The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times
by Max Frankel
Random House. 560 pp. $29.95
No one individual could ever claim to be the voice of the New York Times—that voice is all too plainly institutional—but Max Frankel comes closer than anybody else one can think of. In 45 years with the paper, he has been, among other things, its chief Washington correspondent (1968-73), its Sunday editor (1973-76), maestro of its editorial board (1977-86), and executive editor, i.e., top man (1986-94). In the last few years, he has been writing a column for the paper’s Sunday Magazine. And now there comes this memoir about the meaning of it all.
I confess to having approached this work in a spirit of high grouchiness, put off partly by Frankel’s relentless liberalism, observed over years of exposure to the Times, as well as by a distinct impression that, in the years when he was in charge, the paper’s editorials were klutzier than ever. But this turns out to be unfair to the book. Despite occasional outbursts of reverentialism—“Our ink assumes the force of blood and joins us to our readers in a perpetually loving, feuding family”—it is generally fun to read and in several areas fascinating. The first 50 pages, centered on the Frankel family’s terrifying adventures escaping from Germany after the outbreak of World War II, testify anew to the axiom that every survivor has a story.
The book is organized chronologically, and dances back and forth between Frankel’s personal and professional life. It ducks some of the big questions, yet at many points is astonishingly candid. I did not expect a Times eminence to slide into the tell-all mode and gripe in print about the charlatans his staff was exposed to in “diversity-training” sessions, or to cite instances of managerial ineptitude by the new publisher (Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.), or to mention a certain uneasiness—registered over vodka in the publisher’s back room—over the fact that, at one point, all the top editors on the masthead were Jewish.
Frankel, who was born in 1930, was obviously a natural for the role. The journalism schools are full of neophytes who would kill to get a job on the Times, but cannot figure out whom to kill. Frankel, in contrast, homed in on a Times career like a cruise missile. He selected Columbia as his college because of the school’s daily paper, the Spectator, which had links to “downtown reporters.” Then, defying all precedent, as a mere sophomore he talked his way into a job as the Times‘s on-campus stringer.
Consciously or otherwise, Frankel came out of Columbia (class of 1952) with the perfect background: Truman Democrat, United World Federalists, an anti-Communist who felt that the persecution of Hollywood writers made America as bad as Russia—and a view of journalism as at once deeply gratifying and a “moral imperative.” He was instantly taken onto the Times staff, and then wangled a one-year postponement of his military duties because employers for whom you had worked for a year were obliged to take you back afterward. While in uniform, he also talked himself into a job on Stars and Stripes.
Back on the staff, at age twenty-five, Frankel was sent overseas for the Times in a bit more than a year, landing in Vienna, Moscow, and Havana before marching off to Washington. The rest followed inexorably.
Among the big questions not dealt with in this book: why is the New York Times liberal? Instead of, oh, say, conservative? All of us—those who judge the paper totally marvelous and those whose score-card reads “unfortunately unavoidable”—take the liberalism of the Times as one of the huge givens in our lives. But why should that be?
Frankel obviously finds the question uninteresting, in part because he appears sincerely to believe that “liberal” and “conservative” are terms devoid of meaning, used only as tendentious labels in ideological arguments. This thought is tossed at the reader when he cites (and reprints a sizable chunk of) his contribution to a September 1976 COMMENTARY symposium, “What Is a Liberal—Who Is a Conservative?” Beyond that, he thinks of himself and the Times as pragmatically unideological, driven simply by the imperatives of “quality journalism” and “public service.”
Omitted from Frankel’s consideration is the observable fact that these imperatives reliably generate positions that any normal person would instantly identify as liberal: positions on abortion rights (yes), impeachment (no), affirmative action (you’d better believe it), gay rights (ditto), higher minimum wages (yes), sex education for fourth graders (yes), missile defense (no), punishment for Pinochet (yes), the death penalty (heaven forfend), the defense budget (always swollen), school choice (no), government-supplied clean needles for addicts (plain common sense), and coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute (imperative). That’s pragmatism?
Times editorials, and assorted passages in Frankel’s book, suffer from a kind of “establishment fallacy”—the fallacy of assuming that your own world is the world and your group’s ideas are the only ones that can be taken seriously. Alternative views are thereby postulated to be short-sighted, irrational, biased, mean-spirited, or dangerous, and sometimes all at once. Thus, Frankel proudly reprints an 80’s editorial, done on his watch, stating that Ronald Reagan’s “economic remedies mask an assault on the very idea that free people can solve their collective problems through representative government.” As the Times then saw it, to agree with Reagan’s economic policies was not just wrong; it threatened, no less, the survival of democracy.
One of Frankel’s chapters focuses heavily on the paper’s long-running argument with the state of Israel (he was always one of the principal arguers). In common with an infinity of Times editorials over the years, the chapter simply assumes into nonexistence the tough questions about Israel’s security; takes it for granted that Israeli concessions equal peace; and bemoans the shortsightedness of American Jews who reject this posture. Laboring to connect his strategic recommendations with his Jewish heritage, Frankel signs off with a self-congratulatory paragraph specifying that this heritage is the ultimate source of his own “devotion to rationality and reasonableness.” Max, one wishes to plead, be reasonable.
Here is a hypothesis: Times liberalism has two main sources. The first, untouched with a fourteen-foot pole by Frankel, is the rather obvious fact that the educated upscale New Yorkers long targeted by the Times advertising and circulation departments are, on the whole, quite liberal. In the book’s concluding chapters, Frankel tries to say something about the interaction of the business and publishing sides, but he never gets much beyond chitchat about budgets, conflict-of-interest rules, and the occasional small favors done for big advertisers. No consideration is given to the possibility that somebody in that building on West 43rd Street—and maybe even a Sulzberger—has at some point connected the dots between the basic message and the basic market.
The second source of the liberal tilt is the Times editorial staff, inevitably drawn from a talent pool in which dirigiste‘s liberal-arts graduates are seriously overrepresented. The staff is more liberal than the paper itself, and a lot more liberal than the publisher. This is not Frankel’s formulation, but it fits the facts he gives us: the publisher wants a moderate, high-minded, do-good version of liberalism, but the troops often push far-out “movement” demands, so the publisher responds by hiring executive editors (Max Frankel, take a bow) who are somewhere in between and who figure to keep the troops at least partly in line.
That this is not always an easy task is a theme of The Times of My Life, in which we get to see the executive editor coping with any number of ghastly problems:
Item. There is a first-rate “national editor” who is long overdue for a promotion. Why has he not been promoted? Because it is believed that his deputy, one of Frankel’s cherished affirmative-action recruits, is not up to the job—but also that the deputy’s failure to get the job would trigger an explosion among other minority-group members in the newsroom. The problem is dodged by leaving the national editor unpromoted for seventeen years, until, finally, Frankel talks the deputy into trying out life as a foreign correspondent.
Item. Responding to the gay-rights movement, the Times begins to name “companions” among the survivors in obituaries. But now there is a push for news stories about weddings of gay and lesbian couples. This makes Frankel very uneasy, and he turns down the demand, arguing that the paper’s society page needs some kind of “full legal sanction” before it can report on such marriages. But then it suddenly occurs to him that the gay movement could point to a certain contradiction in his argument: the Sunday “engagement” announcements in the Times, which are entirely self-reported, also lack any such sanction. Fearful of seeming discriminatory, Frankel cuts the Gordian knot by killing engagement announcements, which disappeared from the Times in January 1994.
Item. After years of special efforts to hire and promote more women, and applauding the creation of a female staff caucus (in 1972), Frankel is inevitably rewarded by an explosion of rage in the newsroom when somebody demonstrates that the Times runs fewer front-page stories about women than does USA Today. This gets him really upset because the Times is a serious paper while USA Today has a lot of front-page stuff on entertainment and sports. In the course of defending this position, he gives an interview to the Washington Post, during which he observes: “I mean that if you are covering local teas, you’ve got more women on Page One than the Wall Street Journal.” The next day, every woman in the newsroom except, mercifully, Frankel’s wife—he is married to the editor Joyce Purnick—shows up wearing tea bags as earrings.
So what do you do? Obviously, you grovel. “I am angry with myself both for giving offense to some colleagues and for obscuring my real point.”
Max, one wants to remind him, it comes with the territory.