Politics

Mike Feinsilber fought the epic AP-UPI rivalry from both camps with wit and grace

WASHINGTON — (AP) — Mike Feinsilber, whose masterful way with words and mischievous wit enlivened American journalism for five decades, the bulk of them at The Associated Press, has died. He was 89.

Feinsilber died at home on Monday, said his wife of 55 years, Doris Feinsilber, a pioneering computer programmer at the CIA. “He was doing poorly but was not in pain," she said.

Feinsilber's career was rooted in the wire services and their epic rivalry — working first for United Press International, then for the AP. But he never embodied the just-the-facts stereotype of that trade, though he was as fast as any in the competition to be first.

He wrote with elegance, style, authority, brevity and a gentle playfulness, all in service of finding the humanity in things.

Feinsilber covered a Pennsylvania mine collapse where three trapped miners were rescued. He covered Saigon in the Vietnam War, the impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon and 18 political conventions, where he was always on the lookout for “outlandish aspects.”

In 1987, as Oliver North submitted to a grilling from a blockbuster congressional hearing on the Iran-contra scandal, Feinsilber summoned the ghosts of scandals past as he related the figures of history who had faced a reckoning in the same room:

"Where Oliver North sits, Joseph McCarthy once sat, on trial on grainy television before the bar of public opinion. Nicholas Katzenbach, representing then-President Lyndon Johnson, sat there in a different decade, defending the making of an undeclared war. All the president’s men sat there, in the summer of 1973, before the dancing eyebrows of Sen. Sam Ervin.”

He loved to write, he said, “especially about the human, the quirky and the unimportant but revealing."

As much as he defied the wire service stereotypes, he enjoyed them, as in 2018 when he looked back on the rivalry of old.

“AP people believed that AP stories were invariably superior,” he wrote. "They believed they were more thoroughly reported, more deeply backgrounded, more dependably accurate.

“UPI people believed that their stories were invariably more compelling, more sharply and concisely written, more interesting. UPI’s nickname for AP was ‘Grandma.’”

He traced his interest in journalism to a school paper he started in Grade 5, calling it “The Daily Stink” until a teacher persuaded him to call it something else.

After stints as the editor of the Penn State college paper, then as a late-night police reporter at the Intelligencer-Journal of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he joined UPI upon his graduation in 1956, reporting for over 20 years from Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Newark, New Jersey; New York; Saigon and finally Washington.

That's where AP lured him away.

"It was a huge coup for AP to hire Mike away from UPI at a time when the wire service rivalry was at its pinnacle,” said former AP Washington Bureau Chief Sandy Johnson. “Mike brought his keen news instincts to AP, enhanced by a facility with words that was poetry in journalism. Building on his own half-century of extraordinary journalism, he coached scores of additional reporters on the finer pointers of writing. He was a legendary talent.”

A UPI legend never forgave him for bolting to the competition.

"For 28 years, Helen Thomas scowled at me whenever we ran into each other," he wrote in an AP remembrance of Thomas in 2013. "'Traitor,' she would hiss. She said it with a smile. But she said it."

He stayed at AP for 22 years, as reporter, news editor and assistant Washington bureau chief, bow-tied at a desk lined with snow globes he collected on his travels. He retired in 2001 but returned for another decade as a part-time writing coach, determined to exile “Grandma” from the news report.

Julie Pace, AP senior vice president and executive editor, recalled how nervous she was going into her first coaching session with Feinsilber but quickly realized “what a gift it was” to learn from him. “Mike was as generous as he was talented, using his considerable skills as a writer to coach countless AP journalists,” she said.

“He was a brilliant journalist who could not only craft an artful news story but also coach any willing listener in how it is done,” said Robert Burns, longtime AP Pentagon and State Department writer.

“A gifted writer who was generous with his gifts,” said Jim Drinkard, a former assistant bureau chief in Washington. ”He was quick to apply his talents to anyone who sought his editing counsel. He was truly a student of language."

Feinsilber was born in New York City and grew up in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where his parents operated a women's clothing store. He was a gardener and a bread baker and the co-author with friends of three books.

In one, “American Averages: Amazing Facts of Everyday Life,” he reported that, yes, 28 mailmen are bitten by dogs each day in this country.

The average American laughs 15 times a day, he said, and slurps four gallons of ice cream a year.

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