Decline and Fall

Murray Kempton disdained the word “journalist.” He was a reporter, he said. To news people of his generation, it was an important distinction. For those who had taken a fancy to the trade, as he had, in the 1930s, “journalist” had the ridiculous sound of the local society reporter giving himself airs. A seasoned foreign correspondent whom I consulted in 1952 for advice about reporting from London cautioned that, over there, reporters actually called themselves “journalists.” It seemed hilarious to both of us, but I was astonished, on arriving in Fleet Street, to discover that it was true.

Kempton, in his elliptical manner, explained his view of the matter by recalling a luncheon conversation with Westbrook Pegler. Once a much respected sportswriter, Pegler had turned columnist and, in that role, incessantly attacked Eleanor Roosevelt with such fury that many of his colleagues suspected he had become unhinged. During their lunch, Kempton recalled, Pegler said “he had been misunderstood by those who imagined that he had been driven crazy by Mrs. Roosevelt. That, he said, was not the case at all. ‘It began,’ Peg explained, ‘when I quit sports and went cosmic. It finished when I began writing on Monday to be printed on Friday.”’

That gospel,” said Kempton, “has been so rooted in my heart ever since that I write every day for the next and walk wide of the cosmic and settle most happily for the local….”

The modesty is beguiling, but there is about it the touch of the confidence man pretending to be a simple country lad with mud between his toes. Kempton’s long career shows us a man with much more in mind than the simplicities of newspaper reporting. To make open confession of higher ambition was, of course, out of the question. The conventions of the newsroom demanded that anyone with complex ambitions keep quiet about them or accept the ridicule reserved for those who admitted to dreams of becoming the next Hemingway. High aspirations were permissible and even commonplace in every newsroom, but it was terribly bad form to announce them.

Born in 1917, Kempton had come of age during the Depression, when movies were celebrating the newspaper reporter as a glamorous champion of the persecuted and dispossessed. This movie reporter was outwardly a wisecracking cynic hardened by exposure to too many bad cops and rotten politicians, but, deep within, he was a man of moral principle. It being the 1930s, his sympathies ran against the rich and the powerful. He was Hildy Johnson saving a condemned innocent from the gallows in The Front Page, and he was Clark Gable teaching the snobby society dame Claudette Colbert how to dunk a working stiff’s doughnut. He was, above all, one with the plain people, a man with the cheek to insult mayors, police chiefs, and bankers. With a press card stuck in the greasy band of his battered fedora, he might be miserably underpaid, but he was gloriously independent and licked no man …

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