Commentary Magazine


Beyond Malice, by Richard M. Clurman; The Coming Battle for the Media, by William A. Rusher

The Fourth Estate

Beyond Malice: The Media’s Years of Reckoning.
by Richard M. Clurman.
Transaction Books. 306 pp. $24.95.

The Coming Battle for the Media.
by William A. Rusher.
Morrow. 228 pp. $18.95

Richard Clurman and William Rusher approach their subject from divergent backgrounds. Clurman, a long-time editor and executive with Time Inc., has behind him a career inside one of the country’s mainline media giants. Rusher writes from his perspective as a founder of a journal of conservative opinion—since the I950′s he has been the publisher of National Review—and sometime political activist.

Given this professional discrepancy, it is all the more remarkable that the two authors should share the identical point of departure. By the beginning of the present decade, according to both Clurman and Rusher, the national news media had acquired both impressive force and unprecedented influence in American political and cultural life, and had become, indeed, an “estate” on a par with the three branches of the federal government. As both authors see it, this newfound media power has not only exacerbated the age-old problems lodged in the very structure of the news-gathering process but has produced a startling array of new and more complex ones. It has also made the public increasingly skeptical of, if not downright hostile toward, the journalistic enterprise as a whole. Finally, both authors agree that grave consequences will follow if reforms of current practices and attitudes are not soon undertaken.

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Despite the swift rise in the influence of the major media, there has been no concomitant growth in serious media analysis, empirical or otherwise. Surely the reason for this must be sought in the reluctance of the media themselves to cast light on their own inner workings. Of the few journalists assigned to report on the subject, the number with a penchant for adversarial posturing, of the kind that is so valued when it comes to reporting, say, on major American corporations, is infinitesimal. What we are left with are a smattering of social-science research, solicitous reports in small-circulation journalism reviews, and ineffectual attacks from gadflies outside the profession.

Perhaps media executives are afraid of what a real probe of their operations might dig up. One can understand why they should be, if Richard Clurman’s Beyond Malice is any indication of the kind of forceful analysis we have been missing. In this candid, temperate, and fair-minded book, Clurman trenchantly examines the two famous libel suits of the 1980′s, General William Westmoreland’s against the Columbia Broadcasting System and General Ariel Sharon’s against Time. The significance of his account lies precisely in the credentials of the author, who now heads Columbia University’s Seminars on Media and Society, having retired from Time Inc. in 1985 after a thirty-year career.

Much of the ground covered in Beyond Malice will not be new to those who followed press reports of the trials or read Renata Adler’s Reckless Disregard and Don Kowet’s Matter of Honor. But unlike these authors, Clurman is concerned less with the details and more with the broader issue: how the low journalistic ethics exhibited in the two cases fueled the near-crisis that today characterizes relations between the media and the public.

Since the 1961 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the law has held that a public official cannot obtain a judgment on a false and defaming press statement unless he can show that the statement was made with “actual malice”—that is, “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Although three out of four libel suits are therefore dismissed by judges before they go to trial, once they do, juries find against the media three-quarters of the time, returning judgments of, on average, $2.2 million. (In most of these cases, judges then proceed to reverse or revise the decision, the jury having failed to understand the finer points of the law.)

General Westmoreland, a straight-arrow, self-confident military man, was bound to engender more than his fair share of suspicion and irreverence from almost any working journalist. But as Clurman shows, the chief source of his difficulties with CBS, which interviewed him for a documentary on the war in Vietnam, and which was out to prove that the general had led a “conspiracy” to “suppress and alter critical intelligence” on the size of enemy forces operating in South Vietnam, lay in the fact that the journalists in question worked in television, a medium with a much greater potential for misleading the public than the printed word. At the trial, the jurors were able to see this for themselves. The Westmoreland interview, conducted by Mike Wallace, produced almost two hours of footage; five minutes and thirty-eight seconds made it into the final, well-packaged broadcast. As Clurman writes, the jurors, in viewing the unaired out-takes of the show, could observe the “concealed, erratic, and dark” side of the production, “replete with favoritism, manipulation, entrapment, ad-hoc judgments, and censorship of views that hurt [the journalists'] thesis.”

Clurman wants us to realize that the behavior of CBS in this instance was closer to the norm than it was an aberration. At one point during the trial, a senior news executive from another major network whispered in Clurman’s ear: “I hope CBS loses. We do terrible things on the news.”

A similar moral arises out of Clurman’s treatment of the libel suit of Ariel Sharon against Time, which was prompted by that magazine’s abuse of another standard practice, the use of unidentified sources. In what was (according to Clurman) a solid cover story on the September 1982 massacre by Christian Phalangist forces of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Time felt compelled to “hype” its material by claiming that General Sharon had “discussed with the Gemayels [then the ruling family in Lebanon] the need for the Phalangists to take revenge” for the killing of a family member, and had thereby encouraged them to conduct the massacre.

Clurman zeroes in on two words in the text, in which Time accused Sharon “reportedly” of an act it had “learned” of. In journalistic parlance, Clurman explains, “reportedly” means “either that we hear and find this credible but can’t prove it or that we have been told and believe it, but can’t tell you by whom.” The other term, “learned,” signals that the information is exclusive, serving “no other purpose than bragging or calling attention to yourself.” The use of these terms is always risky; combining the two in order to make a charge spelled double trouble for Time.

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Clurman believes that the public, concerned more with ends than with means, will tolerate questionable journalistic methods “only when the result is important and conclusive.” Neither the CBS documentary nor the Time report fit those criteria. Westmoreland settled for a public apology, though Clurman suggests he likely would have won a favorable judgment since CBS never proved, either on the air or in court, the central thrust of its charge. As for Sharon, the Time reporter, David Halevy, could produce no factual evidence for his allegation, which was found by a federal jury to be both false and defamatory, though the jury did not believe that Time had published it knowing that it was untrue. The jury brought in what is now known as a “Sharon verdict,” in which the defendant wins on truth but loses on law.

Both media organizations, though their integrity was severely impugned, claimed vindication. Clurman fears, indeed, that the outcome of the two cases has actually encouraged members of the press to ignore the “real overall impression their damning stories sometimes create,” so long as they stay within the law. This legal standard, Clurman believes, being one that “allows inaccuracy and unfairness,” is not good enough for the general public, and ought not to be good enough for journalists.

More than anything else, it is the hubris of the press that troubles Clurman. It is a hubris fed by the new authority of newspapers and magazines with national circulation, and by the power of television, and it cries out for rectification. “As the news media expand and their technology amplifies them into louder and more dominating national voices,” Clurman writes, “assertions of truth need to be left more for the public to thrash out and less for the press to declare.” Unfortunately, the trend in the media seems to be in the opposite direction, toward ever-more prosecutorial tactics, speculative analysis, inaccurate conclusions, and cheap sensationalism.

Clurman is surely right about all this, yet his analysis misses something so crucial as to detract from its own persuasiveness. In his discussion of the Westmoreland and Sharon cases he proceeds without treating seriously the rather obvious possibility of ideological bias. Can he really believe that such factors as hostility to the American engagement in Vietnam (on the part of the CBS team), or to the harder-line factions in Israeli politics (on the part of Time‘s reporter) played no important role in the lapses he discusses? For an exploration of this point, we may turn to William Rusher.

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In The Coming Battle for the Media Rusher supplies a comprehensive account of the available literature on the subject of media bias. It ranges from studies of the content of news reports to Rorschach-like Thematic Apperception Tests on how journalists interpret the news. While some of these studies have been shown to exhibit methodological or other flaws that limit their usefulness, taken as a whole the data irrefutably establish that journalists lean much more to the Left politically than the general public, and that their views infuse and skew the journalistic product.

Rusher is at his strongest in providing original examples of bias in specific news reports. Thus, he dissects a 1985 broadcast of the NBC Today show purporting to demonstrate how, in the words of correspondent Mike Jensen, “the richest people” would benefit from the Reagan tax-reform plan of that year. Jensen conveyed this message by inaccurate and tendentious description of the plan, and by outright misrepresentation of its effects on tax shelters and charitable contributions. There are many more such examples in The Coming Battle for the Media. Rusher also describes in detail the revolving-door process by which individuals move from the offices of Capitol Hill Democrats and Democratic political campaigns to high-level media jobs, especially in television news.

Rusher marshals his evidence to form a central thesis:

In recent decades, the principal media in the United States, responding to liberal intellectual trends once dominant but now much less so, have allied themselves with those political forces promoting liberal policies and have placed news reportage at the service of those policies.

This is a questionable judgment, on two counts. First of all, Rusher overstates the extent to which media bias is the result of calculated intention; in fact it is a more nuanced phenomenon than that, which means that its influence is much harder to combat. Secondly, Rusher curiously understates the content of media bias by connecting it with “liberal policies.” If anything, it is the agenda not of liberalism but of the New Left, with its espousal of isolationism and appeasement in foreign affairs and its rejection of the standards and values of the middle class at home, that today forms the soft undergirding ethos of the New York-Washington prestige press, both print and electronic.

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Can the media be reformed? Both of these books perform a real service in raising and attempting to answer that question. Rusher, no libertarian, looks mainly to the federal government for possible solutions. U.S. courts, he asserts, could rewrite our libel laws to make them more like Great Britain’s, so that defendants might win damage claims without proving “actual malice.” Congress should revive the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast licensees and consider enacting a statutory right of reply for aggrieved individuals or organizations. The executive branch should more vigorously prosecute the divulgence of information in any way prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United States, and draw up plans for invoking, when necessary, the sort of military censorship that so enraged the press corps during the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

A solution to the problem of unbalanced reporting, Rusher writes, would be to interest those with more conservative learnings to pursue careers in journalism. This would certainly help promote a healthy debate within news organizations on the issues of the day, but it is easier said than done. Although Rusher is encouraged by the advent of conservative newspapers on college campuses, the graduates of those papers have so far not demonstrated much progress in infiltrating the ranks of the profession. And even if they should begin to do so, Rusher for one might not be wholly pleased, since he has rather strict standards concerning who or what makes a genuine conservative. Neither George Will (“a holder of elegant Tory opinions, but a dependable critic of Agnew, Nixon, and finally Reagan”) nor William Safire (“in the grip of various overriding preoccupations—notably Israel”) seems to qualify.

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Another, perhaps better, route is that proposed by Clurman—namely, somehow to persuade reporters, whatever their political persuasion, of the need to be fair, careful, and self-restrained in presenting the news. Actually, Clurman indicates that pressure in that direction might be coming from without. For one thing, we may conceivably see a tightening of “the intentionally permissive laws of libel.” Clurman quotes the warning of Abraham Sofaer, the judge who presided in the Sharon case, that without a “new emphasis on truth, the law may well change again to the detriment of the press.” (Most legal experts, however, doubt that such a move is on the horizon.) Clurman also believes there may be a trend toward “widespread formal surveillance” of the media in the manner of the longstanding British Press Council, although this is unthinkable without the full concurrence of the press itself. But ideally Clurman would prefer a voluntary approach, according to which the press would undertake to report more regularly and fully and critically on itself, and major news organizations would begin to admit and correct their mistakes by publishing negative letters from readers and clarifications from editors.

A liberal of the old school, Clurman is optimistic—too optimistic. He is the sort of journalist who, being himself painfully conscientious about telling both sides of a story, would like to believe that at bottom his colleagues really are no different. He quotes approvingly the Washington Post‘s David Broder: “There is about as much ideology in the average Washington reporter as there is vermouth in a very dry martini.” Clurman does not tell us when Broder made this remark, but whatever truth there may have been in it fifteen or twenty years ago, today one need only compare the scrupulous reporting of Broder himself with that of the Post‘s young Sidney Blumenthal to see that it is no longer true. Unlike yesterday’s journalists, who often came from blue-collar backgrounds and who worked under newspaper barons of both liberal and conservative persuasions, today’s are (or aspire to be) members of an East Coast elite suffused with a monolithic set of attitudes toward their society and their culture. Much like their counterparts now ensconced in the universities, they wield their influence boldly.

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