By David K. Shipler
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.
Ed and I were far from perfect, and we certainly didn’t always try to argue our stories off page one. But we were good friends even as competitors. For my part—besides the fact that he was a great guy and wonderful company—it was because I could always trust his reporting as solid, accurate, and level-headed. He was never a scoop artist, never one to dig out a small fact and blow it up enough to get it onto the front page. Such people existed, on my own paper as well as his. But when Ed got a story that I didn’t have, I knew that I should have had it, too.
I think his editors mostly listened to him, as mine mostly did to me. They were not constantly bombarded back then by screeching headlines from the video monitors that now surround them, so they probably took their cues more seriously from their own people in the field. They were not in a race against insolvency brought on by the wild upheavals in technology. Usually—not always, but usually—they were able to tamp down the hysteria that now grips the 24-hour news cycle, which propels “journalists” to say things, especially on the air, before they have had a chance to check what actually happened, as if under the motto: Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
Sorry to sound like an old curmudgeon, but most Americans do not get their information from the respectable Post and Times, NPR, and other organizations that have retained their basic standards of thoroughness and fairness. Those islands of solid reporting, while somewhat influential, look more and more like refuges of honest accuracy in a stormy sea.
This is not inevitable, and there are serious journalists creating online outlets to counteract the trend. To them I will tell this final story about Ed Walsh.
The Christmas letter that he and his wife, Michelle, sent two years ago revealed the news of his cancer, but not until the last paragraph. The letter began with joyous tales of family, and only at the conclusion did he write about the tumors. Now, I thought, this was taking the effort to keep stories off the front page much too far, and I teased him about burying the lede. He replied that he always liked to end a piece with a kicker.
So here’s a kicker (courtesy of Dylan Thomas) in the name of Edward Walsh, for all those reporters and editors on whom this democracy depends to fight to uphold his high standards:
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.