By Published on .

When I was in college I worked nights as a copyboy at the Daily News in New York, which was then the largest newspaper in the country and as sprightly a tabloid as you could want. A great paper to read; a great place to start your life's work.

About 20 years later when I was a publisher myself I was asked to lunch with executives of the News in a splendid dining room atop that handsome building on 42nd Street, a room I'd never been in as a copyboy. Over lunch people told yarns about the old days at the News. Great stories; newspapermen are good tellers of stories.

One was about the time the paper smuggled a camera into Death Row at Sing Sing for a photo of the first woman ever to be electrocuted in New York. Her name was, as I recall, Ruth Snyder, and she was a bad one. So the editors of the Daily News togged out their reporter covering the electrocution with a small camera strapped to his leg. The idea was that just as ol' Ruth began to fry, he'd tug up his trouser leg and snap a photo.

Worked perfectly. Next morning more than 3 million copies of the paper carried on page one the photo of Ruth Snyder's execution. The editors were delighted, the paper sold like mad, people were outraged. At a posh dinner party a dignified-looking gent was seated next to a society matron of a certain age. And when he mentioned that he was the publisher of the Daily News, the very proper woman stood up and threw her wine in his face.

Journalism is often a rough & tumble business whose practitioners are rarely confused with Maria von Trapp. And Joe Klein is hardly its first or only rascal.

Just two weeks ago a reporter for the New York Post was arrested for allegedly posing as a family member mourning a victim of the TWA crash and sitting in on grief-therapy sessions and pumping genuine mourners. What was it, 10 years ago that Janet Cooke cooked up a phony kid in the D.C. ghetto and won a Pulitzer at The Washington Post before being caught and sacked? How many reporters for how many papers have stolen the photo of a murdered child from the mother's night table to illustrate tomorrow morning's story? How many have needled a story just a bit to make it better?

The main stock-in-trade we have is credibility. If we can't be believed, we have nothing. The excesses reporters commit in search of a story are sleazy and often unethical. But they have the aim of getting a story. They just go too far in trying to get that story.

Janet Cooke faked a story. The reporter on the TWA crash faked credentials. There is a difference.

And Joe Klein lied to colleagues, lied to pals, to protect not sources but himself. And in the doing he implicated the editor of Newsweek, the solid, solemn, sober-sided Maynard Parker, who got so deeply into the affair that he let stories run in his own magazine about "Primary Colors" and its supposed authorship that Mr. Parker knew to be wrong. Mr. Klein put Mr. Parker in an untenable position but Mr. Parker was a fool to have gone along.

Now Rick Smith has suspended Joe Klein. They'll mull over the next step. Also taking its time to think over the situation was CBS. When I first went to work for CBS on its local evening news in New York in 1981, I opened on camera while typing and then looked up at the camera and started to talk. After a few weeks I was called in by the news director and handed a hefty volume of CBS rules & standards. Since I was only typing "The quick brown fox..." and not actual news, I was misleading the viewers. I was told to stop typing.

Joe Klein's been lying for a year and it took until July 24 for CBS News to take him off the air.

Most Popular
In this article: