Book Beat; 79
We're talking about my life and the times. A book written by Turner cattle age who was the executive editor among other things of the New York Times. The book is published by Harper and Row and we will be back with Mr. Kaplan in just a moment. This is book B. Each week introducing you to leading authors and critics this program is made possible in part by the National Book Committee and the American Booksellers Association. Your host is Robert Crumb a daily columnist for The Chicago Tribune and a contributing editor of book world the Sunday Literary Supplement of the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. You know I've arrived to the conclusion after. Going through your book and gate to Lisa's book that everybody who works on the New York Times loves the paper and B thinks he owns it because there seems to be so much trouble. The man on top doesn't really give the orders that people will obey it's it's the most it's almost like like a mutiny. Over the last 40 years I gather all you get out a beautiful paper.
Well I think you've summed it up pretty well. Matter of fact I'd write another book I think I'll adopt this. It's just what you said. It isn't on Boss paper. And I think one of the reasons for it is that nobody can boss it it's so big and strong like they were sprawling is I make the point in the book if you'll recall that I had found that certainly I couldn't boss you know and I doubt anybody else could. I came along behind people who had failed well and this is when you were executive managing editor you couldn't boss that's right the dayside would pay no attention to that I sighed. You can straighten it out in that respect but so far I mean in certain respects to make it run smooth. But. Even then I with my temperament and my method of operation I couldn't do it in a boss. I used to say that I was doing this I'm a cheerleader and sometimes operate both as a cheerleader and a coach. But I certainly can't run the team in the dictated sense well who was it who had two types of memo when he said it is suggested that you knew it came from the publisher and then you really did have to do it but if you just
said and I suggested then they would ignore it. That's right although he was the boss. That's right. Very very dangerous. James said When I was James who preceded me as managing as that's the first thing when the first things I cut out and I became managing editor because I. Didn't know when they got a note for me to know where it was coming from. That's good. They guessed wrong and paid for it that's why. Well you made a lot of changes in the Times. How long were you in that top spot. Executive editor I was managing editor and executive editor together from 1951 to 1967. When you brought it up you were removed I don't think you can really call the times the good great times anymore. It's too bright now no. Someone asked me several years ago what I thought of that characterization the time and I said Well anybody who says that to me now what I think of it has read the times lately. I think it's quite right you know when you quote one publisher at a meeting and this is before you actually had the power. It was very funny quote which I can hardly use in full but he said I sometimes pick the times up and say to myself I'm going to read this blankety
blank. If it kills me. And at that time it was a difficult paper to race right. This man made this statement at a meeting at a seminar the American Press Association American Press Institute. On the next evening we were in attending that group at the Times Mr. Berger who was in publishing. I had told him about this and we had a bunch of times people there and he asked me to have the man repeated. There was good you know you're never able to replace that were you Mike Berger. No brother had some qualms about that type of column for The Times. I thought he was not justified in having it because we column we lived in New York. We are New York paper and we have some of the flavor of our own city coverage although local news frankly was about at least at the most third on the list of our news interest has been taken into consideration the nature of our population and they to our readership. But. We were
much better along that line now although we never have restored this particular column was going around town and. Around the town of something that you saw. But it was one of those columns over there is the burger column that's what it was about the town of something. Well it was it was in its way as popular and well-known as hurricanes colonies in San Francisco for example. Gay Talese did some feature stories. Yes in the same line he was a very good writer and a matter of fact he was a man I had picked out. I don't do this job and he had he did some dry runs. And all of that were very good. I just couldn't get it couldn't get through the general opposition to Salzburg a different general I would say presence he had against that kind of column and in the New York Times. I also went looking around for somebody to pick it up again. I had tried to three people. And I won some dry runs because I want to see if they could sustain it. And that's one thing to start something is another thing to sustain a police offer good to know he's had a great way of letting the story tell itself.
He came there in a lot of position I think what just as long as a copy boy. So it was not a reporter when he first came to get the writings of stuff that the sports department we sent him up one day. To try him out on the World Series. I think he suggested the story itself to go around the outside of the Yankee Stadium the Yankees were then in contention and that's been another change in New York a lot of contention. And. He wrote a remarkable story about what people were saying and what they were doing around that just let them tell it. Yeah yeah I think he hardly had a read of his own just to tie these interviews together and he's very bright and one of the good good feature story writers. The Times has been in business now how long. Since 1851. You've never had a contest I think a circulation contest giving away prizes and that sort of thing that's now known. You don't carry comic strips. We really built up circulation a stock took it over in 1896 we had built up circulation cut the price cut it to a penny that went from three cents down to a penny and up
from nine thousand one hundred thousand three years but you have no comic strips you know and knew it was what what's what The Times has sort of been on shelves and I guess we elected to run all the news that's fit to print ought to address ourselves to all the news instead of just special interest news and also we couldn't afford comics he couldn't afford comics so we never had it and so the fact the New York Times doesn't run comics now is not something that we would present as a great stroke of fortune and I think that kind is a stroke of genius that was forced on us by circumstances must have spent all his money buying the paper. Well you also point out that the Times hired probably almost one and a half or twice as many reporters as needed and occasionally and occasionally enough so the did the paper a great deal of good. You could swamp the opposition just by sheer quality in writing and quantity. You assess the coverage that is one of the by products of overstaffing. One of the good ones when you're one of the products of that luxury able one of the luxuries of that expenditure.
Well also it is it still a family owned newspaper completely but completely. The ox trust still owns a controlling interest in a father controlling interest in this paper and also the Chattanooga Times which he. Which was his which is actually the parent paper you might say because he was that's where my struggle for you came to New York. But the fact that you don't have stockholders who can breathe down your neck are utter cries of anguish has certainly helped the paper because they poured more money back in I think than most papers could afford to lose in years that was the case that's the case now. We don't exhaust all reserves by any means and dividends and that's not I don't think it's a healthy thing to do. Is to serve but almost used to boast in fact we don't make money. And there was a time when he would tell anything about the paper anybody I asked ask answer any question except his profit situation. But when we went public and we are public now but we had not gone public before he died. I think that just before he died anyway. But when we began to publish our figures we had some stock holders and we had to come. You know
that's not size tacos. Then there we had no secrets we have no secrets anymore. But their minority stock holders don't get to lease this book for instance there are no secrets they told everybody to talk to. Yeah that's right everybody. It was amazing how many people he got to talk and I can never think of the power and the glory. What's the title of Gates book the kingdom and the power of the power I never can think of that title. I don't know I never talked about selecting that title he selected it from the Lord's Prayer of course. And what the Lord's Prayer had to do with I don't know except in pretty it's a pretty good piece of prose and I'm. And when you think of it the Times does have a kingdom on Apollo definitely has something. Well I think probably from your book and I'm not talking about the early very early years but after you came of the times you enjoyed covering Washington as much as anything. Yes. That was to my taste. You love the politician I love the politicians I love politics I had it I was a if I do say it myself somewhat of a storyteller. I love the type of people I was dealing with. I love love them as news
sources and so I had an insatiable desire to tell. Them just to specialize and. Printed gossip. FDR pulled a dirty trick on you this when he offered you tried to get you to try to play you off rather against. I don't necessarily think it was raw dirty trick in a cynical sort of thing you know I didn't I didn't appreciate being counted on that respect. But the more I knew mistrustful of them and more I realized that when he was dealing with political subjects governmental subject he had already a cynicism would tell that story when he when he called you in. Well he had he had heard that I was going to be made bureau chief. And he called me in to congratulate me and to win and I immediately I told him that. That was not true. Mr. Crocker was in a New York was coming back and I would still be but I would be the second man. Then he switched. He said well he never could get along with Mr. Crocker asked for or had been able to get along with him lately but he did. I would like to get along with the
times and words that effect that was a grab when I was approached and he would like very much to deal with me and I could while he couldn't give interviews he could certainly make things available and he turned to Steve Steve Early who was just coming loose as can you Steve. And Steve. I think Steve knew my attitude and he was a good tough newspaper man himself. He didn't respond very much he will turn and walked out the door. But I had but except when I first went in the room because he called me hello. Turn away have you been where we were not on that basis. Yeah. I never got on that basis with any politician overacted. But he never acted in that. That rather took Riyad adverse reaction like you know. In my bosom. And then when he made this proposition to me I didn't know exactly what to say I was I don't know how to respond because I was really terribly disappointed in the man. And to think that I could be used that way and. I was
so fond of Mr. Crocker and he had been meant so much to me he still did and put on a very practical basis are you still going to be my boss. And I'd be foolish to do a thing that kind of with a man who's as sensitive as Mr. Crocker as he could detect something like that in a minute. So I went straight away to the office and told him the story. And as I. Tell it in the book he hardly reacted. You thought you were tempted. You thought I was tempted I didn't do it I didn't know it at the time he thought that I thought he thought I was coming clean with. But knowing his nature knowing how that I'd better tell somebody else so I went to a very close personal friend of mine allowed Wilson of the United Press had a United Press Bureau and told him the story and ask him to make a memorandum of it for his own files. Later on when Mr. Cox and gestured that I might have been tempted. I simply got in touch with Wilson and told him to get in touch Mr. Crocker straighten out whereupon I got a lovely letter. Mr. crock says you don't have to send Wilson to tell me you know and he also said I think I might have been tempted myself.
We should break you to be where you were born in Mississippi. Yes near Philadelphia I think I was born in the little town of a little cross road near little crossroads still the name of new prospect. And then at the age of three I believe we moved to Philadelphia and new prospects in Choctaw County. And you want to end him. Yes I think you wanted with 90 dollars of borrowed money from when your uncle came out with two or three hundred. That's right what you'd raised by running a paper route through the main part of it came out of publishing the annual o the annual That was it published in the end. Because you keep the profits from that he wanted to have keep the profits and put it our way through school that you came up with $300 a piece. When you get in the newspaper work more or less by accident. Or by accident following an affection. I had started to point out the book related book when I was a little kid of 14 growing around to the newspaper office and writing a little something on and also when I was in high school the editor of the paper was one more of a printer that was a writer and in those days I found out
myself when I got into the country newspaper business that we're always short of copy and we're not short of copy the New York Times would get in over a million words a day. But we were short of copy then. And so he would ask me to write some pieces of chit chat. The school didn't cover a social event. The baseball game was something that con and I got interested in it but that's assuming what I wrote in print never shall forget the thrill when I saw the first line that I ever wrote my life appear in that paper in type you know the next big thrill came when I saw my byline for the first time. And realized that there was a great name. Well how old were you when you became managing editor of that little paper. Well I was I was working after I got out of college. Yeah I went back to work and you know in that well I was in between jobs between graduation and a job. And a friend of mine in the McLean ran who was in on a little paper in Philadelphia Mississippi had bought a paper and Tunica that said he was looking for somebody to run it and well I think he had me in mind
what he did when he bought it so he asked me to run that tape until I could I want to turn it could have already been about 20 to 21 21. When Mr. Rand was a very brave sure but he was in absentia when he made you print those editorials and columns about the Ku Klux Klan was censured because he was still in the group to find a ray he wasn't absentia because he's afraid because he was not afraid of anything. But he ran the paper. I mean he ran into trouble really with a vengeance. Oh yes. Supported Rands a practical man he ran into trouble and they couldn't run him out because most of them are out and he let them pay him of his price. He sounds like a great fellow and you still alive yourself. He's very much alive is a very vital man writes a column printed in one of the papers and he's now about 80. He's about 80 but he wasn't a tremendous number of years older than you when he hired you and how old was he when he argue while he's the seas about 10 years of time. So he was very young and. Of all the people you were you know he had he had gone to
Mississippi and in college. And had got very much impressed with his own ability to make speeches you know when the inequalities oratorical contest. And he read a fellowship at Harvard in the speech department. And went to Harvard. You want to study law. And he could get law school because he didn't have his credentials or not sufficient credits were not sufficiently out of Harvard College. Did you write and say you need a Southern speech maker. That was a story I told about I don't know whether it's true or not but you know Ryan is a man who can from any story to tell and he. So he graduated from he got to Harvard college diploma and a law school diploma burthen three years he tells a story of himself that in one of his books that he got is he would have been flunked in English. Was use of split infinitives and he saw a legend an inscription on a Harvard Gates's home where that had a split infinitive and he found out the
man who'd flunked him was the one who wrote this. So I went back blackmailing. That's her story. Tory you're very funny boss Crump. Yes. As a news source I've got various fund news sources in you know into what I would call a professional way not a person I've never been to comes home in my life. But you enjoyed working with him I did You are such an amusing it in and sly fellow. He's not very sly. Well he was sly when he had you beaten up or well he didn't have me beaten and I was beaten up. He knew about it and he had I think he had he known I was that he would never allow this. I don't think a lot of you know it all tours that's going to send somebody or acted and. And he was he was a very tough man and very righteous sort of person the way. But he was a bad man of direct action. But you see in Memphis in those days when he was there Memphis was populated largely to a group extent Mississippians and it's something about Mississippians I will stand together I said. They stick together they get stuck separately and
it's that way now. Still a lot of us have people right on the edge of the northern edge of the state has to come first in Mississippi I was in Mississippi we had a meeting we had something and. And President Hoover was a big help to you because you got your job and I think that's right. It was during the flood that I was covered in the severe flood in 1927 when he was sent down there by President Coolidge who was in Secretary of Commerce for human relief in the flood area and I've been covering it and he was looking for somebody who would give him a very quick briefing on what was going on especially on the human side. And I've been writing that type of story. Yeah. So he sent for me and. That began a friendship. And the queen that ship I would say there again I didn't we were never intimate you know. But he wrote a letter to Mr. Cox. From his railroad train and New Orleans and he found a young man here that he thought he should look for.
I never knew about that until five but five years later I've been in the Times three years before I was you must have written a letter. And meanwhile you've been in the Baltimore Sun too. Yes. I was amused by your account of the picture stealing because a lot of that around Chicago would be the first or to get all the pictures you can. Yeah that's going to be in Memphis this week in Memphis where it's sort of a small addition of Chicago when it came to the newspaper group as you can see with some of the stories I tell you about in a front page setting and I love that show brings back. Fond memories to me. I guess I was a picture snatcher and with some bad consequences you made a couple mistakes a couple mistakes here. Once you ran a paper on the picture of the man the cousin of the murder and suicide cousin of the victim or the victim or the girl victim. But you compared him with the picture with the corpse. Yes and it was pretty close and or yes I was positive that when it didn't cost fifteen hundred dollars or something to a lot of the Star attention as Luna told us it cost fifteen hundred dollars at the Baptist got it so because the fellow was studying for the ministry.
That's the one who's actually wrongly identified. He took time out to the benefit of the times he went to a very fine lawyer who was a his family did who was not standing. Baptist layman man with great wisdom and charity and thank goodness and he saw that this was honest this is the Memphis paper that's right you know the state of his commercial appeal you know he saw the mistake it been made snatched his picture on the right wrong you would snatch the picture that's the picture I was when I went out there on the take is identified by identified as being such I magine I would rather overeager to identify him. But we don't do that sort of thing and I've carried that picture snatching one of talent to battle more and had a bad result too. But. That was not so bad because I had a dead man. It was an ordinary death too I mean it was a natural death. Dead man. Was present at the railroad and. We've got pictures brother of the dead man's house stolen and I was house you sneak in the back
window I think and I gazed into you know I sort of bribed my way of looking a maid who had been there very long. She hardly knew him and so she had done if I had a picture for me so I took the picture up as we ran it and it turned out to was his brother but his brother only called attention said no it's a mistake. Pay no attention to it. I've said many times before I've found out if you're going to make an era the best place to make it is no bitch. Because you're right and. The wrong man is so happy here that would make it you know out of it and the right man in no position to make a complaint. It's funny he's glad he's still alive you know. And you were on the times how long all together. Twenty one years 41 years. Good Heavens and realize it. We want to get out of Chicago but or course Sundin. And you also headed over here from the Plain Dealer and a great many other papers at far better salaries and you're getting the times did you go from the sun at 25000 or something like that back to the times at twelve point six five to 12. Would you do that.
I guess. Also. My normal in steaks tempered I'm afraid by certain practical considerations. I knew from the way Mr. Soderberg came to me and he came to me in the hotel and Washington Crocket set it up. I knew from the way he came I had absolutely nothing to lose by taking that attitude you know what you want up. In a very good spot. Yes I did what is the matter with many papers in the country why or why is circulation going down and why are people reading him and the times circulation still up and still climbing. It's leveled off. But it hasn't. I think there are many reasons. I think there's a frankly a credibility gap. Between readers and listeners and all media including television. That's due to such involvement in things nowadays by readers and listeners and viewers. In my opinion. And also not only are they involved in what's going on but that distaste for what's going on
they don't want to read what's going on because they don't like it. Yeah. And even they hold the media responsible for it to some extent where the king is used to kill the messenger came and said No that's right. You know. Like thank goodness they haven't started that. But. I hope that's one of the institutions is gone forever but. Nevertheless I think a lot of things that way and also there is a great deal of communication. I think newspaper circulation in small town and small communities is getting newspapers are getting along very well. Yeah it was lovely to go to the papers in the meantime Tim says with non-controversial subjects were always under pressure of course and we have been especially the last few years about putting to good things and you brought that out. That was one of his criticisms incidentally Agnew I think did us some good. But if he let it if he let it stop when he had done the good but he just he spilled a bottle before you sort of you know. So. I answer that criticism when I go out and make a few talks about the talks I'm doing
from time to time no. Why don't you print good things instead of the bad thing that my demagogue answers when we come to an awful mess. If good things happen to be a new thing. Yeah if they're the abnormal. That's right and the bad things that they accepted would be complete and I mean a complete reversal that is not a sophist sufficient answer that's a demagogue against an I freely confess it is. But. We are there are a lot of good things going on in this country that are new that we're not getting it yet. I think we're going to have to redefine news to great extent by enlarging the definition and use my own definition of news is news is something you didn't know before. I. Had forgotten I didn't understand. You know now you can and then you can get into the coverage of subjects you know that I think that just about covers it. Well at times I think it started to do that sort of thing are sort of getting into new areas of news interest in the cultural feel. In any human in the loop I do is we recently started opposite editorial page on New York Times where we deal with ideas. Tribune has to yeah
you know I was a post that first because I thought one of we could sustain it with a very good editor Harrison sold Barry in charge of it and I'm very enthusiastic about it now because I pick it up I read my newspaper I read the first page there are bits where Page and time to that page I'm glad you mention that because I was just about to say that this is the time still has the greatest obituaries of do any of the English papers have as good. Not that I know of. But we pay a great deal of attention to it and have for a long time. Recent development as we expanded it we have some of our very best writers writing on a job and I'm going to bring them up to date. Used to be a punishment you know put somebody on the obits. Well not all the times it was it was on the commercial paper when I worked you know used to hate going to see the undertaker come in at night with a slip we had to call up people in the way and I will you turn it into an art form in the Times. Yes as I said and I went that's one thing we want to do now we want to liven up the obit page contradiction in terms. Well what's your prognosis for the newspaper business.
Because I think we still have intelligence enough. We're going through we're going through a battle. I won't say but we've gone through about the pressure now. We're not immune from the pressures of this shook up time. And and I think we're still liberal minded enough and I mean that in with a very little Al open minded enough and talented enough. To adjust to this and to the ground to figure out more of the needs of the people and modern times. And in terms of the change of our society. Well it's certainly desperately needed as watchdog says as this recent thing about the army tailing people has proven we've been talking with Turner cattle age former executive editor of The New York Times he retired general 1st of this year I think that's right 1970 That's right. And we're talking about his book My Life and The Times which is a very engrossing Autobiography of a very good newspaper man I've drawn me from the Chicago Tribune thank you very much for being with us.
I hope we see you again and turn it was so nice of you to come in the book Beat has been made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is the national educational radio network.
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- Book Beat is a literary radio program hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Cromie and made possible in part by the National Book Committee and the American Booksellers Association. In each episode, Cromie interviews an author about a specific book theyve written or translated. Authors discuss the books background, topics, and themes as well as their research and writing process.
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