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A New Kingdom: Gay Talese Sounds Off on The New York Times—Past, Present, and Future

by Sarah Ellison VanityFair.com June 13, 2011, 12:15 PM   The Kingdom and the Power, Gay Talese’s 1969 masterwork describing the inner workings of The New York Times, opens with this description: “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.”   At the June 9 screening of Page One, a documentary about The New York Times, hosted by Talese, very few attendees could see any warts on the film, least of all Talese himself. The film’s director, Andrew Rossi, had spent a year following reporters and editors from the Times’s media desk. Rossi uses them to examine the financial pressures plaguing newspapers and the changing landscape of news coverage. He shows scenes of layoffs and describes the Times’s partnership with Wikileaks. Rossi was basking in praise, some of the most effusive coming from Talese, who had called Rossi minutes after first watching the film (Talese had been given a copy some time ago) and offered to help support it.   When I approached Talese at the after-party at Le Cirque, he was fighting his way through a particularly stubborn hors d’oeuvre. “These things are made of rubber!” he said, and, after some moments of exaggerated chewing, he washed down the small bite with a swallow of gin martini. Talese, in a pale-yellow jacket and striped tie and pocket square, was easily the best-dressed man in attendance. He expressed dismay that Bruce Headlam, the Times’s media editor, who is prominently featured in the film, didn’t wear a tie for the occasion. Neither did David Carr or Brian Stelter, the two other stars of the show. Talese and Carl Bernstein, who attended the screening and party in jeans and a polo shirt, had been discussing the old days of journalism and the Times in particular. “Better than ever,” they both chimed in when I solicited their view of the Times today.   I asked Talese to share some thoughts about the Times he worked for and wrote about in the 1960s and the one he saw in Rossi’s documentary. Here is some of what he said:   On The New York Times Circa 1969 Vs. The New York Times 2011:   There’s a lot of the same that I recognize from my own youth when I see some of these young reporters featured in Mr. Rossi’s documentary. Journalism is for the young. Young people who go into journalism as a calling are entering, I think, the most worthwhile profession that is possible, and the reason I say that is that there is no profession or industry or calling that tries very hard to tell the truth and to sell the truth and to make the truth make money. The truth is hard, first of all, to get. And harder still to communicate. And more hard to make money on!   On “Liars” in Journalism:   Now, they have liars within journalism. But when there are liars like Jayson Blair, who do you think finds out that they are liars and banishes them? Other journalists! The editor of The New York Times and the managing editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, were banished from The New York Times not by the Supreme Court, not by the government of the United States, but rather by the reporters and editors of the paper.   On the Ochs Sulzbergers:   The star of that paper that I wrote about is really the Ochs Sulzberger family. What they did is they paid the fare; they paid the freight. The Sulzberger in there now, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger the second, has been vilified. I myself said nasty things about him in The New Yorker. (In 2005, Talese told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta of Sulzberger Jr., “You get a bad king every once in a while.”) And this guy, young Sulzberger—he’s not so young, he’s in his 50s, but I’m 79 so he’s young to me—has seen that paper through the darkest age of journalism. Financial duress, all the problems and the aftermath of Jayson Blair the liar and Judy Miller, who misrepresented the paper in terms of weapons of mass destruction that led us into the war and invasion of Iraq in 2003. Young Sulzberger has gone through hell.   A Concession Speech:   Talking to you now in June 2011, it could be that this Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Number Two will go down as the greatest publisher since his great-grandfather. Little did we think three or four or five years ago that this Sulzberger was anything but a failure. And he hung in there, like great champions hang in there and fight. And he hung in there and he’s still there. And I think the paper tonight as I’m sitting in the middle of Le Cirque talking to you about this documentary, I think the Times is now better than ever. Better than when I worked for it. And Sulzberger the publisher has to take credit for it. And I think that the reporters we celebrate tonight are the quintessential journalists of my lifetime, and the editors too: The Jill Abramsons, the Bill Kellers, and the publisher Sulzberger. Here I am sort of making a belated celebration of and tossing of the hat to and making my genuflection to people I criticized four or five years ago. So, a concession speech.   On the Newsroom as a Therapy Session:   When I was the age of these guys here that are in the film, I was always complaining about the paper. I was complaining about the editor, I was complaining about me, and why wasn’t I getting more assignments and doing this and that. It is the nature of journalists to complain, and the city room of a newspaper is really a therapy session. One of the greatest things about being a journalist and being young is you have all these like-minded people of a similar age that share your frustrations. Because we all are in a way idealistic, and journalism, while it is the most idealistic of professions, always falls short, as anything human falls short.   On the High Point of His Life:   I’m 79 years old. I worked for 10 years for the Times, and I wrote a whole book about it later. But the high point of my life, if I die tomorrow, the point of my life that is relevant is the 10 years I worked on the daily staff. Because during that time, my whole value system was reinforced by the wonderful world of trying to work within the realm of truth. The clergy doesn’t tell the truth. Bankers don’t tell the truth. The government doesn’t tell the truth. Bush doesn’t tell the truth. Obama doesn’t tell the truth. Nobody tells the truth as much as the Times tries to tell the truth. And without the Times, we might as well be the Soviet Union in the old days.     http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/06/gay-talese-page-one.html