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An Appreciation: James W. Michaels

Published by Current on 2007-10-04

Jim Michaels, who died late on October 2, liked to say that India was, for him, the cradle of civilization, and that India was also, for him, the cradle of his journalism.

As a very young reporter for what was then United Press, he traveled to the Indian Subcontinent in the 1940s, shortly after World War II ended. He witnessed Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent movement of satyagraha for independence from the British Raj, he witnessed the violence that resulted from the partitioning of India into secular India and Islamic Pakistan, and he got to know the great giants of those times - Gandhi, of course, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the whiskey-guzzling, debonair Muslim who led the fight to establish Pakistan. It must have been enormously flattering for a journalistic greenhorn to have such access.

But Jim's dispatches were scarcely hagiographic. He was always questioning of politicians, he always asked the hard questions that make for reliable journalism. In the event, the distinctive journalistic style of empathy and tough inquiry that he developed during those early years of his journalistic life -- and of the life of the nations whose birth he witnessed -- was to become Jim's trademark. When Malcolm Forbes asked him to join Forbes in 1954, it was a natural fit. Forbes was then a somewhat moribund family-owned business magazine. The magazine needed the sort of probity and probing approach that Jim brought to it. Jim found in Forbes a timely vehicle to make the transition from breaking news to cracking open puffed up reputations in the corporate world.

That fit made for lively journalism, and it is no hyperbole to say that Jim re-invented newsmagazine journalism, at least as far as business and politics are concerned.

He liked investigative stories. He liked to know where the smoking gun lay. He liked to find what people in public life - be it in business or politics - were really like when they weren't touting their accomplishments. It wasn't just the facts that Jim wanted, he sought the realities behind both facts and facades. The journalism that he created came to be widely imitated around the world, and it transformed Forbes into the pre-eminent business publication in the four decades that Jim edited it. Of course, every great editor's greatness is enhanced by an enabling environment, and the Forbes family created that environment for Jim to flourish.

He was a short-tempered man, not one who suffered fools gladly, nor one who was particularly forgiving of errant editors and reporters. He mentored at least two or three generations of journalists, many of whom rose to prominence in their professions and in other fields. Of course, every Jim Michaels "graduate" had an anecdote to tell, some special story of irascibility or incandescence. For every story of irascibility or incandescence a Jim Michaels "graduate" told, there was another item that was soft or affectionate.

That's because, at his core, Jim was a tender man, someone who seemed stoical but who felt deeply for the deprivations and indignities of the dispossessed and displaced. Perhaps that explained why he felt so powerfully for India and Indians. He called it the high adventure of nation building, and he was ready to forgive most anything that Indian leaders did -- except venality, corruption and abuse of power.

He was also dismayed that, his admiration of Nehru notwithstanding, India adhered to Nehru's customized brand of Fabian Socialism for so many years. Jim thought that a huge country like India would have been far better served by embracing capitalism. India, he would often say, needed to unleash the natural entrepreneurial energy of its people. India, he would often say, needed to attract foreign capital that would help create jobs and expand consumerism. But, of course, that didn't happen.

When India finally decided to liberalize its economy by shedding socialist shibboleths in 1991, many of its Asian neighbors had already galloped past and created booming economies. That saddened Jim - not because other Asian countries flourished but because India's indigenous poverty had deepened in the socialist years, and so much valuable time had been lost in nation building.

And so it was with a particular joy that he welcomed the embracing by Indian's leaders of the market economy in recent years, generating an extraordinary annual economic growth rate that gave neighboring China a run for its money. Jim never said, "I told you so." But he clearly relished India's growing achievements in international trade and commerce, and in strengthening the domestic economy through dismantling - however gradually - the License Raj that had replaced the British Raj.

Both his beloved India and Pakistan are marking their 60th anniversary of independence from the British Raj this year. There's never a good time to take leave of one's avatar on this planet of ours, but Jim Michaels might even have agreed that if he was to go, then this anniversary year was as fitting a moment as any.

Despite knowing him as a friend and editor for long years, I never quite got around to asking Jim if he believed in the Hindu theory of reincarnation. My own guess? He probably did. And that, to me, suggests that when he's reborn -- as good people inevitably are in the Indian scheme of things -- it will most surely be as an Indian. India will be a cradle again for Jim Michaels.

There's one other thing about Jim that showed how deeply he was engaged with India. His two granddaughters are Indian born, adopted from orphanages in a small city. They were his joy, they were his pride, and they reminded him -- every day of his life in recent years -- of where his own high adventure in life and journalism all began. And it may begin all over again.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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