Farewell to one of American journalism’s greatest

Sydney Schanberg was the greatest boss I never got to work for.

Back in 2001, I talked extensively with Schanberg about a new weekly newspaper he was preparing to launch in New York. He agreed to hire me, though the pay wouldn’t be much at first.

No problem, I said, eager to work in the most powerful city on earth for a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for whom I had deep respect.

We had a lot in common, two stubborn men who had each been driven out of prestigious journalism jobs, his at the New York Times and mine as the lead investigative reporter for the Sacramento Bee, because we had dared to ask important questions about very important people.

But then came 9/11/ and with it, funds for the new venture evaporated.

Schanberg went on to write columns for the Village Voice and I would soon be hired as managing editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

And today, Sydney Schanberg is gone.

From today’s New York Times obituary by Robert D. McFadden:

Sydney H. Schanberg, a correspondent for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and inspired the film “The Killing Fields” with the story of his Cambodian colleague’s survival during the genocide of millions, died on Saturday in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by Charles Kaiser, a friend and former Times reporter, who said Mr. Schanberg had a heart attack on Tuesday.

A restive, intense, Harvard-educated newspaperman with bulldog tenacity, Mr. Schanberg was a nearly ideal foreign correspondent: a risk-taking adventurer who distrusted officials, relied on himself in a war zone and wrote vividly of political and military tyrants and of the suffering and death of their victims with the passion of an eyewitness to history.

Indeed, if folks today remember Shcanberg it’s probably because of the hit film based on his book about the Cambodian genocide.

Here’s the trailer for the critically acclaimed 1984 feature film:

The Killing Fields

Program notes:

OSCAR WINNER: Best Supporting Actor – Haing S. Ngor, Best  Cinematography, and Best Editing.

A New York Times reporter and his Cambodian aide are harrowingly trapped in Cambodia’s 1975 Khmer Rouge revolution. After the war, the adviser is imprisoned in Pol Pot’s work camps in Cambodia, and the journalist lobbies for his release. Sam Waterston, John Malkovich and Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor star in this shattering true story.

Schanberg won a Pulitzer for International Reporting for his coverage of the Cambodian killing fields, and his return to the Big Apple should have marked the beginning and a rise to the top.

But Schanberg had a problem as one of his Times colleagues explained to me: “He covers the city like a damned foreign correspondent.”


Consider this excerpt from journalist Edwin Diamond’s 1993 book From Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times:

In the fall of 1977. . .Sidney Schanberg, his distinguished overseas service behind him, was back in New York, on a senior editing track, and being talked about as the “next Abe Rosenthal.” Like Rosenthal a decade before, Schanberg was running the Times Metro desk and seeing New York with the fresh eye of a a foreign correspondent. In a memo to Rosenthal, Schanberg proposed major new treatment of the homosexual community of New York, which he described as “ large and increasingly middle class. According to Schanberg, “many people still think of homosexual life in terms of interior decorators, Fire Island, and leather bars, but increasingly it’s also very much a world of lawyers, physicians, teachers, politicians, clergymen and other middle-class professional men and women who, aside from their sexual experience, live like their ‘straight’ counterparts,”

Rosenthal replied that while he would always give attention to Schanberg’s ideas, he didn’t “want a whole bunch of stories or a series. A great amount of coverage at this time would simply seem naive and deja vu. It was “a question of perspective” for the Times. “Yes, there are many homosexuals, just as there are many of almost everything in New York, I have a gut feeling that if we embark upon a series for now or a bunch of pieces, it would be overkill. And here he set down his principle of inclusion-exclusion, old hand instructing the new man: There is also a question of what we want to do with our space. Space is gold, The proper use of space is the essence of our existence, because it reflects our taste and judgment. . .It is the areas of taste and judgment that, in the long run, are our most important areas of responsibility.” Schanberg’s ambitious series never appeared.

Chris Hedges, a former New York Times colleague and fellow Pulitzer winner, described Schanberg’s experiences in a 17 July 2013 interview with The Real News Network:

Sydney Schanberg, who worked for many years for The Times, was eventually pushed out of the paper as the metro editor for taking on the developers, who were friends with the publisher and who were driving the working and the middle class out of Manhattan (so now Manhattan’s become the playground of hedge fund managers primarily), says correctly that your freedom as a reporter is constricted in direct proportion to your distance from the centers of power. So if you’re reporting from Latin America or Gaza or the Middle East as I was, or the Balkans, you have a kind of range that is denied to you once you come back into New York and into Washington.

Hedges had more to say in a 27 June 2011 essay for Truthdig:

Many editors viewed Schanberg’s concerns as relics of a dead era. He was removed as city editor and assigned to write a column about New York. He used the column, however, to again decry the abuse of the powerful, especially developers. The then-editor of the paper, Abe Rosenthal, began to acidly refer to Schanberg as the resident “Commie” and address him as “St. Francis.” Rosenthal, who met William F. Buckley almost weekly for lunch along with the paper’s publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, grew increasingly impatient with Schanberg, who was challenging the activities of their powerful friends. Schanberg became a pariah. He was not invited to the paper’s table at two consecutive Inner Circle dinners held for New York reporters. The senior editors and the publisher did not attend the previews for the film “The Killing Fields,” based on Schanberg’s experience in Cambodia. His days at the newspaper were numbered.

There’s lots more, after the jump. . .

The city Schanberg profiled in his column did not look like the glossy ads in Rosenthal’s new lifestyle sections or the Sunday New York Times magazine. Schanberg’s city was one in which thousands of citizens were sleeping on the streets. It was one where there were lines at soup kitchens. It was a city where the mentally ill were thrown onto heating grates or into jails like human refuse. He wrote of people who were unable to afford housing. He lost his column and left the paper to work for New York Newsday and later The Village Voice.

In today’s obituary for their former staffer, the New York Times described Schanberg’s departure this way:

After his foreign assignments, Mr. Schanberg was The Times’s metropolitan editor from 1977 to 1980 and wrote a column twice a week, with a focus on New York, from 1981 to 1985. It was discontinued after he criticized the Times’s coverage of the proposed Westway highway in Manhattan.

The Times offered him another assignment, but he left the paper after 26 years to write a column for New York Newsday, where he remained for a decade.

Here’s how the Washington Post described his ouster in a 26 September 1985 report:

Sydney Schanberg has resigned from the New York Times after the newspaper refused to restore his column and he rejected an offer of a position on the New York Times Magazine.

Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Cambodia and became a celebrity when his story was made into the movie “The Killing Fields,” saw his column on New York killed on Aug. 19.

Sources at the Times said that Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger believed that the column was too narrow in scope, but the cancellation came after Schanberg wrote a column criticizing New York’s newspapers, and by implication his own, for their coverage of the city’s ill-fated Westway Highway development.

Cost for the Westway project would have run close to $2 billion dollars, and prime beneficiaries were members of the city’s financial aristocracy, plutocrats close to the newspaper’s owners.

Schanberg’s weekly front page column was canceled, a demoralizing blow that led to his departure.

That was another point that made us natural allies, since my downfall at the Sacramento Bee was my refusal to stop covering a corrupt bank that had been financing massive real estate projects in California, including many directly beneficial to a close ally of the newspaper’s top editor.

The changed face of American journalism

Schanberg gave his take on the transformation in American journalism and its practitioners in a 2010 interview with Vietnam magazine:

I’m not here to make anybody look good or bad, I just have to tell what I find out. In any case, many reporters are really in the pockets of people, especially in Washington. They cover the Pentagon, they go on trips with the defense secretary and he’s a pretty straightforward guy, but his anthem isn’t theirs and it shouldn’t be. They are afraid of losing access. It’s not good. We need the tension, not because we have to demonize anybody, but because, at least in my mind, we really owe it to the public to tell people what war’s all about.


The press corps that sits in the capital is often the least aggressive because of all the access stuff. That’s not new. You know, you need to feel independent. And a lot of these people don’t.

I think that what I have become, at least in mainstream journalism, is someone who has challenged many of the mainstream media’s, let’s say, rules of the game. And so, I guess I’ve pissed off a lot of people. I don’t take that as a badge of honor, but I think you really do have to piss off a lot of people and you will automatically piss them off if you write about what they really do. Because usually, you know, it’s the same old story.

Most of the time, I enjoy being who I am. And sometimes, you know, getting rebuffed makes me sort of howl at the moon, you know. But I only do it for a few minutes and I come back in and get back to work.

The press and the first Iraqi invasion

Schanberg, who had covered war firsthand, was outraged in 1991 when the George H.W. Bush administration imposed tight curbs on reporters covering what would become Operation Desert Storm, the first American invasion of Iraq.

From a 1999 Nieman Foundation report, Operation Washington Shield:

The Administration engaged in intensive news management to shape and exploit crisis information far beyond the battle zone throughout the six-month buildup for the war, as well as during the six-week conflict. Indeed, the press was maneuvered into looking like a “voracious, insatiable” inquisitor to some Americans, and to others just the opposite, a “credulous…jingoistic…servile press.”

Surpassing any injury to journalistic pride, however, is the capacity that the Bush Administration has demonstrated for shrinking First Amendment rights in “a new world order.” A press so readily manipulated during months of preparation for war tempts fate in either peace or war.

Major news organizations that have protested “virtual total control” of the press by the Pentagon during the Gulf War have narrowly focused on direct constraints in the war zone—military censorship, restricted press “pools,” military “monitors.” From the first week of the crisis, however, the White House, Defense Department, State Department and other agencies used a dozen more discreet techniques to manipulate the substance, flow and timing of nonmilitary as well as military information to protect and support the Administration’s policy. These techniques included the calculated use of deliberate ambiguities, evasions, half-truths or outrightly misleading information.

The news management of Operation Desert Shield might well have been dubbed Operation Washington Shield. As journalists should know better than others, the less blatant the control of news, the more effective it is.


Organizations that protested [against explicit press controls] to Defense Secretary Cheney on May 1 were: four television networks—CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN; Time and Newsweek, the Associated Press, plus The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and the Cox Newspapers, Hearst Newspapers, and Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Newsday columnist Sydney H. Schanberg labels those groups the press that “behaved like part of the establishment,” and now is “feeling embarrassed and humiliated and mortified.”

Schanberg, who won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Cambodia, was one of five independent writers who joined 11 smaller news organizations in an unsuccessful legal attempt to block the Pentagon’s press controls on constitutional grounds, before full-scale warfare in the Gulf began in mid-January. Those publications included The Nation, Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Village Voice, and Texas Observer.

Schanberg argues that the problem the press has is “its own scars from Vietnam. And Watergate. We were accused, mostly by ideologues, of being less than patriotic, of bringing down a Presidency, of therefore not being on the American team. And as a professional community we grew timid, worried about offending the political establishment. And that establishment, sensing we had gone under the blankets, moved in to tame us in a big and permanent way.”

Schanberg on the second Iraqi invasion

British journalist and author Philip Knightley turned to Schanberg in an essay for the Observer on the even tighter controls imposed on the press during the second invasion of Iraq, one carried out by the son of the president who ordered the first invasion a decade earlier:

I found only one instance of an embedded correspondent who wrote a story highly critical of the behaviour of US troops and which went against the official account of what had occurred. On 31 March, American soldiers opened fire on a civilian van that had failed to stop at a checkpoint, killing seven Iraqi women and children. US officials said the driver of the car failed to stop after warning shots and that troops had fired at the passenger cabin as ‘a last resort’.

But William Branigin, of the Washington Post, embedded with the Third Infantry, witnessed the shooting. He reported that no warning shot was fired and that 10 people, not seven, were killed. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Branigin’s relations with the US military. For the rest of the embeds, the conclusion of veteran New York Times journalist Sydney H Schanberg applies: ‘Embedded means you’re there,’ he said. ‘It also means you’re stuck’.

But that is what the Pentagon wanted.

Indeed, because of its diminished numbers, American journalism is embedded journalism, with many once-covered institutions now left unsupervised by First Amendment-backed watchdogs.

With reporters so thin on the ground, institutional sources become ever more important, while the opportunities for real investigative journalism diminish with each passing day.

And if you’re curious, you might find a certain wry amusement in Schanberg’s takedown of that ultimate embedded journalist and former Navy spook, Robert Woodward.

Schanberg’s death marks the end of an era in American journalism.


One response to “Farewell to one of American journalism’s greatest


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