AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   December 1999  issue

Prodigious Progeny   

Many of today’s successful journalists come by it naturally: They’re following the career path of a parent.

Related reading:   Father Knew Best

By Karen Lee Scrivo
Karen Lee Scrivo is now an assistant editor for National Journal News Service, published by National Journal Group Inc. She wrote this story while editing for the now-defunct LEGI-SLATE News Service, owned by the Washington Post Co.     

Michael Kelly remembers his father taking him to the Washington Daily News on Saturdays when he was young. Nestled inside a dark and dirty building with a small elevator that seemed destined to crash, the newsroom was nearly deserted. The few men there leaned back with their feet up on the desks, while a bookie worked in the back, drinking beer.

During the workweek, there were "a lot of fun things happening" in that newsroom and "my father was in the center of it," says Kelly, now the editor in chief of National Journal and the new editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His father, Thomas Kelly, was a feature writer for the Daily News who often dreamed up stunts for stories. Like bringing home a chimpanzee on roller skates to pose with his kids. Or pretending to be a translator for a well-heeled Arab sheik--another disguised reporter--and watching Capitol Hill lawmakers fall all over themselves in the hope of gaining financial favors. "It seemed like the ideal job," says the 42-year-old Kelly. "No work, feet up on the desk, and you got to bring home chimps."

His sister Katy Kelly remembers their childhood being peopled with the interesting journalist friends of her father and mother, Marguerite Kelly, a syndicated columnist and author of "The Mother's Almanac" and other books. "It was an adventure growing up that way," says the 43-year-old senior editor and columnist for U.S. News & World Report, who has worked with her mother and illustrated her books. "Maybe that's why we learned it was good to ask questions."

Tom and Marguerite Kelly say they didn't encourage their children to become journalists. But everyone in their family--including daughters Meg Kelly Rizzoli, a screenwriter and aspiring novelist, and Nell Kelly Conroy, a kindergarten teacher--is into writing.

"There are lots of theories that you buy, as you look backwards," on why this would be so, says the 76-year-old Thomas Kelly.

"Some of it's environment; some of it's heredity," says Rich Oppel Sr., editor of the Austin American-Statesman. His son, Richard A. Oppel, and daughter, Shelby Oppel, are in the business. "When you sit down at the dinner table and talk about what happened that day--world affairs, Washington politics--it begins to set your mind to look at things differently."

Former Washington Post ombudsman Richard Harwood, 74, whose son John Harwood is a Wall Street Journal political editor, says just one positive experience--visiting the newsroom, landing a good internship, working on a school paper or growing up around journalists--can have more to do with it "than being shoved or persuaded."

Ask the journalists who followed their parents' bylines or TV stand-ups why they got into the business, and many point to the excitement of their parents' lives. "My old man couldn't wait to get to work in the morning," Carl M. Cannon, National Journal's White House reporter, says of dad Lou Cannon, a retired Washington Post reporter who also covered the White House.

Tom Kenworthy, Rocky Mountain correspondent for the Washington Post, remembers his father "coming home all jazzed up about his day. It sounded like fun." His father, the late E.W. "Ned" Kenworthy, spent 20 years in the New York Times Washington bureau.

Earlier this year when John Carroll, editor of the Baltimore Sun, was named National Press Foundation editor of the year, he mentioned the influence of his 92-year-old father, Wallace Carroll, a former New York Times Washington editor and Winston-Salem Journal publisher. "From an early age, I witnessed journalism as a daily adventure, not just something to be trudged through on the way to a gold watch," Carroll said in his acceptance speech in February.

But Ben Bradlee Jr. of the Boston Globe, son of retired Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee Sr., says too much can be made of sons and daughters of well-known journalists following their parents. "You are who you are," he says. The legacy is "a double-edged sword," he adds. "It can gain you an entreé. But there's an extra burden to do well."

Several second-generation journalists, such as Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times, add it is important to establish your own identity. Rosenthal, now the Times' foreign editor, made his own mark working for the Associated Press in Moscow, New York and Denver before moving to the Times' Washington bureau in March 1987. Still, he says, he sometimes meets people who just want to talk about one of his father's controversial "On My Mind" columns or ask, "So what's it like being Abe Rosenthal's kid?" The elder Rosenthal retired as the paper's executive editor in 1986 and wrote the column until November, when it was discontinued.

Milton Schwebel, a licensed psychologist knowledgeable in family issues, agrees those following in a parent's professional footsteps have to "be cautious about being swallowed up" in another's identity. There can also be competition problems and concern by both sides that the younger generation will outshine its elders, says the 85-year-old professor emeritus of the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.

But being in the same profession can bring benefits such as "greater closeness in adult life," says Schwebel, a former newspaper reporter whose two sons and a grandson became psychologists. "Communication is so much easier" since you share a common vocabulary, he says, adding that there is also the opportunity for collaboration and satisfaction in sharing the same profession.

For David Olmos, health editor at the Los Angeles Times, getting involved as a child in several of his father's stories spurred his early interest in the business. His father, the late Robert Olmos, was one of the first Latino reporters at the Los Angeles Times in the mid-1950s and later worked as a reporter and editor at Portland's Oregonian.

When his dad decided to write a story on poverty, the family of four went on a "welfare budget" for a month, the 42-year-old Olmos says. "I remember going to school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread [instead of buying a hot lunch like he usually did] and kids asking, 'Why is your lunch so small?' I explained, but they didn't get it." Another time, Olmos remembers his dad wearing ragged clothes and living in a flophouse for a story he did on Portland's skid row, long before stories about the homeless were commonplace.

Web entrepreneur and former TV reporter Steve Jarriel says he grew up thinking all kids go on vacations on press planes following Air Force One and spend summers in San Clemente watching a president. As the son of Tom Jarriel, a national TV reporter and anchor, Steve remembers watching his father work and being fascinated by the technical directors in the network control room.

Bill Zwecker, entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, went on assignments with his mother, Peg Zwecker, who had worked as a fashion editor and columnist for Chicago's Herald-Examiner, Daily News and Sun-Times. When Zwecker was about 10, his mother was working in the garden when she received a desperate Saturday afternoon call from a Daily News editor looking for someone to cover Vice President Richard Nixon's campaign swing to a nearby junior high school. "Mom threw on a raincoat and jumped in the car," taking him along, he says.

When they got to the school, the 50-year-old Zwecker says, "I saw her go into her reporter mode, barreling up to the front and asking if she could have a couple of minutes with the vice president." She got more than a few minutes, and her story made the front page. "I have a lot of respect for her tenacity," says her son.

Los Angeles TV journalist Tony Cox recalls one occasion when he probably shouldn't have brought along daughter Lisa Cox, now a TV producer. She was about 8. He had just picked her up from school when word of a bank robbery nearby crackled over the police radio. The elder Cox, then a radio reporter, told his daughter to "get down on the floor" as they sped to the scene. Fortunately, by the time they got to the bank, the suspect was gone, recalls the 50-year-old journalist. His daughter thought it all pretty exciting.

Although many children of journalists were exposed to the business early, they didn't necessarily grow up knowing they wanted to join the media. Ben Bradlee Jr. puts himself in this category. "Of course I talked about the business with my father, but not in terms of what to do with my life," he says. The Globe editor says it was a Peace Corps colleague in Afghanistan who got him thinking about a reporting job for a medium-size paper in Riverside, California.

"I wanted...to see a different part of the country" from the East Coast, says the 51-year-old Bradlee. He stayed at the Press-Enterprise for three years, covering cops and courts, among other beats. That led to a book, "The Ambush Murders," about the 1971 murder of two white police officers and the three black men accused of the crime. In 1979, he joined the Boston Globe, where he has worked through the ranks from statehouse reporter to deputy managing editor for special projects.

Peter Slevin, a Washington Post Metro reporter, got his first byline at the tender age of 7 when his father's paper, the New York Herald Tribune, decided to assign a kid to write a story about one of President Johnson's press conferences. He recalls that the story, written in longhand on a legal pad, said, "there were nice trees to climb on the White House grounds and that the president was a nice man. And something about beagles."

Still, the 43-year-old Slevin says his initial reaction was "not to become a newspaper man, because my father [Joseph R. Slevin, now 81] was a newspaper man. I wanted to do something different." An internship at a small paper in Hollywood, Florida, changed his mind. "You get paid to talk to people, learn about their lives and write about it," says the younger Slevin, who spent 15 years at the Miami Herald before joining the Post, where he covers D.C. courts and politics.

Cannon of the National Journal remembers being 15 and delivering newspapers the day after Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel following his California primary victory. The Democratic presidential candidate died several hours later--too late to make the morning paper's deadline. But after talking to her husband about the shooting, Cannon's mother wrote an update on Kennedy's passing, which the young Cannon read to subscribers as he delivered the morning's paper. "About every third house, someone would be out on the stoop--usually a woman in her nightgown--waiting for the paper," anxious to know what had happened. "The power of it on people, it was so obvious."

Still, Cannon didn't decide to become a journalist until he was about 20. After breaking up with a girlfriend, he hitchhiked from Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had been working as a roofer's helper, to Washington, D.C.--unsure of his future. On the way, he thought about his father and found himself walking up to his desk at the Washington Post and telling him he wanted to be a reporter. After the talk, Cannon decided to go back to the University of Colorado for a journalism degree. That led to a job at the weekly Reston Times in Virginia, where he stayed for about six months before leaping to the daily Petersburg Progress-Index in Virginia.

Kenworthy, 51, of the Post, also delayed becoming a journalist: He first studied furniture making and ran a bakery with his wife. He got hooked after taking a job at age 27 at the Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he covered schools and suburban towns and was an editor and a roving New England reporter.

The Sun's Carroll, 57, says he fell into journalism through the process of elimination. The English major needed a job after graduating from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "The only thing I was good at in college was writing papers at the last minute with a minimum of knowledge. Sort of like journalism," he says.

The National Journal's Kelly says he had some misgivings about following his flamboyant feature-writing father. "He loomed as a writer, very large. I remember thinking that it was not clear to me that I could write like that." He edged into the business as a booker for ABC's "Good Morning America." It wasn't until a couple years later--after his father's heart attack forced him to take stock of his life--that he decided to get a job as a newspaper reporter and landed at the Cincinnati Post, after a friend working there got him in the door.

Few first-generation journalists interviewed for this piece say they urged their children to follow their lead. "It's sort of an article of faith of my father, not to push your kids into a career," says Bradlee Sr.

And some parents discouraged their children from taking the same path. Lisa Cox, now a 31-year-old producer for WTVJ-TV in Miami, says her father was leery when she decided while at the University of California-Berkeley to follow him into broadcasting. "He had experienced racism in the industry," recalls the African American journalist. "He was being a protective parent. He thought I wasn't cut out for it."

A correspondent for Fox Sports West in Los Angeles, Tony Cox admits he didn't think that his daughter, though a good journalist, could handle the cutthroat competitiveness of the broadcast business. "I saw her as a guppy in a sea of sharks," recalls the veteran L.A. broadcaster. "I didn't want that to happen to my baby."

He's happy his daughter proved him wrong. She worked as a producer for a morning news show at Boston's NBC affiliate, a writer and assignment editor at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., and a field producer and assignment editor for CBS News in New York before coming to the NBC station in Miami.

Washington Post education reporter Liz Seymour, 33, remembers her father offered to pay for law school. "It's a life of many frustrations and few, if any rewards," says Jerry Seymour, 66, of his profession. "And print journalism, if it's not dying, it's contracting." Seymour worked for the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune and Newsweek before retiring.

Louis Peck, editor of CongressDaily, says his late father, Seymour Peck, also urged him to go into law. It was not that the New York Times arts and culture editor, who counted actor Zero Mostel and playwright Arthur Miller among his friends, had any objections to journalism. It's just that "he was a practical man who raised four children on a journalist's salary," says the 48-year-old Peck. When Lou Peck got his first job at a paper in Frankfort, Indiana, his father wondered if his son was doing the right thing. But he saved his son's stories, including one on a Ku Klux Klan march accompanied by a picture of his Jewish son talking to the grand dragon and a 350-pound Klansman.

"I was in Washington seven years before he died," says Peck, who worked for Gannett News Service before coming to CongressDaily. He says his dad figured "if Lou made it to Washington, he's OK."

Few second-generation journalists recall getting much career advice from their parents. And first-generation journalists, like the elder Bradlee, say they learned you've "got to stay out of the way" once their children get into the business.

John Harwood, political editor for the Wall Street Journal, says his father didn't really dispense advice. "It was more the values he instilled," he says of Richard Harwood, a retired Washington Post editor and ombudsman. "Be persistent, find things out, work hard, don't believe first impressions, write economically--simple rather than complex."

His father, with whom he shares an interest in government and politics, was a good critic early in his career, says the 43-year-old reporter. Even though he is now a seasoned journalist himself, his father's opinion is still important. "He's a great journalist, better than I'll ever be. Praise from him means more than from anyone else."

Tom Jarriel, an ABC "20/20" correspondent, says he did little coaching with Steve. "He saw me work, traveled with the White House press corps. He had that perspective. Maybe some of it came through osmosis," says the 64-year-old broadcaster, who has served as ABC's White House correspondent. His son made it on his own, he adds.

A famous parent's name can help a child get in the door, the elder Jarriel says. But once in, he adds, "You still have to deliver, and the work has to be good." Steve Jarriel recalls sending out 88 résumés before getting his first job, at a Salisbury, Maryland, TV station.

For many second-generation journalists, going into the same business as their parents deepened the relationship, although others say it raised inevitable comparisons and fostered competition. Haynes Johnson, 68, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's worked for the Washington Star, the Washington Post, and now the University of Maryland College of Journalism, says he and his dad--New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson--were best friends. "But still I didn't want to work in New York City, because I would always be compared to him."

They are the only known father and son to win separate Pulitizer Prizes. Malcolm Johnson--"Mike" to his friends and son--won a Pulitzer in 1949 for articles exposing racketeering and crime on New York's waterfront. Haynes Johnson won a 1966 Pulitzer for reporting on the civil rights crisis in Selma, Alabama.

"I was lucky in a lot of ways," Johnson says of his relationship with his father. "We were not rivals." When his father died of cancer in 1976, the younger Johnson, then a Washington Post editor, recalls seeing the obituary in the New York Times and saying, "See, Mike, they didn't forget you." Johnson remembered him in a Father's Day column that ran in the Washington Post two years after his death.

The Bradlees say being in the same business gives them a lot to talk about and has brought them closer over the years. "It gives you a huge common interest that other fathers don't have with their sons," says Bradlee Sr. His son says since his father retired as the Post's executive editor in 1991, they talk more frequently. We "talk about stories I'm working on. I ask his opinion, and he likes to be asked."

The elder Bradlee says he's not surprised his son was interested in journalism. "It's impossible not to be interested. What surprises me is that he is good at it. That's thrilling."

Many second-generation journalists say it's great having a parent who understands the business. "It's venting to someone who's been there, or asking, 'What would you have done?' " says Linda Fibich, 43, assistant managing editor/Teams at Minneapolis' Star Tribune. Her father, Howard Fibich, is a retired Milwaukee Journal editor. "I cherish my relationship with my father and the conversations we have."

"She's a far better journalist than I ever was," her father says.

Shelby Oppel, an education writer for the St. Petersburg Times, says she often talks to dad Rich Oppel Sr. It became easier to talk, she says, "once I learned to take his advice and criticism in a constructive way. It gets better as I get older," says the 26-year-old.

Some second-generation journalists not only share a profession with their parents but have also been colleagues or competitors. The Bradlees, who have written books on their own, are now working on a historical volume about their Massachusetts forebears--the colorful 18th-century Crowninshield family. It counted among its members sea captains, congressmen and even two scoundrels prosecuted for murder by Daniel Webster, says the 78-year-old Bradlee. The joint book is still in the research stage, he says, adding with a laugh that he expects it will draw them closer "if we don't kill each other" writing it.

Carl and Lou Cannon worked together on a 1979 story about the murder case of a striking farm worker in El Centro, California. Carl Cannon was a 25-year-old police reporter for the San Diego Union; his dad was the Washington Post's Los Angeles bureau chief. The double-bylined story ran in both papers.

"We both had different sources," says Carl Cannon, who recalls writing the story together at his house. "It was momentous," he says. "But it seemed very natural at the time. We complemented each other."

The elder Cannon agrees. "It was easy working with him." He adds, "We're equals when we write together, like working with anyone else."

Richard A. Oppel, 31, now a business reporter with the New York Times, found himself going head-to-head with his father's paper, the Austin American-Statesman, when he was a statehouse reporter for the Dallas Morning News. "I had to be careful; it was competitive," he says.

His father, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, editor of the Charlotte Observer, and Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief before moving to Texas, remembers his son calling and both of them fishing for stories the other's paper would have the next day. But each ended up waiting for the competition and praying he didn't see something his own paper didn't have, says the senior Oppel.

Now things have come full circle for many second-generation journalists and their parents. Tony Cox, the Los Angeles sports correspondent, says he's had a chance to live some of his dreams through daughter Lisa. "I wanted to travel around the country. If I had done so, my own career would have advanced farther," he says. "But I had her and her sister--a choice between family and career. And I chose family. But now, I get to see America in all the places she's lived."

New York Times Foreign Editor Andrew Rosenthal, who worked hard to independently establish his own career, recalls a ribbon-cutting ceremony a couple of years ago celebrating the Times' redesigned newsroom. "Somebody asked, 'Who's the gray-haired guy with the red glasses?' And the reply was, 'Oh, that's Andy's dad.' " His father, A.M. Rosenthal, won a 1960 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

Former NBC and ABC news correspondent Sander Vanocur says he's now known as Chris Vanocur's father after his son--a TV reporter in Salt Lake City--won the Peabody award for his work uncovering the Olympic bribery scandal. But he adds he feels "terrible proud" of him.

And now Michael Kelly's 3-year-old son, Tom, is a frequent visitor to his father's Washington, D.C., newsroom. The National Journal's offices are spacious and carpeted and are housed in a gleaming glass building--where the large elevators usually work. Tom has also spent time in his father's windowed office, which is lined with books and pictures, including a framed black-and-white photo of Thomas Kelly and other reporters at a news conference called by President Kennedy.

The National Journal editor says his son's already a columnist. "He writes about moths and flies. He doesn't like moths and flies. It's something like my Clinton columns," says Kelly, known for his acerbic pieces on the president. "He would like to see moths and flies as an issue that should be dealt with."

Still, it's too early to tell whether there will be a third generation of journalists in the Kelly family. For as Thomas Kelly says, "You have to let kids figure out their own destiny."