The Press and the President
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan was most kind and generous in his reference to me in “The Presidency & the Press” [March]. But the more I studied the article, the more troubled I became by his rather sweeping and unpleasant generalizations. And the more I studied his particular complaints against the New York Times, the more I found him to be confusing a most serious and difficult problem with trivial, inadequate, and basically unfair criticism. My first impulse was to ignore him—benignly.
But others found the specific charges against the Times’s performance to be so serious that they required either public confession or rebuttal. This led to a most wasteful examination of the more frivolous aspects of the indictment. If, in what follows, the more substantial parts of Mr. Moynihan’s essay are not treated as fully as I would like, we at least share the blame.
First, about the two horror stories from the Times.
The story on November 15, 1970, about blacks seeking tougher equality standards in the Civil Service, was by no fair standard a crusade for the blacks, an attack on the Nixon administration, a campaign for racial quotas or for anything else. As Mr. Moynihan himself noted, the story was in fact friendly to the administration. It recorded the blacks’ complaints about jobs and promotion to senior jobs “under either party.” It said that few critics of hiring and promotion practices would have the government establish formal racial quotas and found most of them acknowledging that movement, although slow, is occurring under the present system. If that was the work of a reporter who wished to make things look worse than they are, as the article suggested, then I am naive and Mr. Moynihan is clairvoyant.
The only concrete complaint here was that our reporter did not choose to write about something she was not writing about—the Postal Service and non-Civil Service categories of federal employment. Adding those statistics, it is argued, would have shown blacks occupying a relatively larger share of all government jobs. I believe they also should have shown blacks getting a still smaller share of senior and supervisory positions. To pick that fault in one sentence of a long and commendably judicious article suggests to me that Mr. Moynihan wants not only reasonably sophisticated renderings of a situation but positive help in defeating all complaints from blacks, militant or otherwise. If we erred at all, it was in accepting the employment figures of several departments that we now have reason to believe exaggerated the status of blacks. (The further petty complaint that our reporter had the black population “estimated in the 1970 census as 12.9 per cent”—whereas Mr. Moynihan knew the “official census figures” to have shown 12.4 per cent—deserves a petty answer: both numbers are wrong, but at least our reporter properly labeled hers as an estimate. The “official” figure, when finally produced, was 11.2 per cent. In Mr. Moynihan’s language, this would justify the scoffing remark that nagging academicians “routinely make such mistakes.”)
In any case, I fail to understand what place this story and critique has in what attempts to be a serious and broadly philosophical discussion of journalism. It proves nothing about our business, good or bad, not even that our reporters are more vulnerable to one type of propaganda and statistical juggling than another. Ideally, of course, every such story is not a matching of claims and complaints, charges and responses, but a scientific and independent analysis of a question. It could be argued that we should never report either what critics say or what defenders retort, but only what we ourselves have established to our own satisfaction as irrefutably true, not only in fact but in spirit. We would have a very thin newspaper; perhaps none at all.
The second complaint about the Times is more complicated and points to some interesting sins of commission and omission both at the Times and in the administration. Overall, I will let others decide which are the more serious.
The criticisms, in chronological order:
- That we did not report the “somewhat garbled” numbers Robert Finch disclosed on July 23, 1970 at the briefing on the Heard report, about some additional aid for black colleges.
- That we did not carry the press release dated August 11, 1970, in which the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education welcomed this “excellent first step,” termed it not adequate, but looked hopefully for more in the future.
- That on September 14, 1970 we did carry and feature on page one a story about the presidents of nine Negro colleges charging the administration with neglect and in-sensitivity.
- That we did not print a letter from one of the above presidents complaining that he had been misquoted in the “lack of sensitivity” remark, commending the President for responding with $27 million in additional funds, and describing that response as “limited.”
- That we carried another front-page story from the Associated Press on October 2, 1970, reporting that HEW Secretary Elliot Richardson disclosed a $30-million increase in aid as Nixon’s response to appeals from Negro educators.
- That we again referred to the blacks’ complaints and criticism of the President in a story on January 3, 1971, reporting their inability to draw on much of the new aid because they could not meet the matching requirement.
1) Bob Semple’s superb story on the Heard report did not include the sneaky and “garbled” announcement of some new aid for black colleges, even though it dealt with the report’s discussion of black colleges by Alexander Heard and James Cheek. Why not? Semple does not know. He suspects that when the 40-page Heard report was dumped on reporters at 4:30 that afternoon, he felt compelled to delve into it so quickly that he either ran off to the office or sat through the briefing without really listening to the addenda.
Let us be very straight here about the order and magnitude of sins. The Heard report was not to the liking of the administration and it was shoveled out late one afternoon to complicate the life of any reporter who might wish to deal with it in a big or careful way. As Mr. Moynihan remarks, the news about some new money for black colleges was thrown in “to strike a positive note about the Heard-Cheek effort”; or, as I would have put it, thrown in to undermine even further the attention that might be given to Heard’s major conclusions. It was thrown in hastily and sloppily, not for the purpose of informing the public in a careful way but to serve the propaganda purposes of the White House. And the figures given out were not “somewhat garbled.” They were wrong.
I can regret Semple’s oversight without in the slightest faulting him.
Had Mr. Moynihan chosen to list his complaints against us in a straightforward chronological order, the entire episode, and all the stories that troubled him would have been seen to follow from this very cheap stunt. (In truth, I did not expect, in looking into his complaints, to find such a good example of the reasons for our mistrust of government, and of the White House in particular.)
But let us also tally up our mutual sins of omission.
I can find no evidence that Ziegler, or Finch, or anyone else at that meeting set out the next morning to call our attention to the fact that we had missed what the White House regarded as an important story. Indeed, I find no evidence that anyone apologized for issuing the wrong figures or tried to set the record straight. (The wrong Finch figures remain wrong in the weekly compilation of Presidential documents.) What a lovely opportunity to summon the reporters and apologize for misleading them, cheering the good fortune that they had overlooked the garbled announcement, and inviting them to treat it fully and accurately on the second bounce! Should I conclude that hardly anyone gave a damn now that there was no longer any need to deflate Heard?
If the White House felt it important to get the story into print, it surely did not lack the means or know-how.
Later that year, in ignoring Heard’s very explicit advice and setting out to make political capital of campus disturbances, the President and his aides showed themselves to be very skillful indeed in getting their message across. And when two stones were thrown in the direction of the President’s car in Vermont—out of sight of most of the reporters in his party—Ziegler and Company showed extraordinary zeal and imagination in making certain that the news reached the nation, over and over again. My point is—and it relates to the essay’s larger question about the balance of forces between press and government—that a President demonstrably has no difficulty publicizing any news or attitudes about which he feels strongly.
2) I do not know anything about the press release of August 11, 1970, except Mr. Moynihan’s brief quotation from it. In a sense, I am glad we did not encounter it, for the chances are fifty-fifty that a story about the reaction of the black educators would have combined their expression of gratitude with their complaints of inadequacy, and only deepened Mr. Moynihan’s anger.
He may feel free to run down the group’s motives by suggesting that their verdict of insufficiency was delivered not from the facts but from “the accepted and understood manner of interest groups.” But we usually feel compelled to stop short of such a public judgment. (Should we have reported the famous Moynihan farewell address as a statement “in the manner of departing White House officials who want to retain some influence with the boss”? I thought it more than that, but others clearly did not.)
Anyhow, two days before the distribution of that press release, on August 9, 1970, the Times devoted one-and-a-half columns, which were featured with a picture on page one, to an interview with Robert Brown, the only black aide on the White House staff. The story, by Paul Delaney, covered Brown’s review of the full range of Mr. Nixon’s relations with blacks. Brown said things were getting better, both because the President had become “much more sensitive” to the problems of blacks and because he had decided to do something about it. Brown said Mr. Nixon was especially stung by some of the harshest charges of Negro leaders. (He was, as portrayed by his aide, responding !)
And lo, the last third of the story dwelt on the President’s “immediate concern” for getting more federal money for black colleges. And at the very end of the story—appropriately for the kind of story it was, though not the kind of headline announcement the White House could have fashioned—was the news that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare had increased the allocation for black schools. The figures were there, though still not clearly enough, because it was a little hard to tell whether the administration was redirecting $120 million in new aid or merely redirecting some money to raise the total from $87.2 million to $120 million. But the ambiguity was in the administration’s favor, and as far as I can tell we still did not receive a clarifying call from the White House.
Nor have we had any complaints about our willingness to feature Mr. Brown’s representation of Presidential attitudes about blacks. His account was not “balanced” in every other paragraph with demands for courtroom evidence, nor with recollections of the Carswell episode and other relevant clues to policy. It was not a definitive study of Nixon-Negro relations. The only detours from Brown’s comments, after he talked of “more and more” meetings with blacks, were to cite the case of the rebuffed black Congressmen and to record the President’s two visits to black communities. All in all, a very one-sided account that neither brought nor merited any complaint.
It might have had a small mention, however, in Mr. Moynihan’s review of our coverage last summer, though I suspect it would have virtually exploded his whole argument with us. Here we were doing for his side of the case exactly what he deplored our having done for the other side.
3) The story about the charges by nine presidents of Negro colleges, by James Wooten from Chicago, was by all accounts a fair and accurate rendering of the mood and substance of their meeting. I gather Mr. Moynihan does not dispute this. They were complaining about the federal government, about the churches, about American society, about the inadequacy of financial help, and about the inappropriateness of the help that was available. They used strong language. If they had mentioned the increased aid offered them by the administration, they would clearly have denounced it as inadequate and in no way erased the effect of the story. I do not know how much of their rhetoric came from a feeling of genuine despair and how much was meant merely to earn credentials among more militant constituents. I would guess that both motives were involved.
The fact that they chose to speak in that fashion, justifiably or not, is legitimate news. At least as legitimate as the Brown interview. News, as treated in our society, is not the same as truth, though it should always be true. The truth is cumulative and rarely discernible on any given day; it embraces motivation and consequence. Newspapers should cumulatively test the news for truth, but they cannot reasonably do so every day and with every story. We are, alas, a forum, not an almanac.
We could argue whether the Wooten story deserved to be on page one. Perhaps not, although this raises a still further question of distortions due to the relative value of any day’s developments. These are all profound and difficult questions that our craft must face, and in some cases is facing most seriously.
But when all is said and done, we must make value judgments. Mr. Moynihan’s logic propels him to the claim that a black man yelling “help” in America today should be treated journalistically as we all now wish we had treated a demagogic Senator yelling “traitor.” He is saying that his every assertion should be drained of its emotional purpose and forced to meet the standards of courtroom evidence, or else be played down or even ignored.
Philosophically and politically, he is wrong. A pressure group for neglected citizens, even when it demands exaggerated attention and reparation, is not the same as an organized and officially protected goon-squad attacking individual liberties. The balance of power between the heads of black colleges and the Nixon administration is not the balance that prevailed between Joe McCarthy and his victims. (There is, alas, more similarity between the latter and what many blacks did to my friend Pat Moynihan a few years ago. He was a victim of McCarthyism. But not Nixon. I would hope that despite Mr. Moynihan’s wounds he could still recognize the difference.)
It all really does come down to his enormous pity for our poor and enfeebled Presidency! How glad I am that he will now have a chance to observe it from the outside and to amend his thoughts of who is strong and who is weak in our society.
4) We did not print Vivian Henderson’s letter complaining about misquotation because of our certainty that he had not been misquoted and the further judgment that he was trying to attribute error to us so as to ameliorate the morning-after consequences of his remark. (The story, in any case, and even by Henderson’s testimony, would not have been altered by the omission of his remark.) He did not press us to print the letter and has told Wooten he didn’t care whether we printed it or not.
Here again there lies a larger question for the press that touches on the wider meaning of the essay. We do need to provide more space where readers and persons in the news can extend, explain, and correct views and facts attributed to them in the news columns. Slowly, our profession is moving in that direction. But I fear the judgments made in this case will still have to be made in that new space. And once again we would face the question of relative power—whether the President’s claim on such space, considering his opportunities to make known his views and propaganda, should be equal to the claims of weaker groups and citizens. I don’t think so.
5) The AP story about Richardson’s “disclosure” of $30-million more in aid for black colleges did, finally, get that fact out on page one. I cannot locate the material on which the story was based, but I doubt that Richardson clearly explained that the new money had actually been made available and announced ten weeks earlier. The administration was not responding to the Chicago complaints but it was responding, as the story said, to the appeals of blacks.
6) The final story, by Paul Delaney of the Times’s Washington bureau, reported that the new money did not, after all, do much to meet the needs of the colleges. It does not accuse anyone of perfidy or trickery. It cites a sad misunderstanding about what the new money could achieve. And it reports the black educators still dissatisfied with the amount of help they have been given.
Mr. Moynihan may have a quarrel with their view. He doesn’t have much of a quarrel with that story, nor should he have.
What, then, are we really dealing with here? By his own account, a group organized (early?) in 1969 and received at the White House in October 1969, asked for urgent help. A study was commissioned and a preliminary report was delivered to the White House in February 1970. A fuller report was “printed”—though not publicized?—in June, by which time, Cambodia being Cambodia, and Kent and Jackson State being what they were, there had been another meeting between the President and black college presidents and James Cheek, working with Heard, on temporary White House assignment. And it was when their reports, so disappointing to the President and others, had to be published in July that there was rushed out an announcement about some more money for the black colleges, which we were late to report but which in the end, or at least so far, hasn’t helped them very much. And the Times—no, the whole system of journalism—is roasted by Mr. Moynihan for not dealing intelligently with the issue!
Now to the central point, which I take to be Mr. Moynihan’s anguish about a reversal in the “old balance of power” between President and press. He thinks the press is well on the way to upsetting that “balance” to the detriment of effective government.
I found it odd, and negligent, that he never even attempted to define either the old balance of power or any balance that he deems desirable. This makes it a rather difficult thesis to rebut, especially after he gets through conceding the President’s “near limitless capacity” to make news, to dominate events of public concern, to reward friends and punish enemies (and not only in the press corps), and to carry off “formidable deceptions.” He can, of course, do much more. He can exhort, rally, and inspire. He can ruin and degrade. He Can breathe life into American attitudes and, often, institutions. Or he can distort and discard them. And surely at the apex of anyone’s list of Presidential powers is the power to make war, nuclear war, ten-year war, undeclared war, unchecked war, unpopular war, holy war, or pointless war. (If some of our histories are correct in suggesting that the Hearst and Pulitzer press were once able to goad or frighten the country and its President into war, then it would seem that there has been, indeed, a most remarkable shift in the balance of power, though hardly in the direction Mr. Moynihan suggests.)
But if I read the story correctly, he is not even talking about the collective, though incoherent, power of the press and the television. He is talking largely about the dangerous power of the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is flattering, but hardly persuasive. The great majority of black citizens, whose thoughts he wishes to protect from their own leaders and agitators, do not read either of those newspapers. The papers that they read, across the country, would probably score quite well on his special loyalty test. As for television, I will let him decide, after some months in civilian life, whether it favors the champions of the space program or its critics, whether it is dominated by the ethics of our President or those of his critics, whether on balance it proclaims the old American and governmental virtues, or the virtues of what he calls, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, the “adversary culture.”
But all right. It is the Eastern press that is threatening us. How?
Point one is that our muckraking tradition has fallen into the hands of a new breed of reporter of middle- and upper-class background, Ivy League, elitist. In Washington, this group constitutes a social elite, “with all the accoutrements one associates with a leisured class.” We are not leisured, he quickly notes, but our “style is that of men and women who choose to work.” And the political consequence of this social status is that “the press grows more and more influenced by attitudes genuinely hostile to American society and American government.” And the evidence for this is that we have been brainwashed by the “moral absolutism” of George Wald!
Others have taken this absurd standard of pedigree and tallied the preponderance of non-Ivy degrees in the upper reaches of the Washington press corps. Still others, indeed, have noted with a little more relevance that the upper reaches are, in fact, dominated. by the “silent generation” that was allegedly cowed into docility in the era of Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. As for the “charges” of social elitism and our “style of leisure”—these really would have been better expressed if he had simply repeated, “effete snobs.”
But how very odd that, in a paragraph devoted to the debunking of moral absolutism—in which Mr. Moynihan complains that people call the Vietnam war shameful instead of tragic, heartbreaking, or misconceived—he would dare to characterize the attitudes of reporters in the press not as wrong, or tragic, or misconceived, but as “hostile to American society and American government.” Wow! Let’s make it effete and un-American snobs.
We are, of course, guilty of having switched, over the last generation, to a more educated corps of reporters, if only to keep up with the credentials and footwork of the holders of public office (and our new critics). The fact is that we are not nearly smart enough yet to cope with the scientific, technological, pseudo-sociological expertise that is peddled to the public by both the government and its critics. And it is a further fact, and perhaps one of the most enduring attractions of our business, that any bright lad of proletarian or other origin can rid himself of the social and hierarchical pressures of our society to participate, as a journalist, in the political process of our country.
(I found it quaint, by the way, that the witnesses summoned against our new elitists were of such clearly non-Eastern and proletarian pedigree as Roger Starr, Lionel Trilling, Thomas E. Cronin, James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol. Shouldn’t we all start printing our colleges beside our names, to facilitate such analysis?)
It is also true, and more relevant to the essay’s point, that there are among some of the newest recruits to our business young men and women who are impatient with the “objective” or, more accurately, “neutral” standards of journalism to which their elders aspired. Some of them share Mr. Moynihan’s sense of that standard’s inadequacy and wish to adjust it. A few of them are impatient with any standard that would prevent them from placing their own views before the public. It is an important subject and an interesting debate that news writers have conducted periodically over the decades. More of this in sequence.
Point two suggests that along with hostility toward the Presidency we purvey an absurdly inflated picture of the President’s importance and ability to influence events, thus setting a tone of pervasive dissatisfaction with the performance of government, under any President. The Times and the Post are particularly guilty here, it is argued, because Mr. Moynihan agrees with my contention that a newspaper is as much influenced by those who read it as vice versa.
This is apples and oranges.
We Americans do have an exaggerated expectation of our Presidents and only a handful of them ever fulfill their own promise and boast, even in hindsight. Such is the power and aura of this office that a politician, no matter how poorly regarded over the years, how often suspected and vilified and run down, can assume the office and earn at once not just what you call a “honeymoon” period of grace but a new reputation for nobility and intelligence. And when he begins in lofty manner, promising to heal some of the nation’s wounds and to lower his voice, he is made to feel welcome and given the chance to appear as he wishes to appear before his countrymen. The press reflects these expectations of the public and records the efforts of our Presidents and Presidential candidates to nurture them. This faith is either an element of Presidential power, to be cherished and applied with skill by those who can, or it is a terrible burden, as Mr. Moynihan would have it.
If it is a burden, then only a President who insists from the start that he does not know everything, cannot change too much, and will aspire only to a modest program of action can correct the nation’s view. How about a President who will work for a year of peace at a time, instead of a generation? Or one who begins by saying that a new Attorney General will not solve much of our crime problem? Or one who tells us how many loafers there really are on welfare and how much more sophisticated he has become, once in office, about the “welfare mess”?
We do try to match promise against performance and cumulatively we manage, I think, to draw a pretty good portrait of the strengths and weaknesses of the Presidency and any particular occupant thereof. But those who find the underlying truths obscured, must begin by noting not the power for occasional deception in the White House but the habit of regular deception in our politics and administration.
By and large, it is the President and the federal government who establish the agenda of public discussion and they must choose whether their purpose shall be uplifting and educational or merely manipulative. It is the damnable tendency toward manipulation that forces us so often into the posture of apparent adversaries.
We have indeed progressively lost our naiveté about the truthfulness of Presidents and government, starting with the U-2 affair a decade ago. A. J. Liebling found the awakening after U-2 to be the “beginning of wisdom” in the country and in the press. We lost the habit of reporting as fact what was only a contention or claim of our highest officials. And there is nothing in the record of the current administration, ten years later, to break us of the new habit of treating virtually every official utterance as a carefully contrived rendering that needs to be examined for the missing word or phrase, the sly use of statistics, the slippery syntax or semantics. Planes fly to “interdict supplies” but not in support of combat infantry, until such support becomes an “ancillary” benefit and until, finally, it becomes exposed as the real purpose of the flights. Troops do not engage in “ground combat” as long as they hover two feet above the ground in helicopters. Estimates of the gross national product turn out, within weeks, to be only targets.
If this shift from simple credulity to informed skepticism is the change of balance Mr. Moynihan deplores, then I plead guilty.
He will have to take it on faith that we practice this skepticism not in the spirit of persecution or prosecution, but from a sense of wishing to serve our readers with reports of what is really going on. I will not deny that, once discovered, governmental trickery in and of itself often becomes more “newsworthy” than the report itself. But a President or government dedicated to truth-telling and eager to inform the public could very rapidly turn the wolves of the press into lambs.
My contention that readers shape a newspaper as much as it shapes them bears on this, but only indirectly.
Our skepticism does reflect that of our readers and it is mutually reinforcing. As George Reedy so wisely reflected in thinking back on his tour as President Johnson’s press secretary, “The reality is that a President has no press problems (except for a few minor administrative technicalities), but he does have political problems, all of which are reflected in their most acute form by the press.”
A few more excerpts from Reedy’s The Twilight of the Presidency:
There is a deep-seated human tendency to confuse unhappy news with unhappy events and to assume that if the news can be altered, so can the events.
In reality, the problem of a President in dealing with the press is precisely the same as his problem in dealing with the public at large. But no President can find it within his ego to concede that he has failed in any degree with the public. It is far more satisfying to blame his failures on the press because his problems then can be attributed to a conspiracy. He can blame the “Eastern press,” the “Republican press,” or the “liberal press.” He then does not stand indicted within his own consciousness (the most terrible court of all) as having failed.
We reflect, or refract, but we do not simply create skepticism or dissatisfaction.
But I was speaking in a still larger sense. What is it, I asked, that makes newspapers accept some value judgments and not others? Why do we write in a different spirit about one kind of crime, say simple murder, than we do about another, say civil disobedience? Why do Northern and Western newspapers write, unquestionably, from the point of view of those who regard official segregation as not only illegal but also wrong, while some Southern newspapers give the racist equal standing in the court of opinion?
This is how I came to my answer that we are mutually influenced by the attitudes and values of our communities. The newspaper that is candidly written from the viewpoint of the home folks finds nothing wrong in sports coverage that is candidly partisan for the home team. But when the teams in contention are from the same community, the coverage suddenly turns “neutral.” Why? Because the community is divided. We covered World War II from the partisan viewpoint of the Allies. Not so, by and large, the war in Vietnam. We did not, on a large scale, question or ignite debate on the crossing of the 38th Parallel in Korea in 1950, but we did examine and feed controversy on the bombing across the 17th Parallel in Vietnam. Not because we alone decided that one war was more clearly just than another, or one frontier more inviolate than another, but because the communities to which we reported were divided on the issue of Vietnam in sufficient degree to alter our perspective.
If I am right, then the interconnection is quite different from the one Mr. Moynihan suggests. A President does not enhance his power to govern by converting a few reporters or selling them on his point of view. He will more likely gain the trust—if not always the active support—of the press by gaining the trust and confidence of the community.
Point three is that we are “fairly continuously” involved in the receipt of information passed to us by disloyal bureaucrats. Mr. Moynihan terms this as something “less than honorable” on our part, though he implies that receiving special information from bureaucrats who are “loyal” is okay. He says no one knows much about the process of “leaking” and that it has not been “studied.”
Well, I know a great deal about it. The first thing that needs to be said is that the deliberate disclosure of information for the purpose of injuring the President is relatively rare. But what is rarer still is that such information finds its way into print without “the other side,” whatever that may be in our judgment, being questioned about the matter and given a chance to discuss the deeper issues and even the motives of those who may have done the leaking. The great majority of deliberate “leaks” are not secret documents and papers, but guarded suggestions that a reporter look into a matter that he might otherwise neglect. More often than not, he is not even told what he will find.
And the absolute majority of unwanted “leaks” are not deliberate at all. They result from a diligent study of public papers and diligent inquiry among dozens of officials, with reporters carefully playing one set of clues against another, until they find a part of what they seek. Most of these officials make themselves available not because they wish to abet the effort but because over time they have found their accessibility to be desirable for loyal purposes. It is true that in this process, when reporters have some interesting facts, but by no means all the facts, and find themselves shut out by government, they will then publish what they know for the purpose of lighting a fire that will smoke out a good deal more. For even when a first, unwanted story is incomplete or superficial, if it touches on an important subject, it will almost always arouse the attention and curiosity of other reporters who will, together, move it much closer to the essence of the tale.
Yet even if deliberate “leaking” were as harmful as Mr. Moynihan suggests, is it his contention that the press should ignore such information and pretend it was never received? That would be an interesting discussion indeed.
Point four deals with the “rub” that he finds adhering to our concept of objectivity. It comes, he observes, “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.” (I note that television has been allowed back into the defendant’s box.)
It is not the experience with Joe McCarthy that should be used to instruct us on this point. We were deficient in treating him—in part because we reflected and responded to the deficiency and gullibility of our communities—but as long as men who remember that experience are alive, we will probably apply the lessons learned.
The difficulty comes in the way in which Mr. Moynihan states the problem: “simply a happening, a non-event staged for the purpose of getting into the papers.” A quarter of a million persons marching on the White House? A series of “teach-ins”? An agitator yelling “burn”? A Vice President attacking the papers (and the screen)? Lee Harvey Oswald? The quest for recognition, to be heard, to be noticed, to be heeded—it often takes the form of a happening staged for the purpose of getting into the papers, but it is rarely “simply” that in either motivation or consequence.
The problem for thoughtful journalism is that we can never be sure about motivation and we certainly cannot know consequence. And in some small measure, at least, we know that we contribute to consequence. These are horrendous problems and we lose sleep over them, but they are not solved by the automatic assumption in our editorial suites of the absolute power to decide that Moynihan deserves to be heard, and another man does not. And has he thought about the agitator who may be encouraged in his extremism because he finds it to be “newsworthy”? What would he do to project his cause and gain attention for himself if he were shut out of the news? Burn, perhaps, instead of only shouting “burn”?
Point five raises the “absence of a professional tradition of self-correction.” In one sense, of course, we correct ourselves every morning, a requirement and an opportunity that most other institutions, including the Presidency, lack.
Mr. Moynihan’s evidence does not make this point very well, but there is need, in another sense, for more correction or expansion and amendment of what we report. Persons who figure in our news coverage do occasionally need more space to explain their points of view or involvement in affairs than is provided in existing columns for guest-writers and Letters to the Editor. And clearly the need is greater in some papers than others. But as I suggested earlier, such opportunity for correction is rarely denied to the White House. Men of power—or presumed power—are able to make their views known, almost by definition. It is ordinary citizens, sometimes, of late, including the editors of the Eastern press, who require an outlet.
If our Presidents are seriously concerned about “protracted conflict” with a large enough segment of our population and genuinely believe, with Mr. Moynihan, that they are steadily losing that conflict, they had better look well beyond the bearers of the bad news and certainly well beyond the morning paper. They might even look in a mirror.
The New York Times
To the Editor:
. . . It is Daniel P. Moynihan’s contention that the press—and he is chiefly concerned with the Washington correspondents—has in our time developed what he chooses to call an “almost feckless hostility to power”—power as personified by the President and the President’s men. . . . He traces that hostility back to the turn-of-the-century muckraking tradition, which concerned itself primarily with the derelictions of municipal government. The muckrakers, distinctly middle or upper-middle class in origin, made millions aware of the “Shame of the Cities,” in Lincoln Steffens’s phrase. . . . It is Mr. Moynihan’s contention that the culture of disparagement, directed against Tammany Hall or Standard Oil some seventy years ago, has in our own time been turned against the national government, above all the Presidency, by a no-less-elitist group of Washington correspondents. Mr. Moynihan makes much of the unquestioned fact that more and more Washington correspondents, the men through whom the American people get their impression of what the government is up to, are graduates of prestigious universities, liberal for the most part, affluent to a degree—in short, an enduring social elite. Presidents come and go. Parties lose or gain power. But in Mr. Moynihan’s view the Washington press is eternal—enjoying “all the accoutrements one associates with a leisured class.” Now it would be easy but (as Richard Nixon himself might say) a cheap shot to suggest that Mr. Moynihan may have spent too many evenings in the Georgetown establishment of particular correspondents—say Joe Alsop, who happens not to be renowned in Washington for his hostility to Presidential power. But let us move on to Mr. Moynihan’s more penetrating social comments. There can be no doubt that Washington correspondents today are better educated and better paid than a generation ago. It is a change that I would have expected Mr. Moynihan to welcome. Instead he complains that “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.”
Now that seems to me a somewhat questionable generalization, worthy of Mr. Agnew himself. Is Mr. Moynihan, now again a member of the Harvard faculty, trying to tell us that an Ivy League education, accompanied by upward social mobility, necessarily conditions a young journalist to adopt attitudes hostile to American society? If so, I would ask him to reconsider the logic of that proposition.
We come now to proposition two: Certain liberal Americans, many of whom read the New York Times and the Washington Post, have an inflated notion of Presidential omnipotence. They are said to believe in what Thomas E. Cronin has described as a “textbook President” whose power to control events, as we all know, is easily exaggerated. Thus the Times and the Post, together with their liberal, Eastern-seaboard readers, 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, because no real President can ever live up to the textbook model. I find it curious that a scholar of Mr. Moynihan’s standing should try to persuade us that two newspapers in particular—the same two incidentally that Mr. Agnew has taken as his targets—are uniquely or primarily responsible for the great expectations that the American people repose in their President and the sorry disenchantments that too often follow.
Mr. Moynihan’s third proposition is that the press gets too much of its information through clandestine methods out of bureaucrats who, according to him, are frequently and in some cases routinely antagonistic to Presidential interests. He gets quite worked up over such disloyalty to the President on the part of civil servants. . . .
Let me grant that I have known my share of self-serving bureaucrats. Yet I would ask Mr. Moynihan in turn to grant me that opposition to specific policies or actions of a President, any President, is not by definition shameful or disloyal. He has served under the last three Presidents. Is he absolutely certain that in every case the President was motivated only by a higher sense of service to the nation and humanity at large? Has he never met a self-serving President? Not even in an election year? Clearly Mr. Moynihan is a believer—a true believer—in Presidential power. He seems to make no allowance whatever for the possibility that a President may sometimes be wrong and a civil servant sometimes right. . . .
It is conceivable that more reporters would content themselves with the output of government information officers (instead of seeking out congenial, policy-level officials), if those officers were themselves better informed or more informative. Unhappily, it has been my experience that far too often government information officers are under instructions to conceal, to shade the truth, sometimes to lie outright. They do this not because they are evil men but because their principals want it that way; and the first of those principals is the President. So I would suggest to Mr. Moynihan that if he wants to cut down the traffic in stolen goods, as he chooses to call it, let him try to persuade the next President he works for to upgrade the whole business of public information. . . .
Mr. Moynihan seems to me on more solid ground in his fourth and fifth propositions. I readily concede that far too often what passes in the American press for objective reporting amounts to printing or broadcasting perfectly preposterous statements, some of them downright scurrilous, because a particular public man or public group has said them; all this without examining too closely into the truth of what is said. This seems to me just as reprehensible whether the public man happens to be the late Senator Joe McCarthy . . . or the San Francisco lawyer representing the Black Panthers, whose unverified charge that twenty-eight Panthers had been murdered, in a conspiracy between the Justice Department and local police across the country, was published time and again as if it were hard fact by major and minor news media. They went on publishing it, I might add, until Edward Jay Epstein looked into the facts for himself and exploded the myth in the New Yorker. Nor was the mistake corrected in most publications I have read, even after the Epstein piece appeared. Which goes to bear out Mr. Moynihan’s fifth point: that the press, if it wants to be taken seriously as a profession, must learn to acknowledge its mistakes. . . . The effect would be to increase, rather than diminish, respect for the press.
I could enumerate other sins of the news media, producing perhaps a longer list than Mr. Moynihan, but the main question that must be faced is: To what extent have modern Presidents contributed by word and deed to the very lack of confidence in Presidential power so understandably deplored by Mr. Moynihan? He acknowledges that the immediate answer may be Vietnam. Fair enough. And that, I would submit, is a matter of greater moment than the life styles of Washington correspondents or the self-seeking of minor bureaucrats. It is possible to trace back the widening distrust of Presidential power to the U-2 affair in 1960, when President Eisenhower, on the eve of a summit conference, was caught in a clumsy lie to the effect that it was just a weather plane on a routine mission that had somehow strayed over Soviet territory through a navigational error. Senator Fulbright, speaking at Yale a few months ago, dated the erosion of public confidence all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt’s destroyers-for-bases deal with Britain in 1940. It continued—Fulbright contends—through Harry Truman’s intervention in Korea and finally crumbled during Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of an undeclared, unwanted, seemingly endless war in Vietnam.
A President who acts without explicit Congressional consultation or approval does so on the ground that the situation is so dangerous, so very urgent, that he cannot take the time to comply with established constitutional practices. The truth inevitably suffers in situations of this sort. A President who feels that he cannot afford to be candid with the Congress is not likely to share his thoughts with the people through the press. Moreover, he is powerfully tempted—and sometimes succumbs to that temptation—to use his enormous personal leverage with publishers or network presidents in order to protect the official secret. John F. Kennedy, for one, came to believe after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs that the publisher of the New York Times would have performed an enormous national service by printing everything the Times knew about the preparations for that fiasco, which was considerable. Had the Times stuck to its guns, in effect telling the President to mind his own business, as Kennedy said later, it would have spared him and the American people an enormous humiliation. . . .
What I am trying to suggest, of course, is that recent Presidents have in a sense themselves created and nurtured that hostility to power which Mr. Moynihan discerns by behaving as if every unpleasant situation round the world, no matter how small, remote, or marginal, were Armageddon. I am thoroughly familiar with the argument that in certain limited situations—the big nuclear war that we have been wise or lucky enough to deter for all these years—there might well be no time for consultation. But the wars we have fought since 1945 were conventional wars, in which the argument for instantaneous decision-making seemed to me less than compelling.
The kinds of nasty situations we have been sucked into till now—and could be again in the 70’s—did not in fact entail that cataclysmic confrontation with Soviet power against which we have been arming for the past twenty years and more. Surely the time is long past due for a return to constitutional processes. I can think of no single step better calculated to repair and restore Presidential authority.
Until that happy day, however, the press has no choice, it seems to me, but to show a decent skepticism with regard even to Presidential pronouncements. Let White House reporters, by all means, tell the country what the President has to say about Indochina, or the cost of living, or segregation in suburbia. But let them never confuse a Presidential statement with the whole truth. . . .
That decent skepticism I call for may not please the President, the Vice President, or the men around them. But it is not now, and never has been, the proper role of the American press to clap hands for any President or party.
Graduate School of Journalism
New York City
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan proves that the bureaucracy is disloyal to the President simply by asserting that this is the case. As an elderly former bureaucrat with some thirty-one years of federal service, and as the former Executive Director of the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, I would suggest that Mr. Moynihan suffers from the syndrome of the district attorney who sees only the scruffy side of life and comes to believe that all of life is that way. What we have, of course, is occasional disloyalty to the President. Mr. Moynihan describes the condition, which does exist, but he does not see that it exists infrequently, and he therefore libels a much-abused and, on the whole, loyal and useful group of people.
The real difficulty is that no administration in my memory has known how to motivate the bureaucracy. Nor have they tried. Each administration, reinforced by the prejudices of people like Mr. Moynihan on the Left as well as many others on the Right, approaches the bureaucrat gingerly and with suspicion. In point of fact, the vast majority of bureaucrats are anxious to be loyally involved in policy-making and policy-implementing, and would give liberally and freely of their talents if they had an opportunity to do so.
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan . . . states that such “annual theatricals” as those put on by the Legislative Correspondents in Albany and the Gridiron in Washington are, to his knowledge, unknown anywhere else in the world. . . . But they are not in fact peculiar to the United States.
In Ottawa, the Parliamentary Press Gallery puts on each year (and has been doing so apparently since about 1867) a presentation markedly similar to that of the Gridiron, not quite so glossy perhaps, but in its own way no less authentic. At Queen’s Park in Toronto, the seat of the Ontario government, the press mounts annually a presentation in the same spirited genre.
It may be a North American phenomenon.
To the Editor:
. . . Contrary to the image of infallibility and moral unimpeachability spokesmen for the print and broadcast journalists attempt to project . . . whenever they smell a breath of criticism, newspaper, television, and radio editors, reporters, and commentators are no more highly motivated than the members of any other profession. They are possessed of the same qualities, high or low, as run-of-the-mill humans in other pursuits. And unlike those in many other professions from plumbing to politicking, the journalist needs no license, takes no “oath of office” before foisting himself upon an unsuspecting public innocently conditioned, too often, to regard him as a paragon of sorts. His college major or graduate degree in journalism, if he has one, is no assurance of excellence or honesty in practice, as recruiters for major media have learned after years of scouring the campuses for talent. . . .
H. T. Rowe
Ridgewood, New Jersey
To the Editor:
The ominous implications of Daniel P. Moynihan’s broadside and his anti-press remarks give scholastic weight but not merit to the Agnew-type distrust of journalism that is all too rampant in this country.
I take issue with his comment that the new breed, if indeed there be one, of journalists represents in its work “attitudes genuinely hostile to American society and American government.” There are some segments of American society that welcome informed skepticism and an enlightened outlook in the press.
If it were not for enterprising journalists, new breed or old, such pretty occurrences as My Lai would not have come to light. . . .
Joann C. Cazden
To the Editor:
As a member of the “Liberal Audience”—Jewish, college professor, forty-years-old—I must say “Amen, Amen” to Daniel P. Moynihan’s article.
There is, however, one glaring omission and that is the consequences, if the news media—press, radio, and television—fail to put their house in order. Although the liberal press doesn’t like to think of the consequences of its own failings, some future governmental actions might be:
- Government-sponsored newspapers for internal and external dissemination of facts, positions, and propaganda. My recollection is that the Nixon administration has already begun this internal news coverage and may expand the distribution of its “newspaper.”
- Development and growth of “semi-official” newspapers which will receive preferential treatment of government news material.
- Government-sponsored radio and television stations and networks similar to the British system.
- Federal Trade Commission anti-trust suits against the news media requiring divestiture of newspaper ownership of radio and television stations or newspaper chains.
- Denial of relicensing privileges for radio and television stations by the Federal Communications Commission, thereby permitting new competition to enter the news field in local areas. . . .
A credibility gap already exists between the public and the news media, and when it widens, it may never be bridged. . . .
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan, for reasons of his own, does not seem to differentiate daily reportage from feature stories and editorials or magazine articles. The latter often require extensive research and are written anywhere from several days to several weeks before they are printed (even months in the case of magazines), while the usual newspaper headline story frequently is written in a race against time to meet a deadline. Inaccuracies and distortions—through cutting and editing and printing errors—can be maddening to the journalist, as I can attest by my own experience. . . .
It is an amazing coincidence that though Mr. Moynihan has left the Nixon administration, his attack on journalists and newspapers—specifically the New York Times—should have come at exactly the same time as Mr. Agnew’s remarkable speech in Boston against the news media and especially against CBS. . . .
Considering Mr. Moynihan’s experience with the press, it seems hard to believe that he has not yet understood that the basic goal of newspapers in the United States is to capture the reader with sensational headlines. News is what is different and exciting, and the larger the headline, the more extraordinary the news, the more papers will be sold. Instead of “muckraking,” as Mr. Moynihan calls it, would he have journalists write only about what is good news? Does he think, like Mr. Nixon, that just saying the economy is fine will make it so? . . .
One reason for the present disillusionment is . . . that many people today are much better informed than ever before and they cannot be fooled all of the time. . . .
What Mr. Moynihan deplores, I applaud: that there are young people around who spend the time to learn the truth about politics and politicians and about the system and the methods employed to “get ahead” in the U.S., especially in politics and in the world dominated by the U.S. . . .
There are very few people indeed who will pay any attention to the kind of percentages with which Mr. Moynihan finds such fault. I should be amazed that any of the figures quoted and disputed by Mr. Moynihan are at all meaningful except to a handful of experts. Not that, as a journalist, I should want to stand accused of defending sloppy research or misquotations. However, I would say that by and large, and judging from first-hand experience, the impressions conveyed by the reportage which Mr. Moynihan criticizes . . . are, unfortunately, largely correct. . . .
I don’t think it necessary to rebuke the New York Times or any other major city newspaper for printing these facts (even if they are marred at times by incorrect details): that the Nixon administration has caused a major setback to civil rights, to all blacks in particular, in every area but specifically in employment. . . . And this is the key to Mr. Moynihan’s argument and the key to the credibility gap of the Nixon administration—that it is failing to support civil rights with the necessary conviction and commitment . . . not only in the name of the blacks and minorities, but in the name of decency of all the American people. . . .
Fran P. Hosken
To the Editor:
Despite nearly two hundred years of contrary evidence, topped by two decades of further enhancement of Presidential power, Daniel P. Moynihan is attempting to propagate the novel notion that the press is now mightier than the President and that this is bad for democracy.
The dangers of Presidential news management have been “exaggerated,” says Mr. Moynihan. The techniques, the media, and the Presidency itself have changed over nearly two centuries, but Presidential attempts to “manage” the news—to restrict it, to distort it, to interpret it, to leak it, to delay or expedite it, to suppress it, and to punish or reward its purveyors—have not varied. Press fears of government control have been well grounded.
Conceding that the cold war and Vietnam “entailed a massive deception of the American people by their government,” Mr. Moynihan blithely implies that Presidential involvement in undeclared wars and lies about the war are essential to “responsible” American democracy, while press exposure of the lies is evil. The possibility of Presidential error—in unrestricted bombing, in the Tonkin Gulf confusion, in the invasion of Cambodia and Laos—is not even considered.
To avoid dealing with the “charge” that the Nixon administration’s news-management attempts have surpassed tolerable limits, Mr. Moynihan contends that the issue is not “the reputation of a particular President,” but “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.”
How convenient to have what is at stake defined for the press and the public “by the Presidents themselves.” One need not examine the news-management attempts of a particular President; one must only look at the struggle of all Presidents to get an occasional word in the press!
Even on the higher ground he has thus chosen to defend, Presidential government, Mr. Moynihan is, nevertheless, shaky.
Attempting to show that the press is ascendant over the President, Mr. Moynihan contends that the modern President is frequently disabled from acting because Washington reporters write news “leaked” from federal bureaucrats “antagonistic to Presidential interest.” He is wrong on several counts.
As a federal bureaucrat for the past decade, my experience is that the Washington press depends too heavily on official press releases, briefings, and deliberate “leaks” from the administration in power and seldom seeks out sub-surface news. The occasional unauthorized “leak” drops gently in the bucket of administration snake-oil. The system rewards bureaucrats who “don’t rock the boat,” not the rare maverick who “blows the whistle” on illegal or unwise administration actions or proposals.
Moreover, “leaks,” as Mr. Moynihan concedes, are primarily of interest to a few national newspapers, not to the 30-second TV newscast. In the past decade, TV has become the primary means of political communication in America. This has increased, not diluted, Presidential dominance.
Minimizing not onl