With panache, wit, and her own inimitable style, Lillian Ross discusses the questions of what makes a good reporter and what constitutes good journalism. Her years of practicing the art have provided her with much to say about these questions and nowhere is this in better evidence than in her own work-the pieces and profiles long recognized and admired for their freshness, originality, sharpness, humor, and truth. Excerpted here, along with her own commentary, are such classics as "Come In, Lassie!" her first, never before republished piece on Hollywood; her profiles of Francis Coppola, Robin Williams, Adlai Stevenson, John Huston, and Tommy Lee Jones; her two portraits of the Miss America contest-the first one published in 1949; the second fifty years later, and many others.
A primer on good writing, a tribute to the art of journalism, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism is not only a casebook for writing, it is the unforgettable record of Lillian Ross's joy in the pursuit of excellence in reporting.
Author Biography: Lillian Ross was born in Syracuse, New York. She worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1945 until 1987 and returned to the magazine in 1993. She is the author of 11 books, including the recently released paperback of Here but Not Here, and is the editor of The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town. She lives in New York City.
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Notes on Journalism
By Lillian Ross
Copyright © 2002 Lillian Ross.
All rights reserved.
To find out what is going on in China or in Israel or in California or in Kansas, I need and depend on the work of other journalists. My admiration for what I read in The New York Times or in The Nation or in the Wall Street Journal is unbounded. I could never do what their reporters do. I am overwhelmed by Marie Brenner's hard, factual reporting in Vanity Fair. I compulsively open The New York Times first thing every Wednesday and Sunday to Maureen Dowd's column. My Saturday doesn't start until I've read what Frank Rich in that newspaper has to say about what's going on in the USA. I listen reverently to what National Public Radio reporters and commentators come up with. In the Times, I used to look for Deborah Sontag's reports from Israel, but I would never be able to go there to do her kind of work. I depend on Rick Hertzberg or Joe Klein of The New Yorker or on Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post for insight into political machinations. I read newspaper stories about the entertainment business that give me background information for what I might want to do. But the stories I write grow only out of what I see and hear myself.
A straight news story in The New York Times (the kind I don't write) not only tells me the basic facts I want to know, but it also often sets me off to report and write a piece that intrigues me. From that aforementioned newspaper:
March 8, 1995. Late Edition. Final. Page 1.
Headline: DEATH PENALTY IN NEW YORK REINSTATED AFTER 18 YEARS; PATAKI SEES JUSTICE SERVED
ALBANY. MARCH 7.
Gov. George E. Pataki fulfilled one of his central campaign vows today by signing a death penalty bill into law, making New York the 38th State with capital punishment.
Mr. Pataki used two pens that belonged to slain police officers in a bill-signing ceremony with all the choreographed flourish of one of his stump events....
The measure passed by a 94-52 vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly at 4:37 this morning after nearly 12 hours of debate. It passed in the Republican-controlled Senate by a 38-19 vote....
Accompanying the 1,024-word story was a photograph of Governor Pataki signing the bill and another photograph with the following caption:
"Assemblyman Anthony S. Seminerio, a Queens Democrat, arguing in support of a death penalty bill early yesterday at the Capitol in Albany. The Assembly passed the measure shortly after 4:30 A.M."
The New York Times didn't say anything else about Assemblyman Seminerio. To me, the story would be about Seminerio, as a politician, as a man, in his milieu. That morning I telephoned him in his Albany, N.Y., office. He told me he was being given a party in Queens the next day and invited me to attend. So I did. Here is the story I wrote for The Talk of the Town, published in The New Yorker"In Queens, a King and His Courtiers" (1995):
Last week, a day after watching Governor Pataki sign the death penalty into law, Anthony Seminerio, the Democratic state assemblyman from Queens (Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Glendale, etc.) and a co-sponsor of the bill, drove his Ford Crown Victoria in the pouring rain from Albany to Queens, where, at La Bella Vita restaurant and catering hall, on Rockaway Boulevard, his election committee was giving its annual fundraising dinner for him. In the state legislature, Semineriosixty, a former corrections officer, very friendly, very popular, very ample in girthis given to saluting his colleagues (Democrats, Republicans, and Conservatives alike) on both cheeks with kisses. In Queens, where he maintains two district offices, with coffee and doughnuts available throughout the day and evening to all who enter, and where, he says, "when someone walks in off the street he's treated the same like if I knew him for twenty years," he is called "our most beloved assemblyman." In his assembly district of the past seventeen years, the thirty-eighth, everybody refers to him as Tony. And nobody ever assumes you might be talking about any of the thousands of other Tonys in the neighborhood.
In La Bella Vita, with the dinner scheduled to start at six, Tony was there half an hour early. His campaign treasurer, Arlene Pedonecheerful, energetic, hoarse-voiced, eyeglassed, earringed, with freshly coifed graying brown hairsat at the entrance table, opposite mirrors on a red brick wall and facing one stairway leading up and another one down to the rooms of the dinner. Arlene was assisted by a couple of duplicates of herself with lists in hand for checking off the names of the arrivals. Even as the constituents opened their mouths to announce to Tony their names and their organizations, Tony was hugging every man and every woman and kissing each one on both cheeks. Arlene was accepting happily presented checks ("No cash. Never give us cash.") for tickets at a hundred and twenty-five dollars each. The constituents crowded in, many of them also ample in girth and wearing shiny suits, walking in a rocking, sidewise gait, as though stepping, football-training style, amid tires.
"This is party time!" Tony said exuberantly. "Everybody's coming! Three hundred and seventy people are coming to pay their respects! The Corrections Captains Association! The Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. The New York Center P.B.A. The Continental Post of the American Legion. The Forest Park Jewish Center. The Knights of Pythias! Judges! Retired judges! Ex-district leaders! Only, my wife had to stay home with the flu. But they're all here, my son, two daughters, my son-in-law, my other son-in-law, my brothers, my sisters, my Aunt Betty, my granddaughter, four months old? To the President of the Sergeants Benevolent Association he said, "Go upstairs and hold my four-month-old granddaughter. She'll love you...."
Upstairs, the constituents visited the bar, attacked giant tureens of spaghetti, penne, mussels, meatballs, beef stew, eggplant parmigiana, and salad, and listened to someone bang out "I've Got You Under My Skin" on an electronic keyboard.... Tony found his granddaughter, wearing a white dress and a white tiara, uncomplaining and politically cooperative as he handed her around from one constituent to another.
"Tony, where's Giuliani?" someone asked.
"He had a function, otherwise he'd a been here," Tony said. "He worked for me in the election when I needed him. I worked for him, he worked for me."
"Tony's people cut across all lines," Arlene said.
"Tony!" someone said. "I hear you had a rough session. An all-nighter."
"Only till four-thirty in the morning. It was nothing," Tony said. It was the evening's only referenceand an oblique one, at thatto the passage of the death-penalty bill.
"We don't have to talk about it," Arlene said. "Everyone knows Tony is reflecting the will of his constituents."
Then Tony took the microphone from the electronic-keyboard man and addressed his constituents. "Without you lovely people, there's no Tony Seminerio," he said. "Now I'm gonna sing." And he did. He sang "Heart of My Heart."
Every word of the story above is selected carefully. The first paragraph identifies Seminiero, indicating his role in the passage of the death penalty bill; his political personality; his local base of power. Then he's shown in action at his party in relation to his constituents as he uses even his baby granddaughter to ingratiate himself with his supporters. Finally, his attitude toward the death penalty bill is characterized. The story ends with his singing "Heart of My Heart." All elements are revealed with facts, quotes, and actions; my own views are implied in what I chose to use.
New York has many power-figures, heads of large corporations and enterprises whose personalities and characters paradoxically camouflage their expertise, their finesse, their wiliness, and even their wealth. I like them. So many of them are funny, and they make me laugh. What they do in their work makes me laugh. They often remind me, one way or another, of L. B. Mayer. I liked him, too.
Here's part of a Talk story from 1986 entitled "Sam," about a real estate mogul originally from Queens, another kind of king and his courtiers.
Samuel Jayson LeFrak, the chairman of the Lefrak Organization, which is the nation's largest private developer and builder of apartment houses, is sixty-eight, fast-talking, loud-talking, and hardworking, with a heavy appearance, vaguely suggestive of an ex-fullback, and with the refreshingly self-appreciative manner of one who clearly likes what he is doing and the way he is doing it. He wears silver-framed aviator-style bifocals, sports on his left little finger a gold college ring with an almost dime-size ruby in the middle (University of Maryland, Class of '40), keeps a long cigar in his mouth ("I'm a chewer, not a smoker"), dresses conservatively (navy-blue blazer, matching pants, too tight shirts, bright knit ties), and tears around the metropolitan area in a telephone-equipped car from one to another of his three offices (Forest Hills, West Fifty-seventh Street, Battery Park City) and to his buildings.
He escorts on tours of his properties ambassadors, opera singers, friends, and relativeswife, Ethel; grown children Denise, Richard (president, as of 1975, of the L.O.),James, twelve ("Richard's sons; they're already reading leases"); and granddaughters Allison, twenty, and Jennifer, seventeenand trailing behind, usually, are one or more of his seventeen vice-presidents (in charge of engineering and construction, in charge of management, in charge of finances, etc.).
Mr. LeFrak ("Call me Sam," he says to anyone who spends more than five minutes with him and still addresses him as Mr. LeFrak, and "Call me anything, but don't call me late for breakfast" to anyone asking whether the name should be pronounced LeFrak, as in the Organization, or LeFrak, as after Sam, the latter being the original pronunciation of the family name in Paris, from which Harry LeFrak, Sam's father and the Organization's founder, migrated) is very fond of all his apartment houses, including those built by Harry before 1948, when Sam took over as president. It was Sam who gave names to the houses. When the L.O. was building apartment houses in Queens, Sam started naming them after states. "After I used up the states, through the Hawaii, I went to treesThe Elm, The Beech, The Walnut, The Maple, eleven treesand then I started on the collegesHarvard, Colgate, Cornell, Oxford, through twenty-six colleges. Then I went to the Presidents and used them all, but only through The Lincoln, to avoid the modern."
The other afternoon, in the Battery Park City office of the L.O., Mr. LeFrak waited with Maxwell Goldpin, his vice-president in charge of acquisitions, for the arrival of Frank K. Takabe, who is the president of the North America Taisei Corporation, a Japan-based engineering and construction firm that had expressed interest in the possibility of participating in the L.O.'s current project: Newport City, where the L.O., with the help of associates, built six huge apartment buildings, all with uniform window-wall façades and classical architecture, of dark brown and beige exposed concrete. The office that Mr. LeFrak and Mr. Goldpin sat inacross from each other at a long mahogany conference table capable of seating twentywas on the first floor, directly over a parking garage and adjoining St. Joseph's Chapel, a part of the edifice, and under thirty-three stories of apartments, all with large closets and all with built-in computers. Mr. Goldpin is a neat, pleasant man in his late fifties who has worked for the L.O. for thirty-six years.... Before buying a house in Roslyn, Mr. Goldpin lived in The Washington, in Forest Hills. They ate lunch: tuna and sliced tomato on a kaiser roll with poppy seeds for Mr. LeFrak, and American cheese and tomato on rye for the vice-president, with a Tab for each.
Outside four huge windows was the Liberty Street Esplanade (skateboarders, baby carriages, strollers, picnickers), which looks out on a splendid view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Hoboken Terminal, the New Jersey Turnpike, and, along the six-mile waterfront area on the west bank of the Hudson, the beginnings of Newport City, spotted with cranes, pile drivers, the outlines of the first six concrete floors of a planned thirty-four story office center, and the outlines of the first three floors of the initial thirty-four-story apartment house, which Mr. LeFrak has already named The George Washington of New Jersey.
"The Japanese are coming over, Mac, and I tell you," Mr. LeFrak said, chewing on his tuna-and-tomato with zest. "I don't need their money."
"You always told me the greatest privilege a person can have is to say no," Mr. Goldpin said.
"I like to serve the mass, not the class," Mr. LeFrak said. "I'm pleased that I can serve the people. Larger closets for less money! That's an achievement. Where I'm going you can't take stocks and bonds. What was Battery Park in 1968, before we got here? Rotting piers[ We built Battery Park City. I gave fifteen years of my life to this." He waved at the windows. "Now across the river we'll have Baghdad on the Hudson. Twenty times the size of what we've built here. The largest development in the world! Affordable housing! A place for the Yuppies! We'll build a hundred and twenty-one million square feet of buildings. That's thirty World Trade Centers."
"Certain people are motivated mainly by money," Mr. Goldpin said. "Not you."
"What's my objective?" Mr. LeFrak asked, and answered himself: "Heaven!"
"Sam, you're a genius," Mr. Goldpin said. "You know it. I know it, everybody knows it."
... They finished their lunch and gazed out the windows toward the rising Newport City....
Frank K. Takabe arrived, shook hands with Mr. LeFrak and Mr. Goldpin, and handed each of them, with a very slight bow, his card. A stocky, strong-looking gentleman, gray-haired, with heavy sideburns and heavy eyebrows, he, too, had on silver-rimmed aviator-style spectacles, but his were tinted. With Mr. LeFrak, it was immediately "Frank," and with Mr. Takabe, minutes later, "Sam." Mr. Goldpin left.
"Frank, we're going to create the eighth wonder of the world," Mr. LeFrak said....
Excerpted from REPORTING BACK by Lillian Ross. Copyright © 2002 by Lillian Ross. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.