Reading "The Kingdom And The Power" is an immersive, and at times deeply enjoyable experience. Retaining any of the information contained within this sprawling and often rambling account is something else, however.
At the heart of Gay Talese's 1969 deep-dish exploration of the culture and people at The New York Times is a kind of debate, between the forces of the old thinking based on the paper's founding father Adolph Ochs, of "All The News That's Fit To Print" fame, and some young Turks (well, guys in their 40s) who place more value on being interesting than thorough. It's a fight you not only read about in the book, but can feel in the way it is written.
The concept of New Journalism, as pioneered by Talese and other 1960s scribes like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, kind of flew in the face of what a newspaper like the Times was about. Instead of giving you the "who-what-why" and a bit of shading and coloring, New Journalism took a more subjective approach. You see it here at the beginning, in the way Talese has you sit in on a regular layout meeting in the office of Times' executive editor Clifton Daniel on an early summer day in 1966. As the meeting goes on, we find ourselves privy to the thoughts of various players at the table. How so? Some undoubtedly shared their thoughts with Talese after, but a good deal of guesswork must have been involved for such a moment-by-moment breakdown of a few fleeting minutes in these people's busy lives.
This happens a lot in "Kingdom And The Power," whether its globetrotting writer Harrison Salisbury's cool disdain for the feelings of others or a climactic battle for newsroom power between top Timesmen A. M. Rosenthal and James "Scotty" Reston. We get lots of insights, which is good New Journalism. We get few quotes, which is bad Old Journalism. How do we know we are getting more than one person's subjective opinion of the tumult around him? We don't. All in all, give me Old Journalism any day. Objectivity trumps subjectivity in these kinds of things for me.
"Kingdom And The Power" has its charms. Chief among them is a deep dive into what The Times' culture was about circa 1966, a cauldron of ambition, pride, lots of money, and ennui. Timesmen, as Talese calls them given they are mostly men, occupy a highly structured environment where even the placement of one's desk is a kind of status. Reporters are summoned by microphone to answer for their work, and the brighter ones struggle for optimum expression with a style that places uniformity and completeness above inspiration.
"They regarded 'The Times' as one of the few predictable things left in modern America and they accepted this fact with degrees of admiration and cynicism, seeing 'The Times' with a varying vision: it was a daily miracle, it was a formula factory."
Talese, himself a Timesman, clearly would tilt toward the latter idea. At its best "The Kingdom And The Power" has at the gumbo of visions and ideals at work inside a very exciting newspaper. But its lack of structure or purpose, of fidelity to sources and a sense of "who-what-where," confines this to the realm of cultural curiosity, of a book that has outlasted its time.