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The Contrarians/ Why outrage, irreverence and a sense of fun is good for journalism

THE LAST EDITOR: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency, By Jim Bellows, Andrews McMeel: 350 pp., $28.95 * SOMEBODY'S GOTTA TELL IT: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist, By Jack Newfield, St. Martin's: 352 pp., $25.95

June 23, 2002|RUSS BAKER | Russ Baker is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Something has happened to American journalism. Within the increasingly corporate corridors of newspapers today, depressingly few editors or reporters stand out for doing things differently. There are good and legitimate reasons why newspeople are encouraged to excel only within conventional bounds (ownership, finances, public perceptions, presumed neutrality). But there are equally good reasons (often the very same ones) for celebrating freethinkers and mavericks. As annoying as they might be, as much as they make the suits nervous, these oddballs infuse journalism with a feistiness, a cantankerousness, a sense of outrage and a sense of fun. They also play a critical role in keeping the body politic healthy--or trying to make it so.

Two new memoirs from notable journalists demonstrate the range of rebelliousness. Jim Bellows, author of "The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency," is a coat-and-tie man nevertheless dedicated to impish irreverence. Jack Newfield, author of "Somebody's Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist," is a crusading outsider, a New York poor boy with conflicting urges: a passion for attacking the citadel and a not-so-secret hankering for a place at the table.

Bellows got his start on a small daily deep in Ku Klux Klan territory and quickly became a legend in big-city newsrooms, keeping alive feisty, second-ranked newspapers by revitalizing their writing. Newfield made his name during the heyday of the definitive alternative weekly, the Village Voice, then became a muckraking columnist for two of New York's daily tabloids. Both men's commitment to productive troublemaking emerged from childhoods in which they were, literally or metaphorically, the little guy. Newfield's career arc owes much to the lingering insecurity of an only-child, fatherless youth; Bellows' stems from the pressures of being just 5 feet tall as a high school senior (before sprouting in college).

During his six decades in journalism, the laconic Bellows has stayed quietly behind the scenes while fostering innovation and nurturing some of the country's finest writers. Everywhere he went, he challenged his charges to take the kind of risks that create a stir. At the New York Herald Tribune, he boosted such unknowns as Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Dick Schaap and Judith Crist, and he encouraged sportswriter Red Smith to stretch his considerable talent. Out of the Bellows-inspired ferment at the Trib came the personal, in-your-face dynamism of the "new journalism"--and the idea that newswriting could uplift, transform and amuse.

"[P]eople would ask me: How do you get all this high-powered talent? How do you get them all singing on the same page? How does such a self-effacing guy do it? But that's the very thing that did it." If Bellows' book has a flaw, it is that he stuffs his memoir with too many other voices, in the form of boxed remembrances, compliments and commentary. But even here, the inclusion of some barbed criticism of his career ultimately serves to make him more likable.

Bellows probably did more than any other person to improve some of America's biggest newspapers. Not by working for them, but against them. "The 'second paper' in town has usually been my home," he writes. "Second papers have more excitement than number one. Easy Street is not a good address for innovation."

While the Washington Post was perfecting its mix of investigative reporting and insider political coverage in the 1970s, Bellows was at the Washington Star, puncturing the Post's pomposity. He started a fearless and funny gossip column, the Ear, assigned an ahead-of-its-time piece on gay athletes and aggressively recruited and promoted minorities and women (including Diane K. Shah, one of the first female sports columnists, and Mary Anne Dolan, who succeeded him at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, becoming the first woman at the helm of a large daily.)

His one fling with a market leader, editing soft news under the Los Angeles Times' Nick Williams in the 1960s, was a disappointment. Trying to inject an edge into a complacent paper, he ran afoul of entrenched interests and attitudes. "[T]oo many oxes are gored ... too many segments of our middle-class audience are offended," Williams cautioned Bellows about his refashioned of The Times' then-magazine, West. "We have GOT to watch the mix. We have GOT to avoid over-sophistication .... This is NOT a national mag." And, when an article noted few differences among local supermarket prices, Williams cautioned, "One thing you've got to hammer into the heads of ALL 'West' staffers--never KNOCK an advertiser, even gently."

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