by Louis Proyect
John L. Hess, My Times: A Memoir of Dissent, Seven Stories Press, September 2003, ISBN 1-58322-604-4, 288 pages, cloth, $35.00.
(Swans - January 31, 2005) John L. Hess's My Times: A Memoir of Dissent is a must-read on two levels. Firstly, it is important as a critical insider's account of how The New York Times operates. On this level, it is reminiscent of ex-CIA agent John Stockwell's memoir In Search of Enemies or Marine General Smedley Butler's War is a Racket. Indeed, Hess's memoir evokes, with one alteration, Butler's 1935 speech:
"The NY Times is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses."
On another level, Hess's memoir is a pleasure to read, even if one has no interest in understanding the role of media in American society. As a life-long journalist and editor endowed with a dry wit and a gift for the apt phrase, he entertains as he illuminates -- often at the expense of Times bigwigs like Cyrus L. Sulzberger, grandson of the paper's founder.
The job title Cy was groping for was not so much reporter or journalist as player in the great game. His memoirs claim that he served as a backdoor channel for negotiators on Korea, Berlin, and Cyprus, and as an adviser to President Kennedy on dealing with de Gaulle and Khrushchev, to President Johnson on Cambodia, and to President Nixon on Chile. He boasted that Eisenhower and Nixon received him privately while they were snubbing Scotty Reston and Max Frankel, respectively. Having married a Greek of social rank, Cy meddled actively, though apparently ineffectually, in Greek affairs. He was gratified by the overthrow of the socialists in 1967 but embarrassed by the brutal junta that succeeded them; he favored a coup to install a constitutional, conservative monarchy.
He adored rank; his office walls were a sort of photographic almanac of personages he knew, which he kept rearranging, as their ratings rose and fell. When de Gaulle, at a dramatic moment, accorded Cy an off-the-record interview that was no doubt intended to be passed along to Washington, Cy's parting request was for a new photo.
John L. Hess began his career in 1944 with the Bisbee Daily Review, an Arizona paper owned by Phelps Dodge, who also owned the local copper mine. About Bisbee, Hess writes, "A poet or a folklorist might have settled down in Bisbee, but it was no place for a man who wanted to play John Reed."
After a few years with UP, a wire service, Hess landed a job with The New York Times in 1954 as a copyreader in the financial/business section which, like the Bisbee Daily Review, was no place for a John Reed. When Hess suggested an article exposing a scam in the housing industry, the city editor informed him, "John, The Times is not a crusading newspaper." He recalls:
"One columnist built a long relationship with an outfit called, if memory serves, the Foreign Bondholders Protective Council. It consisted of speculators who bought defaulted securities at pennies on the dollar and then nagged Washington to hassle the issuers for a settlement. My colleague had stocked up on Czarist bonds; his column would periodically berate the Eisenhower administration for groveling to Moscow while ignoring the American widows and orphans who had built the Russian railroads. I don't think his gamble paid off. He was not a lucky type."
The Times is essentially a joint dynasty of the Sulzberger and Ochs families. The current publisher is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. In a chapter titled "Meet the Family," Hess dismisses the dynasty as consisting of incompetent, high society wastrels with a penchant for drugs and booze, whose commitment to progressive values was verbal at best. After Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to congress, voted against going to war in 1917, The Times editorialized that this was "final proof of feminine incapacity for straight thinking." When black soldiers returned from the war and demanded equal rights, the violence directed against them prompted The Times to wax nostalgic for the prewar days when most blacks "admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were unheard of."
In 1963 Hess went to work at the Paris bureau of The New York Times, where on good days, he felt like he "had the best job in the world." Although his superiors assigned Hess to what amounted to puff pieces, like a carnival in the Pyrénées to attract wives for its unmarried men, there was always more than a bit of that John Reed in him that uncovered deeper social meanings. In this instance, Hess honed in on the true problem, which is that young women had fled to the lowlands to escape economic hardship. One white-haired mother of seven told him that "My faith, life must be better elsewhere."
Eventually Hess was drawn into covering the Vietnam War, but with the expected clashes with management over what and how to report. When he filed an article about the massacre of 300 villagers in Quang-nai Province in 1969, he was disconcerted to discover it was carried as a sidebar to another article and not placed on the front page where it belonged.
Subsequently, he learned why the foreign desk had decided to bury the article. They thought that "the absence of substantiation and the recent spate of similar allegations from many sources all pointed to extreme caution in handling a story with the emotional impact of this one." In Hess's view, this reflected a "crippling malady of the Times: its allergy toward sources that challenge the establishment's truths." Clearly, not much has changed since 1969, especially in light of Judith Miller's dispatches from Iraq.
Hess returned to New York City in 1972 to cover local issues. Unlike The New York Times brass, Hess found himself appalled by the brutal gentrification of the city taking place with the paper's approval. For many decades, The Times had identified with the real estate magnates and their friends in high places. Fear of the Other marked coverage in the paper of record. When looters took to the street during the 1977 Con-Ed blackout, The Times said that they "scattered roachlike" upon the arrival of the police but failed to write about the negligence of the giant utility in causing such an outage.
Perhaps the most notorious racist and pro-gentrification voice at The Times was Roger Starr, who wrote about municipal issues throughout the 1980s. In his memoir, Starr opined that the "major influence contributing to the achievement of order in the nineteenth century city was the lack of a system of public assistance." In a bid to out-Malthus Malthus, Starr complained that the increased number of "dangerously uncivil people" due to expanded health care would drive up the cost of imposing "moral order" upon them.
While The Times had no problem reporting on racist practices in the Jim Crow south, it had blinders on when it came to New York itself. During the late 1970s, when tenement fires were epidemic in the Bronx, the paper played up pronouncements from people like Senator Patrick Moynihan that the fires were started by the residents themselves. The politician of "benign neglect" said that "People don't want housing in the South Bronx, or they wouldn't burn it down." For Hess, the real story was that criminal syndicates were burning the buildings down and sharing the insurance payouts with lenders, insurance adjusters and fire marshals.
After retiring from The Times in 1979, Hess has been free to speak out about racism in New York City and the paper's role in allowing the city's minorities to be victimized by cops, financial institutions and landlords. In an article written for the May/June 2000 Extra!, the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and which is part of an excellent number of appendixes to his memoir, Hess shows how The Times has consistently taken the side of the cops in instances of police brutality. He also notes that reviews by Malcolm Browne and Peter Passell helped turn the racist The Bell Curve into a best-seller. Passell found it "scientifically respectable" in an October 27, 1994 review.
Hess also has some very interesting things to say about the lucrative art world and the paper's relationship to it, a topic he deals with at greater length in his 1974 The Grand Acquisitors. Much of this is concerned with Thomas Hoving's stewardship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he turned into a vast bazaar connected to department stores and other commercial institutions. Hoving and the museum's trustees sold off valuable art at bargain basement prices to their friends, misappropriated bequests, hiked admission fees and cut the underpaid staff by ten percent. It will come as no great surprise that the father of the paper's current publisher was on the Met's acquisitions committee, which approved all the shady transactions Hoving sent their way.
In a change of pace, Hess began writing about food with his wife Karen in a column called "De Gustibus" in 1973. (The two are co-authors of the highly regarded The Taste of America.) In keeping with their democratic and egalitarian principles, the Hesses disdained restaurants that charged $100 per entrée and rating them with stars, but were happy to subvert the prevailing snobbery by awarding four stars to Chinese restaurants as a whole.
John L. Hess's last hurrah at The New York Times was to break the nursing home scandal of the mid-1970s. In keeping with the ethnic peculiarities of the city, most of the crooked nursing home entrepreneurs and their elderly victims were Jewish, including the top gangster Bernard Bergman who had been involved with his parents in importing heroin concealed in prayer books! Bergman's chief accomplice was Eugene Hollander, who locked patients in their rooms at night in order to avoid paying wages to a night shift. (He billed Medicaid for a Renoir on his wall and told a physician who complained about neglect, "What is a nursing home but a waiting room for a funeral parlor?")
Hess's revelations led a local politician, Andrew Stein, to investigate the industry and prosecute the malefactors. Bergman fled the country, but subsequently returned to sue John Hess for conspiring to deprive him of his rights. Eventually, Bergman and Hollander were sent to prison for their crimes, but were able to draw rent from their former nursing homes. Hess admitted that despite all the media attention and all the acclaim he earned as a crusading journalist, "nothing had fundamentally changed."
While ordinary people might have been daunted by this, John Hess is not your ordinary human being. After leaving The Times, Hess has kept very active as a free-lance writer and commentator. His acerbic commentaries can be heard on Pacifica news most evenings and now can also be read on the Internet at: http://www.johnlhess.blogspot.com/, including this vintage piece on the Tsunami. It encapsulates what makes John L. Hess an exceptional reporter and human being:
It can escape nobody that most of the victims of natural disasters are poor folk. Correction: It did escape the Times, which blames geology for the tidal waves that devastated the shores of South Asia. In other words, blame God. Well, he's done it before.
But it's poor folks who settle in where disaster has a way of striking, and they keep going back. In fact, survivors are already scavenging in the wreckage for shelter and for gravesites. Where would they go? Safer areas are out of their reach.
Our local media took pride in the $40 million that some zillionaire we never heard of paid for a penthouse in midtown. Not of course for safety from tidal waves, though we do often have watermain breaks. The price does, I guess, reflect the vitality of our town, which sparkles despite its atrocious mismanagement. Check the cultural listings.
Just now I will not dwell on New York housing and wages. Those millions in South Asia get far less, and very few public services. Lord, they didn't have sirens to warn them about the earthquake. They fled the first wave, came back and were hit by the second. We've had much better warnings of all the bad things that are happening to the environment. What are we doing about it?
[Ed. Shortly after this article was submitted to Swans, John L. Hess died at the age of 87 in New York City. When Louis Proyect read The New York Times obituary on Hess, which effectively swept his post-NY Times radical journalism under the rug, he was moved to write the following to Daniel Okrent, the New York Times ombudsman:]
I can see John Hess sitting on a cloud glowering at your sanitized version of his life:
As you folks know only too well, John was a high-profile critic of American foreign policy and social injustice at home. Indeed, his recently published memoir has just a chapter each on food and the art world, but the rest of it is about American bullying abroad and plutocracy at home and the role of the NY Times in maintaining the status quo through its connections with the Dean Rusks and Robert Moses of the world.
So, ironically, your dishonest obituary helps us to remember what he spent his life fighting against.
John L. Hess, My Times: A Memoir of Dissent, Seven Stories Press, September 2003, ISBN 1-58322-604-4, 288 pages, cloth, $35.00.
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