Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Eyewitness to History
Tom Wicker, who died last week at the age of 85, was one of Scotty’s boys, a group of journalists — also including Anthony Lewis, Max Frankel and Russell Baker — who were recruited for the New York Times Washington bureau in the late Fifties and early Sixties by its chief, James “Scotty” Reston. It was, along with the team Edward R. Murrow recruited for CBS radio in the late 1930s, one of the greatest assemblies of journalistic talent in the 20th Century.
Wicker went on to succeed Reston as bureau chief in 1964 and was probably best known as a Times columnist. For a quarter of a century, his “In the Nation” was one of the paper’s op-ed anchors, skeptical of authority and arguing for civil rights and fairness. When Watergate was a breaking story, the two columnists I always looked forward to reading on the subject were Wicker and Mary McGrory of the Washington Star. There was a reason they were on Nixon’s enemies list.
In addition to his column, Wicker wrote books, narrated documentaries and sometimes intervened in news situations. Most famously, that occurred at Attica, where he was one of a handful of civilians who tried to mediate a solution to the hostage situation at that state prison. It ended badly, with a bloody shootout, but in his book, which appeared a few years later, Wicker was more sympathetic to the inmates than to the authorities.
His life, however, is inextricably linked to a single event. In the fall of 1963 the Times sent him on a presidential road trip that wasn’t expected to generate much in the way of news. Wicker was riding in a press bus behind John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas when the shooting started, and was the only Times reporter on the scene. The magnitude of the task facing Wicker that day was described a few years later by Gay Talese in his book The Kingdom and the Power:
“During the next few hours the details began to pile up … there were truths, half-truths, errors, illusions, rumors, secondhand accounts, thirdhand accounts — all these were passed freely to the press, were circulated among them, and there was very little time to check these facts or allegations. Wicker and the rest (of the reporters at the scene) had to go largely on instinct, the totality of their experience so far in life, their insight into others, a special sense that good reporters develop and use in a time of crisis …
“Wicker was writing for history … If there were major errors in Wicker’s story, which there were not, they, too, would survive, degrading Wicker among his colleagues but degrading the Times much more among its readers, not only the million or so who would see the story that day, but also those who would read it a half-century from now, the students and historians who would be turning it up again and again on microfilm.”
Microfilm? What a blast from the past. After hearing of Wicker’s death, I looked up the story online from the comfort of my home (www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/1122.html) and it was indeed impressive — stunning in its completeness and factual accuracy, especially considering how little was known in the chaos and immediate aftermath of the assassination. All the more so, given that of the 106 paragraphs, only one described something Wicker actually saw with his own eyes: Jackie Kennedy walking out the emergency entrance of Parkland Hospital after the president had been pronounced dead.
Anybody can send a tweet or shoot a video on a cell phone these days, and those things have indisputably added to the overall level of raw information. But real journalism isn’t about capturing a scene or a moment; it’s about pulling together a broad range of information from a broad range of sources and making knowledgeable, nuanced sense of it, often in a hell of a hurry. It is no job for an amateur, and it has humbled many a professional. Wicker’s passing and his singular achievement remind us of that at a time when we seem to be forgetting.