Phelps looks back on a long journalistic career, focusing on his 20 years at the newspaper industry's famous Gray Lady.
The author covers all the requisite bases, beginning with childhood, early struggles over spirituality and schooling and the conflicts he experienced as a pacifist serving as an enlisted navy correspondent. Phelps found his calling as a slave laborer at United Press, then was a copyeditor at the Providence Journal-Bulletin for a few years. The bulk of the memoir concerns his years at the New York Times, where he became news editor of the Washington bureau in 1964. In a clear, professional voice, he writes of bringing balance to reporting, getting the facts straight and digestible and generating the trust that readers must have with their paper of choice. He honed those skills at a time when Vietnam and Watergate were undermining American citizens’ innate faith in government. Phelps explores the Times' scoops and snafus during that seminal era, as well as dynamics within the organization that shaped how news was gathered, framed and delivered. Profiles of Times characters, from A.M. Rosenthal to Max Frankel, are trenchant, as is the author’s dissection of newsroom politics, but what sings is his short course on the journalistic everyday: “The lesson of the Pentagon Papers went beyond distrusting government sources. Whistleblowers should also be distrusted and should be checked as vigorously.” A reporter “should not assume the role of a defense attorney,” avers the author, “but of a judge, making sure all questions are answered.” In 1974 Phelps moved to the Boston Globe, where he played an instrumental role in the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of school desegregation. Though he describes this period as “a coda” to his Times career, it produces some of his most impassioned writing on the responsibility of newspapers to convey information as objectively as possible, so readers can make fully informed judgments.
A methodical, sober eyeful for Times devotees and a guiding light for aspiring journalists.