On the Trail of a Journalist Turned Peacekeeper

03 Oct 2018 4:11 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

(Editor's Note: The paper, "Barry H. Gottehrer and a 'City in Crisis,'" was presented at the AJHA convention in Little Rock, Ark., in October 2017. Earlier this year, The Intelligencer asked its author to share with us how he got interested in this topic, why it's interesting and important, and what else about it his fellow historians might want to know.)

By Raymond McCaffrey

While working on a history project that involved a look at the interplay of sports and media in New York City at the end of the turbulent 1960s, I kept encountering a somewhat mysterious figure at the periphery of key events.

There he was in February 1968, as protestors stormed Madison Square Garden in an attempt to prevent athletes from competing in the 100th edition of a track meet sponsored by the restrictive New York Athletic Club, a protest staged by those who would organize demonstrations at the Olympic Games later that year in Mexico City. There he was months later, in April 1968, behind the scenes as the city's mayor, John Lindsay, tried to keep the peace on the streets of Harlem in the hours immediately after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. He became involved with events such as the student protests at Columbia University in 1968; the demonstrations that erupted in 1969 after police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and prompted a backlash that has been heralded as the birth of the gay-rights movement, and the so-called “Hard Hat Riot” in 1970, when construction workers clashed with anti-war protestors in lower Manhattan.

Whenever I looked at a major event in New York City during this era, I generally found this figure about whom I knew virtually nothing: Barry H. Gottehrer.

So began a research project within a research project, one in which a peripheral character became the subject of a stand-alone paper. For it turned out that Gottehrer, who was commonly identified as a special assistant to the mayor, had emanated from the world of journalism. Moreover, Gottehrer had been a journalist of considerable note – he had won a prestigious George Polk Award for his work on a major investigative series that did a deep-dive into the troubles facing New York City in the 1960s, and ended up ousting the sitting mayor. Gottehrer eventually went to work for the new mayor, Lindsay, not as press officer, but as the coordinator of a task force that attempted to quell civic unrest and violence.  

Researching the background of such an obscure yet important figure proved challenging. I did not find a wealth of primary-source material waiting. Gottehrer boldly emerged on the scene in the mid-1960s and disappeared into the shadows just as quickly as he appeared. The paper trail revealed that he had gone from the Columbia Journalism School to a job with a small Massachusetts newspaper, the New Bedford Times, then ended up working for a number of national publications, including Sport magazine and Newsweek, before ending up at the Herald Tribune. His work on the award-winning “City in Crisis” series certainly put him on the journalistic map, but his role as Lindsay’s chief peacekeeper earned him much wider acclaim. The New York Times devoted considerable real estate in its Sunday magazine in September 1968 to a profile of Gottehrer, whose job was described as “keeping the city cool.” (A interesting tidbit that had no real place in my paper concerned the identity of the author of the profile: Nicholas Pileggi, who would go on to author a book about organized crime that Martin Scorcese used as the basis for his movie, "GoodFellas," and also eventually marry another famous director, Nora Ephron.)  Yet, by the time Gottehrer was referenced in another New York Times article in 1984, it was clear that the author--the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Lewis--thought he was writing about a faceless Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company executive who had distributed a pamphlet that was sharply critical of the ethical standards of journalists. 

How did a journalist who had won one of the profession’s highest honors decide to abandon the cloak of objectivity and cross the lines to try to make a difference in government in a bold and distinctive way--and why did that same journalist become a virulent press critic after he disappeared into obscurity? 

The answers to these questions had not been explored in depth in any research that I could find. But not surprisingly Gottehrer turned up in the margins of some in-depth works of history that focused on Lindsay and New York City during the 1960s, as well as a hefty book about the New York Herald Tribune, which was formed in 1924 and represented the merger of two noble journalistic bloodlines dating back to century before: James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune

Ultimately, Gottehrer provided the best primary-source material about himself. There was a memoir, “The Mayor's Man,” which focussed on his years as the city’s peacekeeper, but offered little discussion of his years as a journalist. An early book, a history of the New York Giants football franchise, did little to suggest the investigative prowess that would later be displayed. A scholarly paper titled, "Urban Conditions: New York City,” published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1967, showed his ability as a thinker. Perhaps the best primary-source material was the “City in Crisis” stories, which conveyed hard facts with the kind of strong writer’s voice common at the Herald Tribune, known as a launching pad for such “New Journalism” practitioners as Tom Wolfe. 

But Gottehrer left that world of journalism behind when he went to work for Lindsay, and just as readily as he retreated from the spotlight when he gave up government work. His name pops up sporadically in the press during a brief time working as a top executive for Madison Square Garden after leaving City Hall; then he effectively disappeared. There was the mention by Lewis in the article about Gottehrer's attack on the press. Then his name only appeared in occasional newspaper or magazine stories looking back at Lindsay and the city he ran during the 1960s. Gottehrer’s professional life was lived in the shadows with scarce clues: Imdb.com lists him working as consultant from 1996 to 1998 for the TV show, Spin City, about a fictional New York City mayoral administration. 

Finally, when Gottehrer died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, there was an expansive Times obituary, as well as a posthumous tribute entered by a Congressman into the Congressional Record, that tied some of the loose ends together, focusing on the curious story of the award-winning journalist who took to the streets in the 1960s to try to keep the peace. 

As with any project, I was left wanting to know more about my subject. The trouble is that as I continue to look at sports and media in New York City in 1960s, I keep encountering other figures at the periphery. There is the TV executive who brought “happy talk” to one local TV news station and helped create a nationwide phenomenon. There is the Madison Avenue adman who brought bold images to the cover of Esquire magazine, such as the one showing Muhammad Ali--dethroned as heavyweight boxing champ because of his draft resistance--riddled with arrows like the martyr, Saint Sebastian. And how did Marshall McLuhan end up in the middle of all this as a visiting professor at Fordham University, eventually mulling the significance of the relatively new mass phenomenon, the Super Bowl, after Broadway Joe Namath made good on his guarantee to win one with the New York Jets. 

In other words, there are too many other stories to tell, too many other figures at the periphery.

Raymond McCaffrey, Ph.D., is assistant professor and director of the Center for Ethics in Journalism, School of Journalism & Strategic Media, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

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