They Know Not What They Do
A WVOX Commentary
by William O’Shaughnessy
October 28, 2016
The sudden firing of Phil Reisman, the star feature columnist of the Journal News is like a death in the family for readers of our local Gannett daily newspaper.
Today we must tell you of this. But first you should also be assured that for 56 years the Journal News – and its predecessors – have been very good to Bill O’Shaughnessy and our community radio stations WVOX and WVIP.
We go all the way back to when the fabled trio of Bill Fanning, Ed Hughes and George Helm ran the powerful Macy-Westchester Group of newspapers. The three of them really controlled Westchester in those days when the calendar in the newsroom read 1960 to about 1975. Then along came the Al Neuharth swashbucklers – Tom Dolan and Louis “Chip” Weil, scion of a powerful Midwestern newspaper family. They were great fun and operated out of the Winged Foot Golf Club locker room and knew the haze of an evening in local watering holes.
Dolan and Chip Weil were followed by a long line of journeymen “front office types:” Gary Sherlock, Shelly Lyons, Henry Freeman, Mark Arnold, Larry Beaupre, Joe Ungaro and Janet Hasson who nonetheless presided over some superb local journalists. Speaking of which, my mind drifts back to Milt Hoffman, Elmer Miller, Joe Shannon, Matt Davies, Guido Cribari, Dave Hartley, Barney Waters, Jacques LeSourd, Jim O’Toole, June Shetterer, Frank Becerra and the great Nancy Q. Keefe.
The Neuharth crowd would run the managers in and out of our home heath every few years. But in every season, it was a given that I loved newspapers of every stripe, the smell of them, even the smudge of newsprint that comes off on your hands, I still read five or six every morning. And all during my 78 years, I have been entertained, enlightened and instructed by practitioners of the “wretched ink-stained” tribe. The greatest stars of the profession in my time were Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Cannon, Richard Neal Travis, Liz Smith, Red Smith, Jack O’Brian, David Hinckley, John J. O’Connor, Jack Gould, Donald V. West, Harry Jessell, Sol Taishoff, Tim Russert, Jim O’Toole, Douglas Martin, Lynne Ames, Gay Talese, Corey Kilgannon, Joe Mahoney, Alan Chartock, Peggy Noonan, Jack Germond, Ken Auletta, Mary McGrory, Emily Smith, Richard Johnson, Terry Golway, the aforementioned Nancy Keefe, Billy Cunningham, David Patrick Columbia, R.W. “Johnny” Apple, Fred Dicker and a young man who wrote for the St. John’s student paper named Mario Cuomo.
I’ve sat at table and stood at bars of an evening with Neal Travis, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Gay Talese, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Bob Considine and John Hay “Jock” Whitney. And I was there in 1966 when Mr. Whitney and Walter Thayer came down a west side street to go up in a creaky elevator to sound the death knell for the Herald Tribune of sainted memory. It had been founded by Horace Greeley and I can still see Breslin with his butt parked on a desk in the city room as Jock Whitney, who received the largest inheritance ever probated in this country, stood next to Walter Thayer, who had himself been designated “the toughest son of a bitch in this country” by no one less than Richard M. Nixon. It was the ultimate compliment from Mr. Nixon’s lips. I know all this because I was Thayer’s son-in-law. And then on that sad day as Jimmy Breslin sat cursing in front of the cleaning ladies and Walter “Red” Smith stood with trembling hand trying to light a cigarette, John Hay Whitney, who during the War jumped from a moving train to escape his German captors … and tough, brilliant Walter Nelson Thayer … had tears running down their tanned cheeks onto bespoke suits from Davies & Co. of Savile Row.
So the death of a newspaper is a very bad story.
Which memory snaps me right back to the present and the gunning down by corporate fiat of Phil Reisman, the star feature columnist of our local Westchester daily newspaper The Journal News. It too is a bad story that has shocked this area of America known as “The Golden Apple” in which resides a good chunk of the Eastern Establishment. I can report that most of the landed gentry as well as those without standing or high estate around here are in shock about this Reisman matter.
By excising Reisman, the corporate elders of the Gannett empire have attacked not only the sinew … they went right to the very heart of our regional paper as part of an effort to clean up their balance sheet and raise some $800-million dollars to acquire the remnants of the Chicago Tribune including the LA Times and Baltimore Sun. (As we were going into the studio to record this piece, Bloomberg says the money people behind the deal have bailed and both stocks have fallen off. Gannett is down 17% in the quarter. We take no pleasure in this). So they went ahead and knocked off 2% of their employees nationwide. It doesn’t sound like much. But that 2% translates to 400 souls who go to work each day as working journalists at the people’s business.
Thus I’m going to presume to tell Mr. Robert Dickey, CEO of Gannett and his associates Joanne Lipman, Kate Marymont, George Troyano, John Zidich, Alison Engel and Traci Bauer about just one of those journalists among the unfortunate 400.
His name is Phil Reisman. He gave you beautiful, vivid first-hand accounts of life around here. His writings and columns were accessible and written with a rich admixture of balance, shrewdness, understanding and wit. The termination of Phil Reisman felt like a death in the family.
Let me tell you a bit more of this Phil Reisman that may have eluded your bean-counters and HR geniuses.
Phil Reisman, one of those 400 targeted for dismissal was/is one of the very best of your damn tribe. And in a very real sense, he was Westchester’s most gifted diarist in the tradition of the Englishman Samuel Pepys. One day someone will retrieve and publish those valuable feature columns he wrote over the last 18 years which are an accurate reflection of Westchester life. Reisman, you should also be informed, brought erudition, lineage, continuity, intelligence and a graceful, compassionate eye to his commentaries, reporting, essays and those wonderful feature columns.
He is a handsome man, if always a bit disheveled, who resembles a kind of scruffy, skinny Sam Shepard. Reisman goes about his business shod in tight jeans and cowboy boots, one pair of which always appears to have a little daylight coming through the sole.
Mr. Reisman’s shirts seem to have never known an ironing board and his cheeks are not often subjected to the buzz and hum of an electric razor. But he was, until this week when he was cut down by the hand of Gannett bean-counters … the best damn newspaperman in the New York suburbs.
His beautifully crafted writings kept politicians honest and instructed them to remember the oaths they once took. And Reisman’s commentaries brought meaning to the most significant and turbulent events of our lives in the Golden Apple. He covered it all and wrote of it beautifully for 36 years. And the sad part is that he was – until earlier this week – doing some of the best writing of his life at the young age of 62.
Reisman gave us – and his readers – a sense of community and a connection and direct line to a time when giants walked the land. I dare say he’s the only one in the local newsroom who knows of Bill Butcher, Fred Sunderman, Jim Hand, Arthur Geoghegan, Edwin Gilbert Michaelian, Bob Greene, Joe Pisani, Jeanine Pirro, Frederic Powers, Malcolm Wilson, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Herman Geist, Alvin Ruskin, Sam Fredman, Hubert Horan, Bill Olson, Jack Dowling, Ogden Reid, Richard Ottinger, Herb Gerlack, Joe Vacarella, Augie Petrillo, Irving Kendall, John Fosina, Brother John Driscoll, Andy O’Rourke, Marty Rochelle, Dick Crabtree, Owen Mandeville, Ed Brady, Andy Albanese, Stanley W. Church, Max Berking, William F. Luddy, Anthony B. Gioffre and my main man Rocco Bellantoni, Jr.
He’s also a multi-media phenom who promotes The Journal News weekly on his “High Noon with Phil Reisman” radio program on our WVOX.
Reisman gave the absentee owners of The Journal News cover, legitimacy and provided a conduit to those of influence, standing and stature – as well as the “townies” whose bard and champion he was. These are the same folks without high estate who in recent days, have bombarded Facebook and the internet with dismay, disappointment and, in many cases, outrage at the treatment visited on Phil Reisman.
A common theme runs through all their pleadings. Many/most said: “Phil Reisman was the one thing I read in the paper.” They expressed it in different ways. But the message is the same. All the pushback, chatter and “noise” about this on social media seems to be saying – and I don’t know any other way to put it – that the bean-counters and elders in Virginia, perhaps with the acquiescence and approval of some regional editors, have, with Reisman’s dismissal, taken the very essence and heart and certainly the most important element – the local touch – out of the paper. Our paper!
While we’re at it … permit me a personal and “strategic” note. Now that WFAS has given up the ghost as a truly local station and abandoned all pretense as a Westchester station … while our beloved New York Times has eliminated their suburban regional sections … there is a great temptation for WVOX to represent itself as the last remaining locally-owned, locally-based and locally-operated independent forum and voice in Westchester … especially since the new French masters of Cablevision have also just announced that much of News 12 programs will now emanate from Long Island (I still don’t know how the hell they’ll pull that off!) But tempting as it is to blow our own horn in the face of all this and The Journal News’s unwise and ill-conceived decision re: Reisman … Westchester County will still need – and deserves – a healthy, strong local daily newspaper.
And like I said at the get-go … I love newspapers.
But, again, somebody sure made one hell of a big mistake by targeting Reisman.
Thank you for letting me rattle on this morning. I know we’ve ranged too far and wide … but I hope all those money people assembled in Virginia and White Plains will take these comments as coming from a reader, a media colleague and from someone who has been the beneficiary of a wonderful relationship with a newspaper which now resides in the care and keeping of folks who, in their best moments, are only scrambling to save The Journal News from a fate like that which befell the Herald Tribune!
There has been a firestorm of criticism here in Westchester County and I don’t wish to pile on … but I hope they won’t mind some well-meaning “suggestions” from a colleague who is, admittedly and proudly, an admirer both of The Journal News … and Reisman.
Perhaps … just perhaps … the corporate chieftains will come to realize what the hell they did in this sad case.
P.S. Some of those they let go merely covered games … the one they play in the world of Sport … a category once called by the great Jimmy Cannon “the toys of a nation.”
The sports section is of little interest to us. But we weep for them anyway … and for their families.
William O’Shaughnessy, a former president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, was chairman of Public Affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. He has been a point man and advocate for the broadcasters of America on First Amendment and Free Speech issues, and is presently chairman of the Guardian Fund of the Broadcasters Foundation of America, the national charitable organization. He is also a longtime director and member of the Executive Committee of the Foundation. He has operated WVOX and WVIP, two of the last independent stations in the New York area, for 56 years as president and editorial director.
He is the author of “AirWAVES” (1999) … “It All Comes Back to Me Now” (2001) … “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” (2004) … and “VOX POPULI: The O’Shaughnessy Files,” released in January, 2011. He has also written “Mario Cuomo: Remembrances of a Remarkable Man,” a tribute to his late friend Governor Mario M. Cuomo which has just been published. He is currently working on his fifth book for Fordham University Press, another anthology.