September 13, 2006
Ed Kosner, sharp newsman that he is, knows how to pique curiosity with a clever head. It's News to Me, the title of his book about his fabulous 40 + years as an editor in print journalism, could be taken as an expression of the surprise he felt on discovering how much chance can determine one's life and career, a point he stresses in the last chapter of this absorbing — and sobering — memoir.
But the "It" in the title may also reflect Kosner's passionate newsman's take on the world, seeing everything and everyone as a potential news story. Certainly, from his college days at CCNY, where he reigned over the campus newspaper, to his forced walking away in 2003 from Mort Zuckerman's New York Daily News, Kosner seems to have been driven to pursue a profession he loved (even though, in a disquieting penultimate chapter, he refers to journalism as a "craft," as does Pete Hamill, who provides an affectionate and appreciative introduction to Kosner's memoir).
Semantics aside, it is especially because print journalism was for Ed Kosner a "pro-fession," a matter of faith, a taking of vows to be honest, direct and dedicated — he memorized the Times Manual of Style, he says, better than his "bar mitzvah chant" — that It's News To Me warrants attention.
Though he apologizes for ending his chronicle on a "lugubrious" note, he delivers toward the end an impressive analysis of the state of print journalism today. That section, and the last chapter, a monitory address to the graduating class of Bronx H.S. of Science, his alma mater, should be required reading in journalism classes.
Some of those who rode with Kosner on the journalism "carousel," up one day, down the next, changing horses but still going around in the same circle, may take issue with his assessments. Subtitled "The Making and Unmaking of An Editor," It's News to Me presents an author of admirable candor, including an occasional bout of self-deprecation, but also one who would seem to attribute much of his success to his own doing (intelligence, efficiency), and much of his "unmaking" to unstable, manipulative media magnates and their minions.
Still, despite his admission of a "sense of entitlement" that dogged him through much of his life, Kosner comes across as someone who had neither the means nor the heart to act imperiously.
Though It's News To Me qualifies as an exposé, it can be assumed that Kosner keeps a lot under his editorial cap. The world in which he moved — powerful, fiercely competitive, not to mention litigious — was (and still is) populated by major players and ambitious wannabes, many erratic, infected with tics, arrogance and greed, among them Kay Graham, Clay Felker, Harold Evans, Rupert Murdoch and most particularly Mort Zuckerman, who gets a whole chapter to himself, called, with Rothian irony, "Zuckerman Unbound."
The upshot is that what Kosner discloses, with quotation marks, fascinates: back stabbing, sucking up, waste, compromise, stupidity, lying. It's the strength of this book, not to mention of the author, that he owns up to a certain amount of ambivalence — hating but also sympathizing with some of those who made his professional life hell.
Ed Kosner was at the top of some of the nation's most influential and widely read newspapers and cultural magazines — Newsweek, The New York Post (both old and new), New York Magazine, Esquire and The New York Daily News when they were at the height of their power and during the country's most tumultuous times — sometimes functioning as both manager and editor-in-chief, trying to bring order to a "disorderly, even a rowdy trade."
For readers of Kosner's generation (he's 69), the opening chapters will provide a joyful, sentimental trip down memory lane, and for all, an instructive and cautionary tale about the "profound and dangerous" changes being wrought by technology on print journalism.
"The older readers are dying off and the younger ones are glued to their computer keyboards," radio, TV, cell phones, getting a quick fix instead of thoughtful prose, "dogma and doctrine" in place of discourse. It's News to Me is more than a memoir; it's a wake up call.
Ed Kosner will be signing books at Barnes & Noble, 1972 Broadway, on September 27, 7 p.m.
It's News to Me by Edward Kosner. Thunder's Mouth Press, 334 pp., index, pics. $27.95.