Monday, July 20, 2009


When Legends Yarned About How They Got The Story

Once upon a time, when press clubs flourished and movies made kids want to be reporters, we gathered glass in hand in the wee hours and talked about our jobs. It really was the good old days before the media splintered like a stone tossed through a stained glass window and the accountants sucked the fun out of the business.
In those times, Walter Cronkite was not just the avuncular eye on the news for most Americans but also the affable story teller who was willing to party until the first milking. As we found to our pleasure when the Toronto Men's Press Club invited him to be the speaker at the annual hangover weekend that featured the Byline Ball, the National Newspaper Awards presentation dinner and the Toronto Firefighters Luncheon.
For several decades, it was the event of the year for Toronto newspapers, and TV and radio personalities made sure they were invited too. And now it has vanished into the night of nostalgia. The dance is gone, the press club allowed women to join (I moved the motion and was punched by a pipsqueak from the Star for my temerity) and has now drifted into an obscure death, and the firefighters moved on to a much different event.
In the glowing and deserved tributes to Cronkite that flowered after his death, it was left to Morley Safer, who long ago was a Toronto newsman and press club habitue, to talk about the party side of the great newsman. Safer, whose face is lined with the joys of much anecdotage, talked with pleasure about how his friend Cronkite loved to party into the small hours. I'm sure there was also much private talk about that from his neighbours around the Nantucket dock where Cronkite loved to sail.
Ah yes, the legendary newsman who was famous for his stubborn hard work didn't believe he had to be anchored eternally before the cameras but wanted to roam for stories and pleasures. I think that may have been one reason that Cronkite didn't like the 24-hour news cycle where neither the reporter nor the public have a chance to catch their breath before the next slight advance in the story is delivered in urgent tones.
It was more than 30 years ago that Cronkite left what was then called the Royal York Hotel and held an agreeable court at the press club on Richmond St. He was the most approachable of all the giant egos around the bar. Mary and I decided around 2 a.m. that it was either time to head home or to try to sleep standing up, but Cronkite never faltered. He closed the club.
Of course he was surrounded by such good-time legends as Doug Creighton, the founder of the Toronto Sun, who was already famous for his cop-shop stories, his parties and his grace. And it helped too that Toronto had a certain fame in the newspaper world as one of the most competitive cities in North America, because the Star and the Tely slugged it out - some times literally - for three editions six days a week.
Some of this may seem quaint in 2009. Imagine the reporters and editors having a dance and electing a Miss Byline. (One year Mary and I were assigned to chaperone the latest beauty queen, one Carol Goss, who went on to be, among other things, CBC president and a B.C. cabinet minister. She started on the Tely's youth supplement.) We had satirical skits, helped by the fact that at least one entertainment reporter, Alex Barris, had his own CBC TV variety show.
The Sunday lunch where the firefighters gave out awards, had major political speakers, and the press club president was given gold cuff links, either with the city coat-of-arms or the provincial trillium. Can you imagine the fuss if the mayor or premier was to give such an expensive gift to a columnist today. I still treasure mine even though I haven't worn French cuffs for years.
And that's the way it was in the glory days of Toronto newspapers.
A theme running through the Cronkite tributes was that no one person today could dominate the news gathering of North America like Cronkite did. This was said to be a good thing. I suppose it is because there has been this incredible explosion in how we get our news. All-news stations, dozens of cable channels, free newspapers, countless blogs, the Google vacuum etc. The quantity is extraordinary. Too bad the quality has become embarrassing. But that's the way it is.

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