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In Memoriam: Sydney Schanberg

George Salamon
July 11, 2016

by George Salamon

sydney-schanbergTHERE WAS A TIME, not all that long ago, when you could say with a straight face that “journalism is the first draft of history.” Today it is, more often than not, the last word in gossip. And that is why Sydney Schanberg (January 17, 1934 - July 9, 2016) became journalism’s magnificent anachronism.

Half a century ago, the New York Times hired the 25-five-year old Schanberg, fresh from two years with the U.S. Army in Germany, as an office boy. Twenty-six years later, after he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fall of Phnom Penh and the agony of Cambodia. He clashed in the early-to-mid 1980s with then executive editor A. M. Rosenthal over an op-ed Schanberg wrote about New York City, and when publisher Arthur Sulzberger removed the column in July of 1985, he triggered Schanberg’s resignation from the Times. Describing that event in The Village Voice, Pete Hamill called the paper’s treatment of Schanberg “unspeakably shabby.” In latter days, Schanberg was less harsh: “They didn’t behave like mentshn,” he said with a chuckle, using the German and Yiddish word for “human beings.”

The treatment of human beings, especially of those weak by those with power, has been at the core of Schanberg’s reporting.

For three decades after the end of World War II, his kind of reporting was praised and imitated. After his departure from the Times, he told a Washington University audience in St. Louis in September, 1985 that the Times now “shifts with fashion,” casting aside reporters who are outsiders, ignoring and defying popular politics and fashions. The journalism he and his fellow outsiders practiced stepped on powerful toes and often made readers uncomfortable. And that’s the way it was supposed to be done, and it was a role many newspapers delighted in playing.

SCHANBERG was not supposed to become a reporter. Son of a working-class family in Clinton, a Massachusetts mill town, he attended public schools, was admitted to Harvard in 1951, where he majored in government, held down several jobs, and did not have time to write for The Harvard Crimson -- which sent two of his classmates and future Pulitzer winners to the Times, David Halberstam and Anthony Lukas. Schanberg didn’t have newspapers on his mind. He was admitted to Harvard’s Law School, where he lasted all of three months. His exit was brought about by a fellow student's asking of the professor to relate the case under discussion to the idea of justice. “You want justice,” Schanberg recalls the professor replying, “go across the street.” Across the street was the Harvard Divinity School. When his family learned of his departure, they sat shiva for him, the Jewish way of mourning for a deceased family member. Young Sydney, no longer on the road to the Supreme Court, left for New York and worked for a maker of ladies’ undergarments until his “Greetings” letter from Uncle Sam took him to the 3rd Armored Division in Germany and writing for the division’s newspaper.

There he watched a real journalist at work. It happened to have been Arthur Olsen, then the Times’ head of its Bonn bureau, who attended a press briefing when a division helicopter had strayed into East Germany and then picked up the phone and, without notes, composed and dictated his story to the paper. “Wow,” Sydney recalled, “I wanted to be able to do that.”

He did even better.

The Times hired him as an office boy. Then he became a copy boy and published a piece on stickball in the streets of New York in a ”Topics” column open to employees. It was spotted by a sports reporter, but his department had no openings and Sydney was given a position on the city desk. He was a police reporter, and the experience opened up a new world for him; “It was my beginning step into journalism. I was thrown in with people you’re not likely to have dinner with, people you’d never get to know otherwise. I got to understand their strengths and weaknesses. The cops and the people they had to deal with. Most people don’t want see a cop unless they need help. He’s the guy they don’t want to see in their rear view mirror. The police beat was a democratizing experience for me, an eye-opening one. In a way, it was an extension of the Army experience.”

His eyes remained open for the next assignment as chief of the paper’s Albany bureau. State politics exposed him to the mediocrity and corruption in the political system. The lessons learned in the streets of New York and the corridors of Albany stayed with him when the paper assigned him to cover affairs in Southeast Asia in 1969. He watched what was going on at the street level and connected it to the big picture, to the political football game being played. And in that part of the world, the game had become very bloody by the time he arrived to report from India and Pakistan, from Singapore and Vietnam, and again and again, from Cambodia.

For him, Cambodia became the Anne Frank of the slaughter ignited by the Vietnam War: a small and helpless victim of the powerful and bloody-minded. In the case of Cambodia, that was Kissinger-Nixon and the Khmer Rouge.

In a dispatch filed on December 15, 1974, he reported how a “disheartened Emory Swank, American Ambassador ... finishing his tour in Cambodia last year... held his first and only news conference and told the gathering that the war had lost all meaning.” Schanberg’s next sentence laconically adds “No meaning has been discovered in the year since.”

No meaning, but horrific effects, as the dispatch continued: “The war has already killed and wounded at least 600,000 people and turned more than half the population of seven million into weary, hungry refugees.” And at home in Washington, Kissinger “has never seemed to place any obvious urgency or high priority on this little country,” just endorsed the carpet bombing of it with B-52s into a crater-covered hell. One survivor testified, decades after: “The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days ... Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers were [then] all for the Khmer Rouge.”

The USAF dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, more than we unloaded on Japan in World War II. Look at this way: Cambodia (69.9 thousand square miles) is about the same size as Missouri (68.9 thousand square miles). Historians have figured out that during some of bombing raids between 1969 and 1973 an equivalent of 15,400 pounds of bombs fell on every square mile. Glance out of your window in St. Louis or Kansas City and imagine the square mile around your house after such raids. The Communist led insurgents against the American-supported regime of Marshal Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge, numbered 4,000 in 1970. Three years later, their ranks had swelled to 60,000.

Schanberg understood what was happening to the country and its people. As early as November 5, 1972 he quoted a Cambodian receptionist at a Western Embassy: “We are the people who are waiting for peace to fall from the heavens.” Schanberg realized that “his remark is virtually a national litany.” The people of Cambodia were at the mercy of nations and forces beyond their control.

Instead of peace, bombs fell on them from American planes. And then, shells from the Khmer Rouge. And after that, they were imprisoned in a national gulag. And as always, Schanberg reported on the suffering of the helpless. In January 1975, as the Khmer Rouge was tightening its net around the capital, he was in nearby Neak Luong, where “every 15 minutes or so a shell screams down and explodes in this besieged town and another half-dozen people are killed or wounded. It goes on day and night.” He saw “bodies everywhere” in a military infirmary, and as he walked around the “shell-marked town one hears everywhere the sound of children whimpering.”

A month later he was in Phnom Penh and spotted “a 3-month-old infant, his body wasted by severe malnutrition,” lying in “a bamboo basket. An oxygen tube is in his nose and an intravenous feeding tube in his arm, which is shrunken into a twig-like thing.” The baby had been found by an old woman who took him to the nearest hospital, where treatment was stopped when the woman could not pay for it. By the time she got him to an international relief agency, “it was much too late. He died the same day.” In his usual fashion, Schanberg added a withering postscript: “Humanitarian relief for Cambodia has been given a much lower priority by the White House than military aid.”

In March, he painted a harrowing picture of life in Phnom Penh: “To see an emaciated infant gasp and die on a cold metal table in a clinic here, or to see a peasant soldier have his mangled leg amputated in a military hospital is to see Cambodian reality today. In these places, you hardly ever hear anyone talk about geopolitical epicenters or superpower détente or American foreign policy credibility.” At the American Embassy, they were still saying that “our side is more civilized,” but the parents of dead Cambodian children may not have grasped the distinction between civilized American bombs and barbarian Khmer Rouge shells that had killed their kids.

And when the barbarians stormed the capital in April, Schanberg caught the scene and put it into context simultaneously: “The spectacle of the Americans being evacuated from Cambodia with helicopters dropping from the skies and stony-faced Marines armed to the teeth protecting the Embassy evacuees from nothing, with curious Cambodians watching another American spectacle they did not understand and with Embassy homes being ransacked by military police immediately after the officials’ departure, is perhaps a fair epitaph for American policy in Indochina, or at least in Cambodia.”

CnASjeKXEAEU8h7Schanberg got out of Cambodia, as did the family of his friend, interpreter and photographer, Dith Pran. But Pran spent more than three years in Pol Pot’s labor/reeducation/concentration camps before the Vietnamese invasion at the end of 1978 overthrew the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and eventually he escaped to Thailand and then to the United States, where he landed a job with the Times. Schanberg had written about him in the paper’s magazine in 1980 and the story inspired the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields. But by the time the film opened, Schanberg’s relationship to the paper’s top brass had changed. Their golden boy and Pulitzer Prize winner had cast a cold eye on some dark sides of life in New York, New York, displeasing some of the beautiful people in the Big Apple and disturbing their enjoyment of America’s second gilded age.

WHEN SCHANBERG RETURNED from Cambodia, much of his paper’s readership was no longer in the mood for big causes. The “movements” of the 1960s --for women’s liberation, civil rights and nuclear disarmament—had played themselves out. The engineers of the disaster in Southeast Asia were dead or gone from the corridors of power. It was time to “move on” and put those “mistakes made” in Vietnam and Cambodia behind us. It was “morning again in America,” as President Reagan proclaimed. It sounded, to quite a few of his fellow citizens, like “it was money again in America.” The race to grab as big a share of it as possible was on. Winners were celebrated.

What about those trampled underneath in the stampede? Like the Cambodians trampled in the big powers’ war for more, they were mostly ignored or forgotten. But not by Sydney Schanberg. As newly appointed metropolitan editor, he tried to do for them what he had done for the people of Cambodia: “Cambodia was a forgotten place,” he said to me, “a few stringers covered it sporadically. The world was not told what was going on there.” And then he told. What he tried to do in New York City was to do the same, to focus on those forgotten, “the homeless, the injured, the casualties of the indifference and greed of big builders, bankers and other pillars of the Establishment,” as Pete Hamill summed it up.

But that’s when he went up against what Tony Lukas coined “Afghanistanization” in journalism, which allows reporters to focus on corruption and evil and suffering far away, but not close to home. A.M. Rosenthal wanted more coverage of the “golden people, the sparkling people,” Schanberg said. “He liked to hang out with them. I wanted to write about what was hidden underneath the city’s system. I fought with him almost daily.” Rosenthal is reported to have called Schanberg “St. Francis” and referred to him as the paper’s “resident Commie.”

Anyone who has read Schanberg’s description of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal expulsion of Cambodians from their cities knows that Rosenthal, even sarcastically, was talking rubbish. But Schanberg went to him and told him he didn’t relish the daily battles and that he didn’t want to be metropolitan editor any longer. They gave him the op-ed column, “New York.” “I still don’t know why they did it," Schanberg said. "What did they think I was going to write about?”

And, what did he write about, in those columns from 1981 to 1985? He wrote about how unfair the distribution of state aid was to school districts in poor areas. He wrote about how builders in New York were allowed to ignore safety codes: “Developers abhor sidewalk sheds as they do all safety requirements that might delay the completion or opening of their buildings,” he wrote in May of 1983. Pedestrians got killed. And as he did so often in his foreign reporting, he plunked in why that was so: “It’s got something to do with money.”

On February 4, 1984, he found the domestic equivalent of the abandoned Cambodian infant that had died of malnutrition. On the Tuesday of that week, President Reagan had told ABC’s Good Morning America about “the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say by choice.” On Wednesday morning, at 1:45 a.m., railroad police found a woman, about 50 to 60 years old, sleeping in Grand Central Terminal, her refuge from the bitter cold. They forced her to leave. Shortly after, she was found dead, slumped on the sidewalk outside the terminal doors. The medical examiner discovered that she had suffered from heart disease and acute bronchopneumonia, calling her death “cold-related.” Schanberg found something else “cold” too: “Her ‘choice’ was to stay inside Grand Central Terminal. She did not choose to be on the frozen sidewalk.”

He also slammed the greed of the owners of the city’s welfare hotels and that of corporations headquartered there, which had taken about $1 billion in tax breaks for supposedly “expanding operations in depressed urban areas. “Tens of millions of dollars” have gone, he fumed, “to such long-denied needy cases as General Electric, Metropolitan Life, Philip Morris…” The column’s headline was “Food Stamps for Tycoons.”

The city’s tycoons were not amused. Nor, it seems, was his publisher. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger did not like Schanberg’s take on Donald Trump. In a note he suggested that, surely, Trump must be doing some good for the city. And he requested Schanberg stop calling the developer “young Donald.” “I conceded on that point,” Schanberg remembered with a laugh.

But not on the important stuff. Each target was another straw on the camel’s back. The last one was one of his many articles on the billion-dollar project called the Westway, a proposed six-lane highway, much of it underground, and on a landfill in the Hudson River. It had the support of New York’s politicians, builders and bankers -- and from the editorial board of the Times. Schanberg called it a “boondoggle” and “scandal.” In August 1985, a federal judge killed it by ruling that federal and state agencies had given tainted testimony about its environmental impact on the river. It was dropped the following month.

What enraged Rosenthal was not only that “his” columnist had opposed the editorial page, but that Schanberg had indicted the city’s papers, including his own, on their coverage of the project. In his final column for the Times, on July 27, he had written: “The city’s newspapers, like the big politicians, have also ignored most of the scandal. The New York dailies, strangely asleep, run only occasional bland stories, sometimes just snippets –- rarely anything about the chicanery. That, too, is part of the shame of Westway.” That was too much for Rosenthal, Schanberg learned: “He went berserk and went to Sulzberger and told him ‘Schanberg has to go.’” The publisher killed the column. A two-paragraph announcement was printed about it on the bottom of page 18, in which Vice Chairman Sydney Gruson played PR hack: “…we have come to conclude after four years that a better column might be produced by another writer.” Schanberg was offered a position as “roving reporter” on the Times Magazine. He wanted his column restored. Sulzberger refused, and Schanberg left the paper. He learned from friends there that the Times had received more than 1,000 letters about the cancellation of his column. It printed excerpts from two.

In an interview with the Brookline (Mass) Citizen, Schanberg explained that the Times had no qualms about dealing with subjects like corruption in a place like the Philippines. But in his columns, he was dealing with other kinds of corruption as well, “corruption of the spirit and of behavior…We get a little more skittish about it locally than we do overseas.” And why is that? “The closer you may step on toes, the closer the toes get to the headquarters of the journalistic organization, the more loudly are the protests registered and the more loudly are they heard.”

His next posts were at Newsday and then the Village Voice. He did fine work for both, including solid media criticism for the Voice. He continued to focus on topics that make many of today’s publishers and editors uncomfortable, as a good reporter is supposed to. For him, good reporting was finding what’s underneath, whatever it is and wherever it is. A great example for him was the Boston Globe’s investigative series on abuse in the Catholic Church, for which the paper won a Pulitzer in 2003. “And they did that in one of the most Catholic towns in America,” he observed. “That took guts.”

Schanberg also wrote lengthy articles on the prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam. Penthouse featured an earlier version in the 1990s, while Pat Buchanan’s magazine The American Conservative and the Nation ran updates. His old paper and the other major dailies turned him down.

The glory and the conflict in Schanberg’s career illuminate more than what happened in the newsrooms of America in the second half of the 20th century. Writing about the unwillingness of the big media to print this POW story, Boston University professor of history Andrew Bacevich observed: “The feeble public response elicited by Sydney Schanberg’s reporting on the fate of American POWs testifies to our steely determination to ignore whatever we find unwelcome or inconvenient.” Schanberg tried to put a dent into that determination in his twenty-six years as a Times man and in his work after that. It got him a Pulitzer and it killed his column. The times and the Times have changed, but Schanberg has remained true to his calling.

George Salamon professed German language and literature at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth, and Smith colleges, worked as a business reporter and editor, and now writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News and Jewish Currents from the American heartland in St. Louis, MO.