60 Years in Journalism and Counting: What I've Learned So Far

The news business isn't what it used to be. But it never was.

My interest in journalism was spurred by my fifth grade teacher. For "current events" class, Mrs. Goodman had us take a sheet of paper, fold it in half, use a ruler to divide it into columns like a newspaper, and write what we knew was making news. Since it was during World War Two, there was plenty of news, and in the early days of the war it wasn't good news.

With the rival National Broadcasting Company dominant in comedy shows, William S. Paley, the founder of the Columbia Broadcasting System, determined to make CBS News the go-to source for war news. He sent the young Edward R. Murrow to London. With his recruits from Paris, Berlin, Rome, and later Moscow, Murrow appeared every morning on the CBS World News Roundup, live via short wave.

I listened and was hooked.

After the war, Paley took out his checkbook and outbid NBC for its star comedians. Some of the sponsors of the newly-acquired entertainment didn't like the views they heard on CBS News and complained to Paley. When John F, Kennedy became President, he recruited Ed Murrow to run the U.S. Information Agency.

I pursued journalism at Hermann Ridder Junior High School, named after the late chief executive of one of New York's ethnic newspapers, the Staats-Zeitung und Herold. The school paper, the Ridder News, was printed at the Staats-Zietung plant downtown. Every month, after school, classmates and I went to watch the linotypists set our stories in cast lead, put the columns into page forms, and send them to the press. We went home with hands blackened with printer's ink.

At the age of 14, I took the train to Washington. I walked into the Senate Office Building and found the office of my Senator, Jacob K. Javits, and interviewed him for the Ridder News. I then encountered the Senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey, a hero to many liberal New Yorkers, and interviewed him.

At New York University, I was co-editor of the student newspaper in my junior and senior years and campus correspondent for The New York Times. As to broadcasting, a newspaper reporter, Gabe Pressman, started a weekly program on the city-owned station, WNYC, inviting the politicians he covered to sit for a half-hour interview with student editors--including me.

A daily television program on NBC was hosted by a popular singing star, Kate Smith, the Oprah of her day. A regular feature was a panel of student newspaper editors -- including me. On June 2, 1953, we were on the set waiting to go on. It was the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in London. CBS and NBC were competing, in those pre-satellite days, to get the first news film to America by trans-Atlantic jet. NBC got its film on the air as the student editor segment was about to start, we were pre-empted.

After the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, I again took the train to Washington to open a bureau for a startup called Radio Press International. I assigned myself to cover the White House, and attended Kennedy's memorable news conferences, televised live for the first time ever.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates took place while I was still working in New York. A colleague and went out to dinner the evening of the first debate, then walked up the stairs to my studio apartment in the West Side neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen. The door was ajar. A burglar had taken the television set. We had no choice but to listen on a portable radio. When it was over, we could have been the only journalists extant who thought Nixon had won the debate.

ABC hired me in 1963 as a radio reporter in Washington. My first major special event broadcast was John F. Kennedy's funeral, a shattering experience. I went on to cover Capitol Hill, and political conventions and campaigns, the civil rights demonstrations that brought landmark laws, and the riots of 1968. I was assigned to Moscow as Bureau Chief, and later to Tokyo. I travelled all over Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and Asia. The satellite brought overseas coverage into every living room every evening.

What technology giveth, technology taketh away. Television accelerated the decline of evening newspapers across the country. Cable created new competition and the audience for evening newscasts fragmented. News staffs were cut, bureaus closed. The internet drained advertising from surviving newspapers, which sought ways to survive online.

It turns out that the age of the newspaper that played it straight, the national TV audience that shared a similar experience every night at dinner time, was transitory. For many viewers and web surfers, it's back to the early days of the news business, the early days of the American republic, when news media were totally partisan.

We have come a long way from "current events" class. And few colleges require courses in history, or how the government and the economy work -- or are supposed to work -- or the role of evidence in law or in science. What I learned preparing for 60 years in journalism, and then practicing it, doesn't seem to be taught much any more.

Still... thank you, Mrs. Goodman. Wish you were here.