Before the Presses Stopped

Review: Frederic B. Hill and Stephens Broening (editors), 'The Life of Kings,' 

The Baltimore Sun
(Image via Flickr user Brent Payne)
October 9, 2016

"What will become of newspapers?" wondered John Carroll, onetime editor of the Baltimore Sun, in 2006.

Carroll witnessed the decline of the Sun in the 2000s, when the paper went from being a family-owned enterprise that gave its reporters immense freedom to a more restrictive corporate publication. Under the tutelage of its profit-minded masters, the Sun learned an Orwellian tongue: "stories" became "content," "editors" became "heads of content," and the chief editor, "director of content." Ownership slashed the number of reporters and cut many of the Sun’s foreign bureaus, pushing a focus on local news, rather than the old mix of foreign, national, and local coverage.

Carroll’s essay, the last one in an anthology titled The Life of Kings, is the most straightforward consideration of modern journalism in the book. The other essays, collected by former Sun mainstays Stephens Broening and Frederic B. Hill, feature journalists, editors, and cartoonists remembering days gone by—days of lavish expense accounts, journeys overseas, and the highs and lows of police reporting.

These essays are not dreary eulogies for the old Sun, nor are they over-simplified, preachy castigations of capitalism or 140-character limits. The emphasis here is on the romance of old newspaper days. Newbie Sun journos were plopped into the pits of the newspaper as police reporters, tasked with "collecting the sad details of the city’s misery." Russell Baker, at the time a newsman making 30 bucks a week (he would eventually become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author), used to trolley around Baltimore, pestering and sometimes befriending the police, waiting for the inevitable fire or carjacking to occur.

From near the crime scene, he would call in to a top-class rewrite man named Jay Spry. "You had better come to the phone with correct identification of every fire company on the scene; the name of every fire chief, including middle initial; the identity, address, and job of the person who turned in the first alarm…" Baker wrote, or you would be sent back, one, two, three, or however many times it took to get all the facts, and get them right. Then, Spry would magically sculpt those facts into news stories.

A couple of essays later the reader meets David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire, among others, who describes his start at the Sun as a practice in "harvesting death, dismemberment, and criminality, and then reducing most of it to bite-sized morsels for the ‘Maryland in Brief’ feature." Part of that practice was convincing mourning families to give an interview or take a photo—necessities for a thorough article.

"I knew it to be some cold shit," Simon reflects. "It’s just good old sociopathy that luckily finds some utilitarian purpose in the obscure craft of police reporting." Writing the story was formulaic and equally deadening—Simon calls it "an affront to the human spirit." But he finds some dark humor in the whole thing, and recalls a lead that one rewrite man, Dave Ettlin, fashioned for the apocalypse:

"Life as we know it ended in Baltimore yesterday, as the dead rose in every city cemetery and demon spawn from hell were seen wrecking havoc throughout central Maryland, police said."

He adds: "The ‘police said’ made it perfect, we both agreed, with Ettlin assuring me that attribution is always key."

The book includes tense accounts from investigative journalists, who in their essays relive the fear and excitement of unearthing a scoop—along with the anxiety of putting their newspaper’s reputation on the line. The book also features tales from those lucky reporters who snagged coveted jobs in foreign bureaus. They were subject to the same anxiety—with the added risk of physical danger.

Tony Barbieri, a copy boy who rose to become managing editor, recalls meeting with a dissident source in Moscow at midnight, despite the pleading of his editors: "whatever you do, don’t get involved with dissident politics."

"As we rounded a corner, he was simply snatched off the street by a carload of KGB thugs who appeared out of nowhere," he writes. "When I demanded to know why the person was being arrested, [the officer] laughed and told me to call KGB headquarters in the morning."

The suffering that Barbieri saw in the USSR left him disgusted with "faculty room leftists" and "West European intellectuals" back in the West, who routinely mocked Ronald Reagan and his repudiation of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

"I was no Reaganite," Barbieri is quick to clarify. "But of course the Soviet Union was evil."

Newspapers in the 21st century, Carroll writes in the book's last chapter, struggle against a redefined idea of journalism. In his view, reporter is no longer beholden to the reader, but to the shareholder. This leads to a break-down in the whole news "supply chain": who needs editors, when giving the people what they want, all those overblown stories of gore and vulgarity, gets the most clicks? "Editing by referendum," Carroll calls it.

But a press ruled by mass taste is a dangerous thing. The old days weren’t perfect, but it is both pleasant and useful to remember the golden days of news reporting, a career H. L. Mencken described as "the life of kings."

Published under: Book reviews