Obit for Ex-Unipresser Who Oversaw Boston Globe's Busing Coverage; Blew NYT Watergate Tip

From the Boston Globe/New York Times, May 10, 2017:

In his 2009 memoir, Robert H. Phelps began by questioning whether his career was a fitting subject for a book. "Most of my work was as an editor, a shadowy figure in the backfield, blocking for, cheering on, and sometimes scolding star reporters and top editors," he wrote in "God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times."

During a lengthy career that was hardly spent in the shadows, he oversaw the Globe's award-winning coverage of the first year of court-ordered desegregation in the Boston Public Schools. Mr. Phelps died at 97 on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Lincoln, Mass. Thomas Mulvoy Jr., his friend and former Globe colleague, said the cause was complications of colorectal cancer.

Hired in 1974 as the Globe's assistant managing editor for news, Mr. Phelps subsequently served as managing editor and executive editor, and helped bring a heightened professionalism to the paper. "He injected a whole new level of discipline, rigorous editing, and structure into the way the place operated," said Matthew V. Storin, former editor of the Globe. "It made a huge difference to the quality of the paper."

Robert H. Phelps

In "Common Ground," his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the busing crisis, J. Anthony Lukas described Mr. Phelps as "a meticulous editor, scrupulously attentive to detail . . . (and) particularly adept at communicating his seasoned judgment to younger reporters."

When the Globe hired Mr. Phelps in 1974, he faced perhaps the most daunting challenge in the paper's history, serving as point man for its coverage of implementation of federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity's desegregation order.

A month after arriving at the paper, in April 1974, Mr. Phelps told participants at a Globe think tank that when he'd worked at his previous employer, The New York Times, he hadn't read its editorials and he didn't intend to read Globe editorials. "I don't want to know what the Globe thinks about the news. I just want to read the news." Pledging to report "all sides" of the story, Mr. Phelps drew up a comprehensive plan for coverage and deployed a team of some 60 reporters throughout the city.

Hired in 1974 as the Globe's assistant managing editor, Mr. Phelps subsequently served as managing editor and executive editor.

The Globe became a lightning rod for criticism, especially from antibusing forces. Both Mr. Phelps and Globe editor Thomas Winship received death threats.

In 1975, the Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for Public Service for what the Pulitzer committee called the paper’s "massive and balanced coverage . . . in a bitterly emotional climate."

Mr. Phelps later had a hand in another Pulitzer, when a Globe Spotlight Team series on the MBTA won the prize for investigative reporting. Mr. Phelps supervised the team.

"You should feel pretty smug," Winship wrote in a note to Mr. Phelps in 1980, after the Globe won three Pulitzers that year. "Compare a Globe six years ago to today's."

Mr. Phelps was by then the Globe's executive editor, the paper's second-highest newsroom position. He was named to the post in 1979, having served since 1976 as managing editor of the morning Globe when the paper still published morning and evening editions. In those jobs, Mr. Phelps added to his reputation for by-the-book journalism, and his rigorous approach complemented the more improvisational style of Winship.

It was Mr. Phelps who put an end to the practice of reporters also writing opinion columns. He also instituted a system of story editing to encourage closer editorial supervision of news stories. In 1981, he put in place the paper's first corrections policy, which guided the paper for years. "Higher standards of the Globe required that the corrections process be standardized," he later told the Globe's ombudsman. "We could no longer deal with our mistakes on a hit-or-miss basis."

Mr. Phelps "noticed everything and was always delivering lessons, in person and in memos," said Charles Mansbach, a former Globe Page One editor.

Reporters and editors were known to shudder when they saw in their mailboxes a note from Mr. Phelps, which he signed with his initials, lower-case: "bp."

As an editor, Mr. Phelps "could make a clumsy story sing," said Bill Kovach, who formerly was the Times's Washington bureau chief and curator of the Nieman Foundation. "More than that, Bob knew how to nurture young talent -- not by coddling them, but by helping them learn how to encase documented facts in the beauty of a well-written piece."

Mr. Phelps was mentor to a number of talented young journalists -- and, in one celebrated instance, clerical personnel. He hired Eileen McNamara as his secretary, and later as a Globe reporter and columnist. In 1997, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. "Everything I know about ethics, I learned from Bob Phelps," said McNamara, who now teaches at Brandeis University. "He had extraordinarily high standards, and I think he was a great editor."

One of four children, Robert Howard Phelps was born in Erie, Pa., a son of Harry Vernon Phelps, who worked as a painter for General Electric, and the former Ruth Edwina Fox.

Mr. Phelps graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree, and served in the Navy during World II. After the war, he received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. Journalism drew him, he wrote in his memoir, because he "wanted to write about events and change the world."

His first newspaper job was as a reporter for The Ambridge Citizen in Pennsylvania. He worked as a reporter for the United Press in Harrisburg, Pa., then as a copy editor for The Providence Journal-Bulletin. In 1954, he joined the staff of The New York Times. Rising rapidly, he served as assistant metropolitan editor, assistant to the national editor, and deputy chief of the Washington bureau.

Max Frankel, who later became The Times' executive editor, served as bureau chief over Mr. Phelps. He described him in his memoirs as "my indispensable deputy, the selfless stage manager without whom no journalism can succeed. He deftly managed assignments and copy flow and with steely patience coordinated our labor with the volatile demands of a half-dozen departments and a hundred temperaments in New York."

Six weeks after the Watergate break-in, Mr. Phelps took a month-long vacation in Alaska. His absence helped make him, in Lukas's words, a convenient "scapegoat for The Times disappointing performance" covering the scandal.

In a 2009 interview with the Globe, Mr. Phelps was unsparing about The Times failing to pursue a key tip two months after the break-in, and about his own role at The Times. "We missed out," he said, adding: "The fact is that I bear major responsibility for our failure to follow up on our best opportunity for an early Watergate breakthrough."

Mr. Phelps revealed his part in the Watergate episode in 2009, in a memoir.

He recalled in the book that on Aug. 16, 1972, a 31-year-old Times reporter, Robert M. Smith, carrying a notebook and a Dictaphone, rushed into Mr. Phelps's Washington bureau office to deliver an account of a startling conversation he had just had over lunch with L. Patrick Gray III, the new acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Smith had asked Mr. Gray about the break-in, two months earlier, at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, and Mr. Gray, for the first time, implicated Donald Segretti, a covert Nixon campaign operative. He also intimated that the wrongdoing went further. As Mr. Smith wrote in 2009 in The American Journalism Review:

"'The attorney general?' I asked," referring to John N. Mitchell, who had left the Justice Department to run the president's re-election campaign.

"He nodded."

"'The president?' I asked."

"He looked me in the eye without denial -- or any comment. In other words, confirmation."

In his memoir, Mr. Phelps wrote, "There we were, with leads from the acting director of the F.B.I. that a man named Segretti, former attorney general Mitchell and the White House, perhaps Nixon himself, were involved in Watergate, long before The Post's revelations."

He added: "We never developed Gray's tips into publishable stories. Why we failed is a mystery to me."

Mr. Phelps was about to take a month's vacation in Alaska and would normally have passed the leak to another editor before leaving, he wrote. But he did not. He called the lapse his "dereliction."

To make matters worse, Mr. Smith had quit The Times, effective the next day, to enroll in Yale Law School.

"I assumed the paper, for some reason, could not confirm it -- even with Segretti's name," Mr. Smith wrote. "I watched in disappointment as The Washington Post began drubbing The Times on the Watergate saga."

Mr. Smith recalled that another Times editor had asked him to return to work on the story that fall. "I thought it over for a couple of days and decided not to," he wrote.

He agreed, though, to phone Mr. Gray -- but Mr. Gray did not return his call.

Years later, Mr. Smith wondered why Mr. Gray's deputy, W. Mark Felt, had begun talking to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Post, as the confidential source known as Deep Throat. (Mr. Felt publicly unmasked himself as Deep Throat in 2005 and died in 2008.)

"Maybe because Gray was going to be so hopelessly inept at media manipulation and covert disclosures that he wasn't the man for the job?" Mr. Smith speculated. "And perhaps -- having been inadvertently foiled at The Times -- it was time to move on to someone trustworthy at The Post?"

Mr. Smith became a mediator in California and is writing a book about the episode, titled "Suppressed: A Correspondent's Confessions."

Although The Times was slow to compete with The Post in its Watergate coverage, it did rally to break subsequent stories, a point Mr. Phelps never tired of making.

He "never let go of his position on Watergate," Mr. Mulvoy said -- "that The Times never got due credit for some important findings and insights."

The matchmaker for Mr. Phelps's move to Boston was Christopher Lydon, a former Globe reporter who then worked at The Times.

"I'm told I'd be a damned fool if I didn't see you," Winship wrote Mr. Phelps. "Why don't you come up and talk with me?"

Mr. Phelps was named associate editor and assistant to the publisher in 1982.

Later that year, he was also named vice president of Affiliated Publications, then the Globe's parent company. Stepping down as Affiliated vice president in 1987, Mr. Phelps took up acting. He became the oldest enrolled student in Brandeis University's theater arts program.

"As an editor," Mr. Phelps said in a 1987 WGBH-FM interview, "I deliberately never got angry. I held my feelings inside. But in acting, you can't hold your feelings inside. You have to follow the impulse. To be an actor, I have to break down training of over 40 years. In doing that, I have learned that I hardly knew what an impulse was. I had submerged my freedom to do things, to say things. Now, I'm trying to get that freedom back."

He didn't give up journalism entirely. From 1990 to 1998, he edited Nieman Reports, the journal of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism. "Almost overnight he turned what was essentially a 'second thought' publication into an adventure in journalism of verification, and he did it with almost no budget or staff," Kovach recalled.

Mr. Phelps also was coauthor of a textbook, "Libel: Rights and Responsibilities," and editor of two books: "Men in the News" and "Witness to History," the memoirs of U.S. diplomat Charles E. Bohlen.

A decade ago, he even drafted his own advance obituary. It began:

"Robert H. Phelps was a bleary-eyed 86-year-old retired newspaper editor who hobbled around a patch of grass in Lincoln, Mass., trying to raise a few apples, peaches, plums, and blueberries. His wife Elizabeth, who died in 2003, said they would have starved if he had been a farmer."