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Memoirs, Bad And Good


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The Monitor’s recent listing of worthwhile books on the media brought in a number of interesting responses, with many readers sharing their own favorites – several of which probably should have been included among the recommended titles and possibly will be in a future column on the subject.

One book not on the list but mentioned in positive terms by no fewer than four readers was Reporting Live, the 1999 memoir by veteran CBS newswoman Lesley Stahl. The Monitor was highly disdainful of the book when it first came out, but might the criticism somehow have been unjustified?

A rereading seemed to be in order, especially since the Monitor had something to measure it against, having just reread one of the volumes on the list – The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, an autobiography by former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel.

It would be nice to report that Stahl’s book read better the second time around, but it would also be a lie. The truth is, Stahl assaults her readers with writing that is at once pedestrian and predictable, devoid of any semblance of wit or insight.

For someone who’d been covering national affairs since the Nixon years, Stahl shows no evidence of having attained the sort of nuanced political understanding one might expect from a seasoned media insider. Her observations on the presidents she’d covered, for example, are dismayingly banal, conveying hardly any information not already known to even the most casual newspaper reader.

In fact, there is a quite definable lightness to Stahl’s effort, with the author devoting interminable paragraphs to fluff and trivia – her clothes, her hair, her fluctuating levels of self-confidence and self-esteem, her partiality to sling-back high heels.

Ironically, for someone who helped pioneer the art of feminist posturing now obligatory for women in the media, Stahl comes across in print as the most stereotypical of females. If at some points in her narrative it appears she just might be ready to go beyond the superficial and offer readers something of substance, she invariably snaps back to ruminations on lipstick and mood swings. The lady can’t help herself.

Stranger still, in a volume purporting to be an intimate glimpse into her life and career, Stahl does her best to leave no ethnic or religious fingerprints; those who pick up a copy of the book unaware of her Jewish background are likely to come away none the wiser, even if they happen to be such gluttons for punishment that they force themselves to read all 400-plus pages.

So the bad news is that Stahl’s book was not worth a second read (or a first, for that matter). But the good news is that those who expect a seasoned journalist to possess the intellectual wherewithal to craft a smart and engaging memoir can do worse than turn to Frankel, who ably blends autobiography with history and deftly places his personal story firmly in the context of the era’s most momentous events.

While Stahl’s Jewish background is a non-issue in her memoir, Frankel’s Jewishness permeates large chunks of his, particularly the sections detailing his boyhood as a refugee from Nazi Germany and his thoughts on the Times’s editorial stands and news coverage vis-à-vis the American Jewish community and Israel.

Unfortunately, though, because of his wholehearted rejection of Judaism’s religious core – a decision he claims to have made at a young age – Frankel’s Jewishness amounts to a pastiche of distant personal memories wedded to a passel of attitudes and assumptions having less to do with Judaism than with standard-issue New York Times dogma.

Still, he writes with admirable candor, often at the expense of the Times’s institutional reputation and his own journalist’s ego.

Among his admitted lapses and misjudgments: an editorial excoriating Israel for its 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor (Frankel, the paper’s editorial page editor at the time, had written that “Israel’s sneak attack…was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression”) and the Times’s inexplicably weak coverage of the 1991 Crown Heights riots (by which time Frankel had succeeded A.M. Rosenthal as the paper’s executive editor).

Frankel’s book – brainy yet accessible, destined for a permanent place on readers’ shelves rather than a quick trip to the remainders bin – was, no doubt, the kind of product Stahl’s publishers hoped she’d bring in. Turns out they just didn’t have the right author.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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