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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Bernard Gwertzman

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-05

Many American boys grow up wanting to be business tycoons or baseball players, or at least president of the United States. Bernard Gwertzman of New Rochelle, N.Y., always set his sights on being a newspaperman, even back at junior high school more than five decades ago.

"I was infatuated with being a journalist," Mr. Gwertzman said over lunch. "I read every book there was on journalism. I was managing editor of 'Highlights,' the monthly newspaper at Albert Leonard Junior High School in New Rochelle. I visited the public library to read microfilm. When I was in 10th grade, I started contributing to the New Rochelle Standard-Star, which was a daily newspaper at the time."

It was heady seeing his byline in print, and headier still to watch perfect strangers read his coverage of high-school sports.

"Covering sports for the New Rochelle Standard-Star was equivalent to covering the Yankees for the New York Times," Mr. Gwertzman said "I was working around the clock."

After graduating from Harvard -- where he was managing editor of The Crimson -- Mr. Gwertzman got to be a professional newspaperman, first at The Washington Star and then for many years at the New York Times. In the course of a long career as a foreign correspondent -- in the erstwhile Soviet Union -- and as a reporter at the State Department, he's widely recognized to have created a new genre of diplomatic reporting that combined energetic "scoop-oriented" enterprise with nuanced insights into how political leaders and bureaucrats meld their minds to generate policy.

His coverage of then U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" between Arabs and Israelis following the 1973 war remains a classic of deadline reporting.

Now Mr. Gwertzman is enjoying his second act in journalism -- no, make that his sixth act. If the first act was his stint as a reporter in school and college, then foreign correspondent would be his second act; the third act was his long tenure as a diplomatic correspondent in Washington (he holds the record for the most number of non-wartime front-page stories); the fourth would be his stewardship of the foreign desk at the Times during the collapse of communism (he helped net five Pulitzer Prizes for the paper and its correspondents); the fifth act would be his helping invent Web journalism for the paper.

And the sixth act is the much-acclaimed interview column he currently does for the Council on Foreign Relations on Park Avenue, the 4,200-member think tank of key figures in business, finance, government, academe, diplomacy, the arts, and media -- otherwise known as the American Establishment.

"The idea is to make our Web site [] a one-stop shop for anyone interested in foreign affairs," Mr. Gwertzman said.

The staff of the Web site, headed by former Newsweek editor Michael Glennon, provides detailed backgrounders on international issues. They speak to leading authorities on global topics ranging from AIDS to anti-terrorism. They provide context and perspectives on complicated subjects in a manner easily digested by the tens of thousands of students and others who access the site daily.

It's essential that their work isn't perceived as dumbing down the subject matter. That's because visitors to the site include policymakers in Washington and scores of capitals around the world. Mr. Gwertzman's role is to interview thinkers who can add interesting information and analysis on current topics.

In all this, it helps that Mr. Gwertzman can handle Russian -- which he studied at graduate school at Harvard -- and French. It helps that, like any first-rate reporter, he makes a sustained effort to stay in touch with sources and cultivate new ones. (A conversation with him fetches entertaining anecdotes about surreptitious meetings with Jewish dissidents in the U.S.S.R., and about figuring out the provenance of various Kissinger done-deeds.)

And, in a curious way, it helps that, despite a lifetime of accomplishment and awards, Mr. Gwertzman -- who turns 70 next month -- remains restless about his craft.

"My wife, Marie-Jeanne, to whom I've been married for 36 years, used to ask when I was a reporter, 'Why do you work so hard?'" he said. "My answer always was that I was running scared -- running scared of missing the story, running scared of getting beat by the competition, running scared of not using my intellectual energy to the fullest. Life, of course, is full of serendipity. The way I look at it, I've been lucky to be doing what I love most. I've always had this passion for telling a good story, a fire in the belly for journalism. I always wanted to do it all. And to this day, I remain excited about the news."

He's less thrilled with the decline in newspaper readership, the drop in advertising suffered by most of America's 1,800 newspapers, and by the fact young readers seem to be turning away from daily papers.

"These are not the best of days for journalism," Mr. Gwertzman said. "There's a generational shift away from printed newspapers. I think we've got a problem."

He acknowledged, however, that the Web had brought a certain excitement to news coverage.

"Even though it's a new medium, look at it this way -- news is covered on the Web in real time, it's covered as it breaks," Mr. Gwertzman said.

Then he must surely be equally enthusiastic about the all-news television channels, the reporter asked?

"Those all-channels drive me nuts," he said, dryly.

"I think there's enormous scope, and room, in journalism for good reporting and interpretation," Mr. Gwertzman said. "There's also room for columnists and purveyors of opinion, of course, because people are always looking for provocative ideas. But I'm still old-fashioned enough to want my news separated from opinion."

The reporter asked him to assess his career. What, in his mind, had he truly accomplished?

Mr. Gwertzman hesitated. Like many professionals of his generation, he has never been known to be comfortable speaking about himself or his many achievements.

"I suppose one could say that if there were people out there interested in foreign affairs, in the way our world works, in the way policy is formed, in the way that policy is shaped by individuals and institutions -- then I gave these readers a pretty good run for their money," Mr. Gwertzman said. "But journalism is ephemeral, it's not history. What's that saying? Yesterday's paper is good only for wrapping today's fish? Nevertheless, journalism is a high calling. It's a great way to earn a living. Let's hope it keeps going."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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