One week into his job as an errand boy at The New York Times in 1944, Arthur Gelb got his first taste of big-time newspapering when the Allies invaded France on D-Day. It was the beginning of a love affair that lasted beyond his mandatory retirement as managing editor of the Times 45 years later. In City Room, a memoir that moves as fast as a reporter typing at deadline, he recalls scores of significant events in the life of his city, nation and newspaper.
Gelb takes us from his early days in the city room when a horse-playing managing editor hired bookies as clerks so they would be nearby. We get a firsthand account of how the newspaper battled authorities in developing such blockbuster scoops as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed government deception about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and the Officer Frank Serpico series, which uncovered deep-seated corruption in the N.Y.C. Police Department. Having seen a number of other dailies shuttered by economic pressures, demographic changes and labor strikes, the Times found its own existence threatened in the mid-1970s. Gelb led the way in giving a facelift to the Gray Lady, a nickname adopted by critics to note the newspaper's staid appearance. Using text, headlines and pictures in more imaginative ways than ever before, Gelb helped to create weekly theme sections on such subjects as science, lifestyles and weekend activities. Readers and advertisers responded in large numbers to the revitalized newspaper.
Gelb insists the newspaper always stressed a culture of accuracy and fairness that made the Times the gold standard of journalism in the pre-Jayson Blair years. This fascinating account of the newspaper's recent history, which ought to be required reading for journalism students, is highly recommended for everyone.
Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.