"News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising." With this quote, Sir Harold Evans, our era's acknowledged master journalist, summarized much of what I find crucial in his newest book, My Paper Chase. By resurrecting Lord Northcliffe's astute observation at the Washington, D.C. launch of this riveting, multi-layered memoir, "Sir Harry" was paying tribute to the pitifully few practitioners and institutions worthy of the name journalism. It also applies as a summary of his own life's work, while shrewdly illumining much larger issues painfully relevant to our own precarious moment in time.
In our category-crazy era, I very much hope that Sir Harry's well-earned personal fame does not overshadow his important services in his memoir: sharply rendering the last century's social history; the radical transformation of the media landscape; his shrewd observations of humankind in general and individuals in particular. And I very much hope it does do not become pigeon-holed as merely "media studies". He is first and foremost to be appreciated for his candor. Then, of course, there's the plain fun of getting his version of stories about which others only speculated.
Singular as Sir Harold's accomplishments most assuredly are, their significance is greatly amplified by the importance of his integrity and courage in taking on the corporate-government establishment in the thalidomide* case. When Big Business overshadows government, the losers are the sovereign people. It was true then. It is true now. It will be ever more the case in the challenging times to come.
Case in point. We were privileged several years ago to welcome Harry (as he insisted we call him) to our program. I confess, my own eagerness to engage with him came straight out of his book, They Made America. In it, for the first and only time to my knowledge, were the cold, unvarnished facts belying the official origin myth of Microsoft and Bill Gates' path to creating it. (Hint. It's an update of the bleak and oft repeated reality in the old line, "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime".)
We asked the obvious: As carefully monitored as the famously litigious Microsoft is, why had they not come down, and come down hard, on Harry Evans for documenting a very different reality from the party line? Because the best defense against charges of libel or slander is the truth.
Did you see the main stream media pick up this carefully researched and documented story and run with it? No. Too much money at stake.
Second verse, same as the first: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."
Sir Harold called an earlier best seller of his The American Century. Suffice it now to say, "It's over." There is entirely too much at stake in the century entering its 10th year for it to belong to any nation state.
So, in addition to offering his unique take on the workings of the media world, Sir Harold's memoir can also be taken as an unspoken warning: citizens of the United States must demand more of our mass media and others given the privilege of serving us, the sovereign people. The century on which we are now firmly embarked will require more from those who purport to be journalists. We must demand it.
To date, traditional media has failed us.
Here's what I liked best about My Paper Chase. Ingeniously, the landscapes of Sir Harold's life also bring much larger stories to life: the decline and fall of the British Empire abroad; the reordering of its society at home; and the roles -- both heroic and shameful -- of Anglo-American mass media in the democratic experiment. Once I realized that Sir Harry's back-stories were as riveting as his remarkable personal tales, my next question was, "How did he DO that?"
There's the obvious. Of course, he's a keen observer, a wizard of a reporter, a celebrated editor and full-throated participant in Anglo-American life. Still, I'm guessing it's critically important to factor in that he started his adventure as a certified nobody from nowhere -- an underclass kid (Welsh, to be precise) from England's industrial North.
Yet, Sir Harry's own adventures would be a lot less interesting had he not fleshed out his family's climb to the "local maximum" available to the working class at the turn of the last century. It gives nothing away to say his father became a revered locomotive engineer and that his mother attained an unheard of local success as an ingenious entrepreneur. And it takes nothing away from young Harold to see how his own intellect, skepticism and bulldog intensity profited him when others equally gifted were less fortunate.
Permit me further to tweak your curiosity about Sir Harold:
As "Harry" he was as well-loved as he was -- and is -- quite appropriately feared. His transformation into "Sir Harold" came in recognition of his tenacious work exposing the obscene coverup of dreadful consequences resulting from the use of thalidomide in the 1960s. He did not stop until he'd gotten justice for the people most directly impacted by thalidomide from the European Court of Human Rights. In the process, his efforts also forced the British government to change its law regarding what could and could not be reported.
Remarkably, this is but one star in "Sir Harry's" constellation of accomplishments.
Sir Harry's wielded his formidable talents as reporter and editor of the Sunday Times and the Times of London having learned the trade in Manchester (including an interesting run at the Guardian's sister-paper there.) He was Britain's Press Secretary working for Harold McMillan; came across the pond to found Condé-Nast Traveler, to head Random House's trade group, to lead both the Atlantic Monthly Press and US News and World Report in the U.S., and now to serve as editor at large for "The Week" ... plus being a widely acclaimed author. And, oh yes. He has for more than 20 years been married to Tina Brown once of The Tattler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and now The Beast.
What do I take away from my friend Harry's recollections? It's going to take us all to demand that the mass media fulfill its role in a democracy. If we are going to govern ourselves and not be overwhelmed by the rabid wrong wing, we have to know what's REALLY going on. Whatever shape "new media" takes, it must be part of the solutions we create together. So here are my three cheers for the once and forever Welsh kid now called Sir Harold. And now, one more time:
NEWS is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is ADVERTISING.
*Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to ease nausea. It created a plague of deformities, from children born with no digits to those with no limbs at all. Long after strong evidence showed unequivocal connections between the drug and its consequences, British health authorities supported the denials of the drug's manufacturers. Good old fashioned investigative journalism, courageous reporting and a stalwart editor finally brought the tragedy to an end in Great Britain and around the world.