Do not go gentle into that good night

o13-iconDavid Shipler writes: The phone at Ed Walsh’s Jerusalem home rang during a small dinner party one evening in the early 1980s. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief, but the call was for me. In those pre-cell phone days, I made it a practice to let the New York Times Foreign Desk know where I’d be and how to reach me.

Ed said I could take it in his office, which was near enough to the dining room that the guests could hear my end of the conversation. An editor in New York wanted me to expand on a short piece I’d done on a small and insignificant event. They were considering it for the front page.

No, I said, please don’t. It will send readers the wrong message. It will inflate the importance of a minor incident. I no longer remember exactly what it was: perhaps a cabinet minister threatening to resign from the governing coalition, which always got New York excited although it was the Israelis’ routine method of conducting politics. Or, it might have been the time when a couple of Palestinian would-be terrorists crossed the well-patrolled border from Jordan into the West Bank, prompting a manhunt by the Israeli army, which caught them before they launched an attack. In any case, it needed to be reported but certainly didn’t rise to the level of major news, and I managed to talk the editor down from the height of what would have been embarrassing hype.

I returned to the table to see quizzical looks from a couple who were not journalists. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was for Ed, and we could hear him in the same conversation, working to dissuade his editor in Washington from overplaying the story. When he came back, one of the non-journalists laughed in amazement: I thought you guys were always pushing to get ONTO page one, and here you were trying to stay OFF!

Ed and I had violated the stereotypes of the hard-bitten newsroom in The Front Page, and we joked about that evening for years afterwards. I guess we tried to explain to the bemused guests that it was not the first time that Washington and New York had exaggerated the gravity of developments in Israel, that we thought our responsibility as correspondents included perspective and sober judgment. Ed must have given his crooked smile and a twinkle of irreverence for those in power, as he did wherever he encountered them–whether among politicians or editors.

Ed died on Valentine’s Day. I find myself wondering if his breed of reporter is dying too. The pressures in this age of cable and Internet and gotcha journalism work against the lower key. They promote self-promotion. They induce hype. And they distort reality as a result. [Continue reading…]

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