Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Tribute to Robert W. Greene -- Bob Greene of Newsday Was A Great Journalist Always Looking Ahead
At Sunday's tribute to Newsday's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert W. Greene, held at SUNY Stony Brook, there were several of us who spoke. Here's my comments:
Bob Greene was Mr. Newsday. He, more than anyone, took this suburban paper that I delivered as a kid in the early 1970s -- about the same time I met Bob -- and put it on the map with hard-hitting stories that everyone just had to read. He understood that reporting is the key, that if you could find out the real story of what was going on, somehow we’d all be better for it.
As a reporter, when you found a good story, there was no one you wanted to tell it to more than Bob. He could spot a story’s strengths and weaknesses and help you boil it down to its essentials. And no one was better at telling stories than Bob, particularly when holding court in a restaurant. A few years ago, he told me how young Bobby Kennedy – when he worked for him on the Senate Rackets Committee – was convinced Jimmy Hoffa was lying on the stand. Everytime, Hoffa denied any mob influence under oath, Kennedy put his hand over his own microphone, glared at Hoffa and mouthed the words, “Bull Shit.” I can still see Bob re-enacting that scene, mouthing that barnyard profanity with great theatricality and glee.
In looking back today at all his achievements, bear in mind that Bob was always looking ahead, as much as anyone in journalism. He not only pioneered an investigative team at Newsday, but to young journalists literally around the world he promoted the idea of investigative reporting in all its forms. He was among the first to support computer-assisted reporting, and he was a founder of the national IRE that has trained tens of thousands of young journalists over the past three decades. Just about every investigative reporter in this country has benefited somehow from Bob’s advice and his example. If he was still at Newsday today, I'm sure he'd be planning to put his next big investigative series onto the web with an interactive video. He had that type of mind -- always probing, always pushing for excellence, a creative energy that refused to take no for an answer when people said things couldn't be done.
More than his contemporaries, young people at Newsday -- and later at Hofstra and Stony Brook -- recognized Bob for what he truly was -- a genius of the craft of journalism. They knew him as a great teacher, a wonderful story-teller, a constant recruiter and promoter of talent. He could teach you about "the sniff" when you began an investigation, about "the vulch" after you finished it -- and everything else in between. There was an authenticity about Bob, the received wisdom of a man who had seized life -- as he would say, squeezed the grape. He could be a fierce investigator, a demanding boss, and a relentless seeker of truth. But in his heart, Bob always understood the frailty and redeeming grace in humanity.
This point was particularly driven home when the last of us on the Greene team put together a video for Bob's retirement party, essentially a good-natured toast as he went out the door. On camera, we included fond farewells from some who had pled guilty or been disgraced because of the wrongdoing Bob exposed. More than one reformed crook told us gratefully how Bob wrote the judge a "good guy" letter for them, trying to lessen their jail term. After all, who knew more about the severity of their crime than Bob, right? In that sense, Bob always seemed to me an Italian Renaissance man, chronicling the parade as he found it, much more than some mirthless Puritan, a prosecutor in print collecting scalps. Bob could teach you all the skills of investigative reporting, but from him you could also learn a lot about life.
Whether in the newsroom or the classroom, he constantly pushed you to do better, the way a master teacher does. With Bob, there was always the thrill of the hunt for something you didn't know, his appreciation for a well-turned phrase, and always the anticipation, as Ken Crowe once told me, that you were going to do something big with Greene -- and you damn sure wanted to be part of it.
What is most lasting, especially for those of us who knew him for so many years, is the spirit and idealism that Bob carried until the day he died. For young journalists today, there can be no better lesson.