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American Journalism Review
A Pilgrim in a Fast-Changing Media World  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 1995

A Pilgrim in a Fast-Changing Media World   

Press Pass: The Journalist's Tale
By Sidney L. James
Aegean Park Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Press Pass: The Journalist's Tale
By Sidney L. James
Aegean Park Press
470 pages; $26.80

This is an uneven but charming memoir by a man who spent the better part of this century — from the '20s to the '70s — in the thick of print and broadcast journalism, and who offers everything from his own (ah, not-so-good) poetry to sparkling insights into media character.

"Press Pass" has the feel of a lightly edited effort. Sidney L. James doesn't spare us much, including superficial attacks on Jane Fonda and environmentalists, a list of every presidential candidate he ever supported, and page after page of old letters, speeches and reports.

But the book is redeemed by the author's buoyancy, his breadth of experience and his presence at some stirring occasions of 20th century journalism: the emergence of Time and Life magazines, the founding of Sports Illustrated, and the most recent (until now) right-wing assault on public television.

*ames frames the book, after Chaucer, as "the journalist's tale." He is a pilgrim in the ever-advancing media world, and conveys both detail and perspective.

Born in 1906, he was named after his local telephone exchange by a family "deeply and joyously impressed with the astounding advance in the art of communication that made it possible for my father's voice to carry over a length of wire to summon our neighborhood physician to deliver his third son."

His introduction to "instant mass communication" came at age 11 when, there being no radio or TV, the St. Louis electric utility signaled the winner of a big election by flashing the city's lights according to a pre-announced code.

At 21, he went to work for the St. Louis newspapers, inspired by the deference people showed to his father, a theater reviewer. From there he joined Time magazine in 1936, headed the Time-Life Chicago bureau, managed Time Inc.'s West Coast editorial operations during World War II, was founding editor and later publisher of Sports Illustrated, represented Time Inc. in Washington, D.C., and finally, after retiring from Time Inc., became vice chairman of the Public Broadcasting System.

His travels brought him into high and sometimes exotic circles. James once was summoned to meet Howard Hughes ("the most celebrated non-success I ever encountered") on a Hollywood street corner in the middle of the night. He befriended Carl Sandburg during the poet's tearful bout of writer's block. He talked Ernest Hemingway into letting Life publish "The Old Man and the Sea" in a one-issue extravaganza.

Two sections of the memoir seem particularly relevant. One concerns the creation of Sports Illustrated in 1954. James was brought in on the planning for "Project X" a year earlier, at a time when naysayers felt, as one wrote in a memo, that "our idea for a sports magazine just won't work... The facts, the details and the color simply are not there."

But James argued that Sports Illustrated "would not be a sports magazine. It would be the sports magazine," settling for nothing less than the country's best writing and photography.

Henry Luce, portrayed as a man of both tight fist and grand vision, supported James, authorizing a sizable investment in premium talent. The magazine quickly flourished. But over a decade passed without solid profits.

Still, in the days before the what-have-you-done-for-me-this-quarter mentality, Luce stuck by his vision. Eventually SI caught the wave of the sports revolution.

A second section traces the Nixon administration's efforts to muzzle public television through funding cuts, political pressures and contrived embarrassments. They failed. As he writes, "The shameful saga..ended in a most ironic way. [Public television] covered the Watergate hearings gavel to gavel exclusively... Nixon left office in disgrace, and public television..had a new birth of freedom."

"Press Pass" is a tribute to long-term thinking, a gentle reminder that good journalism takes time and tolerance.

As James enters his 89th year gazing toward another telecommunications revolution makes him both critical and optimistic. The critic in him worries that "for the moment the state of the art of TV broadcasting has advanced beyond the capabilities of its journalistic practitioners... CBS, NBC and ABC are about where the Ford Motor Co. would be if it had stuck with the Model T."

Yet he salutes C-SPAN and CNN, and ultimately has faith in journalism. "Worldwide mass communications may turn out to be the crowning American accomplishment of my century," James concludes. "The satellite..might prove mightier than the sword."

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