BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Corry, author of "My Times: Adventures in the News Trade." Why did you write the book?
JOHN CORRY, AUTHOR, "MY TIMES: ADVENTURES IN THE NEWS TRADE:" I wrote it because when I left The Times, I wanted to go towards something rather than just leaving The Times, and I had a fellowship that year at Columbia. I was at the Gannett Center for Media Studies, so I started writing sort of a weighty book about the intellectual and artistic influences on journalism in the 20th century. And I wrote perhaps 100 pages and found I was boring myself to death. And so it changed into what's really a memoir. And it's a memoir about a moderately successful, moderately endowed journalist in the big city, blessed largely by chance -- or blessed often by chance -- and how that intellectual and artistic culture affected me and how I affected The Times and how we affected each other and how we affected the world around us. Now that sounds immodest, but it's a memoir, and I wanted to tell what it was like being a journalist in the late 20th century.
LAMB: When did you decide to get personal?
CORRY: When I read the first 100 pages when I was writing this sort of weighty book about the intellectual and artistic influences, I realized I was boring myself, and so I went back and I just threw out everything I had written and I decided to write a story I had written about Jerzy Kosinski. And Jerzy Kosinski is a Polish-American novelist, and he wrote "The Painted Bird," his first and I think greatest book, a Holocaust classic, and he wrote "Steps" and he wrote "Being There." And Jerzy became -- oh, he was a celebrated figure. He was on the talk shows. He did all kinds of things, but also, he was a fierce anti-Communist.
And one day in the early 1980s The Village Voice ran a long story about Jerzy Kosinski, saying that he was associated with the CIA and he was a plagiarist. And that story got picked up all around the world. It ran page one of the London Times, and this was at a time when Jerzy was speaking on behalf of solidarity in this country, and -- I was fascinated by that story, and I thought, where did that information come from? I mean, what is this business? I mean, I knew Jerzy Kosinski. I'd known him years before when I worked at Harper's. And suddenly -- he's a CIA agent, plagiarists write his books. Well, other people write his books. Well, I didn't believe it for one moment. And so I asked The Times if I could look into these charges, and I wrote a 6,500 word story that appeared in The New York Times -- I think it was probably way too long -- and I went back through a lot of Cold War documents and I talked to a lot of people in the Polish emigre community, and I decided -- and I documented -- Jerzy was a victim of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign, propaganda campaign. And so I wrote the piece in The Times. I was attacked for it for suggesting that an American publication could be influenced by this Polish Communist disinformation mill, but it was true. It had happened. And so then I began the book that way. I thought, all right, I shall make it personal. I'm going to write about intellectual and artistic influences on journalism. I'll write about something that happened to me. And so that was originally the first chapter in the book, and I don't know -- it's chapter 10 or something or 11 -- whatever it is...
CORRY: Twelve. But that's how it began to be a personal book. And as I kept writing, I thought, Well, what does it mean being a journalist? Well, one thing if you have status. You have a secret status in America. You get free tickets to shows. You get a better seat in a restaurant. People answer your phone calls, and journalists, especially New York -- you lead this secret life. You may not make an awful lot of money, but you have status, and so I started to write about that a little bit. And the status influences your personal life, and I was, oh -- I'm embarrassed because this is not a tell-all book and it's not a book about sexual escapades, but you meet a better or a higher class of women. God, that sounds so -- a terrible thing to say, but you can move outside. Most journalists I know, or at least in my time, were lower middle class, were children of an immigrant generation. And you can move into other worlds if you're a journalist. You have status. Your byline defines you.
LAMB: Where were you born?
CORRY: I was born in Brooklyn, and it was an Irish Protestant family. We defined ourself by our Irish Protestantism, and patriotic, God-fearing, narrow-minded, really quite nice people, lovely people. And bigoted -- oh, I suppose so, in their way. I was raised to think that the pope was going to take over America, and my goodness gracious, you could not vote for an Irish Catholic or a Catholic because, oh, who knows what terrible things would happen. The Knights of Columbus would run the military or something. I don't know.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
CORRY: It was an immigrant generation.
LAMB: Did you go to school around New York?
CORRY: I went to high schools in New York, public school and high school, and I went to a small college in Michigan -- Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
LAMB: How did you pick that?
CORRY: Oh, goodness, the real reason is that in those days, when I was in high school, there were no college advisers. But there was a big book called "Lovejoy's Guide To Colleges In America," and I was thumbing through "Lovejoy's Guide To Colleges In America," and I discovered Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and it was a town of 15,000 or less on the western shore of Michigan, and room, board and tuition was $990 a year, and I thought, Now that's pretty good.
LAMB: What year?
CORRY: I went there in 1950. I graduated in 1954 in this little college of fewer than, what? 800 then, and there was a little group of us at Hope College, and we've been together ever since. And when I'm in Washington, I stay at the house of -- they're all Dutch, you know, in Hope College, except me, so I stay at the home of Guy and Carol Vander -- Guy, 28 years a congressman from Michigan. And occasionally I see Bruce van Voorst, a prominent journalist.
LAMB: Time magazine.
CORRY: Time magazine. Before he'd been with Newsweek. I see Fred Yonkman, who was, at one point, executive vice president of American Express. And it was this little group, all Dutch except me, and we're all still sort of together.
LAMB: Go back to the book and The Times. How long did you work total for The New York Times?
CORRY: I began work in The New York Times -- my first day was January 7th, 1957. I remember that day. Oh, I remember walking into that newsroom and being simply overwhelmed and being so thrilled to be there with the old upright big black typewriters and linoleum floors, and I worked there '57 till 1968.
LAMB: By the way, just let me interrupt, because you mentioned the typewriter. Where's this typewriter from?
CORRY: Putnam found that someplace, and if I could find one tomorrow, I would restore it and I would use it rather than -- I love those old Remington Rand or Smith Corona typewriters.
LAMB: So that's the typewriter you're talking about back in the '50s?
CORRY: Yeah. The New York Times is full of typewriters like that, and I worked The Times until 1968 and then I heard the siren song of the new journalism, and I wanted to get rid of that old way of covering news, went to Harper's magazine when Willie Morris was the editor. And I had a wonderful, wonderful three years working for Willie and with Willie, and it was myself, David Halberstam, Larry King, Mitch Decht was the managing editor.
LAMB: Larry L. King.
CORRY: Larry L. King, the other Larry King. That's right. Lovely, lovely, lovely three years. Then Willie had a dispute with John Cole, who's the editor -- or the publisher, the owner of Harper's magazine, and Willie left Harper's, so his friends all left Harper's with him. And that was in 1971. So I went back to The Times then.
LAMB: How long did you wait, when did you leave The New York Times -- what year?
CORRY: It was '68.
LAMB: No, I mean, the ...
CORRY: And then I went to Harper's.
LAMB: The last time? When did you retire from The Times?
CORRY: Well, I think I'm too young and too poor to retire, but 1988.
LAMB: And what have you been doing since then?
CORRY: I had the fellowship at the Gannett Center, it's now The Freedom Forum, at Columbia. I taught one day a week at Boston University. I'd fly up there at the College of Communication -- had a lovely time. I am now the press watch columnist for The American Spectator. And when I finished the book, I had time on my hands, so I wanted to go back and do an old-fashioned piece of reporting, and so I asked The American Spectator if I could look into the POWs and MIAs. And it was something I just -- oh, I just always wanted to do that story, and so I wrote the cover piece. It's in the February issue of The American Spectator. And that was the hardest story I've ever had to write, because when you get involved in MIAs and POW’s -- it's like falling into the Bermuda Triangle, and there's all kinds of information and dis-information, and you're looking at this and you're looking at that, and you don't know what to believe. But I wrote the story and I'm proud of it. That's what I've been doing since I left The Times.
LAMB: Near the end of the book, you write, “I had never met a Republican in the newsroom.” Had you ever met a Democrat?
CORRY: Yeah. Now there's something interesting here. I think I'm talking about the 1980 election.
LAMB: 1982 -- “I remarried, stopped drinking and became a television critic.” That's the way you lead that chapter off.
CORRY: That's right. Right. All right, I didn't know any. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president. I knew of only one person in the newsroom who had voted for Reagan, and it was Hilton Cramer, who was then the art critic and then Hilton left a year or so later to become the editor of The New Criterion.
LAMB: Talking about The New York Times.
CORRY: Yeah. Now there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, that's perfectly fine. You can have a newsroom full of people who vote for anyone, but it's suggestive of where a reporter's vision, I mean, or an editor's vision, what it is they're looking at. And so if you're working in a newsroom that's full of Democrats or liberal Democrats, it suggests something about how news may be handled or what a reporter might think is an interesting story. Now it doesn't say anything -- there's nothing illegal, immoral or unethical about this, but it does suggest something. I mean, I didn't know any reporters, any editors who supported Ronald Reagan. But what? -- 53 percent of the American people did. Well, that says something about modern journalism.
LAMB: How about yourself? Politics. Do you consider yourself a Republican?
CORRY: Oh, no. I've never considered myself a Republican in that sense, but what I found -- and it really goes back to Harper's. You know, I'm a conservative and there's no question about that, and -- look, when I became the television critic of The Times and Abe Rosenthal, then the executive editor, my only marching orders were, apply journalistic standards to television news, television documentaries. That was all -- apply journalistic standards. And I did that, and I found that when I applied, in my view, journalistic standards to television news, I began to sound like a conservative. Now I am a conservative, no question about that, but it seems to me that -- oh, it's almost painful -- it's just cliche that American journalism exists left of center. The media exists left of center. And Abe Rosenthal, who had been executive editor of The Times, always knew this, and it was his lifelong task -- he was dedicated -- he was sworn to holding The New York Times in the center, in the political center.
And Abe said -- and I believe this -- that unless you keep hold of The Times, it will drift to the left because reporters and editors will simply follow their natural impulses, predilections. They will go off to the left. And so I began as writing television criticism and what was on NBC or CBS or PBS and applying journalistic standards -- what I thought were journalistic standards, I began to sound increasingly like a conservative and increasingly was labeled as a conservative. Now I didn't mind this. In fact, it was sort of fun, and I was a conservative in a media culture dominated by liberals and, oh, I confess that towards the end of my time as television critic, increasingly I enjoyed sticking my thumb in the liberal eye, and you can do it fairly. You can do it. You don't have to be sneaky about it, but I was increasingly -- I was reviewing documentaries about the Sandinistas, and if I never see another documentary about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in which they're shown as agrarian reformers or if I never see another documentary -- another report on Fidel Castro where all that we hear is about the wonderful job that Fidel is doing in education and health and welfare in Havana, well, I'll be awfully happy. But when you apply history, apply journalistic standards to those documentaries and, by golly, you will come across as a conservative. And I enjoyed it.
LAMB: You suggest that a lot of people in the business live on the West Side of New York between what streets and what streets on the Upper West Side?
CORRY: Yeah. One of the interesting things that -- look, everyone in the media in New York knows everyone else. If they don't know everyone else, they know all about them. And actually, it would be on the East Side where the people who run our publications live, and they live between 59th Street and 86th Street on the East Side and/or along West End Avenue or Central Park West on the West Side and a few selected suburbs. And views are spread -- I mean, there is not a media conspiracy. I'm a little bored with conservatives who run around talking about the dark conspiracy in the media and the media's going to subvert all our values or the media may, indeed, subvert all our values, but it's not a conspiracy. It's that views are shared. They're spread by osmosis, and they're enforced by moral persuasion, I suppose. The problem is that people think alike. People think alike, so, yes, if I was in The New York Times newsroom in 1980 and everyone has voted for Ronald Reagan, except Hilton Cramer, I mean, it tells you something about where the media is looking or are looking.
LAMB: How did they treat you?
CORRY: Well, remember, I'd been around for a long time, and I had a lot of friends in the business, and I still have a lot of friends with The New York Times, but increasingly in the '80s, I had the feeling that I was, oh, almost the token conservative, and sure, I was treated just fine. I mean, I knew all kinds of people there. I had been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in different categories, not as a reporter, so I was treated just fine. But I think when I left in 1988, and I left for a variety of reasons. One reason was that -- oh, I had grown up at The New York Times, and I didn't want to grow old at The New York Times. I had just known too many old reporters who were sitting in the back of the room and gotten sour and grumpy and were taking assignments from 25-year-old editors, and it seems to me that I didn't ever want to be in that position. And it seemed to me that my time was running out at The New York Times.
No, I wasn't fighting with anyone. I got along very well with my colleagues, but when Abe left -- Abe Rosenthal -- and Max Frankel came in as executive editor, it was a different vision of the news. It was a different way of putting out a newspaper, and in the beginning of that book, I speak about the people who've long since retired from The Times or otherwise separated from The Times who still refer to The Times as “we.” Now I still think of The Times as “we,” and even today, five years after leaving The Times -- and I go back to The Times for lunch, whatever, to see old friends. But you pick up the paper and you say, “What the hell are we doing with that front page?” or “What are we doing?” You are still part of the family. But the paper has changed so enormously, and I don't think I would fit in to The New York Times today. I have a different vision of news. I have a different vision of what a great newspaper should be.
The other day, on a Sunday, what was it? -- a week ago Sunday, I think, and I picked up The New York Times, and there, page one, there were seven stories on page one. I counted them. And now in the old days -- old only being 10 or 15 years ago -- the news journalistic philosophy was that you would give a snapshot of the world in the previous 24 hours: What happened yesterday all over the world? But the other Sunday, I picked up the paper and I looked at the seven page-one stories and not one story had a yesterday or a last night in the lead. All seven stories were about something that will happen or might happen or conceivably could happen some time in the future. Well, it's a different kind of journalism, and it, what was it? -- the same Sunday or was it just last Sunday? -- I'm not sure. And I picked up the magazine and I just happened to open the last page first and there was an essay on the last page of a Sunday magazine, and it's about penises, and, well, that's not The New York Times that I grew up in. It's a different kind of paper.
LAMB: You did tell the story in the book, though, about a story that you wrote or a column that you wrote where words were extracted and today are just normal fare.
CORRY: Yeah. Yes, and that particular word that was extracted -- oh, that was -- I guess it was in 1960s, and Masters and Johnson put out this huge survey about sex, and it was really about the physiology of sex, and so I went up to -- I interviewed Masters and Johnson. I had the sex beat for a while with The New York Times. It was interesting. And The Times wanted a very long story, so I wrote an eight-column story -- eight columns -- that's a lot of type. The book was about sexual intercourse. And so that story was edited for weeks and weeks, and the story shrunk and it grew and it shrunk and it grew, and finally, I said, “I cannot do another rewrite. I cannot make another change, and I will not make another change, and that's it,” and sure enough, they wanted one final change. And there was a conference. I think Clifton Daniel was involved in it, and Claude Sitton, the national editor, and Turner Catledge who was then the managing editor, and finally, they said, “We want -- one word needs to be taken out of that long story about sex,” and that one word was “penis,” and I said, “Fine.” So I wrote “the male sexual organ.” It was all right to use the word “vagina,” but we could not use the word “penis.” And as I look back into those dark and unenlightened years, somehow it seems healthier to me than picking up the magazine now and seeing an essay that's meant to be funny -- a whole essay about penises.
LAMB: You wrote earlier in the book, “I wrote a story about sex and politics in Washington and fell in love with a woman I interviewed for the story.” What time in your life was that?
CORRY: That was when I was at Harper's magazine, and as I said earlier, the book is not a tell-all book, but it seemed to me that there were certain experiences that I had as a reasonably well-known, moderately well-known journalist that I would not have had otherwise. Yes, I came down to Washington to interview someone. Instead, I met this woman and fell wildly in love.
LAMB: You were married at the time.
CORRY: I was in a marriage that was breaking up, and this hastened it, I suppose. And for three years, we had a relationship. We are still friends, by the way. Yeah, we are still friends. Now I would not have had that relationship with this woman in Washington if I had not been a journalist. And I would not have had a number of relationships that I've had, unless I had been a journalist. And so as a journalist, I mean, journalists have this dirty little secret in that they rise above their background, they have stature, they have an identity. Now they may be quaking and quavering inside, but, by golly, I was John Corry of The New York Times or John Corry of Harper's magazine, and everyone knew it. You live differently. You really do live differently, and I think that unless you watch yourself, you become a little arrogant and you become a little full of yourself and become a little intolerant of the views of others. And where I've lived all my life -- born there. I'll probably die there, but I'm not even sure if I really like New York. But it's really quite an insular world, and when I come down to Washington and I stay with Guy and Carol Vander Jagt and -- oh, I had dinner last night and Guy was off giving a speech or something, so Carol drove me over to Reston, Virginia, and took me to a restaurant and all kinds of young people there, very nice young people, and I thought, “My goodness, this is part of America I don't see living in New York.” It's the other America. I'm not aware of that other America sometimes.
LAMB: Besides writing about some of your love affairs, you tell us that you used to drink a lot.
CORRY: Yes, and I hope that I treated that discreetly. I did, indeed, drink too much, and there came a time in 1982 and I realized I couldn't stop drinking. I had had a difficult time during the decade before. I was a single parent for a while, which I loved.
LAMB: How many kids?
CORRY: Oh, two daughters and we get along just fine, and they have turned out very well, that I'm enormously proud of them, and the younger one's married to a young man at the University of Chicago Law School, and, oh, it's just worked out fine. But it was difficult during the '70s being a single parent. And I had been drinking all of my life because I grew up in a drinking family. And there came a time, 1982, I realized I could not stop drinking. I could not stop drinking. And when I realized I had to stop was I was reading the annotated "Alice in Wonderland," and I had a bottle of Dewars right here. And I went all the way through the annotated "Alice in Wonderland" and when I stood up from the chair -- I noticed the bottle of Dewars was empty, and I stood up from the chair and I fell pitch forward on my face, and I realized that I was in trouble. I could not stop drinking. Well, one reason I was drinking -- because I came from a heavy drinking background, but also the life I was leading. Now a lot of the reporters drank then. A lot of them -- I don't think that they do as much any longer. And so I went to the hospital -- McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. I was there five weeks. I had a perfectly lovely, lovely time. It was the five richest weeks of my life. I have not had a drink since then. I don't go to AA. I don't take Antabuse. I simply don't drink. And thank heavens, because I don't think I'd be here now.
LAMB: Who's Ermie?
CORRY: Ermie was my first wife. Ermie -- yeah, we were a part of the political culture of our time, I suppose. We were separated in, I guess, 1971, 1972. We had been having difficulty for years before that. And I'm not about to blame the breakup of my marriage on the women's movement, but it helped. And it gave Ermie an excuse to get angry at me and it gave me an excuse to get angry at Ermie. And so I remember Ermie coming home one night and looking me right straight in the eye and saying, “Women are simply better than men,” or something like that, and naturally I got angry and she got angry. So it was almost as if the political climate of our time allowed us -- or helped us -- it gave us a rationale for breaking up the marriage, and it was not a very good marriage. And for year and years and years, we did not speak. Years and years and years, it was nothing but bitterness and enmity and hostility. Now Ermie and I eventually became friends. I was with Ermie when she died, and she paid me a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful compliment at the -- great gift she gave me, and it was a couple days before she died. And a nurse walked into the room and Ermie said, “How shall I introduce you?” And I said, “I don't know. You can say ex-husband.” And Ermie looked at the nurse and said, “This is my best friend.” And that was after years of anger and bitterness, and I realized Ermie had given me this great gift, but our marriage became tangled. That's why I wrote about Ermie. That's why I wrote about the first marriage, because it seemed to me that that it was a part of the politics of our time -- the politics and the cultural history of our time.
LAMB: What's it like, after writing about so many other people's lives, writing about your own life and admitting to all these things in your life that weren't perfect?
CORRY: It is very difficult, and this is not a tell-all book. I tried to be as candid as possible, and if I did write about drinking or women, the notion was that I'd sort of relate it to being a journalist, but oh, that part was so extraordinarily difficult. Look, when I decided to write a memoir rather than this heavy book, so help me, it took me two months before I could type the capital letter “I.” I mean, I simply couldn't do it. I had never said “I thought,” or “I believe,” before. Yeah, it was difficult. It was hard.
LAMB: It's a relatively small book, 250 pages.
CORRY: Yes. That may be one of its virtues.
LAMB: Was that your decision?
CORRY: No, the book was supposed to be longer. It should have been longer. The editor at Putnam said, “This is becoming too much of a book about journalism. This is becoming too much a book about The New York Times. I don't think this fits,” and when she told me that -- good editor, named Jane, I say, I thought, “Huh. What does she mean, wanting to throw all this brilliant stuff out?” But she was right. It was absolutely right, because it's not a book really about The New York Times. It's a book about me, or it's a book about being a journalist, so, yes, it's short. And maybe that's one of its virtues. I'd like to think so.
LAMB: What was your role in the William Manchester book?
CORRY: Bill Manchester -- that, I guess, was the first big, big story I ever wrote at The Times, and it goes back to,what? -- the middle 1960s and there had been rumors at The New York Times. In fact, there were rumors all over the world that Mrs. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, was very unhappy with the book that she, in effect -- she and Robert Kennedy, in effect, commissioned about the assassination of President Kennedy, and the book was called the "Death of a President." And rumors, rumors, rumors all over the place that she wanted to block publication. And I was then a national news reporter, running around the country doing different stories, and the national news editor, a fellow by the name of Claude Sitton, a very fine newspaperman, came to me and said, “Can you find out about this?”
And, well, heck, I didn't know how to find out about it, but I heard that William Manchester was coming back on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth that day. And I got on a Coast Guard cutter and went out to meet him, and I tried to talk to him and he didn't want to talk to me. And I came back to the office and still didn't have a story, and I called Harper & Row -- Harper & Row, I guess -- yeah, it was Manchester's publisher, and I said, with one of those sudden flashes of intuition that reporters sometimes have -- I said, “I understand that Mrs. Kennedy is going to sue you.” I didn't know what I was talking about. I had absolutely -- I don't know where the idea even came from, and the editor at Harper & Row said, “My God, how did you know that? We just got the papers.”
Oh, I had just taken a guess, so I had the story first, so I broke the story. And, you know, it's odd in the 1990s to think how big a story that was in the 1960s. It was on the front page of every newspaper and stayed there for weeks. That story was just all around, and it involved the Kennedys, America's first family. It was Camelot. And I stayed ahead of -- that was the first big competitive story I had, and it was my first brush, I guess, with the Kennedys. And those were the days when you saw reporters wearing PT-109 tie clips that -- Kennedy's old torpedo boat. And it got pretty bloody because either you were -- it seemed to me that either you were on the side of the Kennedys or you weren't. And there came a day when someone from the Kennedy camp called me and said that the senator and Mrs. Kennedy would like to talk to you, but they'd like to talk off the record or not for attribution. And I was a young, quite unknown reporter, and I thought, No, I will not talk off the record. And who do they think they are? And either we talk on the record or, you know, what do they think they're doing? And I turned down the interview and boy, after that, it was all downhill with the Kennedys.
CORRY: As I said, in those days, you're either for them or against them, and so my sources dried up. Oh, I still got the story. I was still out on page one. But, no, the Kennedy connection with reporters and with the media were just extraordinary. To say, “No, I will not talk to the senator or Mrs. Kennedy off the record” -- I mean, it simply wasn't done. It doesn't mean I was particularly heroic. It just seemed to me that was the thing to do, that I shouldn't talk off the record. They shouldn't talk off the record. I didn't want to be suborned. And even then, I knew how easily a reporter -- I could be suborned. When I was a television critic, I wouldn't talk to anyone in television, and I wouldn't have lunch, and I wouldn't have breakfast, and I wouldn't go to cocktail parties, and I wouldn't go to screenings, and it seems to me that's what a journalist should do. Now one -- I'm a little bit unhappy with -- and always have been -- with Washington journalism. I think that too many reporters are hanging out with their news sources, and I don't like it. I don't think it's healthy. And I don't mean that the reporter or the correspondent, if he sees the secretary of state or the attorney general or whomever walking down the street that the reporter then has to cross the street. But there's enough of an incestuous quality to the American media, especially to big media. It's closed. It's closeted -- folks talking to one another. And it seems to me that here in Washington, this reaches some kind of epic proportions.
And I first became aware of that in the '60s working in the Washington bureau of The Times, and, you know, I was a young reporter. I was a desk man then. I came down to work on the news desk of The New York Times. I had a wonderful time. And I was so enormously, enormously impressed by Washington. I still am and I'm still sort of a hayseed when I come to Washington. I love to just walk around the Capitol and, oh, sit up in the visitors gallery. I think that's wonderful. I'm a tourist still, and I don't ever want to completely lose that quality in Washington. But in the '60s, working in the Washington bureau of The Times, you know, I had difficulty sometimes. Well, Scotty Reston was running the bureau, and it seemed to me that Scotty Reston just talked to too many famous men and that the journalism was based on talking to too many famous men. Yeah, there was an American establishment in The New York Times and the Washington bureau was its house organ.
LAMB: How did Scotty Reston treat you when you were down here?
CORRY: Well, one thing, yeah, I had never met Scotty. By the time I got to the bureau, Scotty was on vacation. He was in Europe. And oh, my goodness, I had heard so much about Scotty Reston, of course. And there came a weekend I was in charge of the news desk and the bureau, and I saw a little AP story that said the publisher of The Washington Post had just apparent -- it was an apparent suicide, Philip Graham and I thought, “Well, my goodness. This is a good story.” And so I asked one of the veteran reporters in the Washington bureau to check it out, and he was reluctant to do so, and he didn't know how to check it out, and I said, “Well, you call the police station. Call the cops.” Well, honest to goodness, the Washington bureaus in those days did not have the a contact in the police department. I don't even think they had the phone -- I don't know if they even knew where the police precinct was. Well, I had grown up in New York. I mean, I'd covered cops and you're a reporter, you talk to cops. But the reporter in the bureau this day in 1963 said, “Well, I don't know how to check -- I don't know -- I mean, how do I check the story out?”
And I said, “Well, you call the cops.” Well, he didn't know how to call the cops or whatever, and I said, “Well, get busy on the story anyway.” And he was reluctant to write the story. He said he wanted to call Scotty Reston first, and I thought it was simply a courtesy call, and it turned out it really wasn't a courtesy call. It was something -- the reporter was reluctant to write about Philip Graham's suicide. Suicide didn't sound right, and Phil Graham was a friend of Scotty's and Phil Graham was an important man in Washington. In effect, he wanted to clear it with Scotty Reston. Now I'm not suggesting that if Scotty said, “No, don't write about it” -- but the fact that he wanted to clear it with Scotty first, and in my youthful enthusiasm, I said, “Are you trying to tell me that we have to clear this story with Scotty Reston?”
Oh, I carried on. Anyway, Scotty came back from vacation the next day. I'd never met him, and it was clear that he thought I had usurped my authority, that I was criticizing him in the way he ran the bureau by -- Scotty Reston and I never got along, so I always called him Mr. Reston. I think I was the only at The New York Times who didn't call him Scotty, but it was a different kind of journalism that Scotty represented. He did many fine things to journalism, but it's a different kind of journalism. I don't think that -- well, I don't think they should be that close to so many famous men.
LAMB: You write -- earlier in the book, you say, “This is a splendid example and miniature of how much of my world operated. Arthur Miller manipulated The Times. I took over and manipulated "60 Minutes." We all manipulated the state of Connecticut, even if it is impossible to tell who did what precisely.” What were you talking about?
CORRY: That was a lovely story in the 1970s, I guess, and there was a boy in Connecticut -- small town in Connecticut, northern Connecticut -- Peter Reilly, who had been accused and convicted of murdering his mother. And Arthur Miller...
LAMB: Arthur Miller's mother.
CORRY: Pardon me?
LAMB: Arthur Miller's mother.
CORRY: No, no, no, Peter Reilly...
LAMB: His own mother.
CORRY: Peter Reilly, a kid from a kind of impoverished disadvantaged background in Connecticut lived in a trailer home with his mother.
CORRY: And the mother was found dead. The cops picked up Peter Reilly, and he was about 18 years old, and Peter Reilly confessed to murdering his mother. Now somehow, Arthur Miller, the playwright, heard about this. Mike Nichols, the director, got involved. Bill Styron, the novelist, got involved. And they looked at the evidence and they said, “No, no, no, Peter Reilly could not have killed his mother,” and they had all kinds of reasons why he could not have killed his mother, and the state troopers, they said, had forced this guy into making a confession. And they held fund-raising -- fund-raiser for Peter Reilly, and eventually -- or for his defense. And eventually Arthur Miller came to The New York Times and said, “You must look into this. This is a great miscarriage of justice. This young boy's confessed to killing his mother. However, he could not have possibly done it.”
So Arthur Gelb, the metropolitan editor, gave me the story, and I went up to Connecticut, and I investigated. I spent about a month up there, and I decided, “By golly, Peter Reilly did not kill his mother.” And in fact, I brought Arthur Miller to some homicide detectives I knew in Harlem. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Arthur Miller sat at one end of the table and all these solemn homicide detectives -- in East Harlem, not Harlem -- listened to Arthur Miller make his case, and, finally, the one homicide lieutenant said to Arthur Miller, “How far were the victim's panties pulled down her legs?” It was a homicide detective's question. And Arthur Miller didn't know. And the cop next to me -- a great big burly detective sergeant -- and he sort of mumbled to me. He said, “This guy's read too much Dostoyevski,” pointing to Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller was interested in the psychology of the case, and the homicide detectives wanted to know the facts. Anyway, I went up to Connecticut, and I investigated. I ended up writing two stories -- ran on page one of The Times -- a sort of series -- but before I wrote -- or before the stories appeared, I gave the carbon copies to Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," and I said, “Mike, I think this is a great miscarriage of justice. I think "60 Minutes" should do something about this,” and Mike Wallace agreed. So my stories ran in The Times, and then I guess Arthur Miller, as I say, had manipulated me and The Times. I manipulated Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." Together, the pressure was too much for the state of Connecticut. They gave Peter Reilly a new trial and he was acquitted. And it seems to me that was the way so much of my world worked; where Arthur Miller or whomever gets to The Times, The Times runs a story, someone else picks it up and something happens. And it really was the way so much of my world worked.
Now I truly believe that Peter Reilly was innocent. But, remember, I was an amateur investigator, and I did think, “My God, what if I'm wrong? What if the cops were right?” I don't think they were. I truly believe Peter Reilly was innocent, but what if I were wrong? What if we were all wrong and we had all staged this elaborate media circus with Arthur Miller and Bill Styron and Mike Nichols over here and then coming to The Times, and then Mike going up to Connecticut, and then I slip the stuff to "60 Minutes," and then we all pile up on these Connecticut -- pile on these Connecticut cops, then we get the kid off. I think we were right. I hope to God we were right. It was the way things worked.
LAMB: How often did a New York Times reporter pass on a story to a "60 Minutes" producer or correspondent?
CORRY: As far as I know, I was the only one who ever did it.
LAMB: What was your relationship to Mike Wallace?
CORRY: Well, in those days, I sort of knew him socially. As I say, everyone knew everyone else. And I had been to dinner parties with Mike Wallace, and we weren't each other's best friend, but I was convinced of the rightness of my cause with Peter Reilly, this boy in Connecticut, so it was natural for me. Now I didn't tell anyone at The Times and I also asked Mike -- I said, “You cannot run this on "60 Minutes" until it has appeared first in The New York Times,” and he honored that, or his producer did. And it was a casual relationship with Mike Wallace, but because I was with The New York Times and he was with CBS, and I had been to dinner parties with Mike, it was the most natural thing in the world. Now it's what I mean about the incestuousness of big journalism, especially in New York City or in Washington.
LAMB: Now long were you television critic for The New York Times?
CORRY: From the very beginning of 1983 -- something like January of 1983 until the middle of 1988. It was my last year with The Times.
LAMB: You say in the book that you liked Dan Rather because he had a sense of humor.
CORRY: Yeah. As I say, I would not talk to anyone in television. I didn't think that was appropriate. And if you're going to criticize someone in television, I didn't think it was appropriate to be their friend. And I also knew how easily I could be swayed. And I don't mention it in the book, but, once my wife, who was at the theater with her mother, who had come in from Denver to visit, and she saw Tom Brokaw sitting two rows in front, and she knew Brokaw slightly and waved to Tom Brokaw. And at the intermission Tom Brokaw very nicely climbed over two rows to say hello to my wife's mother, and I thought, `What a lovely thing to do.' Anyway, I couldn't write anything unkind about Tom Brokaw or NBC for six months afterwards. I am very easily swayed. All right, so I knew that I should not talk to anyone in television.
Consequently, I once attacked a show called -- what in the world was it called? -- "West 57th," the CBS show, and I thought it was just a terrible show. I thought it was an utter disgrace. CBS became very cross with me. CBS was always becoming cross with me. CBS was forever trying to get me fired from The New York Times. And one night, there was a big party at CBS. The news people got together and everyone had to wear a name tag, even Dan Rather. And Dan Rather thought it would be a capital joke to walk into the CBS party with an actor who looked like me. He got my description -- nondescript, middle aged -- and he walked into the CBS party and he had an actor who looked like me -- and no one knew who I was, of course, because I didn't hang out with those folks anymore -- with a name tag on that said “John Corry.” And apparently it became so heated at the CBS party that some news producer threatened to take a sock at of this poor actor who looked like me. But I thought, “Well, by golly, Dan, you have a sense of humor,” and I thought that was just funny.
LAMB: What happens when you write a story about Walter Cronkite that was critical or I think you also talk about putting something in a column that you'd learned at a party or something that ...
CORRY: Yeah. Look, one of the sea changes in journalism that I've seen from the '50s into the '90s is how very seriously journalists take themselves now, and perhaps they always did -- I don't know. But it seems to me in the past, journalists did not carry this great weight on their shoulders. And I was at a party once at Josh -- the director, Joshua Logan. He used to give these famous Christmas parties and all kinds of famous people would be there, and Josh Logan invited me to a few of the parties -- Josh and Netta Logan. And it was one of those parties where I was the only one there that I didn't know; everyone would be famous. And one day -- or one party, Walter Cronkite was there and someone said, “Walter, you can do the hula, can't you?” And Walter Cronkite said, “Yes,” and proceeded to do the hula. I mean he did it for about 30 seconds -- everyone stood around and applauded. It was done in great good humor. I mean no scene. No one was drunk. Just Walter Cronkite, to amuse the other guests, did the hula.
And a week or so later, I was stuck for a column. I was then doing -- I guess, the About New York column at The Times and I thought, I know what, I'll write about this party. It'd be fun to write about the party because it was a Christmas party and a lot of celebrities' names. So I had a sentence in there saying Walter Cronkite did the hula. Next time I saw Cronkite, he was very stuffy about this and said, “You should not have written that. And you were there at that party as a guest and not as a reporter.” And I said, “Well, I knew that. I mean, of course, I was there as a guest, but I didn't see anything wrong with writing about that.”
And I thought about that later and Walter Cronkite -- a perfectly nice man -- you know, very decent man was embarrassed at the thought that people would think that he did the hula. And I suspect -- well, now I thought, Now why in the world would Walter be so embarrassed by that? And then I thought about it. It seems to me that here Walter Cronkite, who had been a very good print reporter for UPI, I think, during the war, and then went into television for a while.
He was doing a morning show with a lion puppet called Charlamagne, and he used to trade jokes with Charlamagne. And then he did a series called "You Are There" and it would begin with Walter Cronkite saying -- I don't know -- “It is Troy, 3000 B.C., and you are there,” and then Walter Cronkite would stroll over to a tent and interview Hector or Petrocois or someone -- I don't know. And 10 years after that, Walter Cronkite was making these huge judgments on Vietnam. And Walter Cronkite is saying, “I've been to Vietnam and it's time to get out. We must make an honorable peace.” And that's a lot of weight for an anchorman to be carrying. I mean, Walter Cronkite was guiding our nation, but in the back of his mind, I always thought, my golly, does he wake up at 3:00 in the morning and think, “You know, I'm really an entertainer. What am I doing telling Lyndon Johnson to get out of Vietnam?” And so I concluded that a perfectly harmless reference in The Times saying Walter Cronkite does the hula at private parties probably embarrassed him, because he was carrying this great weight around. “Who am I, Walter Cronkite, to be sitting in my anchor chair telling America to get out of Vietnam, and I'm doing the hula at private parties?” I think he was embarrassed by it. That's one of the changes in journalism. Journalists now do this.
LAMB: You suggest -- and we only have a few minutes left -- that journalism began to change when Robert Frost read a poem at the Kennedy inauguration. Why?
CORRY: I think politics changed. I mean, no one remembers what Robert Frost said at that -- or what the poem -- I don't think it was a very good poem, as a I remember. But everyone wrote about it and everyone remembered how Robert Frost looked, you know, under the gray hair and the craggy face. And it was almost a triumph -- not almost. It was the beginning, I think, the triumph, the (unintelligible), of style over substance and that, henceforth, it wouldn't matter what you said, but it would matter how you said it. And we're on the way then for the age of what John Wayne and Jane Fonda, with their very weighty political pronouncements -- the substance became less important than the conviction with which one said it, or the appearance that you gave when you made the statement.
LAMB: What was it like working with Willie Morris? Who was he and where is he today?
CORRY: Willie's back in Mississippi and Willie gave me three of the nicest years of my life. And Willie told you to write and didn't tell you how to write; didn't tell you what to write. Willie's idea of an editorial conference was a couple martinis in the Chinese restaurant around the corner, and that was fine by me. That was part of the drinking, by the way. And so once I told Willie I wanted to go to Cuba, cover Fidel, and he said, “Well, let's talk about it.” We went and had a couple martinis and never spoke about going to Cuba. And then when I got back from Havanna, I said, “Willie, I'm ready to write,” and he said, “Well, let's go talk about it.” So we went around the restaurant, a couple more martinis and no instructions, but by golly he was on the side of his writers. He was on your side. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience at Harper's. No committees, no editorial conferences, except the martinis in the Chinese restaurant. And I had just -- I had left The Times at that point to go to Harper's -- The Times was a great bureaucracy and committee system. And to wander into Harper's in those wonderful years where Willie just looking at you and saying, “What do you want to write about?” And I'd say, “Fidel,” and he'd say, “Fine, go ahead and do it.” Lovely, lovely three years.
LAMB: You say you didn't like Ben Bradlee.
CORRY: No. He didn't like me either. You know, when I left The Times -- or when I left Harper's in '71 and The Washington -- I didn't know what in the world I was going to do and I was too proud to call The New York Times up and say, “Can I come home again?” But I got a call from The Washington Post and it was from Gene Patterson, who was then managing editor, and he said, “Why don't you come on down and talk to us.”
I went down to The Washington Post and they said, “How would you like to be our man in New York?” And I said, “Well, you know, what I'd really like to do is cover the Hill for The Washington Post. I'd love to cover the House of Represenatives.” And he said, “Well, we'll talk about it.” And I met Katharine Graham and she was terribly nice and we even had a drink and then -- you know -- and as I was leaving, I didn't say yes or no, but Gene Patterson, the managing editor said, “But we want you to come back and talk to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor -- it would be a courtesy call -- when he gets back from vacaction.”
So I thought, Well, that's fine. A couple of weeks later or two, whenever, Bradlee gets back from his vacation, I went down to The Washington Post, talked to him again. It was a snowy, rainy, rotten day and I walked into The Washington Post. And Bradlee was sitting in his office and he saw me waiting for him and he started shuffling papers and I thought, He's doing this purposely to keep me waiting. And I walked into his office and Ben Bradlee's first question to me was, “What makes you think you can handle this job?” And I lost my temper and I said, “But you came to look for me and you offered me this job.” And I guess we just -- the chemistry wasn't right. We didn't care for one another. And he thought I was rude and I probably was, and I thought he was -- what? -- I don't know what I thought. Maybe we're both right about each other.
LAMB: John Corry calls this a memoir. Here's what the book looks like, called "My Times: Adventures at The New York Times."Thank you very much for joining us.
CORRY: Thank you.
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