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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

A Detached Yet Revealing Look at the Times   

The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times

By Max Frankel
Random House
546 pages; $29.95


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.

     

When Arthur Sulzberger anointed Max Frankel as executive editor of the New York Times in 1986, Frankel's reaction was telltale: "I said I hoped he knew what this moment meant for a refugee kid from Germany."

From the time he and his family fled the Nazis for eventual haven in America, Frankel had considered himself in flight. That spirit pervaded his career and now informs his autobiography, "the story of a fugitive...a search for identity...a yearning to belong but also to keep on running."

The quintessential outsider looking in, Frankel turned his natural restlessness into journalistic achievement and adventure. He signed on as a college stringer for the Times and soon was careening from one landmark story to the next.

He got his break covering the sinking of the Andrea Doria, reported on Sputnik and the Cold War from the Soviet Union, monitored the Bay of Pigs invasion from Cuba, moved to Washington in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis, ran the Times' Washington Bureau during the Pentagon Papers imbroglio, won a Pulitzer accompanying Richard Nixon to China, and headed the Times' Sunday sections and editorial page before winning the paper's top spot.

Based on the book's evidence, Frankel almost personifies the Times itself: smart but not flamboyant; ambitious but not obnoxious; steadily on the ascendance. He launches the occasional rocket but isn't vicious.

His memoir parallels the Times in one other way as well. Unfailingly interesting, it also seems a tad detached and distant. Frankel does more observing than revealing. He reports on his career more than he draws readers into a personal intimacy. To the question of why he longed to run the Times, for example, Frankel's reply is typically guarded: "Well, because it was there--the highest peak in serious journalism."

Yet journalists will enjoy and learn from his book. Frankel presided, in his decent and unflashy way, over transformational changes in the world's most eminent newspaper. When he took command, he confesses, "I often still had trouble in reading it." Its long and "predictable" stories, disorganized sections and "gray landscapes" bothered him. He set out to make the paper more accessible, to adapt the Times to the times without undermining its heritage.

Journalism, he believed, should be not just a collection of facts but "a narrative art, connecting past to future, cause to consequence." So in his eight-year tenure as executive editor, he pressed for a "redefinition of news" to feature "judgment and expertise," to highlight trends as well as events. He also prodded the paper into the visual age and pushed to better serve--and more frequently hire--women, members of minority groups and gays.

As he looks back and ahead, Frankel recognizes the need for newspapers to be profitable but worries about today's "relentless pursuit of profit [that] panders to commercial interests and causes informative news to be replaced with the inane." Like his book and his career, the observation is balanced and sensible, and worth our attention.