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Book Review: City Room by Arthur Gelb

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Reading Arthur Gelb’s 2003 memoir, City Room, in the current gloomy newspaper environment, with its dire predictions for the future of print journalism, is a little like reading the eulogy for an old friend just about to be lowered into the grave. It is a loving testament to a world that is going fast, despite the fact that some of the Jeff Jarvis persuasion might well say good riddance.

Gelb began as a copy boy at the New York Times and steadily moved up the ladder — reporter, rewrite, editor — straight to the top echelons of what was then arguably the world’s most influential news organizations. And while he was climbing that ladder, he had a front row seat for many of the great events of the middle years of the 20th century.

City Room is something of a tourist’s guide to those events and to the people great and small, who moved and were moved, shook and were shaken. Whether it was investigating police corruption in New York City or the election of Harry Truman, the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King or the prison riots in Attica, he seemed to be around to report, oversee, and direct. A Renaissance man, he covered the police beat; he covered theater and culture; he covered politics.

All the journalistic stars are there, sketched out, sometimes with reverence, sometimes with their warts exposed, but always with love: Scotty Reston, Abe Rosenthal, Punch Sulzberger. There hardly is a name he doesn’t drop. Indeed the book is as much a love letter to the institution to which Gelb devoted his life as it is the story of his life, and it is only fitting, because from the very start journalism was less a profession than it was a passion for the young Arthur Gelb. Always a lover of the theater, Gelb’s vision of the newspaper world was as much formed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as it was by the realities he eventually encountered.

The Front Page, Hecht and MacArthur’s 1928 comedy, painted a romantic picture of the crusading reporter fighting for truth, justice, the American way  — and just maybe the scoop of the lifetime. It is a picture sure to enchant, investing as it does the world of journalism with the kind of feisty refusal to bow down to authority that is the stock of youthful rebellion. The journalist speaks truth to power. What more could any young, ambitious man want?

The city room that Gelb describes, at least in its essence, could well have been the set for The Front Page. There were the hard drinkers. There were the hot shot reporters with connections all over the city. There were the ethical idealists who couldn’t be bought off a scoop or beat out of a story. Here was the idyllic vision made real. It is not often that a man is lucky enough to live out his fantasies; City Room certainly makes clear that Arthur Gelb was one of the lucky ones.

Still, there is no doubt that this is a eulogy. The world Gelb describes is gone. Newspapers are downsizing when they are not outright going out of business. Younger audiences are getting their news from the internet, and newspaper publishers have not figured out how to use the internet for their own profit. Perhaps, however, it is too soon to write the obit.

As Tina Brown, the tamer of The Daily Beast, agreed on a recent BBC Americana podcast, internet news sources other than those of the newspapers themselves have not yet managed the kind of local, national, and international reportage readers have come to expect from an organ like the New York Times. There may be hope for print journalism yet.

Meanwhile, Arthur Gelb provides a look back at its rich past, filled with enough anecdotes and insights to make of his book something more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. The reader can only feel how fortunate it was for Gelb that he got out of the business before what may be its decline, if not its fall.

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