In 1997, after a five-year sabbatical from newsrooms spent writing a few books and the occasional magazine piece, I found myself sitting across a coffee table from Gene Roberts, who himself was finishing up a kind of sabbatical, a three-year stint as managing editor of the New York Times.
I was in need of a real job again, but I wasn't especially interested in returning to the Times, where I'd worked briefly a decade before. Still, friends had prevailed on me to at least come in to talk. So I was making the rounds there, a series of awkward interviews where editors would ask me why I wanted to come back to the Times, and I would answer, "Well, I really don't."
Gene was my last stop. Our paths had intersected in the mid-'80s, albeit briefly. He was your basic living legend, overseeing the Pulitzer factory that was the Philadelphia Inquirer, while I was running one of Knight Ridder's smallest papers, in Columbus, Georgia. So we encountered each other occasionally at editors' meetings. But in the summer of 1997, I'm not sure Gene would have known me from the new beat reporter in Nyack.
Still, we had a quite animated discussion--not about the Times, but about the next chapter of his remarkable life. This was to be the two-year Project on the State of the American Newspaper, which launched once he returned to the journalism faculty at the University of Maryland. With serious underwriting from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Gene would hire some of the best journalists of the age to put the industry he loved under unprecedented scrutiny. Their in-depth pieces would appear in AJR.
A week after we talked in New York, Gene called. I figured he was going to offer me a job at the Times. Instead, he invited me to edit the newspaper series. Once I got over my discombobulation, I jumped at it. After watching Gene perform his magic from afar, I would get the chance to work myself with one of the seminal newspaper editors of the 20th century.
It didn't take me long to run smack into one of Gene's famous eccentricities. Knowing it would be a few months before I could relocate from Indiana to Maryland, I was talking to Gene about how best to coordinate our plans. I asked him if he used e-mail. There was a long pause on the line. "Noooooo," he finally said in that oft-imitated Roberts drawl. "And I nev-vuh will."
He wasn't kidding. There is no computer in Professor Roberts' office, and I daresay there nev-vuh will be.
Indeed, not long after I arrived I walked in on Gene and found him writing out a page in longhand, pencil on yellow legal pad. Thus I learned that aside from his teaching at the J-school and his oversight of this mammoth series, Gene also was hard at work on a big book. The book was an account of how the news media did--and for the longest while, didn't--cover the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. He was writing it with one of his former editors from Philly, Hank Klibanoff. (Hank, a thoroughly modern guy--now managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution--was presumably writing his chapters on a computer.)
Over the years Gene chipped away at the book, even as he finished the newspaper series, continued to teach, raised money for countless good causes and helped at least one grateful editor become a journalism dean. The volume was long a-borning, about as long as the civil rights movement itself. Along the way I got sneak peeks of a few chapters and so knew Gene and Hank were crafting something special. But even I didn't realize how special.
"The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation" was published by Knopf in fall 2006 to widespread and enthusiastic reviews. It was reported in great detail, but it also bore the unmistakable passion of a Southerner who had covered the civil rights movement firsthand, and who on several occasions was lucky to get out of town with his skin intact.
A number of commentators agreed with Eric Alterman in The Nation, who wrote, "'The Race Beat'..is one of those remarkable works of history that make you see your own times more clearly."
And then, in April, "The Race Beat" won the Pulitzer Prize for history. The man who helped so many people achieve journalism's ultimate honor had one to call his own.
"The Race Beat" is a great and compelling book. And it's the best kind of history, taking something we thought we knew well and demonstrating that we really didn't know it at all.
More than history, though, I'm sure Gene would say it's meant to be a prick at the conscience, a reminder to the news industry that it has an obligation to do more than titillate and make heirs rich. The civil rights movement, for so long ignored by white America, really got traction only when the media finally started paying attention.
That's the way it's supposed to work, even today.