That's the Way It Was?

REVIEW: 'The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism' by Lance Morrow

February 26, 2023

If there was a golden age of American journalism it probably spanned the peak years of the career of Lance Morrow, a prolific magazine writer and essayist whose work appeared principally in Time magazine for more than three decades from the mid-1960s until the beginning of the current century.

It was a period when reporting became an instrument of political change, altering the course of wars and toppling presidencies through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. The journalistic institutions themselves commanded an unimpeached authority that hasn't been enjoyed before or since: newspapers such the New York Times and the Washington Post as virtual fourth-estate pillars of the Constitution; Time magazine itself and Newsweek reaching a combined circulation of nearly 10 million at one point with their mix of hard political news and more accessible "color" feature writing; in television, giants like Walter Cronkite establishing themselves as the voice of God resounding every evening in the homes of tens of millions of Americans. And then there were the characters—Henry Luce, founder of Time, Ben Bradlee, Washington Post executive editor, James "Scotty" Reston, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, building their plinths in the pantheon of American journalism.

We can look back on that age now, the benefit of a few decades of collapsing trust in the news business behind us, with a certain cynicism. We may still admire the extraordinary achievements and hanker after an age when news reporting was widely believed and trusted across the political spectrum. But we can also acknowledge that perhaps all that objective reporting of truth by journalist-as-hero figures was maybe not quite so objective after all, that, as journalism became dominated by liberal types out of Ivy League schools with increasingly ideological agendas, it was in this supposed golden age that the seeds of popular mistrust were sown.

Just about all of this is captured well in Morrow's latest (he's written a few) memoir. The subtitle, "Remembering Journalism," suggests a subtle ambiguity—it's both a personal recollection but also, perhaps, a requiem for a lost craft. Now 83, Morrow maintains a rare eye for colorful detail and an engagingly fluid prose style. With advancing age has come an even greater acuity in seeing both the virtues and the flaws of the profession of which he has been a distinguished practitioner.

Morrow won the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism for his work in Time in 1981 and shared an award for the same magazine for an essay on the events of September 11, 2001. He wrote more Time Man of the Year profiles than any other writer in the magazine's history. So you'd expect a certain lyricism in these essays of recollection, and he doesn't disappoint, even if the prose veers into purple territory from time to time.

The book is a fragmentary collection of reflections on journalism and on some of its leading figures over his career, short chapters that capture, in no particular order, stories, themes, or insights about his trade, many of which are profound, some of which border on the incomprehensible. (The chapter on the lessons of the writings of the 14th century Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko falls into the latter category—on the whole there are far too many digressions into not very relevant Japanese cultural precedents.)

The book contains delicious anecdotes about some of the characters who dominated this period of American writing. We are given vivid portraits of people like Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Carl Bernstein, and Robert Caro. Morrow has mostly warm words for Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times from 1977 to 1986, a man who in striving at least for a quality of objective journalism for that paper in many ways embodies the decline of American journalism over the last 50 years. But he also captures what he describes as Rosenthal's occasional "Lord Copper" moments—named for the proprietor of the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, who never had a full grasp of cultural and political matters.

He recounts one episode in which Rosenthal had ordered Michiko Kakutani, a Japanese-American reporter who went on to become the paper's leading book critic, to report to his office one afternoon, without giving an explanation. Kakutani was terrified about what the summons could mean, fearing she had breached some reporting rule and would be disciplined or even fired. But when the appointed hour came the editor greeted her and told her:

"Michi, my wife Shirley and I have decided to grow bonsai trees and I'd like to ask your advice on how."

Morrow reflects on the temptations of moralizing journalism that have powerful resonance with so many of today's problems in news reporting.

The biggest flaw with so much reporting is not its intrinsic bias or ideological bent within a story. It is in the selection of topics for the publication—the issues and themes we choose to amplify over those we ignore or minimize.

Morrow considers the example of John Hersey's celebrated 60,000-word essay in the New Yorker on the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, a work that magnified the doubts of many Americans about the moral wisdom of the atomic bomb. But he notes that had the reporter chosen to write in such moving detail of, say, the Japanese Army's massacre at Nanjing in 1938, how might that have affected Americans' views of the morality of nuclear war?

Morrow offers some helpful thoughts on the latest, contemporary debate about what is truth. In Russian, he says, there are two words for truth expressing important distinctions now lost on modern journalists. Pravda is the simple, observable, verifiable truth of a matter. Istina refers to a deeper meaning or significance of an event or thing. Too few reporters these days are interested in the pravda—they all want to tell us the istina.

And, with a slightly wistful eye, he captures what happened to journalism in the years following its golden age.

"In the 21st century … journalism would find itself plunged into the country of myth, with its hallucination and its hysteria—the floating world of a trillion screens. There might come to be no agreed reality at all."

The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism
by Lance Morrow
Encounter Books, 200 pp., $27.99

Gerard Baker is editor at large of the Wall Street Journal.