A Sense of High Purpose
by Edward Kosner
Editor’s Note: Edward Kosner delivered these remarks at a memorial party for the paper and ink edition of Newsweek attended by more than 300 former staffers held at the journalism school of City University of New York on January 14, 2013
This is the first chance I’ve had to speak to the assembled staff of Newsweek since the morning of June 27, 1979—the day after Kay Graham fired me as the editor.
So I’ve had nearly 34 years to ponder what I might say—never imagining that the occasion would turn out to be this one.
Over those years, I ran a couple of other magazines and a New York newspaper, all challenging and rewarding work. But the longer time has gone on, the richer the Newsweek years have come to be for me.
I know that the magazine’s triumphs will be extolled tonight and its foibles affectionately re-imagined. And there were many triumphs to savor and anecdotes to embroider. There may be some finger pointing, too.
Best Years: Still, I suspect most people in this room share my feeling that our years at the magazine were simply the best times of our careers, and perhaps of our lives.
There are many reasons for this. For one thing, Newsweek gave you the chance to work with the smartest and the most talented—if not necessarily the sanest—people one was likely to encounter in any one place at any one time. For another, the life of the magazine, with its hours out of synch with everybody else’s, its peculiar language and rituals, its legends and letchers—and there were
plenty of both—was a tight little world unlike any other.Even the masthead was somehow magical. A Nation researcher named Lordes Blanco-Fambona. A foreign correspondent named Count Arnaud deBorchgrave, aka the Short Count.
A bear of a Chicago bureau chief named Bruno. A peerless correspondent and writer named Liz Peer, who, among her many other talents, could do a pitch-perfect imitation of Kay [Graham] saying, “Un…fucking…believable!” A paragon of news magazine artistry named Gold… man. Top editors called Wallendas, who so often lived up to their namesakes by obligingly plunging to earth without a net.
Tough Love: As Lester Bernstein, the man who hired me at Newsweek and succeeded me when I was fired—only to be fired himself a couple of years later, as Lester liked to say: “Kay Graham must have loved her editors—she made so many of them.”
So there was heartbreak and misery, tears in the bathroom, bottles of bourbon in desk drawers—at least when I joined the magazine in 1963—rivalries and jealousies, brief encounters in the infirmary, and high anxiety on Friday nights waiting for the Wallendas to lurch back from their boozy dinner and tear up the magazine.
The Key: But what made Newsweek precious to me—and I suspect to many of you—was the sense of high purpose shared by all the hundreds of agate names on that masthead. Whether writers or makeup men, researchers or ad salesmen, photo editors, correspondents, interns or Wallendas, we were engaged each week in a common pursuit: to find the good stuff, to get it right and to get it into the magazine by Saturday night. To check on Monday morning how Brand X had done. And to start the process all over the next morning.
Unsophisticated as it may sound now to say, it was the closest to an exercise in pure journalism I’ve ever taken part in. No pressure from the business side. And any outside political pressure was stopped at the door by Kay and the top editors. As John Cheever once wrote to me after he joined us for lunch at Top of the Week—it was like happening “on a sunlit clearing in the woods.”
Writer’s Block: In my first six months at the magazine, I had to organize a big act on what was called the War on Poverty. The last element in the package was a tailpiece on how Lyndon Johnson’s poverty warriors planned to do it. For the first and only time in my life, I froze at the keyboard. Finally, on Saturday morning, I went into Lester’s office to resign in disgrace.
“Relax, kid,” said Lester, ‘It’s only a 25 cent magazine.”
Lester was right—I relaxed and whipped out the piece.
But he was wrong, too.
Newsweek was a priceless magazine and we are all fortunate to have been a part of it.
Edward Kosner joined Newsweek as a writer in 1963, became senior editor in 1969, managing editor in 1972, editor in 1975 and was fired by Katharine Graham in 1979. He subsequently edited New York Magazine, Esquire, and the New York Daily News.