|THE TIMES OF MY LIFE|
May 21, 1999
SMITH: Max Frankel is one of America's preeminent journalists. He worked
for the New York Times for 50 years, rising from college correspondent
to reporter, Washington bureau chief, editorial page editor and ultimately
executive editor from 1986-1994. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage
of President Nixon's trip to China in 1972. Max Frankel currently writes
a column about media for the Times' Sunday magazine entitled "Word
and Image." Now he has published a memoir of his writing life subtitled
The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times. He joins us now
for a reflection on the press. Max, welcome.
MAX FRANKEL, Former Executive Editor, The New York Times: Pleasure.
TERENCE SMITH: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that we worked together on the Times.
MAX FRANKEL: Most happily.
TERENCE SMITH: Most happily. And I worked in fact in your Washington bureau.
MAX FRANKEL: That's right.
|The state of journalism.|
TERENCE SMITH: But I want to ask you today to, with your vantage, to talk a little bit about the state of journalism today and what seems to be wrong with it.
MAX FRANKEL: I think we're in trouble, not just for the reasons that the public sees as the past year of scandal as a black eye for us, but I think the problem is much deeper than that. I think technology drives our medium, commerce drives our medium. And I think we're in trouble because I think more and more of the revenues that used to support journalism have gone into total entertainment efforts and into output technology and much too few of the resources have gone into adding to the sum of human knowledge, collecting information. And too many enterprises are hooked on making a profit. Mind you, I have nothing against making a profit. It takes profit to stay in business, in any part of our business, but to maximize profits to the degree that say our local television stations, they are now at 35-50 percent of revenues is what their board of directors are demanding. That cannot produce quality journalism. Journalism used to be a loss leader in television. Too many newspapers, also I think are what Abe Rosenthal at the Times used to call watering the soup in order to skimp. The number of foreign bureaus around the world has shriveled to practically nothing.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, foreign coverage is down. It's attributed to the end of the Cold War, but --
MAX FRANKEL: That's true.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that it?
MAX FRANKEL: That's true but we live in this world -- we are more closely intertwined with the world today than we ever were in the cold war. We may not be terrorized by nuclear weapons to the degree that we were, but our trade and our travel and the movement of peoples across frontiers. Nations are breaking down left and right. World affairs, in a different way than they used to be, are very much of concern.
TERENCE SMITH: Does the journalism business strike you as significantly different, vastly different, perhaps than it was when you first entered it?
MAX FRANKEL: Oh, yes. I mean when I first went into newspapering back in the late 1940's, early 1950's, we were still the first basically to bring the news. Radio was a kind of competition. But we still had street corner extras at 7:00 in the morning when we were shouting out the headlines. Even the good gray New York Times were putting out extras when there was special news. Now television has seized that function. It has also illustrated events in a very dramatic and special way. I think it creates a new and fascinating role for print journalism but the adjustment has taken some doing.
TERENCE SMITH: There is more news being put out there than ever before, but are Americans better informed?
MAX FRANKEL: More information, more data.
TERENCE SMITH: Good distinction.
MAX FRANKEL: Not necessarily more news in the way that I now use the term. I think, unless the society -- the society is so complex, our people are so better educated, the nature of the problems we're dealing with are so much more complex, that analysis, answering the question of why things happen is a crucial function of journalism and we're very late in adjusting to that.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, with that perspective, what is news? Define it and tell me whether you think that definition has changed.
MAX FRANKEL: News is what's important and/or interesting and preferably both. Important and interesting to whom is the first question. Different media select different audiences. We at the Times are very lucky. We have a highly educated readership and a largely affluent readership. We are addressing the news to a defined - the Wall Street Journal goes into a different direction. PBS goes in a different direction, although not that different from the New York Times, et cetera, et cetera. Television, by and large, is seeking a mass audience.
It has inherited the tabloid function that used to be in the hot sheets of New York. That's one element in the news. The other thing that I not only think has changed, but I tried to change when I was an editor, is that news should not only be what has happened yesterday or today. The word today and yesterday used to be a prominent feature of any news story. But I think what is happening but not at any one moment, is just as important. You know, if employment is going up or down, if the economy is going this way or that, if Medicare is slowly going broke, that is often more important news than a plane crash or a press conference. And, again, adjusting to that kind of news, it takes a lot more expertise and a lot more talent and we're not there.
TERENCE SMITH: There's a great deal of discussion these days about how reporters views and experiences shape their reporting and the way they do their job. I read and enjoyed your book and I'm struck by your background, coming out of Nazi Germany as a refugee. How did that shape you?
MAX FRANKEL: I think profoundly and I tried to track through my whole book the many ways in which my experience with totalitarian regime, my father's experience in Russia, my sense of foreignness m of borders, my being a refugee in this society and watching refugees elsewhere, all of these things affect not only my understanding of things, but the passion with which I write them.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, you write that when you were assigned to Moscow, for the New York Times, it was, in part, in your head, an opportunity to settle a family score.
|Settling a family score.|
MAX FRANKEL: Absolutely. My father had been imprisoned in Stalin's camps -- but also gotten to know the ordinary Russian people as a very decent and interesting people, and therefore I both was settling scores in the sense that I despised the system, but I also went looking for that heart of gold that my father found in so many ordinary Russians.
TERENCE SMITH: But doesn't this test any reporter's objectivity, to use that word?
MAX FRANKEL: Of course. But the ordinary policeman on the street, you know, has views about the people who are in the parade and he has to give them a fair shake. The ordinary judge has opinions about the defendant before him but has to give him a fair trial. That standard of objectivity is possible. But experiences not only detract from what we do, I think they enrich what we do and should. And this is why we need diverse staffs of different experiences.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, you write also, going back a bit further, you write about the New York Times's self-censorship in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion. They knew more than they disclosed.
MAX FRANKEL: A little bit more. We knew that an invasion was imminent and we knew the C.I.A. was deeply involved. And somehow I wasn't quite at the scene of the decision at that moment, but somehow either our late Washington leader Scotty Restin and/or the President of the United States persuaded the publisher debt, to downplay the facts. And the story was moved from the top of the page down low. The word imminent was removed so was the phrase C.I.A..
TERENCE SMITH: And its impact was diminished. Was that a mistake?
MAX FRANKEL: Yes and no. I don't know how would I have resolved that one. I don't think we publish in absolutely every situation. The bias always is in favor of publishing. The question there was were we going to cost lives? Were we going to be blamed for casualties at the Bay of Pigs? All Miami knew that invasion was imminent. The Cubans were screaming bloody murder saying "they're about to invade us." So, I would not have allowed that to weigh so heavily on me, certainly not the C.I.A.'s involvement. How imminent? Maybe we would have pulled our punches that way.
TERENCE SMITH: Final thought: Reflecting back on the last 50 years, your 50 years, does it make you optimistic or concerned or pessimistic about the next 50 years in American journalism?
MAX FRANKEL: I am routinely optimistic. I had a loving mother and she made me an optimist. But I end the book by saying it is going to rain again. Every generation has its freedom challenged somehow, has to rise to the defense, and by the press of each country, you can probably pretty well judge the quality of the freedom. We may fall down on the job as a medium day to day. But when the challenge comes, when there is a real crisis to our liberty, at least we have a free press that's there to rise to the occasion.
TERENCE SMITH: Max Frankel, thank you very much.
MAX FRANKEL: Thank you.