The Imperial Media
You can tell Superman is Superman in lots of ways. He can fly. He has X-ray vision. He can stop a bullet in mid-flight. But perhaps the most singular of his qualities is the ability to do the transformation trick. He can change identities without paying a price. One minute he’s Clark Kent, a reporter mild as Perry Como. The next he’s Woody Hayes, slugging all the bad guys on the field. But he moves smoothly between the two roles. He doesn’t get found out. He doesn’t make people mad at him for being duplicitous. And, above all, he isn’t schizophrenic; he isn’t full of unavowed self-doubt.
Those things don’t happen in the real world, and that fact says perhaps the most interesting thing there is to say about the imperial media. In the past two decades, those of us in the press and television have undergone a startling transformation. We have been among the principal beneficiaries of American life. We have enjoyed a huge rise in income, in status, and in power. In the process we have edged away from roles and standards hallowed by tradition. We no longer represent a wide diversity of views. We have ceased to be neutral in reporting events. We have moved from the sidelines to a place at the center of the action. Inevitably we have become subjects of hot controversy among ordinary people, political leaders, and even in the courts. Inevitably also we have experienced a tension between what we are supposed to do and what we actually do—between myth and reality. This inner tension finds relief in a self-serving creed or ideology—the ideology of the First Amendment. And that ideology implicitly stakes the imperial claim—the claim that what is good for the media is good for America.
Before going any further, a word of definition is in order. By the term media I mean something fairly precise. I am not talking about local papers or radio stations. I am talking about the relative handful of national news enterprises—the three networks; the news magazines; and the one or two leading regional papers which most of us read.
I also want to say a word about my own relation to journalism. It is a profession—and I use that word advisedly and in contrast to such other possibilities as craft, trade, or calling—which I cherish. It has been generous to me and given me cause for gratitude. I admire and like most of the people in the business. In the next few pages I am going to be fingering the weaknesses, pretensions, follies, biases, and insensitivities of my profession. I will dwell extensively on its occupational deformations. Sometimes I will cite myself as an example, sometimes other people. But I should say at the outset that when it comes to apportioning blame, I have no illusions of immunity. To the charges I am going to be leveling, I want to enter a plea of guilty.
Now to the recent change in our status. Let me first point to the scene of a play about the newspaper business, The Front Page, written almost exactly fifty years ago. The setting is the press room in the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. Here are a couple of the details:
It is a bare, disordered room, peopled by newspapermen in need of shaves, pants pressing, and small change. Hither reporters are drawn by an irresistible lure, the privilege of telephoning free. . . . An equally important lure is the continuous poker game that has been going on for a generation, presumably with the same pack of cards. Here is the rendezvous of some of the most able and amiable bums in the newspaper business; here they meet to gossip, play cards, sleep off jags, and date up waitresses between such murders, fires, riots, and other public events that concern them. It is little wonder that Hildy Johnson [the hero of The Front Page] refers to his fellow journalists as a cross between a bootlegger and a whore.
In contrast, let me cite the lines from the final broadcast given by Eric Sevareid after nearly forty years as a radio and television commentator for CBS. Sevareid said:
We are not the worst people in the land, we who work as journalists. Our product in print or over the air is a lot better, more educated, more responsible than it was when I began some forty-five years ago as a cub reporter. This has been the best generation of all in which to have lived as a journalist in this country. We are no longer starvelings and we sit above the salt. We have affected our times.
Those two citations express to me a neglected, but I think centrally important feature coloring the lives of those of us who work in the media. We have not merely been unpwardly mobile, as the cant phrase goes. We have been shot from cannons. We have advanced almost overnight from the bottom to the top; from the scum of the earth described by Hildy Johnson to the seats of the high and mighty. We have become a kind of lumpen aristocracy in American society, affiliated, as priests at least, with the celebrity culture.
The rise in the status of journalists finds many, many causes. Probably the most important is the change in the character of the news. The reporters in The Front Page were preoccupied by local events which they could feel and smell and see—fires, murders, riots. The real, live journalists of that day—the H. L. Menckens and Ben Hechts—could walk into police headquarters and sniff around and get a feel for what was actually happening in Baltimore or Chicago. But that is clearly not the kind of event which preoccupies the national media today. Whatever else we do, we rarely deal with village affairs. We write and speak of far-off places—Iran, Poland, Namibia. We deal with huge aggregates—budgets in the billions; work forces in the millions. Finally, we deal with intrinsically difficult matters—the calculus of deterrence and the anti-ballistic missile, for example; or the full-employment budget; or parity prices in agriculture; or monetary aggregates, and their impact on mortgage rates.
Given this kind of work, journalists these days have to be well-educated. And so, increasingly, they are. Probably the most striking evidence of the change lies with the specialists. At the Supreme Court on any decision day, among the best-informed people in the place are the reporters who regularly cover the court. The last time I checked, twelve of the fifteen were lawyers. The same pattern applies in virtually every other distinctive area of reportorial work. In foreign policy, there are specialists in Africa, Europe, China, the Soviet Union, defense—even India. Every major newspaper, and each network, has specially trained people who cover the economy. Among the political reporters there are White House watchers, and congressional experts, and even people who follow—as though it were the stock of IBM—the ups and downs of the Senate Finance Committee.
Moreover, the specialists are only refined versions of the generalists. Managing editors, with a certain gruffness that hangs over from the Hildy Johnson era, like to say that they want good, solid reporters, trained in police work, whom they can assign to any beat. Maybe so. But it turns out that the general-assignment reporter covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development has to learn about inner cities and red-lining and mortgage rates. The general-assignment reporter covering the Department of Interior has to learn about wilderness policies, and the bureaucratic rivalry between the Corps of Engineers and the Council of Environmental Quality, and the interplay with Congress and private interests. The general-assignment reporter covering the Department of Health and Human Services has to learn about drugs and doctors and the containment of hospital costs—every one of them a complicated subject. No doubt it helps in trying to understand such matters to be savvy and shrewd. But you have to be more than that. You have to learn to think in abstractions; you ought, if you’re going to be any good, to learn to think in terms of trade-offs—to see things not only now but whole; to look at not just parts but at systems. You have to be, in an apprentice way at least, a kind of intellectual.
The condition is now well-recognized. The publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Otis Chandler, made the point in a lecture series at the University of Maryland not long ago. “It was not too many years ago,” he said,
that most reporters came from ordinary, working-class homes, and reflected pretty much the values and prejudices of the mass market. Today, because of the increasing sophistication of the average newspaper reader, because of the trend toward specialized reporting, we are hiring, as many other newspapers are, many reporters from the upper and middle classes, men and women who in general are better educated, are more sophisticated, and are certainly paid more than most of our general citizens.
The same note has been struck, in a slightly more apprehensive way, by Lou Cannon of the Washington Post. In his recent book, Reporting, Cannon writes:
As reporters climb up the income scale, their social values also change. Reporters who a few years ago were preoccupied by the basic economic issues of life are now more likely to be aroused by energy or environmental issues, or, for a long decade, the Vietnam war. . . . The gulf is growing between reporters and working-class Americans. . . . This is particularly likely to be true on the big national newspapers and television networks where reporters, correspondents, and editors are apt to be in the upper 10 percent of national-income levels.
Cannon quotes a colleague on the Post, David Broder, to this effect: “Reporters are by no means any kind of a cross-section. We are overeducated, we are overpaid in terms of the median, and we have a higher socioeconomic stratification than the people for whom we are writing.”
It is a mark of how far the upgrading process has proceeded that the change in status and outlook can now be described almost as a matter of course. That was not the case when the point was made by one of the most perceptive of our social critics, Daniel P. Moynihan, back in 1971. Bombs of controversy exploded all around him when Moynihan, writing in COMMENTARY (“The Presidency and the Press,” March 1971), observed:
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 are now, 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 the leisured class.
Moynihan’s reference to the appeal of the media for new entrants leads me into a second cause of the sudden rise in the social status of journalists. There is a different process of self-selection at the start.
For most of us who entered journalism some thirty years ago, the choice flowed from two kinds of disabilities. First of all, we were not good enough to be creative writers, poets or novelists. Secondly, we didn’t feel that we could succeed in the world of what was then known as the gray-flannel suit—the world of the Organization Man, the world of corporations and lawyers. So we chose an in-between position. We became journalists. Being a newsman had a certain raffish quality. But nobody could have been attracted by the thought of becoming rich, or important, or powerful. Fame was not the spur.
It is now. The new entrants have their eye on a target and they are frankly ambitious. For example, Dan Rather in his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, ascribes considerable influence for his career choice to a college journalism teacher. “You can do it, Dan,” the teacher would say to him, according to Rather. “You can go all the way.” Bob Woodward (of Woodward and Bernstein) acknowledges that “I liked the upward mobility. It was easy to get to the top, or easier than the law.” Richard Reeves, a former political reporter for the New York Times, who became a magazine writer, gives this account of his career choice: “Most of us are terribly curious introverts and we need the institutional cloak. I could go to a party and never say a word to anyone—I don’t know how to begin a conversation. But if I say, ‘Excuse me, I’m Dick Reeves of the Times,’ that breaks the ice for me and I can deal with the situation.”
Not that ambition always takes the When-E.-F.-Hutton-Speaks-Everybody-Listens form. There is also, and it is important for young journalists, what Saul Bellow once called moral ambition—the urge to make people better than they are. Robert L. Bartley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, has written that most of the younger people coming into journalism are more interested in the larger society and not so much in personal life. He calls them an “idealistic elite.” As evidence he cites a study of high-school graduates who go into journalism by Penn Kimball and Samuel Lubell published in the Journalism Quarterly in 1960. The study found that “a high-school student’s point of view toward the idealistic possibilities of journalism is directly related to his decision to choose it as a career. An intense sense of usefulness about journalism was accompanied by extremely high regard for it as interesting work.” Or as Julius Duscha, a former reporter who is now director of the Washington Journalism Center, once put it: “Reporters are frustrated reformers. . . . They look upon themselves almost with reverence, like they are protecting the world against the forces of evil.”
In the same sentence in which he remarked that reporters are frustrated reformers, Duscha observed that television news people were frustrated actors. I cite that comment because it identifies a force even more powerful than moral ambition that attracts new entrants to the television end of the news business. I refer to the celebrity cult.
Many potent factors cause television news to develop celebrities. Television requires elaborate technical preparation—the dispatch of crews and cameras and reporters, the erection of equipment in proper settings, the transmission of the voice and film footage. As a result, the three networks tend to cover pretty much the same events. A basically similar commodity, moreover, is being purveyed to truly mass audiences. Millions and millions of people, far more than the audience for any newspaper or magazine, watch television news. The sums of money involved are huge and quickly made. Fortunes turn on a difference of a point or two in the ratings. Competition between the networks, accordingly, is extremely keen, and the most obvious way one network establishes its qualities over another in the news field is through the medium of personality. The reporter and the anchor man necessarily become familiar public figures—recognizable to most of the country; built up through organized publicity; subjected to constant comparative tests of box-office appeal. They are, in a word, celebrities, and I think it is an intrinsic feature of television, a normal ingredient of the business, that it has imparted to the enterprise of gathering and dispensing news a celebrity quality.
Perhaps the most unself-conscious evidence comes from a book called A ir Time, by Gary Paul Gates, which purports to be an insiders’ history of CBS News. Here are a couple of random citations.
Of Charles Collingwood, Gates writes: “Collingwood was the biggest name at CBS News. . . . He decided he would rather remain a semi-star for a first-class network than become the headliner at an inferior one.”
Of Walter Cronkite at one of the political conventions, Gates writes: “CBS not only won a victory in the ratings, but it suddenly had in Walter Cronkite a new star.”
Of Huntley and Brinkley, Gates writes: “NBC had two new stars.”
Of Harry Reasoner, Gates writes: “The star system which had become such an integral part of TV journalism all but demanded his presence. . . .”
Of Dan Rather, Gates writes: “Through his aggressive coverage of the Nixon White House, he had become a star.”
Of Roger Mudd, Gates writes: “God forbid that Roger Mudd should catch a cold. He had become a star.”
In The Camera Never Blinks, Dan Rather fusses and worries a lot about the star system and celebrityism coming to dominate news. He raises the prospect that some day Paul Newman might decide to become a newscaster. He evokes the danger of would-be actors going for jobs as anchor men. He says the trouble is real, not imaginary. And he cites a true case. The case he mentions is that of a television celebrity who fostered an auction among the networks and finally signed up for a fabulous sum with the highest bidder. He says that that auction “brought into question again the newsman as a celebrity. After all, no one is paid a million dollars just to do the evening news.” He says that because of the auction, “the temptation will be stronger now to hire someone else’s talent. It is more food for the star system, the feeling that what counts is the name on the marquee, not the integrity of your news.”
Now the person Rather has in mind, the person who precipitated the auction and signed up for a million, is Barbara Walters. And of course Mr. Rather is just off-loading his problems—and the problems of many others—on Miss Walters. The fact is that the star system is a dominant feature of television news, and nobody knows it better than Dan Rather. For the tables were turned on him, in a rare case of poetic justice, when he was designated to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchor man for the CBS News. At that time, the loser in the contest, Roger Mudd, observed: “CBS has made its decision according to its current values and standards. From the beginning I’ve regarded myself as a news reporter and not as a newsmaker or celebrity.”
A relative decline in competing professions makes the surge in journalistic status look all the more pronounced. During the past twenty years most of the intermediate groupings in American society—groups which interpose themselves between government, on the one hand, and the unorganized people, on the other—have lost status. Churchmen may be important on specialized issues, but they have ceased to give general tone to American opinion. Labor, which gave the country so much of the New Deal, is no longer a source of light on intellectual problems, and has even, witness the rise of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, lost the power of veto within the Democratic party. Business, which used to buy up parts of government, was made to pay through the nose in the Watergate scandal. Instead of well-known tycoons, today’s business leaders are, in David Riesman’s phrase, “a bunch of people who went to Purdue.”
Within government itself, there has taken place the same falling off. Everybody knows that the political parties aren’t what they used to be—even in Cook County. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter all testify to the declining power and prestige of the Presidency. Nor can it be said that the Congress has taken up the slack. Giants do not stalk the hallways of the House and Senate.
If most of the best-known ingredients of the national power structure have been losing authority, there is one element—one much-imagined component—which I think has never acquired strength, never indeed come into being. For most of American history there has existed the quaint conceit that this country has an establishment or elite. But that view resists serious analysis.
Social power may still reside, in the older cities, in a group of Protestant families who came on the scene early, and developed certain tony schools and clubs. But economic power is dispersed, and intellectual power even more so. We have no grandes ècoles, as in France, where persons of high talent are amalgamated with the aristocracy. There is no House of Lords, as in Britain, where persons who have made it can take their ease while deliberating about the nation and enjoying a sure measure of respect.
The absence of an absorptive national establishment explains something that is almost unique to this country—the celebrity class. Celebrities are in our country the functional equivalent of dukes and earls in Europe. They bring glamor and excitement, and gossip and some hope even, into otherwise drab lives. But if celebrities play an important part in American culture, it is not an assured part. The cast keeps changing all the time. Today’s star is tomorrow’s has-been. So the atmosphere is full of furious rivalries. Moreover, the plight of the castoffs is cruel. To go from the glare of publicity to the edge of oblivion is a harsh fate. Those on the edge not only cling to their positions with furious tenacity, they harbor a deep and obscure resentment—a pervasive hostility toward a system that does not have a capacity for putting those who succeed at ease, that makes life so jumpy and edgy.
That last point brings me full circle. I have tried to show that those of us in the media enjoyed an enormous surge in status and power in recent years. That surge coincided with the decline of various other groups, to the point where, we could almost perceive ourselves as the only institutional force left on a well-nigh devastated plain. But while we have acquired confidence and self-assertiveness, there is no security. We are driven to keep moving forward, and in an adversary way. We are thus highly prone to that disease of the times—narcissism. The narcissism of the journalist, of course, is not mere conceit. It consists in the belief that because we describe events, we make them happen.
More than a hundred years ago, Sir Robert Morier, writing to Lord Russell, referred to public opinion as the unknown god to whom we all burn incense. Matters have not changed much since then despite the development of new sciences and sophisticated techniques for figuring out what people think and why. The pollsters and psychologists can measure how many persons favor candidate X or Y, or even policy A or B. But what they can count they cannot weigh. Intensity of feeling defies precise measurement. But it makes all the difference. That is why, to the surprise of many, minorities with firm views so often prevail over majorities with loosely held views. That is also why violent swings of opinion take place under the force of events—often with election results unforeseen by even the cleverest pollster. Nor have we learned how to present people, or even samples of people, with true choices. The extensive sounding of opinion throughout the Vietnam war yielded the information that most Americans wanted the United States to get out of the war. It also showed that most Americans did not want the United States to lose the war. But there was no way to get out without losing, and so far as I know, there was never a decisive determinant of the preferred alternative.
Even more obscure is the relation between the media and public opinion. The press and television pack a punch when it comes to raising topics beyond the immediate range of ordinary people. Distant externals—events in China or Namibia-are our meat, and we can shape the loosely held views people may, as a kind of luxury, hold on such matters. But when it comes to what counts, to events that require paying or bleeding, people form views out of their own experience. These views tend to be deeply held. They are virtually immune to press and television. Indeed the media, as commercial enterprises, generally align themselves with the majority view. It becomes impossible to tell the echo from the voice.
But if public opinion remains an unknown god, and if we should be cautious about imputing decisive influence to such trivial experiences as reading papers or watching television, the power of the media is nevertheless real, and felt to be real by many people in many ways. Paul Weaver has shown that the news is a form of discourse, an alignment of orders of magnitude, first in a paper, then on a page, then within a story, that tends to present a moralistic picture of good guys versus bad guys. Irving Kristol has drawn attention to the original connection of the press, and by extension, television, with the pervasive populist opposition to the powers that be. Edward Jay Epstein, by applying organizational theory to television, has demonstrated how much the news shows tend to be tilted toward what happens in certain big cities—notably New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He has also revealed the drive to organize news events on television as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—not to mention a conflict, an encounter, and an outcome—usually between good guys and bad guys. Leon Sigal has applied Richard Neustadt’s theory of bureaucratic rivalry to the news-gathering operations of the New York Times and Washington Post to demonstrate—in ways anticipated, I think, by Douglass Cater and myself—how much those papers are parts of the “central nervous system” of the American government. Michael Schudson has investigated the voyeurs of society-private detectives and probation officers, as well as newsmen—and found that they tend to view their subjects from an elevated vantage point.
The sudden rise in status to the uneasy eminence of celebrity only fortifies that disposition. Insecure self-assertion combines with an immanent dislike of the system to foster a strong oppositional bias. The record shows that Moynihan was not wrong when he found that the media had been taken in tow by the “adversary culture.”
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the press and television became the principal vehicle for the protests of minority groups. First came the blacks. The protests in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Ole Miss engaged the intense interest of the media. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and Andrew Young became media heroes. The journalists who covered their protests—Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, Dan Rather of CBS, Claude Sitton of the New York Times— zoomed through the ranks to the top of the profession.
In sequential order, virtually every other militant protest group followed the same pattern. Students, women, consumers, Chicanos, the aged, American Indians, and the handicapped all developed techniques for attracting attention, chiefly through figures attractive to journalists who themselves rode the issue to fame and fortune. So too with Vietnam. Many of us who opposed the war early, indeed, I would say most of us, did so for the wrong reasons. I had been in Algeria and was convinced the Vietcong could not be beaten, or that if they were beaten, the result would be a political loss. Several others were piano-wire hawks. They thought the war was all right except that the U.S. should fight it by dirtier and more stealthy means. When they turned against the war, as witness chiefly the case of Daniel Ellsberg, they turned against American society as a whole. But right or wrong, most of us who opposed the war early made good names for ourselves, and acquired a weighty view of our influence on public opinion. The New York Times came to believe that by publishing the Pentagon Papers, it actually stopped the war—a dubious claim, since the war continued for four years thereafter, and the anti-war movement suffered a devastating loss of public support. A legend around CBS, equally implausible, it seems to me, is that President Johnson knew he was through when Walter Cronkite gave up on winning in Vietnam.
Watergate was next. The Washington Post was on to the President’s lies first, pursued the story most diligently, and rightly—I think—received most of the credit. But every other news organ of note surfaced with something. Time and the New York Times led the way on the wiretapping. Newsday broke new ground on the role of Bebe Rebozo. Newsweek had the John Dean story first. The Baltimore Sun led the way on irregularities in the IRS. The television networks, although they did not uncover much that was new, made the war between Nixon and the press a main event in every living room.
My guess is that the processes of justice would probably have achieved much of what happened anyway. Nobody could put the fix in at the lower levels of the FBI. Nobody could corrupt Judge Sirica. The staff and members of the Senate committee under Senators Ervin and Baker proved that although they could not catch a fly ball, they knew a presidential tape when it hit them in the face. The Supreme Court did its work, and the Judiciary Committee did its work. In the end the system triumphed, but it was the press that got most of the credit.
Since then there has been no holding us. The more august the person the hotter the chase. The more secret the agency the more undiscriminating the attack. The general assumption of most of my colleagues, and I do not suppose I am much of an exception, is that behind every story there is a secret, and that every secret is a dirty secret. As an example, let me cite the treatment given by the three networks to what should have been one of the straightest of news events—the national budget for fiscal 1980. All three networks cited President Carter’s description of the budget—“lean and austere.” But all three presented that view in terms which suggested it was so much malarkey. Here is the NBC account:
Good evening. . . .
The President sent Congress the first federal budget since Proposition 13 . . . the first since the public outcry against taxing and spending rattled the windows in government offices across the country.
Well, this new budget calls for more spending and higher taxes than the last one.
The President nevertheless calls it lean and austere—meaning that while the spending is higher it is not as much higher as it might have been.
Here is the ABC account:
In a maze of figures inside this book is the projected level of federal spending for the next year—$531.6 billion. That would leave the government $29 billion in the red, and would represent the nineteenth deficit in the last twenty years. Despite the fact money will be pouring out of the federal till at a record rate, the budget is austere. Spending will be a smaller percentage of the gross national product than in recent years.
Here is the CBS account:
It sounded more like a cut of meat than the biggest federal budget in history—$531.6 billion. President Carter called it lean and austere, tough and fair. But Republican Senator Roth of Delaware said calling it lean is like looking at a package of bacon in the supermarket: you don’t see the fat until you open the package.
In the follow-ups, in opening the package, the networks merely presented the various complaints seriatim. Thus NBC featured a ticking clock which kept count of the billions of dollars spent by the government. The commentator pointed out that if you paid $10,000 in taxes that year, the government would spend it in two-thirds of a second. He noted that many Americans were paying as much in social-security taxes as in income taxes. He added that while individuals had to balance their books, the government could spend more than it took in by printing money which, of course, fed inflation.
NBC also included a special section on HEW. The special section pointed out that the new budget included a cut in the social-security benefits which had the effect of:
Ending benefits to college students who could qualify for student loans.
Ending the $255 lump-sum death benefit.
Ending social-security benefits to widows when their children reach age sixteen.
Reforming the disability-insurance program so that disabled workers have incentives to return to work.
And ending the minimum monthly benefit of $122 to workers who also draw government pensions.
All of those cuts were represented as scandals, without any mention of the fact that there were other programs—outside social security—which paid many of the same benefits.
The NBC presentation also included an account of the increased monies paid out for defense. It set up, in the fashion dear to television, a clean-cut, good guy vs. bad guy fight—social-welfare cuts vs. defense increases. One of the commentators said: “Although the administration won’t admit it, many of the nation’s social programs are being cut so that more money can be spent on defense.”
ABC set up the same conflict. A reporter on Capitol Hill asserted that “some Democrats were concerned about the proposed increase in defense spending, especially on the MX missile. They feel budget cuts should not be saddled on just the old, the poor, and the minorities.” Then two Democratic Senators—Kennedy and Cranston—were interviewed complaining about the unfair distribution. Senator Cranston said: “There’s no reason for national defense to be expanded while we contract aid to people who desperately need help from our government.”
The distinguishing feature of the coverage was the listing of every single complaint without any effort at resolution. There was little or no emphasis on the obvious point that budgets are exercises in arranging competing priorities, and that conflict is a normal ingredient of the process—the name of the game, in fact. As a result, the stories missed two points that in retrospect stand out as the most significant of the entire episode: first, that Carter did his budget trimming, not by asserting priorities, but by cutting tiny bits and pieces across the board; second, that making decisions at the margin, in the fashion dear to incrementalists, yielded the worst of both worlds—cuts inadequate to restrain inflation, and defense spending inadequate to close gaps and give adversaries second thoughts. Not only was the coverage slanted, but the bias was uniform. It did not reflect the diversity of viewpoint normally evoked by a complicated state paper dealing with many controversial matters. It thus went beyond what I used to think of as the last best defense of media objectivity—the pluralistic defense.
The pluralistic defense starts from the premise that no person, no paper, no magazine, no network can possibly be objective and unbiased. It assumes that our knowledge of events is bound to be highly imperfect. It also assumes that there will be intense rivalry among competing media, between one network and another, and even among the reporters working on a single news show or paper. From those factors there springs the conclusion that the biases roughly cancel each other out. The theory is that the complexity of events blends with the ignorance of the beholders and the rivalry of the news media to present a pluralistic version of what took place. No one account is exactly right. Neither, however, does the sum total produce a distinct tilt. The truth is not established by any single journalist or paper or network. It is surrounded.
But the pluralistic model of an unbiased system depended upon the persons in the news media being broadly representative. The theory was that every view would find some expression, some sympathetic presentation across the broad spectrum of bias making up the media diet. We have seen, however, that increasingly the media are staffed by an unrepresentative group—a group that is better-educated, more highly paid, more sure of itself, and more hostile to the system than the average. Indeed, far from reflecting the population as a whole, those of us in the media replicate the set of deep splits that make up the American class system.
As I see it—and this I must emphasize is a highly personal view without any serious support in systematic research—the basic line of cleavage in American society separates upper-income, highly educated America from what I have called Middle America—persons with family incomes of $20,000 or less who have not been educated beyond high school or junior college. The outlook of upper-income Americans tends to be “enlightened.” We are skeptical about established authority, particularly in the field of national security and matters of law and order. We are sympathetic to the claims of those with grievances—whether black or brown or Indian or senior citizens. We tend to favor helping them, even though the benefits—integrated neighborhoods, school busing, affirmative action—tend to be paid for by Middle America. As for Middle America’s complaints—about gun control, anti-abortion rulings, abolishing the death penalty, yielding Panama—we tend to write them off as disconnected single issues.
Not only are we not representative, we are aligned on one side in the hottest class contention now dividing America. The TV programs I have cited at such length seem to me a case in point. They implicitly knock the whole government system, and make it seem that the President and the Defense Department, in particular, are offering bogus arrangements. They side with the dependent classes—the castes of American society. They put a finger in the eye of Middle America.
The bias reflected in the single case of the budget becomes more apparent when the historical record is unfurled. The media, as we have seen, were out front in assailing Vietnam and the national-security state; similarly in exposing Watergate and the “imperial Presidency.” Before that we sided openly with the protesting minority groups. We not only gave them publicity which they believed, we caused them to overplay their hands. And when their time of troubles came, when the Middle American majority turned against the exaggerated claims, we blamed the Defense Department and the President.
Insofar as we in the media caused the minority groups to overplay their hands, we bear some responsibility for the setbacks they have suffered during the past few years. We helped to foster the overreaction of the Middle American majority. To me, at least, it seems plain that Middle America feels it commands little sympathy and next to no attention in the media. Middle Americans are convinced they don’t get a square deal on television and in the newspapers. That is one of the reasons so many people rallied to the crude attacks made by Spiro Agnew on the press and television in 1970. It is also one of the reasons so many Americans lined up against the media and for Mayor Daley at the time of the police riots during the Chicago convention of the Democratic party in 1968. More importantly, lack of confidence in the press and television is what caused Middle America to announce its views through other media. In 1968, it sent a message through George Wallace at least in part because it didn’t trust the networks. In 1978, it sent a message through Proposition 13 in part because it didn’t trust the press. In 1980, to a degree at least, it masked intentions to vote for Ronald Reagan because it didn’t trust those handmaidens of the media—the pollsters. In the eyes of most Americans, in other words, we have not been neutral.
Not only have we traded objectivity for bias, but we have also abandoned a place on the sidelines for a piece of the action. We have ceased to be referees and drama critics and become players in the game and actors on the stage. The more candid of my colleagues have admitted as much for a long time. The Alsop brothers back in 1958 acknowledged that reporting “offered the sense of being engaged in the political process of one’s time.” Douglass Cater expressed the same view when he called his book on the press, The Fourth Branch of Government. In it he wrote that “the reporter is the recorder of government but he is also a participant. He operates in a system in which power is divided. He, as much as anyone, and more than a great many, helps shape the course of events.”
Examples of helping to shape the course of events are legion—so commonplace indeed that they go almost unnoticed. Thus Tom Wicker, in his recent book, On Press, describes with admiration the detachment of the Saigon press corps during the Vietnam war—an attitude which made them skeptical of the information regularly handed out by government spokesmen at the regular briefings. Wicker noticed that quality while he was on a tour of Southeast Asia with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. After Saigon, the party went on to Bangkok in Thailand. Here is Wicker’s account of what happened: “That night in Bangkok, some of us tried for hours to persuade Humphrey staff men to take the word to the Vice President that he’d been given an over-optimistic report.” In other words, even as he was praising his colleagues in Saigon for being detached, one of the most thoughtful and honest of American journalists was himself getting into the swim—trying to put in a fix of sorts with no less a person than the Vice President.
Far more explicit examples are well known. Tom Wicker himself played a highly public role in the negotiations which led up to the massacre at Attica prison in New York. James Reston of the Times was part of the conversation which caused Senator Arthur Vandenberg to abandon isolationism for internationalism on the morrow of World War II. Walter Lippmann, who was often thought of as “Olympian” in his insistence on standing above the petty play of events and men, agreed to see advance texts of speeches prepared for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Not only that, he made comments upon them, and found that the comments were acted upon in the final drafts. Nor, I think, would anybody else have done it differently.
The publishers and editors of the New York Times were involved in two episodes which, taken together, show how difficult, how well-nigh impossible, it is these days to stand aloof. In the first case, the Times had advance word of the preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. For national-security reasons, the paper took the edge off the story and gave it soft play. It did not stir a furor. President Kennedy later said that had the Times run the story hard, he probably would have had to call off the invasion—with much happier results for everybody. A couple of years later, the Times also got advance word that Soviet missiles were on their way to Cuba. The publisher of the paper, and its top editors, decided not to publish the story lest it interfere with the President’s plans for dealing with the Russians to withdraw the shipment. The President was grateful the news had not been published, and I think it may be safely said that in this case everybody benefited from withholding. But in both cases, the Times was part of the action, a player on the field, and it is hard to see—given the relations which now obtain between press and government—that it could have been otherwise.
But what happened by force of circumstance often in the past now happens much more often by force of celebrity. Walter Cronkite, for instance, used to take time off from his duties as anchorman to do interviews with other celebrities. These encounters were known, unblushingly, as “Newsmaker Interviews.” Among Cronkite’s most famous interviews were those he held in the fall of 1977 with President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, it is widely believed that Cronkite made Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem happen. Thus Tom Wicker writes: “In the fall of 1977, Cronkite even became the central figure in arranging the visit to Israel of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. One of the great events in modern diplomatic history was set up in a television interview.”
Whatever the outcome, however, it seems clear that making news is something newspapers, magazines, and the television networks now seek to do as a matter of course. The New York Times went out of its way to stir up a fuss about the CIA—at least in part because the Washington Post had made the paper look bad on Watergate. Virtually every news organization went after the CIA for failure to foretell events in Iran, though not much of a case could be made because the failure was a general one, a failure to understand the potency of Islamic fundamentalism in which academics and businessmen, and even newspapers, shared as well as intelligence agencies.
The belief that news is what we make happen is now so ingrained that the media often eclipse the event they are reporting. I don’t refer merely to media events—like the visit of Deng Ziaoping or a political convention where there is reportorial overkill on a dizzying scale. I mean not seeing or understanding what is really happening because of preoccupation with self.
As a poignant example let me cite an account of a domestic tragedy—the story of the five women who allowed themselves to be sterilized to maintain jobs at a hazardous plant of the American Cyanamid Corporation. I can think of few events with more genuine intrinsic pathos. But a paper, which I’m not going to cite, treated the whole matter as though the media were the critical factor. The lead of the story said: “The giant American Cyanamid Corporation has what can only be described as a corporate public-relations man’s nightmare on its hands here.” That is in real life the rough equivalent of the apocryphal story of the reporter who ran through the streets of Berlin just after its occupation by the Russians screaming, “Anybody here been raped who speaks English?”
Perhaps the most vivid expression of the changed role of press and television emerges from comments by public figures. Political leaders, of course, have always been sensitive to criticism. Jefferson, well known for the remark that if forced to choose he would rather have a press without a government than a government without a press, also asserted that what he mainly found in the press was lies. Teddy Roosevelt did not popularize the term “muckrakers” in any laudatory spirit, but rather to point up the proclivity of certain journalists for dirt. Harry Truman once observed to a friend that “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.” But there is a difference between those generalized assaults and the invidious attacks that have recently become prominent. It wasn’t just good clean fun when President Eisenhower warned the delegates to the 1964 Republican convention that they should not let themselves be divided by “those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators.” Agnew’s shots at the “nabobs of negativism” and the “effete Eastern establishment” were dark with hostility. So was President Nixon’s injunction to Ron Ziegler to treat the press “with contempt.”
During the Nixon administration not a few newsmen were deliberately cut up in ways calculated to hurt them. The Washington Post had a television license called into question. A blatant attempt was made to get Dan Rather transferred from the White House beat. All kinds of personal investigations were opened into the lives of the reporters who worked with the Pentagon Papers—especially Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. Half a dozen of us were made the subject of wiretaps.
Other far more damaging and punitive measures were taken against press and television at lower levels of government and in local settings. Congress tried to punish CBS for its program, The Selling of the Pentagon. A House committee tried to get Daniel Schorr for releasing a document that it classified after most of the release had been accomplished. Finally, local law-enforcement officials, whether from the North or South, have not been exactly sympathetic to the free play of information in civil-rights matters.
Moreover, it is not as though the end of Vietnam, and the outcome of Watergate, vindicated the press and television (as some of us fondly believe). On the contrary, our stock with the general public continues to sink. The Harris Poll reports public confidence in television news fell from 34 percent in 1975 to 29 percent in 1980. Confidence in the press fell from 24 percent in 1975 to 19 percent in 1980. A survey by the University of Texas found that 84.4 percent of the sample believed that journalists slanted the news.
If the disparity between our actual role and our mythic claims for ourselves has caused others to hit out at the press and television, it has also generated inner doubts and uncertainties, a defensiveness within the media. A subject that was once singularly barren has now become a major topic of interest. No self-respecting foundation has failed to commission some study on the press and television. Virtually all newspapers and magazines of note have appointed inside ombudsmen to be sure that they are behaving in a fair way. The television networks, in what I would call a transparent effort to ingratiate themselves with Middle America, have moved away from reporters and correspondents with a strong working knowledge of their subject. The typical up-and-coming man in network news has been described by one television critic as Mr. Al Average. He has no point of view, he has no regional marks—especially no accent—and he can change at a moment’s notice into the costume and habits of a farmer, a tycoon, a hard-hat, or you name it. Finally, a defensive tone has crept into the work of even the most self-confident journalists. Dan Rather’s book, The Camera Never Blinks, starts with a confrontation between himself and President Nixon in a press conference in Houston. Rather then spends about nine pages telling how he happened to challenge the President. He puts the blame on an effort by the White House to manipulate the news. He says of the President and his men: “They had seen the enemy and it was us.”
The sense of being under attack expresses the feelings of the profession as a whole. We have become painfully aware that much of the outside world is hostile, and regards as bogus our claims to fairness and objectivity. We have responded the way people under that kind of pressure generally respond—by coming up with a defensive rationale, an ideology.
I want to use ideology here in a neutral tone—after the fashion of Karl Mannheim, as developed especially in the book The American Business Creed, by Francis Sutton, Seymour Harris, Carl Kaysen, and James Tobin. That book points out that American businessmen have been subjected to a tension between the myth of free enterprise and the realities of a commercial and industrial world largely dependent upon government and influence in high places. The response of the businessmen to this strain has been to create a creed, or ideology, a way of thought, which stresses all the old-time values of free enterprise and thrift and self-reliance. The creed causes businessmen to advance with special force precisely the claims that in their bones they know are least applicable. Sutton and company give this definition of ideology: “Where a role involves patterns of conflicting demands, then occupants of that role . . . respond by elaborating a system of ideas and symbols, which in part may serve as a guide to action, but chiefly has broader and more direct functions as a response to strain.”
My contention is that those of us in the media have developed a journalistic creed, an ideology of the First Amendment. The essence of our claim is that what we do is central to the health and survival of American society. We strongly imply that our claims come ahead of those of everybody else. We are better than other citizens; we have rights that are higher than those of the Congress, the executive branch, and even the courts. Thus we are saying that what’s good for the media is good for the United States.
A series of celebrated court cases chart the development of First Amendment ideology. The starting point in each case was a broadening of constitutional rights and protection afforded the press. Thereafter circumstance called into question the expanded grant of protection. The Supreme Court tried to adjust accordingly. Each adjustment was denounced as a mortal blow to the freedom of the press. But in fact, nobody could seriously argue today that the suppression of information by tyrannical authority—the peril envisioned in the Constitution—represents a serious problem for modern American society.
The law of libel lies at the center of the first set of cases. In 1964, the Supreme Court upheld a claim by the New York Times that printing falsehoods about public officials was not, in view of the First Amendment privilege, automatic grounds for libel. The Court said that when public officials were involved, libel occurred only when the untruth was “published with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” In 1967, that definition was broadened so that it applied not merely to “public officials” but also to “public figures”—namely, the football coach Wally Butts. In 1970, the privilege was broadened still further so that it applied to private individuals, innocent bystanders, so to speak, who might be “involved in an issue of public or general concern.”
In 1973, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert filed a libel suit against the CBS show, 60 Minutes, its star, Mike Wallace, and one of its producers, Barry Lando. Colonel Herbert claimed he was libeled when the show asserted that he did not, as he had claimed, report to his superior officers various atrocities committed in the Vietnam war. Herbert acknowledged that he was a “public figure,” and that he would, under the Sullivan case ruling, have to prove malice. The CBS producer, Lando, balked at answering questions about conversations with Wallace and about his judgment of the truthfulness of persons interviewed for the show. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect Lando against the questions put by Colonel Herbert. In the majority opinion, Justice Byron White argued that it would be difficult to prove malice without some “focus on the defendant’s state of mind.” Indeed, it is hard to see, if Lando had won, how any libel case could ever be brought. Still Bill Leonard, the president of CBS News, said the Lando decision was “another dangerous invasion of the nation’s news rooms” and that it reduced “constitutional protection to the journalists’ most precious possession—his mind, his thought, and his editorial judgment.”
A second example of the same pattern—but with a different outcome—arose in the Stanford Daily News case. In 1971, local police were assaulted as they tried to quell a demonstration at the Stanford University hospital. Pictures of the demonstration were published by the Stanford Daily News. The county prosecutor, under a search warrant from a local judge, authorized a surprise search of the newsroom. The Daily sued on the ground that it was an innocent party in no way connected with the demonstration; therefore, it argued, issuance of a search warrant without prior notice was a violation of the First Amendment. The Court, in 1978, ruled that the First Amendment did not shield the paper against the higher claims of the “public need” for information pertinent to law enforcement. Not only was the decision limited, but the court indicated that the law was fuzzy and could usefully be changed. Nevertheless, the decision was denounced in the most virulent terms. For example, Howard K. Smith, then of ABC News, harked back to the days of Hitler:
When I was a young reporter at the United Press in Nazi Berlin there was a kick at the door . . . and five Gestapo men barged past me, began opening every desk and studying every piece of paper they could find. Six hours later they left. . . . I remember thanking God this could not happen in America. Well, now it can. It is the worst, most dangerous ruling the Court has made in memory.
Of course it did not happen in this country, nor was there ever the slightest danger it would. On the contrary, two years later, Congress passed, and President Carter signed, a bill prohibiting federal, state, and local authorities from conducting surprise warrant searches on newsrooms, except in the most limited cases.
A third example, with still a different outcome, developed around the tricky issue of pre-trial publicity. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that in virtually no circumstances could judges constitutionally restrain the press from publishing information which emerged in open court even when the publication endangered the defendant’s right to a fair trial. To limit the spoiling of cases through pre-trial publicity, judges started taking action to bottle up pre-trial hearings. In 1979, in the DePasquale case, the Court ruled, 5-4, that closing pre-trial hearings at the request of the defendant was acceptable. There followed the usual storm of outrage from the media. Allen Neuharth of the Gannett papers, which had brought the suit, called the decision “another chilling demonstration that the majority of the Burger Court is determined to unmake the Constitution.”
That chilling demonstration was undemonstrated less than a year later. In the Richmond Newspaper decision of 1980, the Court affirmed the right of the press to attend criminal proceedings except in the most unusual circumstances. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that the First Amendment guarantees press attendance at criminal trials unless the defendant is able to show that “closure is required to protect . . . a fair trial.” Before handing down the decision, which only affirmed positively what the prior decision had not denied, members of the Court, for once, skirmished publicly with the press. In commenting on reports of the 1979 decision, the Chief Justice speculated that lower-court judges had misinterpreted the DePasquale ruling because they “read newspaper reports of what we said rather than the Court’s majority opinion.” Justice Lewis Powell said of the criticism of the DePasquale decision that “one wonders whether some of the crying wolf may not be a bit premature.” Justice William Brennan chastised editors and publishers for lacking a “certain recognition that the press, like other institutions, must accommodate a variety of societal institutions.”
Probably the most egregious examples of that insensitivity emerge from the series of cases involving the right of those of us in the media to keep sources confidential. Here the master case is the Branzberg decision rendered by the Supreme Court in 1972. The Court ruled that reporters, like most people, had to testify at a “grand jury or a trial and give what information” they possess. At the same time, the Court acknowledged that in certain specified cases, journalists, under the First Amendment, did have certain rights to maintain confidentiality of sources. Judge Lewis Powell in the swing opinion wrote that “the Court does not hold that newsmen . . . are without constitutional rights with respect to the gathering of news or in safeguarding their sources. The courts will be available to newsmen under circumstances where legitimate First Amendment interests require protection.”
Just such a case came up in the matter of the New York Times reporter Myron Farber, who did some fine investigative reporting which resulted in the indictment of a New Jersey doctor on charges of first-degree murder. The doctor’s lawyer requested access to Farber’s notes for the purpose of preparing his defense. Farber and the Times refused on grounds that giving up confidential material would violate their First Amendment rights. At that point the judge made what seems to me to have been a distinctly unwise ruling. Instead of asking the defense to specify what materials it needed and for what purpose, he asked Farber and the Times to turn over their notes for his inspection in camera. He would then decide what material was relevant or not. The Times and Farber refused, and were found in contempt.
Though I think the judge made a foolish decision, I believe he made a decision that lay well within his prerogatives. The case did involve a conflict between a reporter’s rights under the First Amendment, and a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment. In our system, judges—bad judges as well as good judges—are quintessentially responsible for deciding such conflicting constitutional claims. Nobody in the media I have ever heard of—certainly not the New York Times— denied that quintessential responsibility when the Supreme Court decided that President Nixon was obliged to turn over his tapes to the special prosecutor. But in the Farber case the Times protested at every level of the judicial system that the original ruling was a violation of the First Amendment. It lost each appeal, and rightly so, because the courts do have the special prerogative of deciding about conflicts of constitutional rights.
Eventually the case became moot when the alleged murderer was acquitted, but not before Farber had spent six weeks in jail for contempt of court, and the Times had shelled out thousands of dollars in fines. Yet, far from ending at that point, the case became the subject of a long and painful howl from the media. I do not have the space—or the stomach—to summarize all the complaints. But a good example is the article Theodore H. White wrote about the Farber case in the New York Times Magazine.
In that article, White argues that protection of sources is not an aspect of journalistic enterprise (as I would maintain), but the very essence of the free press. He says that without such protection Watergate would never have been uncovered. He also asserts that the “conduct of American public affairs was rooted in the right of the American press and its reporters” to protect their sources. He warns that “now the courts, in a new departure, seem bent on erasing a protection built into the very foundation of the American system”:
Every veteran reporter knows that not all judges are spiritual descendants of Holmes, Brandeis, and Warren. All too many judges wrapped in the black robes of court, are graduate politicians, neither scholars nor solons and as one descends the hierarchy from the federal to state to local levels one finds more and more of them are hacks.
White stigmatizes the hacks as agents of ethnic groups, political cabals, and even the Mafia. He sees them, in the Farber case, eroding the soul of our liberty and greatness, the First Amendment. He concludes: “The First Amendment, in the final analysis, was not devised to protect any reporter or publisher from the law or to give us special entitlements. The First Amendment is listed as First to protect the people. . . .”
There you have the full-blown ideology. The interest of the press is the interest of the people. What’s good for the media is good for the United States. The courts have to yield their prerogatives to the media. So do defendants in murder trials. Why? Because journalistic enterprise—the right of papers to investigate cover-ups—is the heart of the First Amendment. In my judgment that is clearly not the case. In fact, it is a long, long way from what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. And we in this country are a long, long way from even coming close to killing the First Amendment protection. Indeed, I submit that the freedom of the press has not abated one whit since the Farber case came up and went down.
I do not mean to say that the First Amendment is not precious. I think the privilege is exceedingly precious—too precious to be the plaything of journalistic self-righteousness. I think the courts, far from being bad guys as White implies, have, over the years, been the most powerful guardians of First Amendment rights. I think that in a conflict between us and the courts, the right of the courts to decide-even though some judges are not Brandeis—is paramount. So I take the furor over the First Amendment and the Farber case in particular to be an exaggerated claim—a piece of ideology.
No doubt there is something to the ideology. A free system of information-gathering and distribution is important to the United States. So is a free-enterprise system. But neither one is transcendent in value. For those in the media, especially, self-interest dictates a little modesty in staking claims for our importance. Rather than adopting a self-righteous ideology, we ought to acknowledge our weak spots—not only by printing corrections, not through a press council, and certainly not through control by government, but by being more sensitive to what we have become. I think we need to acknowledge—to ourselves at least—that we are shapers and movers; that we are biased; that we are not representative. Most important of all, it seems to me we need to see that in our new roles we have a new set of responsibilities. It is no longer good enough to say that we mirror the world, or merely report things as they are. If things go wrong, we bear some blame. And it seems to me vital that we admit—to ourselves at least, and in public as much as possible—when we do go wrong. And I don’t just mean misspelling the name of the Vice-Premier of China. I mean seeing that at times, anyway, we went overboard on the Great Society, and on civil rights, and the imperial Presidency. I mean admitting that some of the consequences of our noblest efforts have turned sour.
That kind of responsibility, it seems to me, is required, because it is only by admitting our larger mistakes that we can deserve public support. Public support, given the dangerous role we play, is absolutely essential in a populist country such as ours. As Alexander Hamilton once put it: “What is the liberty of the press? Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion? I hold it to be impracticable, and from this I infer that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.”