Libby trial reflection: “My pencil is dull and my handwriting stinks”

Isadore Barmash, who passed away last November at the age of 84, was a longtime reporter for the New York Times. Political junkies may be forgiven for not being familiar with his extensive body of work, for Barmash’s beat was retail business, not politics. He had a particular interest in the apparel industry (he had worked at Women’s Wear Daily before joining the Times). His articles were found most often not in the front section of the paper, but deep in the business pages. I myself don’t care about fashion, and when I read a newspaper I usually skip the business stories. So I’m not the kind of guy who would be expected to notice Barmash’s byline. But I used to follow Barmash’s work because for a period in from the late 60’s through 1975, when I was in high school and college, he had series of front-page-of-the-New-York-Times articles that I found absolutely compelling.

His subject was my father.

I thought of Barmash a few weeks ago when Tim Russert’s testimony at the Lewis Libby trial was reported. Under oath, Russert said that when he talked to senior government officials, everything was “off the record” unless the official explicitly agreed to go “on the record.” People who value the role of journalism in a democracy were appalled by Russert’s admission, but attentive students of contemporary American “journalism” were not surprised. Dan Froomkin rightly said, “That’s not reporting, that’s enabling.” Russert’s sworn testimony made patently clear that what he does for a living is not journalism properly understood, but rather a form of court stenography served up in a a faux-journalism format.

Below the fold, what Barmash, a real journalist, told my father about “on the record” and “off the record.”

First, a little clarification. The subject of Barmash’s front page series was not my father, per se,; rather his subject was first the financial troubles at, and then the bankruptcy and dissolution of W.T. Grant. At the time, the W.T. Grant bankruptcy was the biggest retail failure in American business history, sort of the Enron of its day. Unlike Enron, Grant’s problems were caused not by fraud and malfeasance, but mostly by incompetence and a senior management group unable to keep up with changing times. My father (whose name, like mine, is John Sundman) was W.T. Grant’s Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at the time of its demise. His photo was on the front page of the Times a few times in those unhappy days.

(In fairness to my dad, let me point out that he did not cause the troubles at Grant. Rather, when Grant’s board of directors finally faced up to enormity of the trouble the company was in, it fired the President and CFO and brought in a new president and a new CFO (my father) to see if they could save the sinking ship. For reasons that are fascinating but too complicated to go into here, my father could not save the company. It was liquidated, with hundreds of stores closing and thousands of people, including my father, losing their jobs. After the ship sank, my father spent the next year out of work–a year in which four of his seven children, including me, were in college and he was footing the bill.)

In those days my father loved to talk about his fascinating conversations with New York Times reporter Isadore Barmash, “Izzy”, whose intrepid digging and insightful reporting allowed him to bring the whole complicated history of Grant’s implosion to the Times’ readers.

Here’s the story that most sticks in my mind:

One day Izzy Barmash calls up my father and asks him to comment on a particular rumor. It’s a juicy rumor, and, as it happens, true. So my father says, “off the record?” and Barmash says, “Sure, John, you can talk to me off the record.”

And then, after a pause, he says,

“But I gotta tell you, my pencil: it’s dull; and my handwriting, it stinks. So when I go to write up this story, ‘on the record, ‘off the record’. . . it’s easy to make a mistake.”

I didn’t know the phrases “on the record” and “off the record” so I didn’t get the point of the story when my father first told it to me (that’s probably why I remember the story — it’s when I learned the concept of “off the record”). So I asked him to explain what Barmash meant by his comment about the dull pencil. “He was telling me, in a very humorous way,” Dad said, “that I couldn’t trust him. Anything I told him was liable to wind up on the front page of the New York Times, with my name next to it.”

My old man was at the time trying as hard as he could to save a giant company. He was a finance guy used to dealing with bankers and Wall Street investor types all day long, but he was also a kid who had grown up dirt poor during the depression; a WWII vet who gone to college night school on the GI bill. To him, saving the company meant saving the livelihoods of many many people. His job would have been hard enough in itself, without all the media glare. The last thing he needed, or wanted, was to see his mug on the front page of the New York Times. Generally speaking, he didn’t like reporters. But he always spoke highly of Barmash. “I had my job to do and he had his. He was always accurate and fair. He was agressive, but he was a stand-up guy.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a Washington press corps full of Isadore Barmashes? Wouldn’t it be nice if the Tim Russerts of the world told the Scooter Libbys of the world, “my pencil is dull and my handwriting stinks”? Wouldn’t it be nice if media stars/product pitchmen like Tim Russert actually were journalists?

But they’re not, of course. Russert and his punditocratic ilk are not journalists; they’re a pathetic bunch of sychophants and courtiers who serve us a daily ration of swill and pabulum. And their function, of course — that is, what they get paid for — is not reporting matters of consequence, but rather moving product and advancing their employer’s policy goals.

But wouldn’t it be nice if every White House reporter’s policy were not Russert’s cowardly “it’s off the record until you give me permission to put it on,” but rather, Izzy Barmash’s “sure, we can talk off the record, but I gotta tell you, my pencil is dull and my handwriting stinks”.

One Comment

  1. please contact me i loved this blog posted more than you could imagine…I guess the man you spoke so highly of “isadore barmash” is more better refered to by myself as “grandpa izzy” please contact me my email is

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