Shoe Leather and Tears
By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times
My heart is heavy today. I have worked for only two companies in my whole life, and the mentors who hired me at each place both just died.
I got my start as a reporter in 1978 thanks to Leon Daniel, the head of U.P.I.'s London office, who died in March. I had never even covered a fire when Leon decided to take a flier and hire me out of college in England to work the overnight shift. I was on duty when two popes died in rapid succession in 1978. I'll never forget the U.P.I. radio wire headline that read, "Hard to believe, but for the second time in a month the pope is dead." Leon came in the next morning, looked at that headline and said in his Tennessee drawl, "Now that is hard to believe."
A former marine and Vietnam reporter whose pen was as silky as his demeanor was gruff, Leon taught me that whether you're writing news, opinion or analysis, if it isn't based on shoe-leather reporting, it isn't worth a bucket of beans.
To this day, whenever I hear a reporter say, "I don't do reporting — I just do opinion and analysis," I always think of the reporting basics that Leon pounded into me and want to say, "I doubt that your analysis is very good, because the best analysis always comes from spotting trends that can usually only be spotted by reporting a story day in and day out." I like blogs, but the only bloggers who appeal to me are those who do reporting and aren't just sitting at home in their pajamas firing off digital mortars.
After working for Leon in London and Beirut, I was hired by The New York Times in May 1981 — hired by A. M. Rosenthal, its legendary editor who died Wednesday. Only Abe hired people at The Times back then, and before hiring me he flew me from Beirut to New York just to ask me one question: "How do I send a Jew to be the Times reporter in Lebanon?" It was a fair question. I am Jewish, there was a civil war in Beirut, they weren't serving kosher hot dogs there, and Arafat was the de facto mayor.
Abe had suffered early in his career from discrimination over what news a Jew should be allowed to cover, and he wanted to end that nonsense. (His official Times byline was not A. M. Rosenthal for nothing — "Abraham" was very frowned upon when he started.) He told me when we met that he had decided to break the paper's ban on letting Jews report from Israel by sending David Shipler there — only to discover after he did that Mr. Shipler wasn't Jewish. He just looked like a rabbi! In the end, Abe did break all those taboos.
Yes, the man liked to break china — sometimes over the head of an editor or a reporter — but his journalistic daring and the passion he wore on his sleeve are still so compelling to me, especially today, when newsrooms resemble sterile insurance companies. As my friend Howell Raines used to say, when Abe was around, you knew journalism was going to happen. Some plates, even a few bones, might get broken — but also a lot of news.
Many readers became aware of Abe only after he became a columnist. He was very conservative and supportive of right-wing parties in Israel. But let me tell you this: When he was editor, I reported for him from Israel and the Arab world for many years. I am sure I wrote things that gave him heartburn. But in all those years he never once complained about anything I wrote. I never knew his politics until he became a columnist. As editor, he was obsessed with keeping the Times "straight," as he used to say, with no reporters' or editors' thumbs ever on the scale.
As anyone who worked for Abe knows, he had an exalted sense of The New York Times, a deeply correct sense that there are no stars at the Times. The newspaper is the star — and not only must you never forget that, you must always treat working here as a privilege and a huge responsibility. Abe believed that a financially healthy and trusted-for-fairness New York Times was essential for keeping our democracy healthy and our government honest.
In this partisan age, many liberals want The Times to be the liberal Fox News. But we are not built to do that, not on our news pages, and Abe would be appalled at such a notion. This paper's power, he knew, comes from the quality and fairness of its reporting. That is what builds the bond of trust with readers that is the source of any newspaper's power.
Abe was a truly unique jumble of integrity, mercy, tyranny and compassion. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I was involved in a controversy at The Times. One day I described Israel's shelling of West Beirut as "indiscriminate." Abe was on vacation, and his editors took out "indiscriminate" as a thumb on the scale. I wrote a memo accusing those editors of cowardice, and it became public. When Abe got back, he exploded at my insubordination. I apologized for being intemperate, but was told my job was at risk. Once the war died down, I was ordered to go see Abe.
Abe asked to meet me outside the paper, at a West Side Italian restaurant. I thought it was the end. We sat down. He fixed me with a hard gaze and said: "I just gave you a $5,000 raise. Now tell me what happened."
We had a long, emotional lunch, with tears on both sides. At the end, he got up, threw his arms around me in a big Abe bear hug, told me all was forgiven and then whispered in my ear: "Now listen, you clever little !%#@: don't you ever do that again."
They don't make 'em like that anymore. God love ya, Abe. May your memory be a blessing.
Photo credit: Thomas Friedman (Fred R. conrad/The New York Times)