A week of loss for jour­nal­ism’s stan­dard-bear­ers

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - David M. Shribman is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Pitts­burgh Postgazett­e. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.

One was a pi­o­neer­ing fe­male jour­nal­ist with a deep un­der­stand­ing of the totems and taboos of Wash­ing­ton. An­other was a pi­o­neer­ing tele­vi­sion broad­caster with a sharp eye for his­tory. The third was a pi­o­neer­ing busi­ness re­porter with an ob­ses­sion with de­tail. All were en­riched by a fig­ure they lived with: par­ents and a spouse in one case, a col­lege room­mate in an­other, a brother in yet a third.

Cokie Roberts. San­der Vanocur. Paul In­gras­sia. The three died within hours of each other, an un­usual mo­ment of mor­tal­ity that re­minds us not only of how frag­ile and ephemeral life is, but also of the pass­ing of an era of pro­bity and ci­vil­ity in public af­fairs that seems al­most an­ti­quar­ian in our amped-up world.

These three -- plus Lee Salem, the pres­i­dent of Uni­ver­sal Press Syn­di­cate, who nur­tured this col­umn and scores of cartoon strips such as “Cathy” and “Doonesbury” -- earned the legacy that all jour­nal­ists crave: fig­ures of in­tegrity and in­tel­li­gence who changed the way we look at the world even as they changed the way their craft was con­ducted. We in our busi­ness are all their lega­tees, and you as con­sumers of news are their ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

Cokie Roberts was the daugh­ter of two House mem­bers, one a Capi­tol Hill baron en route to the speak­er­ship when he per­ished in an Alaska air crash, the other a quiet but im­pos­ing law­maker who also was a diplo­mat. The pres­i­dent of the United States at­tended her wed­ding. She grew up in, and as an adult moved back into, a courtly house at the bend of Bradley Boule­vard in Bethesda, Mary­land, where the four lanes of a rush-to-work sub­urb sud­denly but not in­ex­pli­ca­bly turned into two lanes redo­lent of a coun­try road; the street en­gi­neers of the time knew bet­ter than to ex­tend the bus­tle of Bethesda to the front lawn of the home of Rep. Hale Boggs, the House ma­jor­ity leader and mem­ber of the War­ren Com­mis­sion. She mar­ried Steven V. Roberts, a force of na­ture at The New York Times and for many years a Cokie col­league on the mar­ble floors and, of­ten, in the clois­tered back rooms and hide­away of­fices of Capi­tol Hill. She and the for­mi­da­ble Linda Wertheimer, her NPR col­league on the Hill, knew more of the in­side work­ings of Congress than most back­benchers and half the lead­er­ship. She and Steve drove me home from work in the Capi­tol press gal­leries ev­ery night. It was a grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and they paid for the tu­ition, which was the gaso­line. But Cokie’s im­pact was only part in her work, which was not sim­ply pro­fes­sional but peer­less. It was also in the role she grew into with re­mark­able grace, as the grande dame of Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ists. She, along with fel­low New York Times wife Ju­dith Wein­raub, re­coiled and re­belled in their iden­tity as Wives of the New York Times and blazed a trail of in­de­pen­dence and ac­com­plish­ment that was an in­spi­ra­tion to a gen­er­a­tion of fe­male jour­nal­ists.

In a dif­fer­ent but equally po­tent way, San­der Vanocur was a fig­ure of el­e­gance and re­fine­ment in the rau­cous en­vi­rons of the press room. Work­ing for the Manch­ester Guardian and The New York Times be­fore as­sum­ing his prin­ci­pal role as in­quisi­tor and in­tel­lec­tual at NBC News, he was the fi­nal sur­viv­ing par­tic­i­pant of the 1960 Kennedy-nixon de­bates. He was a tow­er­ing fig­ure, but not loom­ing so large that my 8-year-old daugh­ter, at lunch with him in his Santa Bar­bara re­tire­ment, couldn’t share an in­ad­ver­tent off-color com­ment and prompt an em­bar­rass­ing laugh around the ta­ble.

At work, Sandy was a fig­ure to reckon with; he broad­cast all night and into the morn­ing the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot. In re­tire­ment, he was a gen­tle critic and gen­uine booster of those he chose to fol­low -- and when Sandy fol­lowed you, he read ev­ery word. He was pos­sessed of hu­mankind’s great­est at­tribute, the gift of friend­ship, and per­haps his old­est friend­ship was with his North­west­ern room­mate, New­ton N. Mi­now, who gained fame of his own when, as chair of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, he de­scribed tele­vi­sion as a “vast waste­land.” (It was no sur­prise that the ship­wrecked boat on tele­vi­sion’s mo­ronic “Gil­li­gan’s Is­land,” which ran from 1964 to 1967, was named the S.S. Min­now.)

“Sandy was equipped with deep in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal cu­rios­ity, which gave him ex­cep­tional in­sight into how gov­ern­ment suc­ceeds or fails,” Mi­now, now 93 years old, told me. The two men were neigh­bors in Wash­ing­ton’s Cleve­land Park sec­tion dur­ing the Kennedy years. “Al­ways ahead of the curve, Sandy’s re­port­ing en­light­ened our na­tion with his mind, heart, courage and wis­dom.”

The fi­nal fig­ure to leave the press room in this sad pas­sage was Paul In­gras­sia, a for­mer Reuters manag­ing edi­tor who shared a Pulitzer for his Wall Street Jour­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the man­age­ment of Gen­eral Mo­tors. The day af­ter he died, colum­nist E.J. Dionne de­scribed Paul as a “re­porter’s re­porter,” a de­scrip­tion that would have pleased Paul no end.

In a way, Paul’s heart wasn’t in the right place. It mi­grated af­ter his right lung was re­moved 22 years ago. But in the most im­por­tant way, it was in just the right place, some­times on his sleeve, al­ways at the cen­ter of his work.

Paul’s brother Larry, who held top po­si­tions at The New York Times, Wall Street Jour­nal and Los An­ge­les Times, pro­vides the best tes­ti­mony to his skill. “Paul could be a very de­mand­ing boss, an edi­tor who held re­porters and sub­jects -- and him­self -- to the high­est stan­dards,” Larry said in a sad email ex­change the day af­ter his brother died. (Paul once told Paul Gigot that if he couldn’t cease mak­ing er­rors he should find an­other line of work. Gigot won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in

2000 and a year later be­came the ed­i­to­rial page edi­tor of the Jour­nal, a po­si­tion he still holds.)

“Paul was in­nately, scrupu­lously fair,” his brother went on. “He didn’t care who you were or where you came from. What mat­tered was what you did. If you worked hard and did well, you were heaped with praise and en­cour­age­ment or got a story writ­ten about your com­pany that you liked. If you fell short, well, that would be an­other mat­ter.”

That was a qual­ity -- a point of view -- a hard truth -- shared by all three. That is why we mourn and miss them al­ready, even as we thank, and cel­e­brate, them for their work, their lives and above all their sa­cred honor.

DAVID SHRIBMAN NA­TIONAL PER­SPEC­TIVE

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