book review

Book Review: Calvin Trillin’s Thoroughly Great ‘The Lede’

There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask musicians, famous ones like Paul McCartney in particular: When in the car, do they listen to their own songs when they come on the radio? Do they turn the volume up?

Since the odds of ever posing the question to McCartney or someone like him are slim, I’ll settle for a parallel answer found in Calvin Trillin’s excellent new book, The Lede: Dispatches From a Life In the Press. In it the longtime staff writer for The New Yorker references an article from the magazine on E.B. White. It seems that “during his final illness, even White, a man widely admired for his modesty, wanted to hear only his own writing.” Question for McCartney et al answered. Along with so much more.

Trillin’s unputdownable book is a collection of long and short-form essays published over the years or, in his own words, “a picture from multiple angles of what the press has been like over the years.” Trillin would know, as he’s been at it since the 1950s.

Which is why in reading this 311 page book, I found myself wishing it was three times longer. Since Trillin has seen it all, he can show readers how much things have changed. Take, for instance, his observation in a 1998 essay that “I never passed an impressive mansion in a foreign capital without thinking, ‘It’s either an Arab embassy or the home of a Time bureau chief.’” Reporters, at least as the 20th century was coming to a close, were “essentially cabin-class people traveling first class on an upgrade.”

What a difference twenty or so years makes. While Time and Sports Illustrated were the epitome of profits and influence in the late 1990s, they’re largely forgotten today, as are the impressive mansions for foreign bureau chiefs. As Trillin no doubt knows, the magazines and newspapers of today are mostly shutting bureaus, foreign and domestic. And of those that do exist, they’re not bureaus as much as they’re desks in the living space occupied by a reporter.

Thinking more deeply about how the economics of print media have changed, I’m reminded of the late great Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford’s memoirs, in which he wrote of how in the 1970s, NBA players would come from the back of the airplane to be interviewed by Deford in first class. And they would act much chummier toward him since he had a seemingly unlimited expense account, one so vast (this was apparently true for all SI writers) that if writers came back from travel without sizable expense reports, their bosses would express wonder about their work ethic.

It’s all interesting just because the extravagance of the media of old is, but it’s also interesting in light of the left lean of media members. They’ve long revealed skepticism about big corporations, along with the belief that those big corporations exploit their employees. Except that as Trillin and others like him know intimately, reporters and staff writers lived reasonably high, and traveled extraordinarily high back when profits were enormous. Now, if they’re employed, they don’t travel at all like they used to, assuming they travel at all. Do reporters see the obvious link? If so, is there growing disdain for corporate and capital gains taxes among reporters?

About the question, it’s not meant to be argumentative either to Trillin or anyone. It’s more an expression of awe about how things used to be (relatively impoverished media is the only kind I’ve ever known), while also a way of conversing about a book full of interesting and funny stories and anecdotes about media. At least I think they’re interesting and funny. I read The Lede while on a 10th anniversary trip with my wife. I kept relaying anecdotes from it that at the very least entertained me.

For instance, in a 2000 column Trillin recalled being asked by his wife if he ever said anything funny at The New Yorker offices that might make it into a staff writer memoir. Since writers there frequently enjoyed and enjoy a reasonable level of fame (particularly among writers), and since per Trillin many of them write memoirs, Alice Trillin’s question wasn’t unfounded or unreasonable. Would Trillin someday be quoted in a way that would make him look bad, funny, or perhaps worst of all, neither bad nor funny enough to rate a quote? It turns out the author of The Lede had in fact come up with at least one witty retort. One day the writers were discussing the magazine’s new dental plan, only for one of Trillin’s colleagues to say that such petit-bourgeois matters shouldn’t concern writers, that “’Dostoyevsky didn’t have a dental plan.’” Trillin answered with “Yeah, and did you ever get a load of his teeth?”

Regarding the then and now of sexual harassment in the newsrooms of old, Trillin writes that “what would now be considered sexual harassment was” in decades past “a subject of anecdotes rather than outrage.” Trillin remembers one particularly aggressive writer with “an unfortunate shape,” but who routinely pursued members of the opposite sex in the office. He was known as the “horny avocado.”

Is the working world better now that sources of past amusement have morphed into “sexual harassment”? The view here is no. Back when Rep. Katie Hill got into trouble for an affair with a male underling on her staff, I wrote a piece defending her and calling for conservatives to defend the Democrat. Seriously, how does it help women or men to make approaching the opposite sex in the office off limits? In an office setting there’s supervision, it’s generally sober (perhaps different in the media of old?), plus shy individuals (or those who lack skill inside bars) can fully reveal themselves in a way can’t at a bar or online. Nowadays, allegedly as a way of protecting women, there can be little to no romantic activity among employees, and certainly none between seniors and juniors. Which of course pushes women into bars where there’s no supervision, and much worse, they’re pushed online where men with surface knowledge of them can swipe left and right. If this digital pat on the bottom isn’t offensive, it’s hard to know what is. Progress is good, but it’s hard see where how the implied or explicit ban on inter-office relationships is progress, or how it’s made anyone better off.

Most entertaining are Trillin’s columns about other media members. Keep in mind that Trillin is a collector of “ledes,’ which are the opening sentences or paragraphs of articles. One of his favorites came care of Edna Buchanan at the Miami Herald. What inspired it was Gary Robinson entering a Church’s Fried Chicken, ordering a three-piece box, waiting five or ten minutes, and then being told the outlet had run out of fried chicken. Robinson was offered chicken nuggets by the Church’s employee behind the counter, and displeased by the offered alternative, he hit her on the head. What followed ended with Robinson being shot dead by a security guard. Buchanan’s lede? “Gary Robinson died hungry.” Buchanan, whose beat was crime, and who knew everyone worth knowing inside every Miami precinct, once did a story on “a father being killed at the surprise birthday party given for him by his thirty children.” Having read a long-form piece about her by Trillin, I’ll now be looking for her memoirs.

If possible, Trillin’s lengthy piece about R.W. Apple (New York Times) was more entertaining than the one about Buchanan. In reading about Apple you find yourself once again wanting to read a bio or memoir by the man who held and presumably holds (given the shrinking economics of media) “the world’s single-trip expense-account record.” Trillin writes that in addition to acquiring “English airs and some English clothing” while the Times London bureau chief, Apple purchased enough wine to ensure his longevity as chief so that his bosses could avoid paying for the transportation of “all of the wine he had in his cellar.” When Joe Lelyveld took Apple to an expensive dinner and an enormous bill arrived, Apple reached over to take the check from Lelyveld. As he saw it, “You better let me take this. They’d never believe it coming from you.”

While at the Wall Street Journal, and in a meeting of the New York bureau, it was asked why other bureaus were getting a certain kind of article into the paper much more often than New York’s. Apple responded with “Maybe they don’t have to spend their time in chickenshit meetings like this.” Which is why it will be said yet again that the problem with The Lede is that it wasn’t longer.

About Canadian press mogul Conrad Black, Trillin cites a line from Black’s memoirs that English-speaking Canadians had “a sadistic desire, corroded by soul-destroying envy, to intimidate all those who might aspire to anything in the slightest exceptional.” Which means Black himself inspired a lot of soul-destroying envy inside his own country. Particularly as his newspaper acquisitions picked up speed. Trillin cites a Toronto news figure who quipped that “You don’t want to be having a fight with your cousin when Conrad’s around.” Get it?

Another individual who had lunch with Black in London noted that he “dropped the names of Katharine Graham, George Shultz, the Aga Khan, and Henry Kissinger, all in one paragraph.” In his aspiration period of the House of Lords variety, it was said that when eventually tapped, “it will be Conrad’s first opportunity to meet ordinary people.”

Molly Ivins was someone I reflexively disliked given her ideological lean, but perceptions evolve. Though still firmly in favor of wildly limited government, these views have gradually increased my skepticism about and disdain for conservatives over the years, particularly their view that militaries should have no limits on size or portfolio. Which means Ivins might be a more pleasurable read today. About Iraq, Ivins wisely wrote “I assume we can defeat Hussein without a great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win.” She predicted that “more Americans will be killed in peace than in war.”

After which, times change. We learn this so clearly through Trillin given all the time he’s spent in media. This is important simply because the past is a lousy way to judge the present. Trillin writes that in 1972, in a New York Daily News editorial with the title “Any Old Jobs For Homos?”, the page referred to gay men as “Fairies, nances, swishes…” Readers get it. Hopefully they do. Trillin adds that the New York Times took flak from gay readers for “extensive use of quotations from psychiatrists about the illness of homosexuals.” Should both be cancelled? George Will refers to this awful habit of judging the past in the present as presentism whereby present morals and conventions are applied to the past. It’s dangerous. This isn’t to excuse how things used to be, but it is to cheer progress whereby we’ve moved well beyond how things used to be. Let’s celebrate this progress, rather than entrap people and institutions based on how things used to be.

If there’s a sad aspect to Trillin’s book, it’s that as evidenced by his ability to draw a picture of the press “from multiple angles,” the author is getting up there in age. That’s too bad. At risk of being repetitive, The Lede’s main flaw is that it wasn’t long enough. What an interesting look into how things used to be, and in looking back, understanding the present much better. What a read.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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