Murray Schumach was a newspaperman, said Arthur Gelb. For reporters of Mr. Schumach’s generation, that was the name of their job. “None of them liked the word ‘journalist,'” Mr. Gelb said.
Mr. Schumach, who died Nov. 27 at the age of 91, will be memorialized on Dec. 13 at the Columbia School of Journalism. He was innocent of a journalism degree, or any college degree at all, when he became a New York Times copy boy in 1930.
But Mr. Gelb, the former Times managing editor and current Times memoirist, said that Mr. Schumach had helped provide an education in journalism-make that “newspapering”-to generations of Times writers and editors.
“Murray taught me an awful lot,” Mr. Gelb said.
With Peter Kihss and Homer Bigart, Mr. Schumach was one of Mr. Gelb’s “Three Horsemen” of the mid-century metropolitan desk, and the last surviving member of the trio. Mr. Schumach, said Mr. Gelb said, was “the epitome of the all-around general-assignment reporter.”
Generations of young reporters-including Mr. Gelb-learned to avoid the anecdotal lead through Mr. Schumach’s teaching and example. When they rose to editorships, Mr. Schumach’s instruction didn’t stop. “He fought for his stories,” Mr. Gelb said. “He fought editors who he thought edited him cavalierly or sloppily.”
Mr. Schumach was also a rare nurturing presence at a not-always-nurturing institution. He was “more approachable than anybody on that whole staff,” said Gay Talese, who came to The Times when Mr. Schumach was a veteran. Mr. Schumach, said Mr. Talese, “made me think that this is a nice place to be and these are nice people to be with.”
That kindness, said Mr. Gelb, made a difference. When Mr. Schumach arrived, the paper was almost entirely male and white; by the time he left, the old Times fraternity had been opened to women and minorities. “Murray … was one of the reporters who helped change that world,” Mr. Gelb said.
He was also a reporter with the soul of a short-story writer, said Mr. Talese said-one of a small handful of Times staffers in the mid-50’s who were known for their prose. He had a gift, Mr. Talese said, for writing about “the character who would be completely ignored were it not for the attention paid by the writer to the character.”
Mr. Gelb said that Mr. Schumach had “a great sense of imagery” and described scenes “like a camera.” He was also scrupulously accurate. “I can’t think of one error in a story that had to be corrected,” said Mr. Gelb.
Mr. Schumach’s factual accuracy led Mr. Gelb to make one legendary journalistic misstep, according to Mr. Gelb’s memoir City Room. In 1967, Mr. Schumach set out to write a long piece about The New Yorker and its consummately controlling editor, William Shawn. Shawn agreed to cooperate, but only if The Times allowed him to review the article for accuracy before publication.
Trusting in their reporter’s perfect command of facts, Mr. Gelb and then-metropolitan editor A.M. Rosenthal decided to waive the normal Times protocol and agree to Shawn’s terms. The New Yorker editor read Mr. Schumach’s piece and responded with a niggling 11-page memo, contesting nearly everything about it. “Exasperated, Murray and I realized there would be no pleasing Shawn unless he was given carte blanche to edit the article, and, obviously, we couldn’t agree to that,” Mr. Gelb wrote. The 5,500-word piece died on the shelf, entering New York journalistic lore.
Mr. Gelb, Mr. Talese and a half-dozen other luminaries will be eulogizing Mr. Schumach at 10 a.m. Monday, in the World Room of the Columbia School of Journalism.
What ever happened to “%#$*!!”? On Dec. 6, the Boston Globe’s David Mehegan wrote a piece exploring recent tensions between cartoonists and editors about how edgy a comic strip can be. Berkeley Breathed, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Bloom County in the 80’s, told Mr. Mehegan that now that he’s returned to the profession with his Sunday strip Opus, he finds newspapers to be prissier and higher-strung than ever.
“Breathed,” Mr. Mehegan wrote, “has encountered resistance to certain slang phrases that mean ‘that stinks.'”
“Certain slang phrases”? WTF?
It was actually one slang word, Mr. Mehegan said: “blows,” uttered by the title character in Mr. Breathed’s Nov. 21 strip to describe the unpleasantness of life for someone who’s 50 years old. After editors objected, Mr. Breathed changed the offending idiom from “Fifty blows!” to the more awkward “Fifty spews!”
But what about Mr. Mehegan’s own circumlocution? Are the Globe’s news sensibilities also too delicate to handle the word? “The Globe did not say we cannot put ‘blows’ in the paper,” Mr. Mehegan said.
In part, though, that was because Mr. Mehegan didn’t ask. The paper does discourage the use of “sucks,” which was changed to “stinks” in a Zits cartoon last year. “Blows,” according to Mr. Mehegan, is uncommon enough not to have been specifically prohibited-“It’s not on the list of naughty words in our stylebook”-but he figured it was vulgar enough to raise questions.
So writing on deadline, he said, he made a “practical adjustment” to go with the paraphrase, to “avoid having to get somebody’s permission” to include the actual word.
He was also, he said, trying to avoid spending a paragraph describing Mr. Breathed’s belief that “blows” isn’t a sexual expression at all. “It was elaborate, and my editor found his explanation a stretch,” Mr. Mehegan said.
Reached on the phone in California, the cartoonist affirmed that “blows”-the intransitive form-has “no sexual connotation,” as he sees it. In an impromptu Scatology 101 tutorial, Mr. Breathed explained that he’d first consulted his personal slang and language reference library on the matter. “I would love to say that I found a consensus in the books,” the cartoonist said.
But, Mr. Breathed’s printed sources were silent on the issue. That led him to put together a usage survey, asking acquaintances what they thought “blows,” sans object, meant. “They all thought it came from vomit,” Mr. Breathed reported-as in, short for “blows chunks.”
Fifty vomits? “No, I don’t think so,” said Reinhold Aman, the editor of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. “Semantically, it doesn’t make sense.”
Saying “that blows” is akin to saying “that bites,” Mr. Aman said. “It’s a veiled reference to ‘It sucks.'”
Even so, that might not make it a smutty word, said Mr. Aman: “There’s a long argument whether ‘That sucks’ is really sexual or not. Most people think that ‘That sucks’ has to do with sucking a penis and so on …. It is probably erroneously attributed to being sexual.”
Sexual usages of the word “suck,” Mr. Aman said, are “very modern.” He suggested that the general pejorative could have descended from the 19th-century “egg-sucking dog”-referring to a pet that betrays its owner by raiding the hen house for a snack.
Still, Mr. Aman allowed, once enough people started thinking of “suck” as a sexual term, it acquired taboo status. “At the same time,” he added, “where suck has become a taboo word … it is being overused, and used so frequently, it’s losing its tabooness. You see, it’s like a circle.”
Mr. Mehegan said that he was allowed to use “suck” in October, writing about Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The Globe rendered the title as Another [expletive] Night in Suck City. “Perhaps ‘suck’ was O.K. in that case because it was not a verb!” Mr. Mehegan wrote in an e-mail.
Though Mr. Breathed decried the “delicacy” of newspapers today-“editors are terrified of losing even a single subscriber”-he said that restrictive standards and practices can sometimes be helpful. Usually, he said, when a word is flagged, “nine out of 10 times you come up with something funnier.”
The Nov. 21 strip, Mr. Breathed said, fell in with the other 10 percent. His own father-in-law, he said, had told him the printed punch line was weak. “[He] suggested it would have been funnier if I had said ‘blows.'” Mr. Breathed said. “He’s a Christian Scientist.”
Sunday New York Times readers who have $160,000 to spend on a car were in luck this past weekend. The Dec. 5 Automobiles section offered all the news a shopper could desire about the Bentley Continental GT.
Technical specs? “Its 12-cylinder engine, unusual in having a W-shaped configuration rather than a V-design, pumps out more than 550 horsepower thanks to dual turbochargers.” Sociocultural significance? “If the overstyled Rolls-Royce Phantom has become the symbol of the garish hip-hop lifestyle, the Continental GT is bling-bling for wealthy car lovers with taste.” Superlative praise? “This Bentley has perhaps the most perfect steering feedback of any car I’ve driven.”
And consumer availability? Bentley Greenwich, of Greenwich, Conn., had a certified pre-owned ’05 CGT-“Midnight Emerald/Saddle,” with a low, low 800 miles-in stock; Bentley Long Island of Woodbury offered three more ’04 or ’05 models, including a “Diamond Black/Saffron” with only 100 miles.
That last set of information was not in freelancer Keith Martin’s review of the Bentley. It was in a quarter-page Bentley ad, displaying a big photo of the Continental GT, that ran alongside the review’s jump on page 4. National-edition Times readers saw an even bigger Bentley ad, which shared page 1 with the car review.
“It’s not anything that I can do anything about,” said Automobiles editor James Cobb. “I suspect it happens in other [sections].”
According to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis, other sections are actually better protected than Automobiles from edit-ad convergence. “In some sections, where space is ample and we have flexibility, the news and advertising departments work jointly to avoid awkward juxtaposition of news with ads,” Ms. Mathis wrote in an e-mail. “A good example would be the movie ads with the movie reviews in Weekend on Fridays.”
But in Automobiles, there’s nowhere to move the ads. Bentley had been buying ad space all year long, and Mr. Martin’s Bentley review was the only editorial copy in the entire section.
“It’s inevitable that it will happen,” Mr. Cobb said.