My Life as a Sydney Schanberg Fanboy

The passing on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg, the NY Times reporter and columnist best known for his coverage of Cambodia, stirred me deeply. He had been one of the writers I most avidly followed in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of him, probably in college in the years after the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia. I’m sure I read Schanberg’s New York Times Magazine story  “The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia,” the basis for the movie “The Killing Fields.” I remember my excitement to see the movie version when it appeared in 1984.

I still have some of the “New York” columns that Schanberg wrote for the Times. A sample, from December 4, 1982, is titled “Wall St.’s Turn to Help,” The lead got right to the point of the column:

That the city’s fiscal bind is urgent seems to be seeping in. Once sign of this collective acknowledgement is that Mayor Koch is proposing to revive the recently phased-out stock transfer tax and, more revealing, that this time the financial community is not threatening, in knee-jerk outrage, to move en masse to New Jersey.

(Truth be told, I might have saved that op-ed page because of Russell Baker’s “Observer” column of the same day, on editorial variations of the “man bites” dog story.)

The Times dumped Schanberg as a columnist in 1985 when he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Westway Highway development project; he soon left the Times (slick personnel move there, Sulzberger family!) for New York Newsday, where he was an editor and columnist for a decade. I read him at Newsday,where I had been a summer intern in 1978 and 1979, and retained a great affection for the paper. Schanberg was a terrific addition to a paper that was on the go in those pre-Internet times  Schanberg went on to write the “Press Clips” column for the Village Voice–and he resigned from that position in protest of the policies of the Voice’s new owners. He never let a paycheck stand in the way of his principles. I followed him from place to place, and if there were reporter versions of baseball cards, I would have collected all of his.

These days, I don’t follow any Times columnist with the same enthusiasm. Roger Cohen holds my attention because he’s literate and somewhat unpredictable, and I glance at Ross Douthat,Nick Kristof and Charles Blow. David Brooks? I think of him mostly as a punching bag for more conservative writers. Among the Schanberg generation of reporters, I remain a big fan of 91-year-old Nat Hentoff, who writes fearlessly about civil liberties, the media and his Jewish upbringing in Boston. He had a 50-year run at the Village Voice, then got dumped. But he’s a man with a mission and he’s still out there going wherever his principles lead him..

My editorial tastes shifted to the Internet, and the stable of columnists that most resonates with me now is at PJ Media: Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Fernandez, Roger L. Simon, Ron Radosh, David “Spengler” Goldman. You probably don’t know them; Hanson and Fernandez could add some intellectual heft to the Times op-ed page, but I’m not expecting that to happen since their views would cause a riot among the survivors left (in every sense of “left”) in the Times’ newsroom.

The world moves on, technology guts the old media and something new and shiny and loud replaces it. Schanberg is now gone, but I hope his spirit and tenacity can infuse the tweets and snapchats of the new generation of journalists.

 

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