket of The New York Times. I had no fidelity to the institution. The very narrow parameters it set were not ones I could accept. This, in the end, was the chasm between us.

The theologian Paul Tillich writes that all institutions are inherently demonic, that the moral life usually requires, at some point, that we defy institutions, even at the cost of our careers. Lelyveld, while endowed with integrity and brilliance, was not willing to make this commitment. But he was the best the institution offered us. He cared deeply about what we do and he did his best to protect it. 

The newspaper has not recovered since his departure.    

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. His most recent book is “America: The Farewell Tour” (2019).

Originally published on Chris Hedges Report

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter

GET COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWSLETTER STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX

Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Israel’s Willing Executioners

Hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to flee, once again, after more than half of Gaza's population took sanctuary in the border town of Rafah. This is part…

Sermon for Gaza

This is a sermon I gave Sunday April 28 at a service held at the encampment for Gaza at Princeton University. The service was organized by students from Princeton Theological…

Revolt in the Universities

University students across the country, facing mass arrests, suspensions, evictions and expulsions are our last, best hope to halt the genocide in Gaza. PRINCETON, N.J. — Achinthya Sivalingam, a graduate…

A Genocide Foretold

The genocide in Gaza is the final stage of a process begun by Israel decades ago. Anyone who did not see this coming blinded themselves to the character and ultimate…

The Crucifixion of Julian Assange

Prosecutors representing the United States, whether by design or incompetence, refused — in the two-day hearing I attended in London in February — to provide guarantees that Julian Assange would be afforded First Amendment…

Join Our Newsletter


Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News