EDITORS' NOTE: Happy Halloween Eve! Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica and ex-Timesman, is our guest curator. He embraced this challenge the way he embraces everything: By going hard.
I met Joe in the New York Times newsroom in the autumn of 1995; I can’t remember if he was wearing the goofy wool cap he’d often wear, even on the hottest summer day. But I do remember thinking, OK, this guy is a life force, a Breslin character in short supply at the Grey Lady: Edgy. Funny. Sentimental. Bombastic. Fearless. Joe would add, “Rule breaker. And unapologetic thief.” We’d become fast friends, solidified through the baptism of covering TWA Flight 800’s crash off the coast of Long Island. By then, Joe had moved to the Metro desk—“a mediocre reporter, slightly better writer,” he says—after being a “punk sportswriter” (his phrase, not mine) covering the Mets, Rangers and Islanders. He’d go on to become the NYT’s longtimemetropolitaneditor and an unconventional NYT sportseditor who waved the flag for his people—their stories and their ambitions—with zeal and heart. In 2013, Joe left the Times, after 25 years, to become a senioreditor at ProPublica.
Widely regarded as one of journalism’s best editors and writers, Joe owns an unerring eye for a phenomenal story. And in a business now teeming with round pegs in round holes, Sexton is also old-school cool. (A word of warning: Joe’s picks are presented the way he talks, with a few four-letter words added for emphasis.)
JOE'S INTRODUCTION: I’d have done fuckall with my life without deadlines. Don reached out earlier this week for me to pinch hit. Deadline was tight. I said yes.
I spent 25 years in the wonderful, noble, dysfunctional, glorious, maddening, flawed, irreplaceable biosphere that is the New York Times. Cherished every stressful and satisfying minute. But life outside has been spectacularly invigorating. I had no idea what a rich world of storytelling existed – inventive, ambitious, oddball, entertaining, searing. The future of journalism may be fucked. But storytelling’s got some years in it.
I’ve been a sucker for stories since childhood. My Brooklyn home was a Collier’s mansion of newspapers and books and magazines. As accomplished juvenile delinquents, my Brooklyn crew would spend our winters stealing beer, breaking into an apartment building for warmth, and telling stories. The same fuckin stories, over and over. But that was the art of it. To tell an old story well. To add an invented wrinkle or a freshly remembered detail. Tell them backwards as well as forwards. Keep the beer coming and the night alive.
I got into the newspaper business by accident. I didn’t burn with any virtuous sense of playing a vital role in our democracy. I liked newspapers as a racket, a big, elaborate, daring, daily bluff. Find shit out. Piss people off. Make them cry and laugh. Try not to get shit wrong, but be honest about the likelihood you will. And when you do, man up and move on. And do it on deadline. Again and again.
Sportswriting will crush and then steal your soul eventually, but you build some solid muscles along the way. Write fast. Value detail. Recognize that your finest, most florid lines can’t hold a candle to a great quote. Get back in the locker room the next day and face the angry music of someone’s bruised feelings or raging displeasure.
My first sports editor was David Tucker of UPI, a bushy haired, profane, smoking chimney of a man. I adored him, and the nights I got to spend taking dictation from writers at ballparks around the country. Can hardly forget the night our correspondent in Vegas called in during the first round of the first Hagler-Hearns fight. “Stay on the fuckin phone,” he said. “This can’t last.” It didn’t, and when it was over in the third, our man, blood splattered on his face at ringside, dictated 400 of the cleanest words imaginable. That’s some fuckin skilz.
David went on to be both city editor and sports editor at the Philly Inquirer. And then he, in his spare time, became an award-winning poet. He wrote a fabulous book of poems about the life of a newsroom called “Late for Work.” One of the best of the bunch is a poem called “City Editor Looking for News.”
“What did Nick the Crumb say before he died? What noise
did his fist make when he begged Little Pete Narcosi
not to whack him with a power saw? Did it go thub like a biscuit
against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?
Did he say his mother's name? Has anybody even talked
to his friggin' mother? Is she broke or sick and abandoned?
Is she dying of a broken heart? Do I have to think
of these things all by myself? How about a story
on which female commissioner the mayor is screwing?
How do we get that? Or what about the rumor
that he's taking bribes off the gay architect from Parsipanny?
Write me something about the bums
living under the bridge at 2nd and Callowhill.
Go sleep in the cardboard sleepshacks,
wear some Bible verses on your chest—go dirty and drunk.
Tell me what it's like. Make me fall in love
with the dirtball murder in Kensington, the wasted life
of the sixteen-year-old crack-dealing honor student
who might have been a star for UCLA, the priest
who tried to save him, the boy's chalk silhouette
fading on the rainy street, the killer who shot him
because he wanted his shoes and loved nothing in this life
but the crazed rottweiler he kept on a silver leash.
Follow those sirens I hear wandering down Locust Street.
Are they headed to a fire? A shooting?
An armored-car heist in broad daylight
with the money flying down the street?
Write about the quiet in this place on a late summer afternoon.
Write about that sneeze I just heard, the dusty light in this place,
the old papers piled high and falling from every desk.
Stop scratching your ass and loafing. It's almost deadline.”
I got to be city editor at The Times, a fairly preposterous outcome. Somebody ought to investigate how that happened. But God, was it fun. The governors of all three states we covered in the metropolitan region resigned. An attempted bombing in Times Square. A Page Six scandal. A Pulitzer for a series by Andrea Elliott about the life of an imam in American after 9/11. A mayor buys his way to an all but illegal third term. A series of killings by bow and arrow in the Bronx. A window washer falls 47 floors and lives. A fuckin plane dumps in the Hudson and everyone walks out on the floating wings unhurt. Fires, shootings, scandals, miracles, mysteries.
Stories. Great stories. Unforgettable stories. Maybe we’ll figure out the journalism thing. ProPublica’s making a pretty good go of it. But if it all fails, it won’t be for a lack of stories or a lack of appetite for them.
Journalists are all thieves, of a kind. We steal shit. With honor. Here’s a line of the NYT’s Jim Dwyer I’ve stolen brazenly and exploited shamelessly. It’s as close to an anthem as we newspaper folks can muster.
“There are three great, inextinguishable human desires: the need for food; the need for sex; the need for stories.”
Realness is a pretty good quality. Don’t get much more fuckin real than this. Plainspoken truth-telling from a domestic violence survivor and mom to an NFL cornerback. No unnecessary roughness here. Just one woman’s truth.
Okay, have to get the home team on the board. Here’s Charlie Ornstein, nation’s best healthcare reporter, with his latest enterprising effort related to Agent Orange’s as yet not fully determined legacy.
I happened to meet Andy the other day. Utterly winning. Anyway, this is a well executed riff, keeps you reading and is good fun—a feat, not unlike Andy’s headlines, that’s harder to do than you’d think.
I list this as a kind of test. Shane Bauer did a first rate first person story about his time as a prison guard in Louisiana. I thought it succeeded on every level. He’s back with this. Work as well? To the well once too often? Help me settle my mixed mind.
I was always more of a tab guy than Timesman. I even got to secretly write a couple of ledes for the Post on Mets games during a season in which they lost 103 games. Called Sid Fernandez a "continent of flesh," not somethng I'd have got away with at the NYT. Here, then, a tribute to the tabs.
There is no Cubs curse, only an irrational universe that taunts us mortals, even upright mortals like Ken Hubbs, a spectacular athlete who signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs out of high school, made it to the major leagues in two seasons at the age of 19, won Rookie of the Year and the Golden Glove Award in 1962, and then died of Thurman Munson Disease in February 1964 when he crashed the Cessna 172 he was piloting through a Utah storm. This brief tribute, which contains future echoes of the death of Jose Fernandez,touches less on what could have been for Hubbs and the Cubs and more on what was.
Kerry Sanders, innocent man, did two unjust years in a maximum security New York State prison. He wasn’t mistakenly convicted. He wasn’t railroaded. It was, actually, worse. The authorities yanked him off a park bench in Los Angeles, hauled him across the country and refused to listen to his pleas thought he was somebody else—not Robert Sanders, a felon on the lamb. “My name is not Robert,” Kerry told his captors. They shrugged, and upped his meds. Ben Weiser, the author, found Kerry’s story in a thin case file in federal court. Christine Kay, the world’s most gifted editor of narrative investigative storytelling, turned the case file into a harrowing tale of incompetence and indifference. Read it and weep. For all involved.
EVA BRAUN AND HER LONGTIME BOYFRIEND got married in a small civil ceremony in a bunker. They lived as husband and wife for just forty hours. She declined the bullet because she wanted to look pretty when she was found.
I learned to drink at 14, as a Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts. Who knew there was a Budweiser merit badge? I’ve been an episodic drinker since. A solid couple of drinking stints in Wyoming and Dublin, Wisconsin and Brooklyn. Then 11 years off to raise my first two daughters. I sustained myself in the dry years with coffee and the rather bizarre habit of drinking a dozen or so non-alcoholic beers in a night. Just typing that sentence makes me shake my head. But wtf. I eventually recovered my taste for beer and found true love while at it. That—the love and the beer both—produced two more daughters and a return to the drinking sidelines. If twins at 51 aint enough to scare you sober, not much is apt to. Which is a long way of saying Seltzer nows plays the role of non alcoholic beer—the cold thing I hold in my hand and over-drink. I fell hard for La Croix, and came to learn it’s a big hit with 12 steppers. But I’ve now discovered Polar Seltzer. Something about being addicted to a seltzer made in Worcester, Mass., feels right to me. Watermelon Margarita. Pomegranate Cherry. Winter Citrus & Berry. What the fuck is a winter citrus? Anyway, it don’t matter. The stuff works for this aging Boy Scout.
Thom Jones, failed boxer, acclaimed writer, could punch with both hands, and this New York Times obit captures both his heavyweight material and stature. “His ferocious, semiautobiographical short stories about boxers, custodians, soldiers, crime victims, cancer patients and asylum inmates coupled a fateful machismo — the eternal pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was his hero — with grim humor.”
“In late July, The American Conservative ran an interview with J. D. Vance that drew so much traffic it briefly crippled the central nervous system of the magazine’s website.” Thus began Jennifer Senior’s review of Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” She continued: “This is a historically peculiar election cycle, boisterously disrupted by outsiders, one of whom found the perfect host body in the Republican Party and became its presidential nominee. An investigation of voter estrangement has never felt more urgent, and we’re certainly not getting one from the lacquered chatterers on the boob tube. Now, along comes Mr. Vance, offering a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that.” Brian Lamb, God love him, is in rare form, and, refreshingly, Vance is, too.
A former inmate votes for the first time. “I’m feeling nervous,” he says. “It’s the same way you might feel doing anything for the first time, even something real simple. You just don’t know if you’ll do it right.” Voting at all means you’ve voted just right. Congrats, brother.
TIM TORKILDSON'S SUNDAYLIMERICK
From The Washington Post:
No one I know writes candid emails anymore. No one I know is unaware that he or she shares a computer with the Chinese and the Russians. “The Chinese are in your business,” Google’s Eric Schmidt told a group of businessmen not too long ago. The more prudent among us have deleted emails from way back. Now the record is what we say it is. The only thing truly transparent will be our lack of candor.
From Tim: Only a fool or a youth will hang out the entire truth. Our backstories must conceal or combust— we all dread the glib cyber sleuth.
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson
Header Image: Matt Rota, Special to ProPublica
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Lea Goldman, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Peter Kafka, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.