Winston Churchill Liveblogs World War II: May 19, 1940
At the Core

Alex Beam on the Press Corps of a Generation Ago

Alex Beam:

When being a journalist-on-the-rise was a glass half-filled job: My first job in journalism was at the now-foundering Newsweek.... Newsweek in 1977 and 1978 was fat, plush, almost 100 pages long, and choked with advertising.... I was an editorial assistant/fact-checker, with duties analogous to those of an 18th-century cabin boy in the Royal Navy. My favorite person... Richard Steele, assured me of a bright future, because I knew when to refresh his bottomless vodka glass.... The entire, nutty journalism model had been lifted wholesale from Henry Luce & Co. over at Time. Correspondents sent lengthy dispatches to New York, where modestly gifted, self-hating writers boiled their work into readable squibs. Actual editors then rehashed the silage a second or third time, until it came out sounding like the Delta Airlines flight magazine.... [I]n addition to pouring vodka I checked facts, a process that left me bleakly cynical about journalistic accuracy. We would publish whole stories that were lies — Francois Mitterrand’s plan to destroy the French economy was a recurring theme — but at least the names were spelled correctly. Two T’s, two R’s. I will never forget.

I worked at the international edition, where our big mission was refighting the Cold War. The fall of Saigon was only three years behind us, and glasnost was still eight years away. We printed many “exclusives’’ by a remarkably tanned, anti-communist crusader named Arnaud de Borchgrave, known as “the short count.’’ De Borchgrave would announce his masterpieces with the antiquated phrase “Three bells!’’ an allusion to the old wire-service tickers which used to chime bells touting stories of capital importance. Everyone laughed at de Borchgrave’s copy, but we printed it anyway. Those decisions were made well above my pay grade...

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