Mar 1 2005

John Hess, 1917-2005

Editor's Note

John Hess

John Hess (photo: New York Times)

This issue’s cover story concerns the late journalist Gary Webb, but another reporter’s recent death was just as great a loss.

John Hess, a great reporter and a great friend of FAIR, died on January 21 at the age of 87. John used to say that the term “investigative reporter” was redundant, because all reporters are supposed to be investigators, rather than simply parroting what people in power were saying. On one issue he was nearly alone in showing skepticism: As far back as the 1980s, John was debunking claims of a “crisis” in Social Security, pointing out how such fear-mongering was designed to fleece one of the most popular government programs. He was a voice in the wilderness then, but today he’s being echoed by many writers and economists.

John spent much of his career at the New York Times, and was one of that paper’s most insightful critics, pointing out its pretensions and elite bias in a series of articles, radio commentaries, and in his recent memoir, My Times. He objected to his former employer’s politics–which, as he demonstrated time and again, are anything but liberal–but deep down, from an old-time reporter’s point of view, he just didn’t think it was any great shakes as a paper.

That’s why we think he would have been pleased by his obituary in the Times (1/22/05), which proved his point: It managed to get his birthplace wrong–he was born in the Bronx, not Salt Lake City–as well as his alma mater, which was City College, not the University of Utah. It also misstated his cause of death. Such sloppiness is particularly striking considering that one of John’s last assignments at the Times was the obituary desk.

The Times did correct these errors (2/14/05), but it didn’t correct the most serious ones: It called John “cranky,” “curmudgeonly” and “grudging.” No doubt he was seen that way at the New York Times, a paper famously allergic to criticism, but to those who really knew him, his essential decency was equally reflected in his work and his life. He is missed.