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Old Guard, New Venue: From There To Here In Six Short Decades

rappleyeMy name is Bill Rappleye. I’m 85. I started as a copy boy right after the war – that war, WWII – and have spent my life in journalism in the sixty-plus years since. I started at Time magazine in 1947, and worked my way up to a couple of dream assignments– Southwest: Bureau Chief and National Economic Correspondent. From then on, I was lucky to have a career made up of great jobs: in finance and the financial media at important-sounding names like American Banker, Financial World, First National Bank of Chicago, and Financier, the Journal of Private Sector Policy, with important-sounding titles, like Columnist, Founding Editor, Publisher.

Are they important-sounding today? Less so, and the dream assignments are changing. But the reasons we want to take them on are not. Jefferson set them out back in 1816, and in my view they are no less important today:

“The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. Sounds simple, but there are a lot of ifs in there. What if the press isn’t free – because no one can afford to run it? How can we trust that “information”? Can tracking “the functionaries of government” be entrusted to citizen journalists? I’ve seen change in my time, but this seems…different. Back then, I was flat-out focused on the work at hand, noticing, if not particularly involved in, the ways journalism changed in the various ways it was delivered. Enormous as they were – radio grew up, TV shouldered it aside, radio recovered, TV overwhelmed photo journalism, cable muscled its way into the picture — they were wrenching to the sectors, but not crippling to the calling.

Now, though, the very living of the calling is under threat — or maybe promise. This wild new world of change — in resources, standards, economics, reach, form and focus — is already making big differences in the way the profession works. Frantic speculation, concern (or not) over consequences, experiments wacky or wonderful…What in the world is going on?

That is what I will try to explore in this column, framed by my 60 years in the business, reporting on the big-picture thinking of giants like Walter Wriston, David Rockefeller, Paul Volcker, Lew Preston, Robert McNamara (at the World Bank), Don Rumsfeld (at Searle), Jack Welch, Steve Bechtel (even, in an earlier incarnation, Bear Bryant). Bill Simon told me “The Shah of Iran is a nut”, in a candid departure from policy talk; Arthur Burns, short of change, borrowed ten pfennigs from me to use for an Austrian pay toilet (he offered to pay it back, but I told him I’d rather have the Chairman of the Fed owe it to me); After 60 years of that old-fashioned reporting, though, I don’t have any answers for how it is done now. I have missed growing up in this Internet, texting and blogging and Twittering and New Journalism. But I sure have questions about how it is done, and what effects these historic advances in technology are having on the performance, quality, and possible changes in the originating purpose of the news business. Big questions, being raised by smart young people. One of whom, Rachel Sklar, did this Old Guard a considerable favor – one more dream assignment – by asking me to participate in this new media by asking those big questions about it, every week.


Rappleye Recommends: Fred Friendly was the bullying genius who burst into TV journalism at the very beginning, more than 50 years ago. Remembered, to whatever fading degree, mostly as the producer-partner of Edward R. Murrow, he was the one who brought to life the stirring forms of the new medium – the documentaries, the personalizations, the great debates – that made CBS the Tiffany Network, and set standards that have been honored, sadly, less often in the observance than in the breach, ever since. Thank goodness there’s a new book about him, that captures the embattled vision, even heroism, and excitement of his immense career. It is Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism, by Ralph Engelman, Columbia University Press — a brilliant, exciting recall of how greatness was achieved — and perhaps, by inference, a mirror for its erosion and diminution, over the years…


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