iOS app Android app More

Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy

Posted: July 27, 2009 09:57 AM

Extra! Secrets to Being an AP Reporter for 49 Consecutive Years!


Even though I haven't worked for the Associated Press since 1993, emails from old co-workers saying "Pyle's leaving!" started coming in weeks ago. Richard Pyle, 75, retires from the AP in New York City today after 49 years as an AP reporter, beginning in Ann Arbor, MI and eventually covering stories all over the world. In many ways, he's nothing special -- just another guy ending a long career. Even though he's had a great run -- everything from directing AP's Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War to covering the U.S. Airways crash in the Hudson River last January ("I was one of the first guys on the riverbank!") -- there are many other journalists with similarly storied careers. Still, I'm impressed with Pyle for sticking with the same company for 49 years (less three days), for having such a sharp memory he can go off on a detailed rant about Dwight and Felix back in the Detroit AP bureau in the '60s -- and for being the cliched Irascible, Gruff Newsman that future cub reporters will never meet:

HUFFINGTON POST: Let's make this as sentimental as possible and wax romantic about journalism and how you're the last of a breed.

RICHARD PYLE: Oh, Christ, I don't have time. I'm up to my ass in trying to retire. It's very difficult, all the bullshit and bureaucracy, it's the worst part of it.

HUFFPOST: Do you know I got jealous of you when I read your full bio and saw everything you got to cover?

PYLE: I've been very lucky. The second half of the 20th century was the golden age of journalism. The cutoff point was 9-11. Everything's changed since then. It was the heyday. It was never that good before and it will never be that good again.

HUFFPOST: What was your biggest scoop ever?

PYLE: My biggest single scoop was the news of Spiro Agnew's resignation. I got it nine minutes ahead of Reuters. The Washington Star stopped the presses and put it on page one. Jesus Christ, what year was that? (Pauses) 1973.

HUFFPOST: What were your biggest screw-ups, when you got beat on a story?

PYLE: Let me think. I'm sure I had some major screw-ups but I've blanked them out.

HUFFPOST: You remember things Dwight and Felix said 45 years ago but you can't remember a single time you blew something?

PYLE: If I put my mind to it I could remember -- and then I wouldn't tell you. I didn't win every round. I wasn't Muhammad Ali.

HUFFPOST: You remember your first days at the AP?

PYLE: Yeah, I was hired off a local newspaper and didn't know anything about wire services. I remember news editor Charlie Cain coming over and handing me a slip of paper about an (unincorporated area) near Pinckney, Michigan they called Hell and saying, see what you can do with this. I called up there and got all this stuff. I wrote a story using every cliché in the book, like the road to Hell is paved with asphalt. They sent it on the wire and five hours later the editor said there was a message from London. My Hell, Michigan story was getting smash play, it was on the front page in London. Christ, that pretty much kickstarted me with the AP.

HUFFPOST: My mother was a reporter for the United Press and she described this "Front Page" type world of hard-drinking eccentrics that sounded so fun but when I started out everyone had gotten so serious.

PYLE: It was much freer and wilder back then. There was an old guy in the Detroit bureau, Pete, who kept a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer. There were some wild men. I wasn't smart enough to realize some of these guys were walking history and to talk to them.

HUFFPOST: Did you volunteer to go to Vietnam?

PYLE: If you were a young guy like me, unmarried, you couldn't let this story go by. I didn't know if I could cut it but I had to be there. In the end, they had to drag me kicking and screaming out of that place. It was the greatest story I've ever had. It was at the most important and influential and life changing. Most of my best friends today, like George Esper, were with me in the Saigon bureau. We're like brothers. The AP bureau in Saigon was the greatest news bureau that ever existed.

HUFFPOST: The wire services are high-pressure. Did you get reamed by the bosses if you got it wrong or got it late?

PYLE: It was very competitive, especially in Vietnam. Your reputation was always at stake. But New York pretty much left us alone in Vietnam. We went head to head with UPI and it was a fiercely competitive situation. They were good. Very good. Others too. It was the kind of pressure I flourished in.

HUFFPOST: Are you haunted by anything in Vietnam?

PYLE: I remember seeing a row of dead North Vietnamese soldiers. All you could see were their faces, the rest of them were gone. (Grumbles.) I don't know, I don't always like to talk about stuff like that.

HUFFPOST: Why did you stay with the AP? Did you get offers from the New York Times or the Washington Post?

PYLE: Never from them but I did get offers from magazines. Every time I'd tell the AP and they'd counter with something. Never with money. (Laughs.) But they'd come up with some opportunities so that's why I stayed with the AP.

HUFFPOST: So I assumed you liked working for the world's largest news organization.

PYLE: I once heard the AP described as the Marine Corps of journalism. You know, we take the beach and then everyone else comes in with the heavy artillery -- and we're in there to the bitter end as well.

HUFFPOST: It seems as if you were everywhere, Richard, like Zelig, including Three Mile Island.

PYLE: That happened on a Thursday night. I walked into the office and I was told, you're going to Three Mile Island. When we got there, they said a meltdown might occur and if so, Gov. Thornburgh was going to be the last person to leave Harrisburg and they wanted an AP guy on that helicopter with him. I said I'm in. I had that story written in my head. It was like the movie, "On the Beach."

HUFFPOST: And then it didn't happen. You have to admit, Richard, that reporters kind of want bad news to happen so they can get a great story, right?

PYLE: No! I didn't wish for bad things to happen. It's more that if something bad does happen, I want to be the witness to it.

HUFFPOST: You were assigned to New York City in 1990 after all these lofty assignments overseas. Did you feel you were being put out to pasture a bit?

PYLE: No. I made my peace with it and came here. I've covered a lot of big stories here, mob trials, 9-11. I was right there when the second tower came down.

HUFFPOST: Is it still exciting to go cover a story at age 75 -- like when the plane crashed into the Hudson?

PYLE: You better believe it. I was one of the first guys on the riverbank in 10 degree weather watching this airplane float by with people on the wings.

HUFFPOST: Part of having a long career is knowing how to handle office politics. What was your strategy?

PYLE: I never felt office politics was a big issue. Every place I worked in the AP, the focus seemed to be on doing the job.

HUFFPOST: But as you got older, you never had to deal with some punk kid on the desk who thought you were the old coot in the corner?

PYLE: No. I can't think of anyone in the AP I ever had a problem with.

HUFFPOST: In 49 years? Come on, you're making the AP sound like Shangri-La.

PYLE: It's not Shangri-La for Chrissake. It's a damned news agency. I saw other people having difficulties and I heard of bureau chiefs with bad reputations. I just didn't have a problem like that.

HUFFPOST: What most concerns you about the press today?

PYLE: There's so much emphasis on celebrity coverage, even at the AP. I don't even like the word celebrity. I don't know what the hell that word means. It's disappointing. There's been a decline in standards and this new attitude about covering the news as opinion. Nobody should give a rat's ass about a reporter's opinion.

HUFFPOST: Where do you stand on the idea of "citizen journalists"?

PYLE: I come from the era of professional journalists. You could go to 20 journalism schools but we all learned our jobs by doing them. What really annoys me is people disparaging the so-called "mainstream media." Without the mainstream media they wouldn't have anything to disparage.

HUFFPOST: Are you a fan of bloggers?

PYLE: Blogging is not journalism unless it's based on real interviews and real research.

HUFFPOST: So what's your plan for your last day?

PYLE: I'll be there in the morning. I'm going to put in my papers. That's what they say in the military.

HUFFPOST: If a big story breaks in New York today, will you cover it?

PYLE: I won't have time. Too much paperwork to fill out.

HUFFPOST: OK, what happens when you're home retired in Brooklyn and you see a big story from your window the way you did when you saw the first plane hit on 9-11. Will you be able to just sit there?

PYLE: I'll call the AP and tell them what I see. I won't call CBS or the New York Times! But I won't be out chasing the ambulance. At some point you have to cut bait and that's what I'm doing.