Commentary Magazine


The Other Side of the Story, by Jody Powell

Good Press, Bad Press

The Other Side of the Story.
by Jody Powell.
Morrow. 322 pp. $15.95.

Jody Powell’s four years as White House press secretary left him “upset,” even “angry” at the press corps, and he has written a book to explain why. Too much of the news, he says, “seemed to me, then and now, to be wrong, unsupportable, and unfair.” Reporters do not merely make errors; they err, according to Powell, because they are motivated by aims other than those of accuracy, objectivity, and balance.

As an example, Powell cites a story carried by ABC News alleging that UN Ambassador Andrew Young’s unauthorized 1979 meeting with representatives of the PLO was discovered through illegal domestic surveillance. Actually, it was much more likely that the discovery had been made through perfectly legal and routine surveillance of the Arab diplomats who arranged the meeting or of the PLO participants. Although the administration could not acknowledge this publicly, it hinted as much to ABC. But ABC, out of reluctance either to admit error or to give up a good story, would not back down. When the Attorney General and the director of the FBI corroborated White House denials that any bugging of Young had occurred, ABC responded by airing a story that these two officials had denied knowledge of the bugging.

Powell is angry, too, at the media’s lust for scandal, which often entails a disregard for rigorous standards of accuracy and an indifference to the fact that people holding public office (and their families) are human beings, vulnerable to personal and professional injury through accusations recklessly made or recklessly broadcast. He is especially bitter about the experience of his colleague Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, who was plagued by three highly publicized allegations of personal misconduct. Powell believes that Jordan was blameless, but the time and energy expended in the effort to refute these charges inevitably cut into the more serious business of the administration and hence of the public. None of the allegations was ever pressed, and Jordan was exonerated of the most serious and the most thoroughly investigated of them, pertaining to the use of cocaine, but he was left with a crushing debt from legal bills.

Powell compellingly identifies the central source of irresponsibility in the media: “We leave the question of right and wrong in the press . . . to the individual conscience of reporters and editors.” As individuals, journalists are no better or worse than members of other influential occupations—politicians, labor leaders, business executives, doctors, or lawyers. Each such group, as Powell puts it, has a tendency to exploit “the rationalization process by which the pursuit of selfish goals is ascribed to unselfish motivations.” Yet each of these groups is also subject to the outside scrutiny of the press—with the exception of the press itself—and this serves to some degree as a check against miscreants and against the miscreant impulses that lurk in all of us. “What sets journalists apart,” says Powell correctly, “is that no one is looking over their shoulder, at least no one who is in a position to do much about what is seen.”

Powell has one good suggestion for a partial remedy to this problem. He reminds us that politicians are kept in line not only by the press but also by other politicians. Republicans versus Democrats, liberals versus conservatives, executive versus legislature, each is constantly alert to the errors of its antagonists. In the press, by contrast, there seems to be an unwritten rule that prohibits one major news outlet from criticizing another. Powell proposes to abolish this rule:

If ABC blows its coverage of a major story, thereby misinforming tens of millions of people, why shouldn’t CBS and NBC and CNN accept the responsibility for answering the public’s legitimate questions about what happened and why, and what is being done to keep it from happening again?

Why not, indeed? Doing so would provide a healthy corrective while infringing not at all on press freedom. (The same cannot be said for some of the other remedies Powell proposes, such as obliging journalists to file financial-disclosure statements akin to those required of government officials.)

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Although some of Powell’s generalizations about the press are persuasive, his book is disappointingly short on supporting evidence. The reason for this may be that his presumptive theme—the unscrutinized and therefore irresponsible press—is quickly elbowed aside by another with a much more powerful grip on his mind—the doing-in of a fine President, Jimmy Carter, by a biased press.

Powell contrasts the unduly harsh treatment which he says the press accorded Carter with what he sees as the unduly soft treatment it has given Ronald Reagan. With the election of Reagan, he writes,

the fourth estate had reached that blessed realm where lions become lambs, typewriters are beaten into plowshares, and rear ends in the White House become objects for kissing rather than kicking.

If this seems a bit hard to understand—reputable and widely reported survey data reveal the press as a whole to be markedly more liberal in outlook and more Democratic in allegiance than the national average—Powell has a reply. The real bias of the press, he says, “is not political but economic—news judgment based on what is interesting and salable.” It is this bias which, according to Powell, explains the way the press underplayed the significance of the Carter briefing book that ended up in the hands of the Reagan campaign in 1980. “Most of the powers that be decided initially that stories about dirty tricks against the Carter administration had no market.”

But this is self-contradictory. If it is true that the news business has a bias toward the “interesting and salable,” a really important scandal involving misconduct among the highest officials of the Reagan administration—for such Powell alleges “Briefing-gate” to have been—should have received exceptionally heavy treatment in the press. Powell, indeed, seems to sense the weakness of this line of argument, for elsewhere he reverts to an explanation from politics. Although journalists “are about as apolitical a group as you are likely to find anywhere,” a minority of journalists, he concedes, do care about political issues, and their views do tend to be liberal—but this, paradoxically, makes them tougher, not easier, on liberal Presidents:

Those journalists who really care about certain policy positions tend to hold Democratic Presidents to a higher standard. They don’t expect Republicans to do much for women or minorities or poor people, and they don’t raise much hell when they don’t. They expect Republicans to be a good bit laxer about conflicts of interest and other improprieties and don’t pursue such stories, at least since Watergate, with as much zeal in a GOP administration.

Powell calls this the “screwball spin,” and it applies, according to him, to presidential candidates as well as to sitting Presidents. Thus, in the 1980 election campaign, journalists

overcompensated for their ideological preferences. Knowing that they disagreed with Reagan’s positions, they went out of their way not to be overly critical of them in their reporting, and to be particularly skeptical of what Carter had to say.

But apparently the “screwball spin” does not always apply. In 1980, when Carter was challenged in the primaries by the liberal Senator Kennedy, the liberal press, according to Powell, was entirely biased in favor of Kennedy and against Carter. He writes:

The Washington Post gave witness to the kid-glove treatment generally accorded the Senator by agreeing to an interview on Chappaquiddick in which the questions had to be presented in advance, and the Senator and his staff retained the right to edit the responses before they were published. This arrangement raised eyebrows among politicians, and journalists, some of the latter at the Post.

Unfortunately for Powell’s argument, there was no such interview with the Post. The New York Times did publish an interview with Kennedy about Chappaquiddick in July 1979, in which questions were submitted in advance, although it does not seem that Kennedy retained a right to edit.

Nor was the treatment of Kennedy by the Times as Powell describes it. Together with the Kennedy interview, the Times published an interview with the parents of Mary Jo Kopechne, at the heart of which was their expressed feeling that they still “don’t know the whole story” about the events surrounding their daughter’s death. The previous month there had appeared in the Times Magazine an unusual two-part piece, “The Kennedy Mystique,” of which the subhead read: “He’s ahead in the presidential polls, sparring with Jimmy Carter. But as his boosters’ enthusiasm mounts, the key question about Edward Kennedy is his character.” A few months later a Times editorial on “The Legacy of Chappaquiddick” took the view:

There ought to be no hesitation to rake over this puzzling affair. . . . If Mr. Kennedy used his enormous influence to protect himself and his career by leading a cover-up of misconduct—and the known facts lead to that suspicion—there would hang over him not just a cloud of tragedy but also one of corruption, of the Watergate kind.

Nor does Powell mention the columns on Chappaquiddick by William Safire that the Times carried in 1979, none of which would qualify as “kid-glove treatment.”

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The matter does not end there. The most damning indictment of media misconduct in Powell’s book has to do with “blind”—i.e., unattributed—quotes. According to Powell, “the problem of blind quotes goes all the way to the manufacturing of, or doctoring of, comments to give a story more punch. Few journalists deny that this takes place.” Disappointingly, he gives not a single example of this practice. Powell himself, however, may be committing this very same offense in his discussion of the phantom Washington Post interview with Senator Kennedy:

“It was,” said one Post reporter, “a total embarrassment. I never understood why you people [in the White House] never raised hell about it. If you had tried to set up that sort of thing for the President to talk about nuclear weapons, or Bert Lance to talk about his problem, or Billy Carter to talk about Libya, we would have laughed in your face, and then run an editorial crucifying you for even asking.”

Whom is Powell quoting here? He must know, and he must have in hand a corroborating tape or piece of paper. Since he certainly also knows which reporters work for the Times and which for the Post, it is hard to imagine how the quote could have failed to remind him which newspaper he was talking about and therefore hard not to wonder about the authenticity and accuracy of the quotation.

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If Powell is more confusing than convincing in the explanations he offers for the source of the alleged bias of the press against Carter, he is even less convincing in his attempt to prove that the bias was real. Take the coverage of the March 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which Carter mediated. Powell says that “When the treaty was signed . . . the President received little credit for his accomplishments. Indeed, the entire Middle East peace effort, taken as a whole, was decidedly a net minus for Jimmy Carter politically.” This, he writes, was due in part to domestic politics and in part to “the way the President’s efforts were covered in the press.” After the signing of the treaty, “the coverage generally in the days that followed was not good. The focus was on the cost in increased aid and on all the things that could go wrong and on the problems yet to be solved.” Powell cites snippets from the Washington Post and New York Times of March 14 and 15 to illustrate his complaint.

The reader who troubles to go back to the press of the week in question will be startled by the contrast between Powell’s description and what actually appeared. The March 14 Post carried a banner headline, “Carter Wins Breakthrough in Mideast”; beneath it were two stories, one saying Carter had achieved “a major diplomatic breakthrough that could rewrite the history of the Middle East,” the other asserting that even if the treaty were to fall apart, “the accomplishment of Jimmy Carter is now established as a personal success—and if peace becomes reality it will go down as one of the true diplomatic triumphs.” The day’s lead editorial began:

If peace between Israel and Egypt is to be consummated, as now seems virtually certain, the leaders of those two countries deserve profound tribute. But it seems to us undeniable that it was only by Jimmy Carter’s transcendent vision and steadiness that such a result could be achieved.

As for Powell’s complaint about the Post‘s harping on the costs of the treaty to American taxpayers, its page-one story said:

Members of Congress who were informed late yesterday at the White House of estimates of the costs and commitments said they appeared more modest than anticipated, and predicted that Congress would approve the necessary legislation. “If this is a fair estimate of the cost, it’s a real bargain,” said Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn) whose sentiment was echoed by other lawmakers.

In its news stories, the Times was characteristically more restrained than the Post, but hardly negative. Its lead editorial, of which Powell quotes phrases out of context to give the impression that it was negative, was in fact overwhelmingly positive. It began:

Thanks to Jimmy Carter, the making of a peace treaty has become as exciting for Americans as the waging of war. That alone is a singular achievement in a nation so obviously yearning for dreams to dream. . . . Had the President failed in Cairo and Jerusalem, this would have been a noble failure, certainly a worthier response to Iran than some Bay of Pigs or Mayaguez. Now that he appears to have been successful, we rejoice particularly for that aspect of Mr. Carter’s performance.

After five paragraphs including more such praise, the Times said: “Indeed, the Carter administration gave far from a flawless diplomatic performance in this drama. But the President had a profound understanding of his part.” Of these two sentences Powell quotes only the first, suggesting that it is representative of the editorial as a whole.

The next weekly issue of Time magazine also featured the Middle East treaty. Its story was summarized on the contents page: “Carter pulls it off again. With a dazzling display of eleventh-hour virtuosity, he leads Egypt and Israel to the brink of peace.” The story’s subhead read: “Carter’s diplomatic coup was masterful.” Newsweek was not to be outdone. Its summary read: “Jimmy Carter brought home another of his patented last-minute breakthroughs. His faith and grit had finally given Egypt and Israel a peace treaty to sign.” One of its subheads, read “Pax Jimmyana,” and its spread featured no fewer than fourteen photographs of the President.

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Jody Powell is correct that poor journalism is shielded, even encouraged, by the absence of any mechanism by which journalists can be scrutinized as they scrutinize everyone else. But the other side of this particular coin is that politicians and other people in power tend to blame a “bad press” whenever their actions, as reported in the press, prove unpopular. So common is this habit that it has inoculated even the most responsible of journalists against even the most responsible of critics. By writing a book that will only strengthen this syndrome, Powell has tossed a “screwball spin” of his own. Perhaps his book should be read not as a failed indictment but as itself an example of the folly to which journalists are prey.

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About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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