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

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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).

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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.”

Beginning in the early 1980s, Bellows, never fearful of something new, helped launch the precocious online service Prodigy, worked in television and collaborated with the twentysomething creators of the search engine Excite. Shy but not retiring, the octogenarian has just been named editor of a nascent glossy political magazine, “Common Good.”

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A master of understatement and dry wit who readily admits that his memoirs benefited from the attentions of a talented writer, Gerald Gardner, Bellows champions what might be called newsprint sensibility in an age of multimedia ephemera and distraction. He deplores the waves of consolidation that have left most American cities with just one chain-owned newspaper. In the end, most of the papers he worked at did vanish, but not before leaving their imprint on their larger competitors. His rivals appropriated many of Bellows’ innovations, recruited his stars and became feistier and livelier for having battled the man for readers. In his memoir, Bellows contextualizes a professional life well-lived, and he is loath to leave out relevant details, including an affair that ended the first of his three marriages and the unsuccessful cancer battle that ended the second, happier union.

Jack Newfield, by comparison, warns us that some subjects are off limits. “Intimate public confession is not my temperament,” he writes. Instead, Newfield offers us a familiar story with a twist. A Jewish boy grows up a fatherless only child in a predominantly black neighborhood. His love for the underdog Brooklyn Dodgers and their color-barrier-breaking star Jackie Robinson grows into a lifelong commitment to equality and an equally strong contempt for all abusers of power.

Being the right person at the right place and time, Newfield becomes Herr Zeitgeist, vividly taking us through the great liberal causes of the last half-century: civil rights, the antiwar movement, power struggles at the Village Voice, encounters with the mob, New York City government corruption and, later, newspaper strikes and upheavals at the New York Daily News and the New York Post. A classic practitioner of advocacy journalism, simultaneously writing about and participating in the politics and movements of his time, Newfield apprenticed himself to or befriended many seminal figures, from the father of Democratic Socialism, Michael Harrington, to Robert F. Kennedy. He’s a guy’s guy reporter, getting close to some of the boxing greats, rousting crooked politicians and incompetent judges.

Much of the book is an effort to explain what those turbulent decades meant. Though Newfield skirts deep insights, he offers compelling witness to key historical events, such as Robert F. Kennedy’s transformation from political infighter to a social reformer, a makeover in which Newfield played a prominent role. Newfield casts Kennedy as an authentically reborn man, but there are also revealing asides: “When I told Kennedy that McCarthy was going to run, he replied, ‘I don’t believe it. He is not that sort of fellow. And if he does run, it will be to increase his lecture fees.’ ”

Among the better fly-on-the-wall moments is a previously unreported 1977 incident when New York City mayoral candidate and future governor Mario Cuomo, who would develop a reputation for introspection and thoughtful oratory, punched out a conservative activist. Newfield was also on hand to witness some reckless acting-out by a young Tom Hayden: “[McCarthy speechwriter] Jeremy [Larner] said something that Tom disagreed with, and Tom suddenly lunged at Jeremy with chopsticks, trying to gouge his eyes out.” More than once, Newfield was swept up emotionally in the moment: “I threw a typewriter out the window of the [Chicago] Hilton Hotel, at the police, when I saw kids getting beaten.”

Newfield virtually brags about his lack of professional distance, gleefully displaying his many hats. “I could balance these rather obvious conflicts of interest only because I was working for a paper like the Voice, which specialized in personal advocacy reporting and made no pretense of objectivity. It defined itself as a corrective to the mainstream media and a forum for personal experiences, honestly described.”

Newfield possesses what the uniquely elegant newsman Murray Kempton called “losing side consciousness.” His pamphleteering and journalistic sleuthing accomplished much good, changing the lives of some of society’s least privileged members, from lead paint victims to abused nursing home residents. While lending an ear to the chronically unheard, he went ferociously after some formidable foes, including the seemingly never-ending supply of corrupt New York City officials. His trademark “New York’s Ten Worst Judges” feature was a landmark in the fight for accountability. But as in some of his journalistic crusades, his memoir is marred by sloppy delivery, including hopscotch chronology, a propensity for lists of names that mean nothing to us and embarrassing misspellings. Newfield, an angry man who has trouble separating his journalistic mission from the personal demons to which he will only allude, writes in a style far better suited to a column than a book.

Throughout, his pleasure in knowing the powerful is plain. He quotes his close friend Cuomo’s opinion that “Jack Newfield is one of the great columnists in the country.” Nevertheless, it appears that Newfield is not a contented man. Speaking of the much-loved Kempton, he confesses: “I envied Murray’s forgiving nature and always suspected he knew something I did not.”

His exploration of his lifelong passion for boxing is a typical mix of riveting firsthand reporting, indifferent writing and inadequate analysis. He tells some good boxing stories, but scants key episodes, including his ongoing feud with boxing promoter Don King. Here is his defense of a sport that he readily concedes exploits poor black men and often leaves its practitioners drooling half-wits: “Boxing is--and has always been--a corrupt, brutal and unfair sport ... [but] it is too deep in our blood to be abolished.... I view boxing through an economic populist lens and try to apply the values of equity, workplace safety, government regulation, and unionism to the sports slum of sad endings.” Once or twice, he lets his guard down: “Boxing taught me that it was not unmanly to feel fear.”

Imperfections notwithstanding, Newfield and Bellows represent two kinds of courageous journalistic voices, and their careers remind us of the importance of protecting a diverse range of opinion and style. “As the voices diminish in number,” Bellows writes near the end of his book, “our lives are diminished, too.”

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