WHEN UP HAD NO I



WHEN UP HAD NO I


From The New York Times Opinion page, published June 12, 1982.

(By Robert Manning, former editor of The Atlantic, editor in chief of Boston Publishing Company.)

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BOSTON -- Newspapermen, as journalists used to be called, have long been charged with the sin of cynicism. It is a characterization that many of us encourage, to deflect attention from our far more widespread flaw, incorrigible sentimentalism. This truth was borne home to me by the news that United Press International had been sold by the E. W. Scripps Company to a new set of owners.

It has been 33 years since I last filed a story for U.P.I. (it was just the U.P. then), yet the announcement that the 75-year-old news service had been saved for yet another day set me awash in nostalgia and did the same, I imagine, for a legion of newsmen who spent their formative years pounding beats and penciling copy in U.P. bureaus around the world. I was one of a very rare breed who left The Associated Press to work for the U.P., an act of heresy that in earlier times might have invited burning at the stake or at least a cell in Bedlam. It proved to be a happy move.

From its beginning in 1907, the U.P. has been the Avis of news agencies. We tried harder, for longer hours and fewer dollars. We knew that A.P. men looked down on us, but we didn't bother to look up at them, partly because we were too eager and busy to do so. You could easily tell a U.P. man from an A.P man, because a Unipresser worked alone and A.P. men traveled in packs to blanket a story. While suffering under it, we took an almost demented delight in our thralldom to the U.P.'s legendary parsimony. The loose organization of U.P. alumni, which includes such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, Harrison E. Salisbury, William L. Shirer and Howard K. Smith, to name a few, is called The Downhold Club, in celebration of the almost constant stream of Teletyped orders to bureaus to "downhold expenses."

For many years, the man charged with policing expenses was L.B. Mickel, so "Save a nickel for Mickel" became a sardonic watchword. An illicit nickel rarely slipped away from him, though he did allow Henry McLemore, a U.P. star, to exact $5 for "repair of typewriter" in almost every expense account he entered. And Mickel approved, with remonstrance, an item from one correspondent who covered the founding of the United Nations at San Francisco and, unable to account for all he had spent, listed an item for $15 under the heading, "A man ain't made of wood."

The international wire services are news butchers to the world. Their reporters prowl the great chaotic mess, whether it be pork belly futures or assassinations of potentates. While they cover the big stories, they deal also in enormous gobs of detail, for one man's trivia (pork bellies, say) is another's treasure. While their staffs have boasted stylists, style is not much required. Alertness and speed of delivery are more essential, and if there is a choice between thoroughness and brevity, brevity wins. My favorite example is a U.P. dispatch filed from Palestine, repeated here in its entirety: "The visit of the United Nations Palestine Commission was marred today when the delegate of the Netherlands fell into the tomb of Nicodemus."

Opinion was severely discouraged. Just the facts, son, as soon as possible -- preferably before the A.P. or any other news agency reports them. The spectacle of reporters trying to get the news first -- a "scoop," as it used to be called, an "exclusive," as it is now called -- is frowned upon outside the trade, but it was one of the best parts of the game. Beating the A.P. by a few minutes or even a few seconds induced a state of euphoria comparable in intensity only to the gloom provoked by being beaten.

The pressure for speed was never better dramatized than at news conferences in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, before they were turned into televised beauty contests and shouting matches. The rush of wire service reporters from the Oval Office to dictate stories resembled nothing less than a rampage of buffaloes, and many a grown-up man was seen to maim, bump, trip or otherwise impede his rival. At Truman's announcement of V-J Day, Aug. 10, 1945, the U.P.'s Merriam Smith overturned a stepladder bearing a photographer, broke his own shoulder in the collision but dictated for a full half-hour before seeking medical help. On the way to the hospital, Smith gave the press room office boy money to deliver bourbon to him. We cowed the lad into spending the money on a funeral wreath.

It seems almost sinful to have gotten so much fun and excitement out of covering events that were frequently grim and foreboding, and to get paid for doing so, even if too little. For many of us, the U.P. was a better training school than any college could be, and an institution that instilled loyalties that, even though sometimes profanely expressed, last a lifetime. It is good to know that old Avis will still be here to provide the same for another generation.

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