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Max Frankel

Max Frankel had a brilliant 50-year career at The New York Times, where he was executive editor from 1986 to 1994, having started as a college correspondent while a sophomore at Columbia University. After graduating from Columbia, he began reporting from the Pentagon, later moving on to Vienna, Moscow, and Havana. He was The Times Washington, DC bureau chief when he won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of President Richard M. Nixon’s trip to China. In fall 2006, Frankel and Dean David Rudenstine taught The Law, The Ethics, and The Politics of Press Freedoms, a seminar that examined the current and historical relationships between journalism and the law. Cardozo Life editor Susan Davis sat down with Frankel for a wide-ranging one-on-one about his career, journalism, and his interest in teaching.

An Interview with Max Frankel

DAVIS: How did you meet David Rudenstine?

FRANKEL: I read David before I met him. I thought his book on the Pentagon Papers case—which I was very much involved in—was the best book on the subject. We appeared on one or two panels together to discuss the Pentagon Papers. We developed a friendship, and then the interest and idea of teaching a seminar at Cardozo grew from there.

DAVIS: Had you taught previously?

FRANKEL: I had taught a seminar at Columbia Journalism School the previous year, and many years ago I conducted Great Books courses for business executives at the Aspen Institute. So, I’ve done a little bit of seminar teaching.

DAVIS: Did you have certain aspirations for the seminar at Cardozo?

FRANKEL: Yes, two things. After I retired, I missed contact with younger people and the stimulation that comes from interacting with them. That was the main attraction. The other was simply to learn more about the law affecting pressgovernment relations, which was the subject of the seminar.

DAVIS: Did you achieve your aspirations?

FRANKEL: Absolutely. Great students!

DAVIS: Are you teaching now?

FRANKEL: The core curriculum at Columbia has a course called Contemporary Civilization, which consists of original readings from Aristotle and other great philosophers right up to the current period. All freshman are required to take such a course, and there are many small sections of 15 to 18 students—one of which I’m going to teach with a former classmate.

I’ll be reading a lot and finally mastering a course that I had to take as a freshman while coming in contact with young people, which is what I value. This one promises to be very hard work. Four hours a week of very heavy reading.

DAVIS: You said you were involved with the Pentagon Papers? What role did you play in the publication of the Papers?

FRANKEL: I was The Times Washington bureau chief at the time. The reporter Neil Sheehan, who made the original contact with the people who gave us the Pentagon Papers, brought the papers to me. I conveyed them to New York. I was the middle man initially, then I helped with some of the writing and editing. I also helped to persuade the publisher that we should publish them. When we were dragged into court, I was designated to help the lawyers that were representing us all the way up to the Supreme Court. I helped write some of the briefs. I was involved at various stages of the whole project. But it was all very intense. It took us three months to prepare the Papers, but the legal fight was only two and one-half weeks.

DAVIS: In a review of your book The Times of My Life, and My Life With ‘The Times’, I read that Sheehan came to you with a “bag of papers.”

FRANKEL: We couldn’t really make a decision about whether we were seriously interested in publishing the Papers unless we saw samples. Sheehan went to his sources, who wanted to know, “Will The New York Times publish these?” And The New York Times was saying, “We can’t tell you that unless we see some of it.” So he brought us some samples.

DAVIS: This brings us to the issue of journalist privilege and keeping sources confidential. In March 2007, at a Cardozo panel on the subject, I believe you came down on the side of freedom of the press with no interference by judges. Is that accurate?

FRANKEL: Many states have laws that grant a limited privilege to reporters not to reveal their sources even at the demand of courts and judges. And that is a great protection. The question is whether there should be a federal law. Many of my colleagues in the press are in favor of one. And while I can see its merits, I see two big problems. First, when the government comes into most courtrooms and pleads that the demands of national security require them to know a journalist’s sources, most judges fall all over themselves and give in to the government. When they hear “national security,” judges are not going to side with the press.

The second issue with such a law is, who is a journalist? In the era of the Internet, anybody who writes a blog, who publishes anything on the Internet can claim to be a journalist. Every historian writing a book is a journalist. So such a law is very close to saying all Americans have a right not to testify about their sources of information.

My position is that you cannot have sophisticated reporting about military and diplomatic affairs without confidential sources. Everything the government does in the realm of foreign and military policy, at least for an initial 10 to 15 years, is classified as secret. Therefore, officials who want to explain their policies to justify what they are doing, or to inform the American public about what is going on, are going to have to talk about their secrets. If the government wants to explain itself, it has to discuss these secrets. And if they are hiding things, if they are eavesdropping on the American public or torturing people and violating the law, the only way the press is going to find out and play its role as a watchdog over government is to have confidential conversations with people who are willing for their own reasons to talk about it.

At the Cardozo panel, Tony Lewis, a colleague of mine at The Times, was taking the position that you have to trust the judges because they protect First Amendment freedoms. I was saying, yes, judges have expanded the realm of First Amendment freedoms, but not in national security cases. For the most part, judges take the government’s word when national security is involved; they are going to rule for the government. This did not happen with the Pentagon Papers, but that was a case of preventing publication once the secret was already out.

DAVIS: So, where were you in the Judith Miller imbroglio?

FRANKEL: That is a different issue. Some of Judy’s reporting going into the Iraq war was indefensible. It was sloppy. It was accepting the government’s word. It was biased. I don’t want to defend that. But when the issue became in the interest of prosecuting [I. Lewis “Scooter”] Libby, did the government have a right to know her sources? I think she was right in withholding. I think the government was wrong in putting her in jail. Sometimes to defend a decent legal principle you have to defend people whose conduct you don’t necessarily approve of.

DAVIS: You mentioned bloggers and journalists. Just this week a blogger, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, won the prestigious George Polk Award for legal reporting. This seems like a watershed moment for the newspaper business and journalism. What does the landscape look like from your point of view?

FRANKEL: I don’t know where it’s going. The average blogger, not the fellow who won the award, is like the old fashioned pamphleteer. I don’t know what they do for income. Perhaps they have rich parents or stay up late after work and write what they know, or what they’ve heard, or what they’ve read. And while that’s often useful in creating networks of information, it is not journalism in the sophisticated sense: an organized, very expensive effort to explain the world to a large body of people who come to rely on you for their daily grist of information for their businesses and citizenship.

To take the extreme, for The New York Times to cover Iraq takes tens of millions of dollars a year. To keep three or four correspondents in Baghdad means you have to hire 15 security people, you need three or four armored trucks or armorplated cars, you need translators, you have to pay for these people to commute back and forth between Baghdad and the US for rest and rehab. You have to take care of their families at home. Insure them for health and against death. That’s journalism. And that’s one war and one country.

So, to say bloggers who are home hitting their Internet keys are replacing journalism, that’s ridiculous. What’s happened is the Internet is stealing readers, stealing young people’s time from reading print, moving them onto the Internet, and it is also beginning to steal advertising from print media, especially newspapers. The Internet is much more efficient as an advertising medium for real estate and help wanted ads and others. So, newspapers are losing their readers and their advertising.

What is going to support and finance what I call serious, organized journalism? That is far from clear. The publisher of The New York Times likes to say, “We don’t care. We gather information and we don’t care how we distribute it. If one day we don’t need a printing plant or trucks and paper and we distribute on the Internet, that will still be our business.” That’s fine, provided that the Internet produces enough revenue to support serious journalism.

Print journalism as I knew it was the crazy accident of 100 to 150 years ago, when Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s needed newspapers to promote their businesses and were willing to do that in pages that otherwise covered famine in Cambodia and war in the center of Europe. Serious journalism coexisted with clothing and brassiere ads. That was a successful business model to support journalism and keep it independent of government interference. Now some people are saying maybe serious journalism has to become nonprofit or maybe government or unions have to support it. So the future is uncertain. I hope I live long enough to see what the answer is.

DAVIS: Then, you don’t blog?

FRANKEL: No, I don’t blog. I read blogs.

Marshall, who won the Polk Award, is starting a business. He’s no longer blogging by himself. He’s found a way to attract advertising on the Web; he’s hiring other reporters; and they are becoming a minijournalistic operation. A friend of mine, Paul Steiger, who used to be editor at The Wall Street Journal, has found a foundation to give him money, and he’s starting an investigative reporting group. He’s paying the reporters what they were paid at The New York Times and Washington Post. They will find areas of investigation and perform a watchdog function on local politicians or the national government. He raised the money basically from one family, making it a philanthropic effort.

So things are happening and people are experimenting. The Times itself is on the Web. They are trying to learn how to use it and whether enough advertising can be attracted to support it. It’s all in its infancy. It’s like Hollywood in Thomas Edison’s day.

DAVIS: What do you think of The Times new building, designed by Renzo Piano, which opened this past fall?

FRANKEL: The new building is impressive architecturally and in design terms. The new newsroom is so vast—built around an atrium—so spread out that it doesn’t have any of the grubby charm and sense of togetherness of the old newsroom. So I miss it.

The executive editor, like everyone else, has a totally glass-enclosed office, so the first thing he did was bring in a screen so that he gets some privacy when he meets people. But this is a new era, and they don’t need a newsroom in my sense with typewriters and linoleum on the floor. They need studios and cameras and all that nonsense. I hope it works for them. It doesn’t work for me.

DAVIS: Can we talk a little about your career as a journalist. I know that you were in Moscow, covered Cuba, and Kennedy. Did you ever meet Fidel Castro?

FRANKEL: I met Fidel only when he came to New York [April 1959]. I was on my way to Cuba. But when I was in Havana, I met a lot of his people. I was there six months, and finally they threw me out.

DAVIS: Are you eager to go back?

FRANKEL: No, I was in Cuba when Fidel was betraying his promise to create a democracy. His revolution was organized in the name of overthrowing a dictatorship. And he imposed a dictatorship far more brutal than the one he replaced. I saw this emerging, and in many ways it was worse than Russia after Stalin. Fidel was a demagogue. A very talented speaker, brilliant, but nonetheless a demagogue. He reminded me of my very young years in Nazi Germany. He had Hitler’s talent and gift of speech and got people excited and passionate about giving away their own freedom, all in the name of economic benefit and security.

He made a mess of that country. It wasn’t any good before him. And the United States was terrible in supporting the dictators over the years. So we have nothing to be proud of in the history of Cuba. And a Cuban patriot had every reason to resent the United States. But to go ahead and deliver it to the Communists and turn it into a poorhouse was no answer. I was there when all of this was evolving. I found out that Castro wasn’t a Communist to start, but was rapidly becoming one and using his connections to the Russians to promote his style of regime. It just put me off.

I loved the Cuban people. They were very democratic in spirit. They love Hollywood and baseball; they love their music and their art. They call even the highest officials “chico.” They had a brilliant future, and he just robbed them of 50 years. I hope that after Castro someone better will come along.

The problem with being a journalist is that you become intensely interested in what you are doing when you are doing it, but then you go on to the next thing. You don’t develop life-long attachments. That’s the negative side.

DAVIS: What about Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. My daughter, who just graduated from college, sees Kennedy in a very negative light.

FRANKEL: Kennedy was extremely deft and very clever, and he resisted the worst possible advice to start a major war with the Russians or invade Cuba and make matters even worse.

DAVIS: How long were you in Moscow?

FRANKEL: Three years, under Krushchev and at a very exciting time. Things were just starting to open up. After Stalin, people began to get a taste of not freedom but relaxation. Prisoners were coming out of the gulag. Housing was going up. The government was beginning to provide consumer goods, allow cultural exchanges. The two societies that were standing toe to toe as victors in Europe were threatening each other. Both had hydrogen weapons and space vessels. So you had Russia recovering from having lost 40 million people, and the United States feeling threatened for the first time. This was a period when both countries were afraid of each other for no good reason. But armed to the teeth.

So I found myself in Moscow at this interesting time, when no matter what I wrote about was of great interest to the people in the United States, who wanted to know everything about the Russian people. It was a fascinating period. And to have had that experience before I was 30 was a lifechanging experience. Max Frankel