I was sitting in my office at Channel 10 News, drinking black coffee and skimming through the morning papers when I saw the article about Marty Barlow.
It was a brief item about the murder of a man on an East Side New York City street. It identified the victim as Martin Barlow. It also said that Barlow was a retired journalist. It did not say Barlow was the first—and probably the best—newspaper editor I ever had.
The police reported that he’d died from a blow to the head. Apparently, from a solid object, although the object itself was never found. Cops first assumed it had been a mugging, but later backed off that a bit because his wallet wasn’t taken. Instead, it just seemed—at least on the face of it—to be one of those crazy, senseless crimes that happen too often in New York City.
The article never mentioned Marty’s age—he refused to ever tell it to anyone—but I figured he must be well up in his sixties by now. He was a frail-looking man. He had disheveled white hair, pasty-looking skin and he couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds. He always wore the same old wrinkled suit that looked like it had last been cleaned during the Reagan administration.
But more than twenty years ago, when I was starting out at a newspaper in New Jersey, Marty Barlow had helped me become the journalist that I am today. He was my editor, my mentor and my friend.
Barlow was a grizzled old veteran even back then, and I soaked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could from him. He taught me how to cover police stories, political scandals, and human-interest features. “Never turn down an animal story,” was one of his mantras. “People love animal stories!” But mostly, he taught me what a noble calling it was to be a newspaper reporter—and about all the integrity and responsibility that went with it. His favorite quotation was from an old Humphrey Bogart movie where Bogey played a managing editor talking about the job of being a newspaper reporter: “It may not be the oldest profession, but it’s the best.”
I moved on eventually to a bigger newspaper job in New York City where I had a career filled with pretty spectacular moments. I won a Pulitzer prize by the time I was thirty, I scored a lot of other big exclusives and front-page stories for the paper, and became a big media star because of all that. Then the newspaper I worked for went out of business, and I moved into TV. After a few false starts there—mostly finding out that I wasn’t very good as an on-air TV reporter—I wound up on the executive side of the business. First as a segment producer, then an assignment editor and now as news director of the whole Channel 10 operation. Along the way, I found the time to get married—and divorced—three different times, too.
Marty had helped me get through the highs and lows in my life—both professional and personal—over the years. He was always there for me. He always supported me and took my side in everything. Well, almost everything. Everything except the marriage stuff. Marty could never understand why I couldn’t make my marriages work. “Why don’t you find one man, the right man, and settle down with him for the rest of your life?” That’s what Marty said he had done with his wife. “It’s not that easy,” I told him. “Sure, it is,” he said. “You make sure your marriage is as important to you as your job in the newsroom. Then the rest will take care of itself.” It was good advice from Marty, even though I didn’t always follow it.
Marty stayed on as editor of the same New Jersey paper where we’d met, doing the job he loved, until he was pushed into retirement a few years ago. At some point after that his wife died, and he came to live with his daughter in Manhattan. Even after he retired though, Marty became very active in local political and community events. He started a website that skewered local politicians and demanded more accountability/public disclosure in New York City government. Then he became a kind of local gadfly—showing up at town hall and council meetings to demand answers from politicians. That was Marty. Still looking for his next big scoop even after he retired.
We’d kept in touch and he was always asking me to meet him for coffee, but I hardly ever got around to it. Or to checking out any of the various news tips and leads he kept sending me. I never could find time for Marty Barlow anymore.
Until that last day when he showed up in my office.
“Hello, Marty, how are you doing?” I said. “Sorry I never got back to you on your calls and emails before. I’ve been busy covering a bunch of stuff.”
“Yeah, probably a big, breaking Justin Bieber news story, huh?” Barlow said, without even attempting to hide the contempt in his voice.
I sighed. Marty Barlow was an old-fashioned journalist who believed the news media should cover serious topics like politics, schools, and government waste the way newspapers had traditionally done in the past. But now newspapers were dying off as people turned to the internet to give them instant news. And TV newscasts, including Channel 10 where I worked, focused even more these days on glitzy celebrity news, viral videos, and all the rest of the gimmicks known online as “traffic bait” in order to increase our all-important ratings and sales. Marty hated that. I wasn’t wild about it either, but I had no choice in the rapidly-changing journalistic landscape.
“This time the big story was Kim Kardashian,” I said.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Actually, it was Khloe.”
“My God, what happened to you, Clarissa? The Clarissa Carlson I remember cared passionately about the stories she covered. She wanted to make a difference in the world with her journalism. I miss that woman.”
Fake news is what Marty called it. Yes, I know that term has a whole different meaning in today’s political world. But Marty had been using it long before that. For Marty, fake news encompassed pretty much everything on TV news or in newspapers or on news websites today. He didn’t just mean the celebrity news, either. He was contemptuous of the constant traffic reports, weather updates, lottery news, and all the rest of the things I did for a living. He complained that there was hardly any real journalism now. He was right. But the journalistic world had changed dramatically in recent years, even if Marty refused to change with it.
He sat down in a chair in front of my desk.
“So, Clarissa . . .”
“My name is Clare, not Clarissa.”
This was a ritual we had played out many times over the years. Yes, my full name is Clarissa Carlson, but I always use Clare. Have ever since I was a kid and decided how much I hated being called Clarissa. Everyone knew that. Friends, family, co-workers, even my ex-husbands never called me anything but Clare. Except for Marty. He insisted on calling me Clarissa. I never understood exactly why, but it had gone on for so long between us that it didn’t seem worth bothering to ask anymore.
I figured he wasn’t here for a social visit. That he came because he needed my help. Some big scoop he thought he was going to break, even though his days of breaking big scoops had long past. Marty always got very intense when he was working on a story, and this time he seemed even more intense than usual. I asked him what was going on.
“I’m working on a big story,” he said. “The biggest story of my life. And it’s all because I started taking a good look at one person.”
I nodded and tried to think of an appropriate response.
“Who?” I asked.
It was the best I could come up with.
“Yes, the Manhattan District Attorney.”
I nodded again. Terri Hartwell was the darling of the New York City media and political world at the moment. She’d been a top-rated radio talk show host in New York for a number of years before she ran for the District Attorney’s job—and surprised political experts by unseating the incumbent. Since then, she’d aggressively gone after crime, corruption and all sorts of entrenched special interests in the city. Which made her a lot of enemies, but also made her popular with the voters. She was even being touted now as a potential candidate for Mayor.
“I started out thinking this was a story about building corruption. Illegal payoffs to politicians and authorities by wealthy New York City landlords. But now it’s bigger than that. Much bigger. There’s murder involved too.”
“More than one murder. Maybe lots of them.”
I nodded again. Pretty soon I was going to have to stop nodding and ask more than one-word questions.
“Who is being murdered? And what does any of this have to do with Terri Hartwell?”
Now I was rolling.
“I can’t tell you any more details. Not yet. I’m still trying to figure it all out myself. But this is a sensational story. More sensational than any story I’ve ever covered. And I have to stop whatever is happening before it’s too late!”
Marty was getting really agitated now, pounding on my desk for emphasis.
A lock of white hair had fallen over his forehead and his eyes were blazing. He frankly looked insane.
“Who’s your source on all this, Marty?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you my source, Clarissa. You know that.”
“Is it a good source?”
“All of my sources are good!” he thundered at me.
He was right about that. All of Marty’s sources were good. Or at least they always had been in the past. But I wasn’t so sure how much I could trust them—or Marty himself—at this point. I didn’t think he was lying. Not intentionally anyway. Marty never lied to anyone, most of all to me. But I did suspect his desperation to get back into journalism in some meaningful way—to prove he wasn’t finished in the news business, no matter how much it had passed him by in recent years—had distorted his judgement and his connections with . . . well, reality.
“Will you help me? Give me a few days to get all the details together, and then I’ll tell you everything. You’re the head of a big news operation now. You have resources I don’t at your disposal. Maybe we could work on this story together. You and me, Clarissa. Just like the old days.”
Mostly because I didn’t know what else to do, I told Marty I’d get back to him about it. I told him we’d get together for coffee—like he’d asked me to do so many times—to go over the details of his story and maybe reminisce a bit about old times too. I told Marty I’d call him the next week and we’d meet up at the Sunrise Coffee Shop on the Upper East Side, which was his favorite place.
Except I never did meet Marty Barlow at the Sunrise Coffee Shop the next week.
Or any time after that.
I never got around to calling him back.
I thought about all that again now as I read the article about Marty Barlow’s death. “Maybe we could work on this story together,” Marty had said. “You and me, Clarissa. Just like the old days.” I didn’t have the heart to tell Marty those days were long over.
My boss was Jack Faron, the executive producer for the Channel 10 News. I went to see him now.
“Problem?” he asked when I walked in the door of his office.
“What makes you think I have a problem?”
“Because you never come to see me this early in the morning unless it’s about a problem.”
“My God, whatever happened to the simple courtesy of saying good morning to the people you work with? What is wrong with us as a society, Jack? Have we lost all civility in this day and age? Why can’t you greet me one time with a cheerful: ‘Good morning, Clare. How are you today?’”
“Good morning, Clare,” Faron said. “How are you today?”
“Actually, I have a problem.”
I showed him the short newspaper article about the death of Marty Barlow and told him about my relationship with Barlow.
“What do you think about us doing something on the news tonight about his murder?” I asked. “I feel like I owe him at least that much.”
Faron made a face. “Not our kind of story, Clare. There’s no celebrity or sensational angle, no pizzazz, no ratings of any kind there for us. I’m sorry your friend got killed. I understand he meant a lot to you. But that doesn’t meet the criteria for getting a story about him on our newscast. You already knew that before you even came in here, didn’t you?”
I did. I was feeling guilty because I’d let Marty down at the end. And I didn’t need another thing to feel guilty about right now. Marty was like family to me. And I had no other family. Well, I did, but that was the other thing I was feeling so guilty about. I’ve screwed up a lot of things in my life.
“Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” I said. “A guy like Marty devotes his life to the news business. And now, when he dies, he doesn’t even rate a meaningful goodbye in what the news business has become today. It makes me sad. And yes, guilty, too, that I couldn’t do more for him, after everything he did for me.”
“He was an old man,” Faron said. “He died. There’s no story there.”
Excerpt from The Last Scoop by R.G. Belsky. Copyright 2020 by R.G. Belsky. Reproduced with permission from R.G. Belsky. All rights reserved.