John Darnton

Memories of a Newsman

VTR Date: June 25, 2011

Richard Heffner speaks with the New York Times' John Darnton, a newsman's newsman.


GUEST: John Darnton
AIR DATE: 06/25/2011
VTR: 05/12/11

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is a novelist, memoirist and newsman … who serves now as Curator of Long Island University’s distinguished George Polk Journalism Awards.

John Darnton joined the New York Times as a copyboy in 1966. And when he retired some forty years later, my guest had been its City Hall reporter, a foreign correspondent in Africa (for which he received the coveted Polk Award), in Poland, (for which he received both a Pulitzer Prize and another Polk) … and he went on from there to be the Times bureau chief in Madrid and London, its deputy foreign editor, its metropolitan editor and its cultural news editor.

In short, John Darnton is — has always been — a newsman’s newsman.

And perhaps one could leave it at that if my guest hadn’t also written a number of well received novels, and now Almost a Family…A Memoir, just published by Alfred A. Knopf, a most extraordinary tale focused on the death and long reach of his father Byron Darnton, a well-known New York Times war correspondent killed in New Guinea during World War II.

Quite understandably, of course, most Darnton interviews I’ve heard and read recently have had to do with Almost a Family, his evocative memoir with its captivating Jazz Age motif, and so on.

But today I want to ask my guest much more about that other “family” so central to his whole life’s story. I mean, of course, the Times itself, and the whole, wide world of print journalism.

And wonder of course whether he pines for it? More important, whether he thinks it’s time to mourn for it? What do you think, John?

DARNTON: Well, I think it’s too early to declare print is dead.

HEFFNER: Everybody’s doing it.

DARNTON: I know. I know, but the obituaries are all … you know, I think they’re, they’re premature.

Look there will always be some people who want to hold the object in their hands, take it into bed with them in the morning with a cup of coffee and leaf through it and look at the ads at leisure and just have the, the pleasure of the paper.

Will they be a minority? Undoubtedly they will. I worry more about regional newspapers … in Boston, Houston, San Francisco. They may disappear. And if they don’t disappear, they may become so weak-kneed that for all intents and purposes they no longer carry out the functions of a good newspaper … which is basically investigative reporting … keeping a check on the politicians.

Mike Royko said that a good reporter is to a politician what a barking dog is to a chicken thief. And we’re losing that all over the country as papers cut back and as that kind of enterprise reporting doesn’t migrate over to the web.

HEFFNER: Why do you say it doesn’t …

DARNTON: Because …

HEFFNER: … you’re implying it can’t.

DARNTON: Well because I cannot think of any exclusive stories or scoops that have taken place on the web that could come anywhere close to those in print over the last 10 years.

It simply calls for a lot of resources, a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money to pursue investigations … some of them lasting two years or longer. And the web isn’t into that. The web is all speed … what happened immediately … now … you know … razzle dazzle … a fair amount of a kind of gossip. A lot of aggregation … not … you know … aggregation in, in all senses of the word. It aggravates me sometimes to see these things.

And it’s just not geared at the moment toward the kind of shoe leather coverage that papers used to do.

HEFFNER: And the Times?

DARNTON: The Times … I’m happy to say … is still … excels in that. You know you mentioned the, the Polk Awards. Well, every year a group of us go over about 450 submissions from newspapers, TV stations, broadcasts around the country. And we cull through them and I have to say over the last couple of years, the Times comes out on top in so many categories, it’s a alarming.

And it’s not just because I’m a, you know, company man that I say this. I think their level of investigative work is higher than it’s ever been.

HEFFNER: How do you contrast it with the Times that … not just surfaces … but runs through this family story.

DARNTON: Well, you know … it’s a very different newspaper clearly than it was … even when I began it there in 1966. There is a whole different kind of person now who goes into to reporting.

When I joined there were people still there who would had not been to college. Some of them were from the West Side and gravitated to the Times because it was the local employer. They knew the city perfectly. They … some of them went to the track. I bet there’s not a single Times reporter now who goes to the racetrack. They were really kind of a, you know, of the warp and woof of the city … everyday people who just happened to have a knack for nosing out the news reporting, talking to people. And somewhere along the line, probably after Woodward/Bernstein it became a very fashionable profession and drew a lot of people from the Ivy Leagues.

And like any institution … the Times sees somebody walk in with a Harvard degree or a Yale degree and eyebrows rise up and they have to hire them.

That was in the old days. Now I think they insist that somebody start at another newspaper first and kind of, you know, prove, prove their worth there.

HEFFNER: There’s such an interesting point here in Almost a Family … you write about your father’s death, he’s killed in a friendly fire …


HEFFNER: … incident and you’ve written about this in other places as well … that it had never really been reported, had it?

DARNTON: No. At the time General MacArthur released a statement and referred to the death as an “accident”. An accident can mean any … it can mean falling off a ladder.

And my family, my mother was informed … really by other correspondents who followed up to find out what happened … that it was a case of friendly fire … it was a, a plane that flew overhead … he was on a troop ship, a very small … actually a fishing trawler that had been requisitioned by the Army … and this plane flew overhead … the plane couldn’t identify the ship. The ship couldn’t identify the plane, it took a loop and then came back and the bomb bay doors were opened … a man on board the ship fired a machine gun at it and then four bombs were dropped.

None of them hit either that ship or a sister ship, but the shrapnel flew out and killed two people … my father and, and a Lieutenant, who was the one at the machine gun.

So, it was a case of friendly fire, it took a while, I think, for, for it … nobody ever really figured out what went wrong. And there was a mission report filed by the pilot that was probably lost … but I was able actually to uncover the name of the pilot and to find, through the Internet an unpublished journal from one of the spotters on the island … one of these Australians with a ham radio set and binoculars, who watched the whole thing.

And then I went to New Guinea and went to the actual village where I met an elder who saw it happen as a six year old boy.

And described what he saw. So I have a sense now of what actually happened. And it was one of those, you know, accidents of war.

HEFFNER: And you said that you were glad that the pilot hadn’t lived long enough for you to talk to him …

DARNTON: Yeah. I, I wondered about the pilot, as did my mother, and, and she said … I remember years ago … she didn’t particularly want to know who it was …


DARNTON: … but if she ever did encounter him, she would want him to know that she understood that these things happened and that it was not at all his fault.

He should not bear any, any guilt. So I managed to get his name and I, I found a phone number in Sun City in Arizona and called. And there was no connection.

And then I called the, the place where he was staying and learned that he had died about five years before. And I was kind of glad because I don’t know, actually, how I would have phrased the question.

But I did manage to reach his son, just to ask … did he ever talk about this. And the son said, No. In fact he said he never talked about the war at all. Which was something I think a lot of soldiers did, they just didn’t like to go there.

And they didn’t talk about it until, sometimes toward the end of their lives … and sometimes not with their children, but their grandchildren, which is kind of an interesting phenomenon.

HEFFNER: Because, do you think, they didn’t want … they couldn’t relive …

DARNTON: I think so, yeah. I think it was too painful. I think what … you know … they, their … they wanted to just kind of face forward, not backward.

Some of them, especially in the Pacific … but I imagine in Europe as well … saw horrible things. The fighting in New Guinea was just horrible.

These were boys from the 32nd Division which had acquitted itself very well in World War I, they were the first to break through the German lines. They were called “Le Terrible” by the French because of their fierce fighting spirit.

HEFFNER: And your father was in it.

DARNTON: And he was in it. So he knew, he knew all about war from the trenches … of World War I … and he used that as a kind of lever to get to accompany the troops on this … on his last … on his last mission.

But these poor young men from Wisconsin and from Michigan trained in semi-arid deserts of Australia and then they were dropped into this jungle with very little protection … uniforms that weren’t really even camouflaged … they’d just been dyed green … that didn’t breathe.

And subject to diseases and insets and animals of all kinds and fears of headhunters and cannibals and mostly as … I talked to a lot of vets … as they describe a sense of isolation at night, when you’re kind of alone, you can’t see or even hear a soldier who’s four feet away from you and a branch drops and you think its … the Japanese are coming for you. Sounds horrendous.

HEFFNER: Why did you want to look back? You talked about these men who … so many of them …


HEFFNER: … who didn’t want to look back. But you did.

DARNTON: Yeah. I … you know, that’s a difficult question to answer.

All my life I kind of shelved the idea of, of even trying to find out about my father.

In fact, when I began to do this book, I wrote everything I knew about him on a piece of paper and it took up half a sheet of paper. I knew virtually nothing about him.

But in my mind, in my mind’s eye and my imagination, I evolved the kind of a myth about him, about what he must have been like. And then, at a certain point, you know, I ended up going into the same profession, working for the same newspaper, wanting to go abroad the way he did.

And it was pretty clear that some kind of shadow was either chasing me or I was chasing it. And toward the end of my career, I thought, you know, it’s about time I, I figure out who he was and how he’s influenced me. How could somebody you don’t exert such a powerful pull on your life … almost like destiny.

There’s an, an incident I, I recount in the book when my brother and I went to a christening with our mother or a, of a liberty ship that was named after him a year after he was killed … it was a big ship called the Byron Darnton … my brother was supposed to christen it, but he was, I guess, at the age of four … he, he couldn’t lift up the champagne bottle … so he asked someone if he could just write his name on the little side of the ship and he was allowed to.

He pulled out a crayon and he wrote B-o-b … and the ship, you know, went down the ways and everything. And … and then it, you know, served its function on the Murmansk Run and then we heard it … you know, it ended up wrecked somewhere.

HEFFNER: And you went to see the wreckage.

DARNTON: Well, many years later, my brother was giving a lecture and a man approached him after and said, “It’s an unusual name, Darnton, did you know there’s a pub in Scotland, named Byron Darnton?”

And he called me immediately. We checked it out … we figured out immediately that was where the ship crashed. So we figured, “Well, we have to go there and raise a drink to the old man”. And we went to this pub on an island with a population of 1 … the pub owner …


DARNTON: … and after a round of drinks we crossed the island … my brother and I to look at the wreckage … and it was just this kind of sad, little heap of metal … and you know, off shore, covered by moss … couldn’t see the B-o-b anywhere. And I looked at that and sort of felt very disappointed, saddened even and it was kind of there that I decided “You know I’m going to find out who he was, what he was like, why he went to war and … at the age of 44, volunteering to cover the war as a correspondent, leaving behind a wife with two young children”. That was the … those were the, the questions that began going through my brain for the first time, really.

HEFFNER: An exorcism?

DARNTON: (Laughter) Well, you know people often say, “Is it cathartic?” I wish I could say “yes”. But, but I can’t, although I do know that at the end of it, as one point in particular, pulling away from this village, I felt a kind of stream of emotions I’d never felt before.

Including anger …which I had never felt before … anger at the whole thing … the randomness of it, you know, the fact that these lives were overturned. My mother never remarried. And she tried to carry on as if … almost as if he was still alive and that, that led her down a difficult road.

So I, I can’t say that I kind of re-lived it in some way. There was nothing for me to re-live, really. But I do feel that I packed it away … kind of putting it now in a box and put it behind me and can go on to other things. So, it’s … in that respect a very satisfying feeling.

HEFFNER: I want to ask … at one point something you had written … talked about the Times not reporting this …

DARNTON: Ahh, yes.

HEFFNER: …. official …


HEFFNER: … officially this, this incident and because, what is the reason … was it Ed James then at the Times?

DARNTON: Yes, it was. Yeah, I went … I did some research also through the Times archives and found … you know, folders about my mother, who worked for the Times after his death … as a reporter in the Washington Bureau and then finally Woman’s Editor … about my father … about my brother who also put in a stint at the Times … my wife, incidentally, has also written for the Times.

We’re like this, you know, the company store that we can’t get away from. And in my mother’s folder there was a … there were various memos … many of them written by her when she was Woman’s Editor to Edwin L. James and Lester Markel who was the Sunday Editor … these were both driven men, tough men … not sentimentalists by any means … and she was arguing for women’s news in the paper.

Saying it’s not just food, fashions and furnishing. It’s really a question of broadened post-war interests in everything from juvenile delinquency, which was a very big topic in the … you know, in the early fifties, if you remember …


DARNTON: … to legislation involving, you know, women in Washington, the price of food … all these things. She met a stonewall and in the, in the margins of her memos … James in particular, would write, “This is sociology” with an exclamation point.

Well, one of the things I uncovered was a story that had been written back in 1946, I think, just after the war … by a member of the Washington Bureau who looked into the, this friendly fire incident and discovered that it was actually an American plane, a B-25, that it was almost a … you know … it wasn’t … there was an exchange of fire from, from the ship to the plane … vice versa … that it was a … almost a … he called it a battle.

Well, it wasn’t quite a battle, but it was certainly a, you know, a fire fight. And, and the story was never used in the paper.

And I noted … I found a little note from James that said … to the publisher … when this whole question came up in the 1950’s, there was a rumor that, in fact, it had been a Japanese plane … turned out not to be true.

The publisher asked James to look into it and he wrote … and sent a copy of this story with a little note that said, “We didn’t print this on the grounds that it would do no good”.

So it was a kind of, I think, self-censorship. Because if you were just reading the newspaper of record, all you would have known for all these years, really, was it … some kind of accident and that would have been the sum total of your knowledge.

HEFFNER: Of course, that happened again when Jack Kennedy asked that the Times not print …


HEFFNER: … news about what became the Bay of Pigs.

DARNTON: Self-restraint.

HEFFNER: Yeah. What do you think about that?

DARNTON: Well, everyone … everyone recognizes … including Jack Kennedy that that was a mistake. That it would have been much better if the Times had gone ahead and printed what they, what they knew.

They did do a story, by Tad Schultz, he was the reporter who …


DARNTON: … uncovered it. But it was a kind of truncated version and, and only … didn’t name the time and place where the invasion was going to take place. I can imagine the conferences that must have been held over, you know, that … “What do we do with this material? Do we go ahead? National security interests will be affected”, etc.

And the lesson there was things would have been much better if the Times had printed it. That’s …

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s a rule of thumb? For you?

DARNTON: No. It would depend, obviously … yeah, I mean all newsmen favor printing … especially if it’s their story (laugh).

But it’s not always the case. I mean we could always cite stories where printing it was foolhardy. You know, printing the Japanese … saying the Japanese code had been broken in World War II … the Chicago Tribune … was foolhardy, dangerous.

So there are clearly stories where you, you … you know, there is a … the argument of national security will hold up.

But, but I think, you know, you have to really go right up to that line and be convinced of it, if you’re going to hold back in publishing it.

HEFFNER: Do you think there are more times these days when that line is reached?

DARNTON: Well, you know … again … the whole profession has changed. And there’s some automatic antagonism now between the press corps in Washington and the people they cover.

That’s, I think, not necessarily a good development. I think it’s good for the reporters to remain skeptical. But now functionaries in Washington almost always insist that all requests for information go through their department’s PR representatives … it’s all very controlled.

And when the Times comes up with something like Wikileaks … I mean the Times didn’t come up with them, but when they’re confronted with it …and they go … they, they deal with the State Department or at times, even, you know, with, with the President … say, “This is what we have, we want to print it, what’s you argument against it?”.

And occasionally, if the argument is persuasive enough … on Wikileaks example, the argument that you will actually be … it will lead to the detection of source whose lives could, could be threatened … they delete the names. That’s fine … that’s acceptable.

HEFFNER: When in their judgment … that’s …


HEFFNER: … acceptable.

DARNTON: But it’s their … the editor’s judgment.

HEFFNER: How do you feel about that?

DARNTON: Oh, that’s fine. That’s fine.

HEFFNER: You used the word before … the profession …


HEFFNER: … and I was going to interrupt and say “What profession?”

DARNTON: (Laughter) You mean …

HEFFNER: What profession is it?

DARNTON: You mean in this day and age because we have citizen journalists, and we have Internet and we have bloggers …


DARNTON: … and we have this whole new world.

HEFFNER: … no, on this program, it’s my privilege to put words in (laughter) my guests mouth …

DARNTON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … not the other way … no, I don’t mean that, John.


HEFFNER: I mean, very simply, at any time … has it been a profession?

DARNTON: Ah … newspapering. Ah, yeah, I think you could make the case that it is, that it was and is. Interestingly enough … I mean my father … this is not in the book, but I know from my mother he always called himself a “reporter”. He never called himself a journalist. What’s the difference … he saw a distinction. Journalist was highfalutin …

HEFFNER: Profession.

DARNTON: … a reporter was down to earth. Yeah, profession. But “profession” meaning something, meaning a kind of a … not just a job, but a calling … that overtone of something special, a craft that you’ve developed and worked at. A set of values that you care about. All of that, I think, does apply to newspapering.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t it also mean a, a sort of an organizational shtick here … the medical profession, the legal profession … the engineering profession. You need to be licensed. What about …


HEFFNER: … what about the “fourth estate”?

DARNTON: Licensing would be the last thing I would want to see. Yeah … no, I don’t … in that sense of the word, no I don’t see … yes, you can speak of the medical profession and the legal profession which have these set requirements and even can dictate the number of members that are allowed to join … through one system or another.

But that’s not true of, of reporting. And the day we see licensing of reporters is the day democracy is dead.

HEFFNER: I’m interested … you say “not true of reporting” … you didn’t say, “Not true of journalism”.

DARNTON: No … journalism …

HEFFNER: You don’t see the difference. Or you see very …

DARNTON: I see … I see … I see a nuance difference, yeah. Reporter to me is much more basic, straight forward and describes what you do in that job.

The trouble I always ran into was when I became an Editor, I didn’t want to say, “Well, now I’m an editor” I always wanted … so …

HEFFNER: You wanted …

DARNTON: I began using the word “journalist” to describe my …what I do … yeah, “one the them”.

HEFFNER: We have a minute and a half left … what do you think is going to happen, not in terms of the economics of the press, but what’s going to happen to the journalists?

DARNTON: Well, the interesting thing about this point, right now, is journalism schools are filled with young people. And there are even new ones cropping up all over the place.

So, they’re being attracted to this field. What are they all going to do? Where are the jobs going to be? I don’t know, but they’re going to be out in the market. And they’ll probably create their own jobs. And they will go to the Internet, they’ll start blogs, they’ll do local reporting, they’ll live on salaries of $20,000 to $30,000 a year, if they’re lucky.

It’ll be sort of like Grub Street, all over again, until finally somebody … it shakes down, somebody comes up with a business model that works in this new environment … starts hiring them up, you know. A new Adolph Ochs will come along … he’s probably right now in, you know, CUNY Graduate School learning something … learning the techniques. And it will happen, you know, it’s not dead.

HEFFNER: I appreciate your optimism.

DARNTON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I don’t know that I share it. But I want to thank you very much for joining me today, John Darnton.

DARNTON: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.