Journalism: By Murdoch and by Lowry

By Jeffrey Page

It’s been 10 years since the death of Bill Lowry, one of the great people of journalism. To appreciate how great, let us consider for a moment his complete opposite.

That would be Rebekah Brooks, until recently the CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s herd of British newspapers. Now, The New York Times reports, she’s about to be charged with withholding information in the hacking scandal.

Recently The Times noted Brooks’ testimony before a Parliamentary investigating committee and her perhaps unintended revelation that her professional life was everything it should not have been. She told her questioners that she “kept in touch by telephone, text message and email” with her favorite British politicians, including David Cameron, the current prime minister. Hmmm.

The Times continued, “They met at lunches and dinners. They socialized at cocktail parties, birthday parties, summer outings, Christmas celebrations and, in one heady instance, on a yacht in Greece.”

So there you are, a reader in Britain trying to get unbiased information when the person who runs your morning paper is having a high old time with the people she’s supposed to cover.

Enough of Brooks.

In the mid-seventies, Bill Lowry was the Sullivan County bureau chief of The Times Herald-Record. He made sure that if you were going to work for him, you understood certain rules that only a blithering idiot could misinterpret. No, um, if invited, you would not sail the Greek isles with the people you cover.

In fact, you accept nothing but words from the people you write about, and you always check the accuracy of those words. He insisted we stick to a bit of old Chicago wisdom: You trust your mother but cut the cards.

If Bill was interviewing a source at the local luncheonette, he would insist on picking up the check. No one in his right mind ever would have believed that Lowry could be bought with a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish but he worried how it would look if a reader walked in at the moment that a mayor or a political party leader grabbed the check. At such moments, if struggle was futile, Bill would leave a $5 tip.

We worked in an office a block from Kaplan’s Delicatessen in Monticello, a place that made great mushroom and barley soup. It was snowing and bitterly cold one night when Anne Kaplan – she owned the deli and was mayor of Monticello – was closing up. She brought two quarts of mushroom and barley to the bureau. “To keep you guys warm,” she said and walked out.

Lowry ran after her to return the soup. Then he went to a nearby diner and bought coffee and sandwiches for his reporters. Annie thought Bill was crazy, and of course he was no such thing. We loved Lowry.

He and his brand of journalism infuriated a lot of people who were used to being palsy-walsy with reporters and editors. An example: Bill and I were covering local court one night. A woman faced charges of prostitution and theft of a john’s credit cards. The john didn’t want the case to be in the newspaper and the judge ordered the courtroom cleared – of the press and no one else. Understanding a perversion of judicial power when he saw it, Bill told me to leave but he refused to budge.

As a cop escorted him out, Bill yelled to me, “Write this story!”

When he wrote about unusual patterns in racetrack payouts he was threatened with physical harm. On any number of stories he spotted headlights in his rearview mirror that may or may not have been back there a little too long.

His heart was as enormous as his conscience. One example: He allowed some local characters to pass the time in the bureau including an old man we knew only as Mr. Barash. Mr. Barash appeared to be about 80 and spoke with a thick Yiddish accent. He would sit and stare out the big front window. “Nice day,” he would say more than once no matter what the weather. When it was time for lunch, Bill would get an extra sandwich for his guest.

Bill chased important stories such as the fact that some of the most god awful slums in Newburgh were owned by some of the most respectable politicians. He wrote compelling stories about the trials and sentencing of the serial killer Son of Sam. He wrote about the treatment of poor people by the affluent, and about the conditions under which poor people had to live.

He sought to relieve misery by exposing it for as long as it took to change, possibly the result of his education by the Redemptorist Brothers at an upstate monastery where he came this close to becoming a priest. Instead he joined the Army. Later he switched to journalism, and practiced the brothers’ fourth vow after poverty, chastity and obedience – perseverance.

Later in his career, Bill went to The Record in Hackensack where some assignment editors liked his writing and sent him to write about the 1986 World Series. The Red Sox beat the Mets 1-0 in the first game, and Bill wrote: “So here it is, the opening of the World Series. Some 55,000 fans jam Shea Stadium to overflowing. Millions more watch on television across the country. Can Christmas be far behind? It’s The Game. And it’s a bore.”

He believed that animals – but especially dogs – had more integrity than people. He brought countless strays home to his place in Walker Valley. He once told a colleague that the only really important story he ever wrote was one that prevented a horse from being put down.

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7 Responses to “Journalism: By Murdoch and by Lowry”

  1. Randy Hurst Says:

    Nicely said; a good read. I finished it feeling a bit more hopeful, a little more reassured that there are still some people around with whom I can identify. Thanks for writing.

  2. Oliver Mackson Says:

    Nicely written. I’m sorry I never got to work with Mr. Lowry. His name was spoken with reverence by seasoned pros like Bob Quinn and Wayne Hall at the TH-R, long after he decamped for Hackensack.

  3. Jeffrey Page Says:

    Thanks Oliver and Randy. Let me tell you one more Lowry story, one that didn’t fit in the Zest post. I wrote a story. Some editor in M’town had some problems with it and was on the phone with Bill. I didn’t know that the editor in question was the assistant M.E., John Szefc. Bill’s on the phone and I am ranting because I thought the criticism was bogus. Finally Bill covered the mouth piece and said, “Get the f*** out of here. Go get coffee!” I stayed. As Bill finished his call, he told John: “Oh, and Page, says to thank you for your constructive criticism.

    I truly loved that man.


  4. John Szefc Says:

    Jeff: Editors and reporters still are like oil and water, I hope. To this day long after my editorial career at the TH-R is over, I still read stories with a questioning view, far too many times wondering why an editor did not fill a hole so wide you could drive a truck through it.
    I don’t remember the incident to which you refer, but I certainly remember Bill Lowry and you, the two best reporters the newspaper ever had.
    Too bad we had to lose both of you and several others of nearly equal talent to the Bergen Record where the lights were a little brighter and the pay a lot greener.
    Thanks for refreshing my memories of Bill Lowry. Believe it or not his name often emerges when my wife and I discuss the diminished amount of investigative reporting in today’s newspapers.

  5. Dick Benfield Says:

    I only wish I had taken the time to know Bill better. Thank you for this remembrance.

  6. Drex Heikes Says:

    Wonderful story, Jeff. You captured the Bill Lowry we loved at the Middletown THR.

    I was a cub when I met Bill. In the 36 years since, I have never encountered anyone remotely like him.

    As you described, he was the heart and the conscience of the newspaper. When facing ethical questions over the years, I often asked myself: What would Bill have done (besides swerving a car to avoid killing moths caught in the headlights).

    Thanks for writing about him.

  7. John Ensslin Says:

    Thanks for the great column Jeff. When I was at the THR, Bill was one of my heroes and role models.

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