Radical media, politics and culture.

Alexander Zaitchik, "John L. Hess and His Times"

"John L. Hess and His Times"

Alexander Zaitchik, NY Press

If one man ever gave blogging a good name, it was John L. Hess, who died last week of heart failure at 87. As late as New Year's Eve, Hess was speaking his sharp mind through his website, johnlhess.blogspot.com. There, as in his raspy-voiced daily commentaries for WBAI, the nation's oldest working media critic spat well-aimed poison darts at his favorite targets: bad food writing, lying politicians and the New York Times, Hess' journalistic home for a quarter century.

If anyone is quietly pleased with Hess' passing, they likely work in a big newspaper building at 229 W. 43rd St. Since leaving the paper in 1978, Hess has been a merciless shadow ombudsman for the Times, a role that culminated in the 2003 publication of My Times, his tell-all account of his long and varied career at the paper. During his years with the Times, Hess was food critic, city reporter, foreign correspondent, desk editor and obit writer. (One can only speculate how much this last post helped him prepare for last week.)

My Times is Hess' monument to the future. It is a devastating account of how the paper helped Robert Moses ravish the Bronx and Pat Moynihan libel the poor; how it blew My Lai, Watergate and the banking scandals that almost bankrupted the city; how it played along with the CIA abroad and Con Ed and Lilco at home; how it helped to wreck the campaign for national health insurance.

In unpacking all of this and more, Hess makes a convincing case that the Times has never been among the best newspapers in the world, just the most powerful. In many important ways, Hess believed the Times remarkably poor for a major daily — over- and poorly edited, over-staffed, puffed-up and power worshiping. The self-satisfaction the paper took in being a loyal mouthpiece for the Establishment is summed up by former Times foreign editor Emanuel Freedman, who once told Hess, "I don't know why everybody wants to be a reporter — always asking questions."

Not surprisingly, the Times failed to review or mention My Times upon its release, even as Judith Miller was busy confirming its thesis. Hess once told me that someone high on the masthead ordered a large batch of the memoir, but the first mention of the book to appear in the paper was Douglas Martin's smug Jan 22. obituary. My Times, writes Martin, "mixed some acerbic memories [of the paper] with the occasional grudging compliment." Mostly, the book was a showcase for Hess' "curmudgeonly manner."

Besides illustrating Hess' point about Times editing — can memories be "acerbic"? — the obit is a pathetic attempt to gloat over the body of a man that brought so much acclaim to the paper during his career, and did so much to keep it honest in his retirement.