Robert Greene: A Tribute

bobgreenesd.jpgRobert Greene, longtime Newsday assistant managing editor and champion to investigative reporters everywhere, passed away last week. He’ll be laid to rest later today. After the jump, Richard Behar offers a fitting tribute to his friend and mentor.

(Photo credit)

When I heard the news that Newsday legend Bob Greene had died a few days ago at age 78, I walked around with this very real feeling in my gut like he’d been murdered and I’d been mugged. After a few hours of this bizzarity, it finally dawned on me why this seemed like such an injustice: His legacy is being hacked to death — day after depressing day. Robert W. Greene was unquestionably one of the greatest figures in American investigative-reporting history. And he hated what was happening in the business. He would sometimes rant about how today’s cutbacks in long-form, high-quality journalistic probes were degrading our democracy. As he once told me, the founding fathers didn’t give us the First Amendment “to publish apple pie recipes.”

Among his many achievements, Greene, a longtime assistant managing editor of Newsday, was leader of the Arizona Project — a temporary collection of all-star reporters and editors from dozens of media outlets that published a brilliant 23-part series after Arizona mob-reporter Don Bolles was dynamited to pieces in 1976. (No one had ever done such a collective venture before, or since.) That project, which the American Society of Journalists and Authors called “the finest hour in American journalism,” was my inspiration for launching Project Klebnikov in 2005 after investigative reporter Paul Klebnikov was murdered in Moscow. In fact, the “Greene Team” at Newsday was an inspiration for a whole generation of investigative reporters. While I was growing up on Long Island, Bob was my teacher — even though we had never met or spoken until decades later, when I drove out to the island to seek his advice. By the end of that lunch meeting, and with no need to sleep on it, Greene accepted an invitation to serve as an advisor to our project. As he explained the reasoning behind his Arizona venture: “First, we wanted to deliver an object lesson that you don’t fuck around with the lives of reporters, because everyone with dirty hands will suffer including the mob. If you kill a reporter, the work will multiply. In this way, the project was also an insurance policy for other investigative reporters. Second, if all this pressure is put on, maybe something will pop up out of it — some major revelation or reform.”

I’ll miss Greene’s hard-boiled advice, especially his lifting me up during those times when our Russian project seemed too daunting. He was a larger-than-life character — fresh out of The Front Page. In an era where today’s gutless wonders crumble like milquetoasts before their editors in the hope of not being sent packing in the next round of cuts, Greene stood out as an oversized symbol of a kind of rugged integrity that keeps the journalism honest. According to former Newsday editor Tony Marro, Greene once pounded on a wall so hard during an argument with editors that he sent pictures crashing off the wall of the publisher’s office next door. (Who would ever slam their office door nowadays, let alone pound on a wall?). He once warned the head of an insurance company that if he paid out any money to cheaply settle a libel case that he (Greene) wouldn’t sign any apology and would instead tell the world “that you all wimped out.” (Imagine that today, in an era where major media companies routinely and quietly settle libel cases — even when the stories are accurate — rather than endure the financial cost of defending them?). When Newsday‘s bean counters banned staffers from flying first class, Greene literally measured the size of a coach seat and the size of his not-inconsiderable posterior — and informed the bosses that he’d continue flying in the front of the plane.

I won’t say rest in peace, Bob, since I know you won’t — given the investigative to-do list that is piling up like weeds in the homeland. (I guess the editors in the sky will have to deal with you now.) As for me, it feels like a lonelier country today without you. So each time I wade through the shallow shlock in our morning papers, I’m just gonna imagine you’re close at hand — spinning in that grave that isn’t large enough for you.

(Behar’s lunch column)