Confessions of a famous American newsman

Confessions of an American Media Man by Tom Plate

This is a book anyone interested in newspapers and magazines will enjoy. The American journalist Tom Plate, whose syndicated column appears in The Straits Times, looks back on his working life before he became a full-time teacher at the University of Calfornia, Los Angeles. And what a life he had — Amherst, Princeton, Newsday, the New York magazine, the now defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner,Time, Los Angeles Times.

And, by the way, he was first offered a job by Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post after a summer job there as an intern while an Amherst undergraduate. He turned it down, saying he wanted to go to graduate school after finishing college. “Graduate school ain’t worth shit,”scoffed Bradlee. Plate disagrees. Every journalist should have a master’s at least, he says, preferably in public policy, international relations or economics. Though now teaching journalism himself, he doesn’t much care for J-schools except for the very best — Columbia, Annenberg.

Plate, who made his name as an editor, not a reporter, admits he was an earnest, young man who read the Newsweek before he read Playboy. No wonder, he admires Singapore, where Playboy is banned. He did write for Playboy later and says he liked its editors and Hugh Hefner.

This is a book with a rich cast of characters. Virtually every famous American journalist and publisher is present:

  • Bradlee in the Washington Post newsroom “on the prowl like a cat looking for a fight”
  • Bill Moyers and David Laventhol, who mentored Plate at Newsday
  • the legendary editor Clay Felker, who lured him away to New York magazine 
  • the writer Gail Sheehy who worked for Felker and was his girlfriend
    (they later married)
  • the brilliant Tom Wolfe, who was then writing for
    New York magazine, was so polite he could never say No
  • Rupert Murdoch who, Plate says, sussed him out but didn’t give him a job after taking over New York magazine
  • the late Sir David English of the Daily Mail, who, according to Plate,
    was the greatest newspaper editor (Plate worked briefly for him in
    London under a friendly arrangement with his then employer, the Los
    Angeles Herald Examiner)
  • Strobe Talbott at Time magazine, who later joined the Clinton’s administration
  • the USA Today founder Al Neuharth
  • the former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler

The list goes on and on.

Plate, to his credit, writes intimately and entertainingly about public figures and the news business. He describes how he got an impromptu interview with then president Bill Clinton during an economic summit at Davos by getting Clinton to pose with an attractive Chinese newswoman from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

He recalls how one section of Time magazine used to close every Friday night with a resounding thud on the floor. Its top editor, who used to start drinking beer and move on to Scotch while going through the copy, would pass out once the job was done.

Plate recalls when the Time editors gave him a farewell party at the chic restaurant 21 in New York, even one of the speakers passed out while proposing a toast.

Plate was unhappy at Time and was asked to leave. It’s the mark of a great journalist that he writes candidly about his humiliation. The hours were very long, he was regarded as an outsider, he says. But he also admits his editing deteriorated as a result of the long hours and though he was looking for another job, it was the top editors at Time, not he, who decided he should leave. But they gave him time to find an even better paid job as the editor of another magazine.

Plate’s last newspaper job was as editor of the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times. He was hired by Laventhol, for whom he had done the same job, first at Long Island Newsday, when he was in his 20s, and later at News York Newsday. When Newsday owner Times-Mirror bought the Los Angeles Times, Laventhol became its publisher and took Plate with him. But he was never wholly accepted by the staff, who regarded him as an outsider, and when Laventhol stepped down after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Plate quit as editor a few months later. But he was not asked to go. He was allowed to continue as a columnist with the same pay!

It’s a remarkable career — and a remarkable book. Plate has a healthy ego and gives himself frequent pats on the back, recalling the compliments he has received from famous people over the decades. Journalists are pushy people, he says. But he also writes about his failures — at Time, for example. He also writes about his unhappy youth — his father was a US Marine who didn’t want him to go to college, but he managed to get a scholarship to Amherst. He has never looked back.