By Sally Baker
The Pope of Journalism
The 1995 Lovejoy Award
recipient, Murray Kempton, is among the finest reporters and writers ever to
work in the American press. In a career spanning more than five decades--mostly
as a reporter and columnist for The New York Post and New York
Newsday--Kempton has been renowned for his elegant style and thoroughgoing
integrity, for mining important stories that others miss, for skewering
windbags and charlatans and for serving as a conscience of his profession.
But Kempton's vocational skills account for only a portion of the enthusiasm
with which friends and colleagues speak of him. They cite, too, his kindness
and generosity, particularly to younger journalists. "It's almost unthinkable
for Murray to be unkind," said writer David Halberstam. "He has a great mind
and a wonderful humanity."
Kempton was on campus in November to receive the Lovejoy Award and an honorary
Colby degree and to deliver the 43rd Lovejoy Address (see excerpt). He also
participated in a symposium on The Media and The Internet with several members
of the Lovejoy Selection Committee, including Bill Kovach of Harvard's Nieman
Foundation, Jane Healy of The Orlando Sentinel and William Hilliard,
retired editor of The Oregonian. The panel was moderated by Associate
Professor of Government Anthony Corrado and also included Portland (Maine)
Newspapers Editor-in-Chief Louis Ureneck, who chairs the American Society of
Newspaper Editors' New Technology Committee.
Kempton's friends and fellow journalists speak of him with extraordinary
respect and were anxious to contribute thoughts for the informal remarks
President Bill Cotter delivered at a dinner for Kempton before the convocation.
"If journalism had an ecclesiastical hierarchy, Murray Kempton would be the
Pope," New York Times columnist Russell Baker said, expressing
succinctly a nearly industry-wide opinion.
"There is no one in journalism who has a more detached, skeptical eye for what
is happening or a deadlier wit in capturing and dissecting it. I wish we could
clone him," said David Broder, a Washington Post political columnist who
received the Lovejoy in 1990.
"The reason people respect him is that he's never forgotten how to work,"
Newsday Washington bureau chief Jim Tedman said. "If there's a big
story, he's there. And he has an uncanny ability for finding the small stories,
for finding details that others under pressures of daily deadlines would miss."
Asked what makes Kempton's columns so good, writer Calvin Trillin said,
"Murray writes not about what people say but about how they behave. It's based
on the notion that people can find themselves in various walks of life through
no particular fault of their own, even if the walk of life is contract killer.
But then it's up to them to behave in a way that is honorable and con-sistent
with what they do."
Understand that, friends say, and you understand why John Gotti would invite
Kempton to the Ravenite Social Club to celebrate an acquittal, why mobster
Carmine "The Snake" Persico's wife sent Kempton flowers on his 75th birthday,
or why he was enraptured of Jean Harris but thought her shooting three bullets
into the Scarsdale Diet Doctor was questionable. ("As Murray saw it, two shots
into a cad are fine, the third was overdoing it," explained Bob Liff, a friend
Mario Cuomo, then New York's governor, tired of being criticized in print by
Kempton and called Newsday columnist and 1992 Lovejoy recipient Sydney
Schanberg. "What can I do to make Murray like me?" the governor asked.
Schanberg said, "Get yourself indicted."
The writing, though, is the core of Kempton.
"A 75-word sentence, sinewy and ironic and demanding, is something newspaper
readers seldom see," George Will wrote when Kempton received a Pulitzer Prize
in 1985. "Some Kempton sentences, climbing a winding path up a pillar of
thought, must be read twice to be properly enjoyed. But why complain about a
second sip of vintage claret?"
His style has often been called "baroque." Many of his friends like to tell
the story about the 1955 New York Supreme Court decision that makes him the
only libel-proof reporter in the country. The court ruled that a column he had
written couldn't be libelous because it was "frequently cryptic in meaning,
sometimes contradictory and only dubiously suggestive of matters defaming
plaintiff." The judges claimed that if they couldn't understand what he
wrote, the plaintiff couldn't either.
Such Kempton lore abounds. There's the rickety old three-speed bike on which
the 78-year-old Kempton gets around New York City, his ever-present three-piece
suit in a blue-jean world, the insightful one-liners that everyone loves to
quote. (Arriving late for a press conference given by Ed Koch, Newsday's
legend sat in a chair that promptly collapsed. "There's Murray Kempton,
breaking my furniture," Koch said.
"It's the people's furniture, Mr. Mayor," he replied.)
During the Lovejoy convocation, the self-depre-cating Kempton was cited by
Bill Cotter for his manifest contributions to journalism.
"You are, as you morosely put it to your friend columnist Jim Dwyer, `The
Elder Murray Kempton" Cotter said. "It is a mark of your unwarranted but truly
felt modesty that you find that Murray Kempton --with his Pulitzer,
his two George Polk awards, his National Book Award, his Grammy and his
membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters--irritating.
Fortunately, the rest of us find him intellectually challenging,
insightful and even heroic."
In Praise of Reporters
Below are excerpts from the Lovejoy Convocation speech by Murray Kempton, winner of the 1995 Lovejoy Award.
. . . It has been said somewhere that the one essential sentence in Holy
Scripture is "Thy Will Be Done" and that all else is commentary. Our trade
remains for me the story you cover, the bumps you take, the people you meet and
the struggle to make sense of it all in the only way we can ever hope to make
sense, which is by seeing, touching and smelling. All else is commentary.
I have lately noticed not in myself but in my bosses a tendency to think me too
old to go around as I used to, and I find myself sliding further and further
away from being a reporter and toward becoming a commentator and commencing to
rely upon what's in my head, an under-populated premise not enough different
from Rush Limbaugh's as a resource for public enlightenment and for the
stimulations of the self. All my life, when called upon to identify myself to
the Internal Revenue Service, the last judgement, I have preferred to enter not
journalist, not columnist, not commentator, certainly not author, but simply as
"newspaper reporter." And even now, when my entitlement to make that quiet
affirmation seems to diminish year by year, a newspaper reporter is as
fervently all I want to be as it ever was.
And so I am worse equipped than many of my predecessors in your Pantheon to
talk to much purpose about the responsibility of the media for earning the
trust of the public.
It may or may not be parochial of me to say that I am by no means certain that
we reporters ought to worry all that much about the dangers of lying to the
public. The public is, after all, an abstraction. We would far more serviceably
take care not to lie to or about the people we are covering. For after all, if
they can trust us, if not to be fair by their lights at least not to lie to
them, we may not be correct about them--who can be assured of being correct
about anyone else?--but we will not be false to them. When we go among humans,
we are unable to deal with them as abstract presences; their very faces command
us to be honorable, and once you learn not to lie to a face, you're pretty
secure from the peril of lying to the generality of the faceless.
I have lately been commissioned to review the two huge volumes of the Library
of America's Reporting World War II, a compilation of the journalism
from those days that seemed to its editors fittest to endure, although it would
have lain forgotten still without their curiosity and their initiative.
What struck me most in these men and women was not just how magnificently they
rose to the occasion but how much more they were able to learn than their
editors at the home desk or their audience at far civilian remove.
. . . Of all this noble company, Ernie Pyle, whom I never had much chance to
read at the time, stands above the rest because he most fully incarnated what a
reporter ought to be.
Pyle went again and again wherever the worst extremes waited, the unconscripted
man bound by conscience to the comradeship of the conscripted and enduring by
free will what they were compelled to endure by necessity.
. . . No reporter, however good, can avoid realizing that the novelist is his
better; but both know that the victim is in the end most of the story. Since
the victim is and probably will ever be less and less able to come to us, the
reporter who is worth his salt recognizes that his one commanding duty is to go
out himself and look for the victim.
And that is why I so much fear that the futurists may be right and that in time
to come the accountants will have had their way and the reporter will slip into
the category of surplus labor and affliction to the profit margin.
Searching for Meaning
Diversity has been a buzz word on college cam-puses for years, but seldom does
the word mean the same thing to different people. In an attempt to improve
communication and enhance policy making, a steering group has been formed to
build consensus on a definition of diversity.
Led by Student Association President Tom Ryan '96, psychological counselor
June Thornton-Marsh and Associate Dean of Residential Life Jan Arminio, the
group hopes to overcome misunderstandings created by differing interpretations
of diversity, Ryan says. "It's a very ambiguous word," he said. "People have
been upset in the past because when we talk about issues of diversity nobody
agrees on what that means. For some it means racial diversity, for others it
means religious or political diversity. It also can mean socio-economic
diversity. We would like to come up with a definition so there is some common
Ryan says the group, composed of 18 students, two faculty members and three
staff members representing a broad cross-section of the campus, will work
toward building a consensus, but will not impose a manifesto on the campus. "It
would be pretty pompous of us to say `this is diversity at Colby.' We want to
build understanding, not write a description."
Colleges everywhere are struggling with issues of diversity, Ryan says. "It
was a common theme among all of the student presidents I met at the World Youth
Conference [last summer in Korea]," he said.
The steering group hopes to present its recommendation to the trustees at
their April meeting, Ryan says.
Mark Greenwold, selected by three top modern art curators as the 1995
winner of the Jere Abbott Emerging Artist Prize, exhibited his works at the
Colby Museum of Art from November 5 to December 29.
Greenwold, a professor of art at SUNY Albany who is represented by the Phyllis
Kind Gallery in New York City, is known for his diminutive yet intricate
paintings, which turn the depiction of family life on its ear. Greenwold's
work, said Nan Rosenthal, consultant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's
Department of 20th-Century Art, "includes a number of neo-surrealist domestic
scenes of strife and psychological complexity. It is small, impeccably crafted
and highly imaginative." Critic Ken Johnson, writing in Arts Magazine,
called Greenwold's paintings "intimate, domestic dramas packed with mystery."
Greenwold was selected for the Abbott Prize by three of the most active and
influential curators in the United States, who represent top museums in New
York City. In addition to Rosenthal, the jury included Elisabeth Sussman,
curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Robert Storr, an artist and
art critic and a curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the
Museum of Modern Art.
The Abbott Prize was established in 1993 with funds from a bequest by Jere
Abbott, the first associate director of the Museum of Modern Art. It is given
biennially by the Colby museum, and Greenwold is the second recipient.
"A younger generation blasted by the errors and crimes of an older
one"--that was the promotional line for the Performing Arts at Colby's
production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which opened at Unity College on
November 29 before returning to Colby's Strider Theater for performances on
November 30 and December 1 and 2.
The play was directed by Maine's premier purveyor of Shakespeare on stage,
Richard Sewell, a member of Colby's performing arts faculty and the founder of
the Theater at Monmouth.
The performances were the culmination of a semester-long course for a dozen
Colby students, 10 of whom played double roles while also helping as
technicians and dressers. One of the production's goals, Sewell said, was to
explore ways that young actors can produce classical theater without the
equipment and support crews that often render professional productions
While Hamlet in its entirety would run four hours, the Colby version
was edited to two hours and 15 minutes with all of the characters retained
except for two ambassadors. "The play can be about so many things," explained
Sewell. "We are trying to make it particularly a play about generations; young
people smash up their lives dealing with the mistakes of their elders."
At printing time, Mayflower Hill was in the midst of one of the snowiest
winters in memory. Waterville received nearly three feet of snow by the time
Colby broke for the holidays in mid-December. Shortly after students returned
in early January, three more snowstorms in quick succession dumped several more
inches on the campus, creating snow piles normally not seen until late in the
Fortunately, the snow was uncharacteristically dry, which made removing it
less of a chore. Even so, Colby work crews seemed in a perpetual state of
catch-up. Alan Lewis, director of the physical plant, said that a pre-Christmas
storm dropped so much snow so quickly that the 12-person crew assigned to
remove it needed reinforcements. The crew arrived to begin snow removal at 11
p.m., Lewis says, and were still attacking sidewalks and parking lots at 7 a.m.
the next day. Lewis asked for volunteers from other physical plant departments
to help and was overwhelmed by the response. "Electricians, plumbers,
carpenters, custodians, everybody was out there shoveling," he said.
Lewis says that although the massive snow amounts are "nothing we haven't seen
before" he is concerned that continued heavy snow may create problems. "If we
keep getting snow like this we may run out of places to put it," he said.
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