Commentary Magazine


The Presidency & the Press

As his years in Washington came to an end, Harry S. Truman wrote a friend:

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time.

A familiar Presidential plaint, sounded often in the early years of the Republic and rarely unheard thereafter. Of late, however, a change has developed in the perception of what is at issue. In the past what was thought to be involved was the reputation of a particular President. In the present what is seen to be at stake, and by the Presidents themselves, is the reputation of government—especially, of course, Presidential government. These are different matters, and summon a different order of concern.

There are two points anyone would wish to make at the outset of an effort to explore this problem. First, it is to be acknowledged that in most essential encounters between the Presidency and the press, the advantage is with the former. The President has a near limitless capacity to “make” news which must be reported, if only by reason of competition between one journal, or one medium, and another. (If anything, radio and television news is more readily subject to such dominance. Their format permits of many fewer “stories.” The President-in-action almost always takes precedence.) The President also has considerable capacity to reward friends and punish enemies in the press corps, whether they be individual journalists or the papers, television networks, news weeklies, or whatever these individuals work for. And for quite a long while, finally, a President who wishes can carry off formidable deceptions. (One need only recall the barefaced lying that went with the formal opinion of Roosevelt’s Attorney General that the destroyer-naval-base deal of 1940 was legal.)

With more than sufficient reason, then, publishers and reporters alike have sustained over the generations a lively sense of their vulnerability to governmental coercion or control. For the most part, their worries have been exaggerated. But, like certain virtues, there are some worries that are best carried to excess.

The second point is that American journalism is almost certainly the best in the world. This judgment will be disputed by some. There are good newspapers in other countries. The best European journalists are more intellectual than their American counterparts, and some will think this a decisive consideration. But there is no enterprise anywhere the like of the New York Times. Few capitals are covered with the insight and access of the Washington Post or the Washington Evening Star. As with so many American institutions, American newspapers tend to be older and more stable than their counterparts abroad. The Hartford Courant was born in 1764, twenty-one years before the Times of London. The New York Post began publication in 1801, twenty years before the Guardian of Manchester. What in most other countries is known as the “provincial” press—that is to say journals published elsewhere than in the capital—in America is made up of a wealth of comprehensive and dependable daily newspapers of unusually high quality.

The journalists are in some ways more important than their journals—at least to anyone who has lived much in government. A relationship grows up with the reporters covering one’s particular sector that has no counterpart in other professions or activities. The relationship is one of simultaneous trust and distrust, friendship and enmity, dependence and independence. But it is the men of government, especially in Washington, who are the more dependent. The journalists are their benefactors, their conscience, at times almost their reason for being. For the journalists are above all others their audience, again especially in Washington, which has neither an intellectual community nor an electorate, and where there is no force outside government able to judge events, much less to help shape them, save the press.

That there is something wondrous and terrible in the intensities of this relationship between the press and the government is perhaps best seen at the annual theatricals put on by such groups of journalists as the Legislative Correspondents Association in Albany or the Gridiron in Washington. To my knowledge nothing comparable takes place anywhere else in the world. These gatherings are a kind of ritual truth telling, of which the closest psychological approximation would be the Calabrian insult ritual described by Roger Vailland in his novel The Law, or possibly the group-therapy practices of more recent origin. The politicians come as guests of the journalists. The occasion is first of all a feast: the best of everything. Then as dinner progresses the songs begin. The quality varies, of course, but at moments startling levels of deadly accurate commentary of great cruelty are achieved. The politicians sit and smile and applaud. Then some of them speak. Each one wins or loses to the degree that he can respond in kind; stay funny and be brutal. (At the Gridiron John F. Kennedy was a master of the style, but the piano duet performed by Nixon and Agnew in 1970 was thought by many to have surpassed anything yet done.) A few lyrics appear in the next day’s papers, but what the newspapermen really said to the politicians remains privileged—as does so much of what the politicians say to them. The relationship is special.

_____________

 

How is it then that this relationship has lately grown so troubled? The immediate answer is, of course, the war in Vietnam. An undeclared war, unwanted, misunderstood, or not understood at all, it entailed a massive deception of the American people by their government. Surely a large area of the experience of the 1960’s is best evoked in the story of the man who says: “They told me that if I voted for Goldwater there would be 500,000 troops in Vietnam within a year. I voted for him, and, by God, they were right.” The story has many versions. If he voted for Goldwater we would be defoliating the countryside of Vietnam; the army would be sending spies to the 1968 party conventions; Dr. Spock would be indicted on conspiracy charges; and so on. By 1968 Richard Rovere described the capital as “awash” with lies.

The essential fact was that of deceit. How else to carry out a full-scale war that became steadily more unpopular with none of the legally-sanctioned constraints on the free flow of information which even the most democratic societies find necessary in such circumstances? This situation did not spring full-blown from the involvement in Southeast Asia. It was endemic to the cold war. At the close of World War II official press censorship was removed, but the kinds of circumstance in which any responsible government might feel that events have to be concealed from the public did not go away. The result was a contradiction impossible to resolve. The public interest was at once served and dis-served by secrecy; at once dis-served and served by openness. Whatever the case, distrust of government grew. At the outset of the U-2 affair in 1960, the United States government asserted that a weather plane on a routine mission had been shot down. The New York Times (May 6, 1960) reported just that. Not that the U.S. government claimed it was a weather plane, but simply that it was. Well, it wasn’t. Things have not been the same since.

But there are problems between the Presidency and the press which have little to do with the cold war or with Vietnam and which—if this analysis is correct—will persist or even intensify should those conditions recede, or even dissolve, as a prime source of public concern. The problems flow from five basic circumstances which together have been working to reverse the old balance of power between the Presidency and the press. It is the thesis here that if this balance should tip too far in the direction of the press, our capacity for effective democratic government will be seriously and dangerously weakened.

_____________

 

I

The first of these circumstances has to do with the tradition of “muckraking”—the exposure of corruption in government or the collusion of government with private interests—which the American press has seen as a primary mission since the period 1880-1914. It is, in Irving Kristol’s words, “a journalistic phenomenon that is indigenous to democracy, with its instinctive suspicion and distrust of all authority in general, and of concentrated political and economic power especially.” Few would want to be without the tradition, and it is a young journalist of poor spirit who does not set out to uncover the machinations of some malefactor of great wealth and his political collaborators. Yet there is a cost, as Roger Starr suggests in his wistful wish that Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities might be placed on the restricted shelves of the schools of journalism. Steffens has indeed, as Starr declares, continued “to haunt the city rooms of the country’s major newspapers.” The question to be asked is whether, in the aftermath of Steffens, the cities were better, or merely more ashamed of themselves. Looking back, one is impressed by the energy and capacity for governance of some of the old city machines. Whatever else, it was popular government, of and by men of the people. One wonders: did the middle-and upper-class reformers destroy the capacity of working-class urban government without replacing it with anything better so that half-a-century later each and all bewail the cities as ungovernable? One next wonders whether something not dissimilar will occur now that the focus of press attention has shifted from City Hall to the White House. (And yet a miracle of American national government is the almost complete absence of monetary corruption at all levels, and most especially at the top.)

The muckraking tradition is well established. Newer, and likely to have far more serious consequences, is the advent of what Lionel Trilling has called the “adversary culture” as a conspicuous element in journalistic practice. The appearance in large numbers of journalists shaped by the attitudes of this culture is the result of a process whereby the profession thought to improve itself by recruiting more and more persons from middle- and upper-class backgrounds and trained at the universities associated with such groups. This is a change but little noted as yet. The stereotype of American newspapers is that of publishers ranging from conservative to reactionary in their political views balanced by reporters ranging from liberal to radical in theirs. One is not certain how accurate the stereotype ever was. One’s impression is that twenty years and more ago the preponderance of the “working press” (as it liked to call itself) was surprisingly close in origins and attitudes to working people generally. They were not Ivy Leaguers. They now are or soon will be. Journalism has become, if not an elite profession, a profession attractive to elites. This is noticeably so in Washington where the upper reaches of journalism constitute one of the most important and enduring social elites of the city, with all the accoutrements one associates with a leisured class. (The Washington press corps is not leisured at all, but the style is that of men and women who choose to work.)

The political consequence of the rising social status of journalism is that the press grows more and more influenced by attitudes genuinely hostile to American society and American government. This trend seems bound to continue into the future. On the record of what they have been writing while in college, the young people now leaving the Harvard Crimson and the Columbia Spectator for journalistic jobs in Washington will resort to the Steffens style at ever-escalating levels of moral implication. They bring with them the moral absolutism of George Wald’s vastly popular address, “A Generation in Search of a Future,” that describes the Vietnam war as “the most shameful episode in the whole of American history.” Not tragic, not heartbreaking, not vastly misconceived, but shameful. From the shame of the cities to the shame of the nation. But nobody ever called Boss Croker any name equivalent in condemnatory weight to the epithet “war criminal.”

_____________

 

II

An ironical accompaniment of the onset of the muckraking style directed toward the Presidency has been the rise of a notion of the near-omnipotency of the office itself. This notion Thomas E. Cronin describes as the “textbook President.” Cronin persuasively argues that in the aftermath of Franklin Roosevelt a view of the Presidency, specifically incorporated in the textbooks of recent decades, was developed which presented seriously “inflated and unrealistic interpretations of Presidential competence and beneficence,” and which grievously “overemphasized the policy change and policy accomplishment capabilities” of the office. Cronin cites Anthony Howard, a watchful British commentator:

For what the nation has been beguiled into believing ever since 1960 is surely the politics of evangelism: the faith that individual men are cast to be messiahs, the conviction that Presidential incantations can be substituted for concrete programs, the belief that what matters is not so much the state of the nation as the inspiration-quotient of its people.

In his own researches among advisers of Kenedy and Johnson, Cronin finds the majority to hold “tempered assessments of Presidential determination of ‘public policy.’” Indeed, only 10 per cent would describe the President as having “very great impact” over such matters.

Working in the White House is a chastening experience. But it is the experience of very few persons. Watching the White House, on the other hand, is a mass occupation, concentrated especially among the better-educated, better-off groups. For many the experience is one of infatuation followed much too promptly by disillusion. First, the honeymoon—in Cronin’s terms, the “predictable ritual of euphoric inflation.” But then “the Camelot of the first few hundred days of all Presidencies fades away. . . . Predictably, by the second year, reports are spread that the President has become isolated from criticism.” If this is so, he has only himself to blame when things go wrong. And things do go wrong.

If the muckraking tradition implies a distrust of government, it is nonetheless curiously validated by the overly trusting tradition of the “textbook Presidency” which recurrently sets up situations in which the Presidency will be judged as having somehow broken faith. This is not just the experience of a Johnson or a Nixon. Anyone who was in the Kennedy administration in the summer and fall of 1963 would, or ought to, report a pervasive sense that our initiative had been lost, that we would have to get reelected to get going again.

Here, too, there is a curious link between the Presidency and the press. The two most important Presidential newspapers are the New York Times and the Washington Post (though the Star would be judged by many to have the best reporting). Both papers reflect a tradition of liberalism that has latterly been shaped and reinforced by the very special type of person who buys the paper. (It is well to keep in mind that newspapers are capitalist enterprises which survive by persuading people to buy them.) Theirs is a “disproportionately” well-educated and economically prosperous audience. The geographical areas in which the two papers circulate almost certainly have higher per-capita incomes and higher levels of education than any of comparable size in the nation or the world. More of the buyers of these two papers are likely to come from “liberal” Protestant or Jewish backgrounds than would be turned up by a random sample of the population; they comprise, in fact, what James Q. Wilson calls “the Liberal Audience.”1 Both the working-class Democrats and the conservative Republicans, with exceptions, obviously, have been pretty much driven from office among the constituencies where the Times and the Post flourish. It would be wrong to ascribe this to the influence of the papers. Causality almost certainly moves both ways. Max Frankel of the Times, who may have peers, but certainly no betters as a working journalist, argues that a newspaper is surely as much influenced by those who read it as vice versa.

The readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, then, are a special type of citizen: not only more affluent and more liberal than the rest of the nation, but inclined also to impose heavy expectations on the Presidency, and not to be amused when those expectations fail to be met. Attached by their own internal traditions to the “textbook Presidency,” papers like the Times and the Post are reinforced in this attachment by the temperamental predilections of the readership whose character they inevitably reflect. Thus they help to set a tone of pervasive dissatisfaction with the performance of the national government, whoever the Presidential incumbent may be and whatever the substance of his policies.

_____________

 

III

A third circumstance working to upset the old balance of power between the Presidency and the press is the fact that Washington reporters depend heavily on more or less clandestine information from federal bureaucracies which are frequently, and in some cases routinely, antagonistic to Presidential interests.

There is a view of the career civil service as a more or less passive executor of policies made on high. This is quite mistaken. A very great portion of policy ideas “bubble up” from the bureaucracy, and just as importantly, a very considerable portion of the “policy decisions” that go down never come to anything, either because the bureaucrats cannot or will not follow through. (The instances of simple inability are probably much greater than those of outright hostility.) Few modern Presidents have made any impact on the federal bureaucracies save by creating new ones. The bureaucracies are unfamiliar and inaccessible. They are quasi-independent, maintaining, among other things, fairly open relationships with the Congressional committees that enact their statutes and provide their funds. They are usually willing to work with the President, but rarely to the point where their perceived interests are threatened. Typically, these are rather simple territorial interests: not to lose any jurisdiction, and if possible to gain some. But recurrently, issues of genuine political substance are also involved.

At the point where they perceive a threat to those interests, the bureaucracies just as recurrently go to the press. They know the press; the press knows them. Both stay in town as Presidential governments come and go. Both cooperate in bringing to bear the most powerful weapons the bureaucracies wield in their own defense, that of revealing Presidential plans in advance of their execution. Presidents and their plans are helpless against this technique. I have seen a senior aide to a President, sitting over an early morning cup of coffee, rise and literally punch the front page of the New York Times. A major initiative was being carefully mounted. Success depended, to a considerable degree, on surprise. Someone in one of the agencies whose policies were to be reversed got hold of the relevant document and passed it on to the Times. Now everyone would know. The mission was aborted. There was nothing for the Presidential government to do. No possibility of finding, much less of disciplining, the bureaucrat responsible. For a time, or rather from time to time, President Johnson tried the technique of not going ahead with any policy or appointment that was leaked in advance to the press. Soon, however, his aides began to suspect that this was giving the bureaucracy the most powerful weapon of all, namely the power to veto a Presidential decision by learning of it early enough and rushing to the Times or the Post. (Or, if the issue could be described in thirty seconds, any of the major television networks.)

What we have here is disloyalty to the Presidency. Much of the time what is involved is no more than the self-regard of lower-echelon bureaucrats who are simply flattered into letting the reporter know how much they know, or who are just trying to look after their agency. But just as often, to repeat, serious issues of principle are involved. Senator Joseph McCarthy made contact with what he termed “the loyal American underground”—State Department officials, and other such, who reputedly passed on information to him about Communist infiltration of the nation’s foreign-policy and security systems. President Johnson made it clear that he did not trust the Department of State to maintain “security” in foreign policy. Under President Nixon the phenomenon has been most evident in domestic areas as OEO warriors struggle among themselves to be the first to disclose the imminent demise of VISTA, or HEW functionaries reluctantly interpret a move to close some fever hospital built to accommodate an 18th-century seaport as the first step in a master plan to dismantle public medicine and decimate the ranks of the elderly and disadvantaged.

It is difficult to say whether the absolute level of such disloyalty to the Presidency is rising. One has the impression that it is. No one knows much about the process of “leaking” except in those instances where he himself has been involved. (Everyone is sooner or later involved. That should be understood.) The process has not been studied and little is known of it. But few would argue that the amount of clandestine disclosure is decreasing. Such disclosure is now part of the way we run our affairs. It means, among other things, that the press is fairly continuously involved in an activity that is something less than honorable. Repeatedly it benefits from the self-serving acts of government officials who are essentially hostile to the Presidency. This does the Presidency no good, and if an outsider may comment, it does the press no good either. Too much do they traffic in stolen goods, and they know it.

This point must be emphasized. The leaks which appear in the Post and the Times—other papers get them, but if one wants to influence decisions in Washington these are clearly thought to be the most effective channels—are ostensibly published in the interest of adding to public knowledge of what is going on. This budget is to be cut; that man is to be fired; this bill is to be proposed. However, in the nature of the transaction the press can only publish half the story—that is to say the information that the “leaker” wants to become “public knowledge.” What the press never does is say who the leaker is and why he wants the story leaked. Yet, more often than not, this is the more important story: that is to say, what policy wins if the one being disclosed loses, what individual, what bureau, and so on.

There really are ethical questions involved here that have not been examined. There are also serious practical questions. It would be my impression that the distress occasioned by leaks has used up too much Presidential energy, at least from the time of Roosevelt. (Old-time brain-trusters would assure the Johnson staff that nothing could compare with FDR’s distractions on the subject.) The primary fault lies within government itself, and one is at a loss to think of anything that might be done about it. But it is a problem for journalism as well, and an unattended one.

_____________

 

IV

The fourth of the five conditions making for an altered relation between the Presidency and the press is the concept of objectivity with respect to the reporting of events and especially the statements of public figures. Almost the first canon of the great newspapers, and by extension of the television news networks which by and large have taken as their standards those of the best newspapers, is that “the news” will be reported whether or not the reporter or the editor or the publisher likes the news. There is nothing finer in the American newspaper tradition. There is, however, a rub and it comes when a decision has to be made as to whether an event really is news, or simply a happening, a non-event staged for the purpose of getting into the papers or onto the screen.

The record of our best papers is not reassuring here, as a glance at the experience of the Korean and the Vietnam wars will suggest. Beginning a bit before the Korean hostilities broke out, but in the general political period we associate with that war, there was a rise of right-wing extremism, a conspiracy-oriented politics symbolized by the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and directed primarily at the institution of the Presidency. There was, to be sure, a populist streak to this movement: Yale and Harvard and the “striped-pants boys” in the State Department were targets too. But to the question, “Who promoted Peress?” there was only one constitutional or—for all practical purposes—political answer, namely that the President did. McCarthy went on asking such questions, or rather making such charges, and the national press, which detested and disbelieved him throughout, went on printing them. The American style of objective journalism made McCarthy. He would not, I think, have gotten anywhere in Great Britain where, because it would have been judged he was lying, the stories would simply not have been printed.

Something not dissimilar has occurred in the course of the Vietnam war, only this time the extremist, conspiracy-oriented politics of protest has been putatively left-wing. Actually both movements are utterly confusing if one depends on European analogues. McCarthy was nominally searching out Communists, but his preferred targets were Eastern patricians, while his supporters were, to an alarming degree, members of the Catholic working class. The Students for a Democratic Society, if that organization may be used as an exemplar, was (at least in its later stages) nominally revolutionist, dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist-imperialist-fascist regime of the United States. Yet, as Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and others have shown, its leadership, and perhaps also its constituency, were disproportionately made up of upper-class Jewish and Protestant youth. By report of Steven Kelman, who lived as a contemporary among them at Harvard, the SDS radicals were “undemocratic, manipulative, and self-righteous to the point of snobbery and elitism.” Peter Berger, a sociologist active in the peace movement, has demonstrated quite persuasively—what others, particularly persons of European origin like himself have frequently seemed to sense—that despite the leftist ring of the slogans of SDS and kindred groups, their ethos and tactics are classically fascist: the cult of youth, the mystique of the street, the contempt for liberal democracy, and the “totalization of friend and foe [with] the concomitant dehumanization of the latter,” as in the Nazi use of “Saujuden” (“Jewish pigs”).

In any case, the accusations which have filled the American air during the period of Vietnam have been no more credible or responsible than those of McCarthy during the Korean period, and the tactics of provocation and physical intimidation have if anything been more disconcerting. Yet the national press, and especially television, have assumed a neutral posture, even at times a sympathetic one, enabling the neo-fascists of the Left to occupy center stage throughout the latter half of the 60’s with consequences to American politics that have by no means yet worked themselves out. (It took Sam Brown to point out that one consequence was to make the work of the anti-war movement, of which he has been a principal leader, vastly more difficult.)

Would anyone have it otherwise? Well, yes. Irving Kristol raised this question in an article that appeared before the New Left had made its presence strongly felt on the national scene, but his views are doubtless even more emphatic by now. He wrote of the “peculiar mindlessness which pervades the practice of journalism in the United States,” asserting that the ideal of objectivity too readily becomes an excuse for avoiding judgment. If McCarthy was lying, why print what he said? Or why print it on the front page? If the SDS stages a confrontation over a trumped-up issue, why oblige it by taking the whole episode at face value? Here, let it be said, the editorials of the Times and the Post have consistently served as a thoughtful corrective to the impressions inescapably conveyed by the news columns. But the blunt fact is that just as the news columns were open to astonishingly false assertions about the nature of the American national government during the McCarthy period, they have been open to equally false assertions—mirror images of McCarthyism indeed—during the period of Vietnam. And although it is impossible to prove, one gets the feeling that the slanderous irresponsibilities now being reported so dutifully are treated with far more respect than the old.

The matter of a policy of “genocide” pursued by the national government against the Black Panthers is a good example. By late 1969, preparing a preface to a second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and I could insist that the charge that twenty-eight Panthers had been murdered by the police was on the face of it simply untrue. Yet in that mindless way of which Kristol writes, the Times kept reprinting it. Edward Jay Epstein has brilliantly explained the matter in a recent article in the New Yorker. What he finds is an immense fraud. No such policy existed. There was no conspiracy between the Department of Justice, the FBI, and various local police forces to wipe out the Panthers. Yet that fraudulent charge has so profoundly affected the thinking of the academic and liberal communities that they will probably not even now be able to see the extent to which they were deceived. The hurt that has been done to blacks is probably in its way even greater. None of it could have happened without the particular mind-set of the national press.

If the press is to deserve our good opinion, it must do better in such matters. And it should keep in mind that the motivation of editors and reporters is not always simply and purely shaped by a devotion to objectivity. In the course of the McCarthy era James Reston recalled the ancient adage which translated from the Erse proposes that “If you want an audience, start a fight.” This is true of anyone who would find an audience for his views, or simply for himself. It is true also of anyone who would find customers for the late city edition. T. S. Matthews, sometime editor of Time, retired to England to ponder the meaning of it all. In the end, all he could conclude was that the function of journalism was entertainment. If it is to be more—and that surely is what the Rosenthals and Brad-lees and Grunwalds and Elliotts want—it will have to be willing on occasion to forgo the entertainment value of a fascinating but untruthful charge. It will, in short, have to help limit the rewards which attend this posture in American politics.

_____________

 

V

The final, and by far the most important, circumstance of American journalism relevant to this discussion is the absence of a professional tradition of self-correction. The mark of any developed profession is the practice of correcting mistakes, by whomsoever they are made. This practice is of course the great invention of Western science. Ideally, it requires an epistemology which is shared by all respected members of the profession, so that when a mistake is discovered it can be established as a mistake to the satisfaction of the entire professional community. Ideally, also, no discredit is involved: to the contrary, honest mistakes are integral to the process of advancing the field. Journalism will never attain to any such condition. Nevertheless, there is a range of subject matter about which reasonable men can and will agree, and within this range American journalism, even of the higher order, is often seriously wide of the mark. Again Irving Kristol:

It is a staple of conversation among those who have ever been involved in a public activity that when they read the Times the next morning, they will discover that it has almost never got the story quite right and has only too frequently got it quite wrong.

Similar testimony has come from an editor of the New York Times itself. In an article published some years ago in the Sunday Times Magazine, A. H. Raskin had this to say:

No week passes without someone prominent in politics, industry, labor or civic affairs complaining to me, always in virtually identical terms: “Whenever I read a story about something in which I really know what is going on, I’m astonished at how little of what is important gets into the papers—and how often even that little is wrong.” The most upsetting thing about these complaints is the frequency with which they come from scientists, economists and other academicians temporarily involved in government policy but without any proprietary concern about who runs the White House or City Hall.2

This is so, and in part it is unavoidable. Too much happens too quickly: that the Times or the Post or the Star should appear once a day is a miracle. (Actually they appear three or four times a day in different editions.) But surely when mistakes are made they ought to be corrected. Sometimes they are, but not nearly enough. It is in this respect that Kristol is right in calling journalism “the underdeveloped profession.”

Assertions that the press has a flawed sense of objectivity, or that it enjoys too cozy a relationship with the civil service, are not easily proved or disproved. But to say that mistakes are repeatedly made and not corrected is to say something which ought to be backed up with specific instances. Let me, then, offer two, taken from stories which appeared in the New York Times during the second half of 1970. (I was serving in the White House at the time, though I was not directly involved in any of the matters to be described.)

_____________

 

The first of my two examples is a long article which appeared in the Times on Sunday, November 15, 1970 under the headline, “Blacks Seek Tougher Equality Standards for Federal Hiring and Promotion.” This story was not hostile to the administration; rather the contrary. It noted that the President had earlier signed an executive order requiring each department and agency to maintain an “affirmative” equal-opportunity program, and that the number of blacks in the top grades of the civil service had gone up almost by half under the “low-key approach of the Nixon Administration.” The number of black lawyers in the Justice Department had declined somewhat. There were said to have been 61 (out of a total of 1,900 to 2,000) under the Democrats. This figure had dropped under the Republicans to 45, but it also appeared that the difference was to be made up by new recruits. In the meantime the Department of Transportation was promulgating new rules, the Bureau of Prisons had eliminated the written test for correction officers, and similar activity aimed at increasing the number of blacks in the higher levels of the federal government was to be encountered elsewhere. All this, however, was going on in the context of a federal employment system whose patterns of practice were lamentably at odds with its profession of being an “equal-opportunity employer,” to use the federal phrase. In the words of the Times story:

The most recent figures show 137,919 blacks among the 1,289,114 Government employees covered by Civil Service regulations. That is about 10.7 per cent, less than the black proportion of the population, estimated in the 1970 census as 12.9 per cent.

The story went on to note that a number of black activists doubted that the federal government ever had been an equal-opportunity employer. One was particularly skeptical of executive orders: “This friendly persuasion thing has never worked in the history of our Government.” Next came the question of quotas:

Although little support for a formal quota system is evident, there is a widely held belief that Presidential statements of policy should be supplemented by more detailed instructions as to how the policies should be implemented.

There is little to take exception to in the foregoing. The official census figures for 1970 show blacks to be 12.4 per cent of the population, not 12.9 per cent, but newspapers routinely make such mistakes. It should also have been pointed out that blacks constitute only 10.9 per cent of the civilian non-institutional population of sixteen years of age or older, which is to say the population available for employment. In that sense, even accepting the figures used by the Times, blacks might be seen as having almost exactly “their” proportion of government employment, although an inadequate number of top positions.

The difficulty in this instance lies not with what was in the story, but what was not. What was not in the story was the fact that the category of federal worker—“General Schedule”—of which Negroes do indeed comprise 10.7 per cent is only one of three categories. In the other two categories of federal employee, the Postal Service and Wage System employees, Negroes made up 19.5 per cent and 19.7 per cent respectively. In rough terms, federal jobs are about equally divided among the three categories.3 Small wonder, then, that the Times reported an absence of much discussion about establishing racial quotas for federal employment. Altogether, blacks have more than 15 per cent of federal jobs. If quotas were established according to the black proportion of the adult population, almost a third of black federal employees would have to be fired!

What all this comes to is that the very considerable achievement of blacks in qualifying for federal jobs and getting them far in excess of their proportion in the work force is in effect concealed and a legitimate source of black pride thereby denied. So too we are denied a legitimate sense of national progress in combating discrimination. And thus we are fed the tendentious allegations of those who wish to discredit the American “system” as inherently and irrevocably racist.

With respect to the role of the Times reporter, it must be said that it is simply not possible for him to have gotten the data on Classified Service employment from the Civil Service Commission releases on the subject without knowing that this is but one of three categories of employment, and that in the other categories blacks do exceptionally well. The truth would have made things look better than the reporter wished them to look. One fears it is as simple as that.

_____________

 

The second instance is rather more complicated. On September 14, 1970 a front-page story was published in the Times under the headline, “Negro College Heads Say Nixon Ignores Their Plight.” The lead paragraph declared: “The presidents of nine financially troubled Negro colleges accused the Nixon Administration today of intensifying racial tensions by failing to support black education.” The presidents felt that massive grants were needed and one was reported as saying that “It’s five minutes before doomsday in this country.” Dr. Vivian Henderson, president of Clark College in Atlanta, was reported as notably disturbed, asserting that “the Nixon Administration’s utter lack of sensitivity on this point, purposeful or otherwise, is feeding the flames that already roar in the hearts of many black students.”

All this seemed routine enough. From the onset of mass urban rioting in the mid-1960’s all manner of requests for federal funds have been backed up by not especially subtle threats of violence. Nor was it unfamiliar to learn a few weeks later that the tactic had worked. On October 2, the front page of the Times carried a story from the Associated Press which began: “The Nixon Administration responded to complaints that it is insensitive to Negro education by announcing today a 30 per cent increase in Federal aid for predominantly black colleges.” The next paragraph explained: “The Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Elliot L. Richardson, said in a statement the $30 million increase was ordered by President Nixon after he heard appeals from Negro educators.”

The story bumped around in the press for the next few months, culminating in a way on January 3, 1971 when another Times story reported that the Negro colleges were not finding it possible to draw on all of the additional $30 million. Some college presidents were reportedly angry to have learned that the law provides for a 30-per-cent matching requirement for construction aid, which made up $20 million of the additional $30 million. But the basic theme of the Times’s coverage of this episode remained the same. The January 3 story began: “For two years, Negro colleges called on the Nixon Administration for substantial financial help. Last September, the Administration responded, releasing $30 million for use by the schools.” There are problems of detail here. The Nixon administration had not been in office for two years in September 1969; the first Times report of an appeal appeared (as best I can determine) that very month, and the response came a month later, in October. Be that as it may, the January 3 story declared: “Black educators have severely criticized President Nixon for allegedly ignoring the plight of their schools. The educators charged that black schools have not shared in the money and grants that go out to American educational institutions.”

To repeat, a familiar theme. The way to get something out of the federal government is to blast it out. Left to itself government would never have given these financially weak institutions a break. If you want action—especially if you are black—raise hell. Right?

Wrong.

At least wrong in this instance. The true sequence of events which made up this story was turned literally upside down by the Times. The initiative to aid black colleges had been voluntarily taken by the administration a year before the Times got on to the issue. The increased support was announced months before the Times reported it. Far from having denounced the administration, the black college presidents had been praising it. And, for good measure, far from getting less than their share of federal aid, the black colleges had all along been getting rather more.

_____________

 

There are 124 “predominantly black colleges” in America, most of them small, and most in the South. They enroll somewhat more than 2 per cent of the college population, but this includes more than half of all black undergraduates.4 They live with many difficulties, of which the most important—as is true of almost all colleges, large and small—is money. In 1969, they organized themselves as the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and set out, as well they might, to get more federal funds. On October 23, 1969 a meeting on this subject was held in the Executive Office Building presided over by Robert J. Brown, a Special Assistant to the President, who as a Southern Negro was much interested in the problems of the predominantly black colleges. As a result of this meeting the Federal Interagency Committee on Education (FICE) was directed to find out what was already being done for these colleges by the considerable array of federal agencies involved in supporting education and what plans existed for the future. A preliminary report was sent to the White House in February 1970, and in June a 45-page document entitled “Federal Agencies and Black Colleges” was printed. It was a good report, full of information concerning what was being done and of recommendations for doing more. (One does not commission such reports with the expectation of being advised to do less.) In the meantime, on May 25, 1970, the President had met with a group of black college presidents, apparently the first such meeting ever to be held. In the aftermath of the Cambodian invasion Dr. James Cheek, president of Howard University, which is basically a federal institution, served temporarily in the White House as an associate of Chancellor Alexander Heard. During that time he made recommendations directly to the President on the subject of the black colleges. Much attention, then, was being given to this matter in the White House.

On July 23, 1970, a White House press conference was held by Brown and Robert Finch, formerly Secretary of HEW, now Counsellor to the President. The main purpose of the occasion was to release a statement by Heard on the completion of his advisory work on campus unrest. Obviously seeking to strike a positive note about the Heard-Cheek effort, the two White House men also brought up the subject of black colleges. The FICE report was given to the press, and Finch announced that on departing Dr. Cheek had filed a “separate document” on this “very unique” problem. He continued: “That just came in today. The President read it today. The President asked him to write such a report, and I am authorized to say, after discussing it with the President, that in HEW . . . we are going to increase [aid] . . . from $80 million to $100 million.” Finch’s numbers were somewhat garbled. HEW aid to black colleges at the time was $96 million for the fiscal year. The additional sum now being reallocated was between $29 million and $30 million. In any event, the Times report of the press conference did not mention this subject.

On July 31, Dr. Herman R. Branson, president of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and the new head of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, wrote the President expressing appreciation for his move. On August 10 the President replied:

The present financial plight of many of our small and the overwhelming majority of our black colleges clearly demonstrates to me that the Federal Government must strengthen its role in support of these institutions.

I have committed this Administration to the vigorous support of equal educational opportunity. At the same time, we are encouraging excellence in all of our institutions of higher education.5

In a release dated August 11, 1970 the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education formally responded to the administration’s move. In the accepted and understood manner of interest groups, the Association expressed gratitude for what it had got, but assured the government that it was not, of course, enough. On the other hand, it was confident that more would be forthcoming:

We do not view this excellent first step as adequate to all our needs but rather as a model of what all agencies can do. . . . With the forthright statement of the President in his letter to Dr. Branson, we are very much encouraged and heartened about the future.

The Times reported nothing of this statement, as it had reported nothing of the original announcement from the White House that an extra $30 million or so was being made available to black colleges. White House announcements, Presidential letters, Washington press conferences—all were ignored. The subject was not dealt with at all until the following month when, as noted earlier, a story depicted the black college presidents as denouncing the administration’s “utter lack of sensitivity” on this matter. This story made the front page.

The day after it appeared Dr. Vivian Henderson, of Clark College in Atlanta, to whom the remark about “utter lack of sensitivity” had been attributed, sent the following unequivocal denial to the Times:

I am deeply disturbed by the inaccurate reporting of the conference of Presidents of Negro Colleges that appeared in the September 14 issue of the New York Times. The following statement is attributed to me: “Instead the Nixon Administration’s utter lack of sensitivity on this point, purposeful or otherwise, is feeding the flames that already roar in the hearts of many black students.” This is a gross error and misrepresentation of what actually went on at the meeting. To be sure, we were concerned with the limited response of President Nixon to our problems. The fact is, however, that President Nixon has responded. He has not been silent with regard to concerns expressed by the Presidents in the meeting with him last May. Since the meeting with Mr. Nixon, about $27 million additional funds have been made available to black colleges. It would be unfair on our part not to recognize this response, limited though it is.

I did not make the statement your reporter attributes to me. I do not recall such a statement being made during the course of the conference. . . .

The Times did not print this letter. Instead it went on to repeat the theme of the original story and gradually to establish it elsewhere as truth. In the end a small bit of history had been rewritten: even the wire services followed the Times ‘s version. No one intended this. That should be clear. It is simply that the journalistic system preferred a confrontation-capitulation model of events, and there was no internal corrective procedure to alert the editors to the mistakes being made.

There are true social costs in all this. For one thing, a paper like the Times is a prime medium for internal communication within the government itself. Any Washington official following this story in the Times would have had to assume that the administration’s attitude toward black colleges was just about opposite to what in fact it was. Such a reversal of signals can have serious consequences. Similarly there are consequences to the principals involved, in this case the college presidents who had been acting with skill and discipline and reasonable success (most notably in having gained access: within hours of the appearance of the first Times story a black college president was in the White House seeking reassurance that the $27-30 million had not been jeopardized) but who found themselves represented as stereotypical confrontationists. Everyone in a sense lost because the Times got the story wrong.

_____________

 

VI

In the wake of so lengthy an analysis, what is there to prescribe? Little. Indeed, to prescribe much would be to miss the intent of the analysis. I have been hoping to make two points—the first explicitly, the second largely by implication. The first is that a convergence of journalistic tradition with evolving cultural patterns has placed the national government at a kind of operating disadvantage. It is hard for government to succeed: this theme echoes from, every capital of the democratic world. In the United States it is hard for government to succeed and just as hard for government to appear to have succeeded when indeed it has done so., This situation can be said to have begun in the muckraking era with respect to urban government; it is now very much the case with respect to national government, as reflected in the “national press” which primarily includes the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and a number of other journals.

There is nothing the matter with investigative reporting; there ought to be more. The press can be maddeningly complacent about real social problems for which actual counter-measures, even solutions, exist. (I spent a decade, 1955-65, trying to obtain some press coverage of the problem of motor vehicle design, utterly without avail. The press, from the most prestigious journals on down, would print nothing but the pap handed out by the automobile companies and wholly-owned subsidaries such as the National Safety Council.) The issue is not one of serious inquiry, but of an almost feckless hostility to power.

The second point is that this may not be good for us. American government will only rarely and intermittently be run by persons drawn from the circles of those who own and edit and write for the national press; no government will ever have this circle as its political base. Hence the conditions are present for a protracted conflict in which the national government keeps losing. This might once have been a matter of little consequence or interest. It is, I believe, no longer such, for it now takes place within the context of what Nathan Glazer has so recently described in these pages6 as an “assault on the reputation of America . . . which has already succeeded in reducing this country, in the eyes of many American intellectuals, to outlaw status. . . .” In other words, it is no longer a matter of this or that administration; it is becoming a matter of national morale, of a “loss of confidence and nerve,” some of whose possible consequences, as Glazer indicates, are not pleasant to contemplate.

Some will argue that in the absence of a parliamentary question-time only the press can keep the Presidency honest. Here we get much talk about Presidential press conferences and such. This is a serious point, but I would argue that the analogy does not hold. Questions are put in Parliament primarily by members of an opposition party hoping to replace the one in office. Incompetent questions damage those chances; irresponsible questions damage the office. Indeed, British politicians have been known to compare the press lords to ladies of the street, seeking “power without responsibility.” It would, of course, be better all around if Congress were more alert. Thus the Times has reported that the GNP estimate in the 1971 Budget Message was not that of the Council of Economic Advisors, but rather a higher figure dictated by the White House for political purposes. This is a profoundly serious charge. Someone has a lot to explain. It could be the administration; it could be the Times. Congress should find out.

Obviously the press of a free country is never going to be and never should be celebratory. Obviously government at all levels needs and will continue to get criticism and some of it will inevitably be harsh or destructive, often enough justifiably so. Obviously we will get more bad news than good. Indeed the content of the newspapers is far and away the best quick test of the political structure of a society. Take a morning plane from Delhi to Karachi. One leaves with a sheaf of poorly-printed Indian papers filled with bad news; one arrives to find a small number of nicely-printed Pakistani papers filled with good news. One has left a democracy, and has entered a country that is something less than a democracy.

_____________

 

Nonetheless there remains the question of balance. Does not an imbalance arise when the press becomes a too-willing outlet for mindless paranoia of the Joseph McCarthy or New Left variety? Does it not arise when the press becomes too self-satisfied to report its own mistakes with as much enterprise as it reports the mistakes of others?

Norman E. Isaacs, a working journalist, has written thoughtfully about the possibility of establishing a “national press council.” This, in effect, was proposed by Robert M. Hutchins’s Commission on Freedom of the Press in 1947: “A new and independent agency to appraise and report annually upon the performance of the press.” There are press councils in other democratic countries which hear complaints, hand down verdicts, and even, as in Sweden, impose symbolic fines. There is a case to be made here, but I would argue that to set up such a council in this country at this time would be just the wrong thing to do. There is a statist quality about many of the press councils abroad: often as not they appear to have been set up to ward off direct government regulation. Freedom of the press is a constitutional guarantee in the United States: how that freedom is exercised should remain a matter for the professional standards of those who exercise it. Here, however, there really is room for improvement. First in the simple matter of competence. The very responsibility of the national press in seeking to deal with complex issues produces a kind of irresponsibility. The reporters aren’t up to it. They get it wrong. It would be astonishing were it otherwise.

Further, there needs to be much more awareness of the quite narrow social and intellectual perspective within which the national press so often moves. There are no absolutes here; hardly any facts. But there is a condition that grows more not less pronounced. The national press is hardly a “value-free” institution. It very much reflects the judgment of owners and editors and reporters as to what is good and bad about the country and what can be done to make things better. It might be hoped that such persons would give more thought to just how much elitist criticism is good for a democracy. Is this a shocking idea? I think not. I would imagine that anyone who has read Peter Gay or Walter Laqueur on the history of the Weimar Republic would agree that there are dangers to democracy in an excess of elitist attack. A variant of the Jacksonian principle of democratic government is involved here. Whether or not ordinary men are capable of carrying out any governmental task whatsoever, ordinary men are going to be given such tasks. That is what it means to be a democracy. We had best not get our expectations too far out of line with what is likely to happen, and we had best not fall into the habit of measuring all performance by the often quite special tastes, preferences, and interests of a particular intellectual and social elite. (Perhaps most importantly, we must be supersensitive to the idea that if things are not working out well it is because this particular elite is not in charge. Consider the course of events that led to the war in Indochina.)

As to the press itself, one thing seems clear. It should become much more open about acknowledging mistakes. The Times should have printed Dr. Henderson’s letter. Doubtless the bane of any editor is the howling of politicians and other public figures claiming to have been misquoted. But often they are misquoted. At the very least, should not more space be allotted to rebuttals and exchanges in which the issue at hand is how the press performed?

Another possibility is for each newspaper to keep a critical eye on itself. In the article previously cited which he did for the Sunday Times Magazine, A. H. Raskin called for “a Department of Internal Criticism” in every paper “to put all its standards under re-examination and to serve as a public protection in its day-to-day operations.” The Times itself has yet to establish such a department but the Washington Post has recently set a welcome example here by inaugurating a regular editorial-page feature by Richard Harwood entitled “The News Business.” Harwood’s business is to check up on what his paper runs, and he is finding a good deal to check up on. (To all editors: Please understand there is nothing wrong with this. It is a routine experience of even the most advanced sciences. Perhaps especially of such.) Harwood has made a useful distinction between mistakes of detail—the ordinary garbles and slips of a fast-moving enterprise—and mistakes of judgment about the nature of events:

The mistakes that are more difficult to fix are those that arise out of our selection and definition of the news. Often we are unaware of error until much time has passed and much damage has been done.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the destructive phenomenon called “McCarthyism”—the search in the 1950’s for witches, scapegoats, traitors—was a product of this kind of error. Joseph McCarthy, an obscure and mediocre senator from Wisconsin, was transformed into the Grand Inquisitor by publicity. And there was no way later for the newspapers of America to repair that damage, to say on the morning after: “We regret the error.”

Which will turn out “in retrospect” to seem the obvious errors of the 1960’s? There were many, but they are past. The question now is what might be the errors of the 1970’s, and whether some can be avoided. One Richard Harwood does not a professional upheaval make, but he marks a profoundly important beginning. All major journals should have such a man in a senior post, and very likely he should have a staff of reporters to help him cover “the news business.”

As for government itself, there is not much to be done, but there is something. It is perfectly clear that the press will not be intimidated. Specific efforts like President Kennedy’s to get David Halberstam removed as a Times correspondent in Vietnam almost always fail, as they deserve to do.7 Non-specific charges such as those leveled by Vice President Agnew get nowhere either. They come down to an avowal of dislike, which is returned in more than ample measure, with the added charge that in criticizing the press the government may be trying to intimidate it, which is unconstitutional.

What government can do and should do is respond in specific terms to what it believes to be misstatements or mistaken emphases; it should address these responses to specific stories in specific papers and it should expect that these will be printed (with whatever retort the journal concerned wishes to make). Misrepresentations of government performance must never be allowed to go unchallenged. The notion of a “one-day story,” and the consoling idea that yesterday’s papers are used to wrap fish, are pernicious and wrong. Misinformation gets into the bloodstream and has consequences. The Times ought by now to have had a letter from the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission pointing out the mistakes in the November 15 story on minority employment, and the even more important omissions. If the first letter was ignored, he should have sent another. Similarly the Times ought long, since have had a letter from an HEW official exposing the errors of its coverage of federal aid to black colleges. Failing that, someone should have called in the education writers of the Times and asked why they let other men misreport their beat. Etc. Hamilton’s formulation has not been bettered: the measure of effective government is energy in the executive.

_____________

 

In the end, however, the issue is not one of politics but of culture. The culture of disparagement that has been so much in evidence of late, that has attained such an astonishing grip on the children of the rich and the mighty, and that has exerted an increasing influence on the tone of the national press in its dealings with the national government, is bad news for democracy. Some while ago the late Richard Hofstadter foresaw what has been happening:

Perhaps we are really confronted with two cultures (not Snow’s), whose spheres are increasingly independent and more likely to be conflicting than to be benignly convergent: a massive adversary culture on the one side, and the realm of socially responsible criticism on the other.

But given what has been happening to the press in recent years and what is likely to go on being the case if current trends should continue on their present path, where is such “socially responsible criticism” to come from? Or rather, where is it to appear in a manner that will inform and influence the course of public decision-making?

_____________


Footnotes

1 See his article, “Crime and the Liberal Audience” in COMMENTARY, January 1971.

2 It should not, of course, be supposed that people inside government “know” what happens. The Rashomon effect is universal. It is, moreover, not uncommon for men in government to be doing something quite different from what they think or intend. In such cases, the more accurate the press reporting, the more baffled or enraged the officials will be. Still, the judgment Raskin reports is near universal.

3 These are, by the way, good jobs. In 1970, mean annual earnings of year-round full-time workers in the economy as a whole were $8,496. The average earnings of General Schedule federal employees in that year were $11,058; of Postal employees, $8,770; and of Wage System employees, $8,159. Washington, D.C. has a much higher per capita income than any state in the union for the reason that it has so many federal employees.

4 In 1969 there were 171,339 students in black colleges, or 2.14 per cent of the national junior- and senior-college gross enrollment. Problems of definition complicate the statistics.

5 The President was referring to his message to Congress on Higher Education of March 1970, which proposed a system of student aid by which the federal government would concentrate assistance on low-income students. A proposal to establish a National Foundation for Higher Education specifically referred to the problems of black colleges.

6 “The Role of the Intellectuals,” February 1971.

7 See Halberstam's account of the incident in “Getting the Story in Vietnam,” COMMENTARY, January 1965.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.