The problem of journalism in America proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are therefore almost entirely dependent on self-interested “sources” for the version of reality that they report. Walter Lippmann pointed to the root of the problem more than fifty years ago when he made a painful distinction between “news” and truth. “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Because news-reporting and truth-seeking have different ultimate purposes, Lippmann postulated that “news” could be expected to coincide with truth in only a few limited areas, such as the scores of baseball games or elections, where the results are definite and measurable. In the more complex and ambiguous recesses of political life, where the outcome is almost always in doubt or dispute, news reports could not be expected to exhaust, or perhaps even indicate, the truth of the matter. This divergence between news and truth stemmed not from the inadequacies of newsmen but from the exigencies of the news business, which limited the time, space, and resources that could be allotted to any single story. Lippmann concluded pessimistically that if the public required a more truthful interpretation of the world they lived in, they would have to depend on institutions other than the press.
Contemporary journalists would have some difficulty accepting such a distinction between news and truth. Indeed, newsmen now almost invariably depict themselves not merely as reporters of the fragments of information that come their way, but as active pursuers of the truth. In the current rhetoric of journalism, “stenographic reporting,” where the reporter simply but accurately repeats what he has been told, is a pejorative term used to describe inadequate journalism; “investigative reporting,” on the other hand, where the reporter supposedly ferrets out a hidden truth, is an honorific enterprise to which all journalists are supposed to aspire. In the post-Watergate era, moreover, even critics of the press attribute to it powers of discovery that go well beyond reporting new developments.
Yet despite the energetic claims of the press, the limits of journalism described by Lippmann still persist in basically the same form. Individual journalists may be better educated and motivated today than they were fifty years ago, but newspapers still have strict deadlines, which limit the time that can be spent investigating a story; a restricted number of news “holes,” which limit the space that can be devoted to elucidating the details of an event; and fixed budgets, which limit the resources that can be used on any single piece of reportage. Today, as when Lippmann wrote, “The final page is of a definite size [and] must be ready at a precise moment.”
Under these conditions, it would be unreasonable to expect even the most resourceful journalist to produce anything more than a truncated version of reality. Beyond this, however, even if such restraints were somehow suspended, and journalists had unlimited time, space, and financial resources at their disposal, they would still lack the forensic means and authority to establish the truth about a matter in serious dispute. Grand juries, prosecutors, judges, and legislative committees can compel witnesses to testify before them—offering the inducement of immunity to reluctant witnesses and the threat of perjury and contempt actions to inconsistent witnesses; they can subpoena records and other evidence, and test it all through cross-examination and other rigorous processes. Similarly, scientists, doctors, and other experts can establish facts in a disputed area, especially when there is unanimous agreement on the results of a particular test or analysis, because their authority and technical expertise are accepted in their distinct spheres of competency. Such authority derives from the individual reputation of the expert, certification of his bona fides by a professional group which is presumed to have a virtual monopoly of knowledge over the field, and a clearly articulated fact-finding procedure (such as was used, for instance, in establishing the erasures on the Nixon tapes). Even in more problematic areas, like the social sciences, academic researchers can resolve disputed issues. Acceptance of such an academic verdict, however, will depend heavily on the qualifications of the researcher, the degree to which his sources are satisfactorily documented, and the process of review by other scholars in the field through which, presumably, objections to the thesis are articulated and errors corrected. In all cases, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for establishing the truth is the use of an acceptable procedure for examining, testing, and evaluating evidence.
Reporters possess no such wherewithal for dealing with evidence. Unlike the judicial officer, journalists cannot compel a witness to furnish them an account of an event. Witnesses need only tell reporters what they deem is in their own self-interest, and then they can lie or fashion their story to fit a particular purpose without risking any legal penalty. Nor can a journalist test an account by hostile cross-examination without jeopardizing the future cooperation of the witness. Indeed, given the voluntary nature of the relationship between a reporter and his source, a continued flow of information can only be assured if the journalist's stories promise to serve the interest of the witness (which precludes impeaching the latter's credibility). In recent years, journalists have cogently argued that if they are forced to testify before grand juries about their sources, they will be cut off from further information. The same logic applies with equal force to criticizing harshly or casting doubts on the activities of these sources. The misreporting of a series of violent incidents involving the Black Panthers in 1969 is a case in point: the reporters closest to the Black Panthers could not dispute their public claim that an organized campaign of genocide was being waged against them without jeopardizing the special access they had to Panther spokesmen.1
Moreover, since journalists generally lack the technical competence to evaluate evidence with any authority, they must also rely on the reports of authoritative institutions for their “facts.” A reporter cannot establish the existence of an influenza epidemic, for instance, by conducting medical examinations himself; he must rely on the pronouncement of the Department of Health. (A journalist may of course become a doctor, but then his authority for reporting a fact rests on his scientific rather than journalistic credentials.) Whenever a journalist attempts to establish a factual proposition on his own authority, his conclusion must be open to question. For example, following the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973, Newsweek carried a dramatic report by a correspondent who claimed to have gained entrance to the Santiago morgue and personally examined the bodies of those killed after the coup. By inspecting the hands of the corpses, and the nature of their wounds, the correspondent concluded that these were workers with calloused hands who had been brutally executed. When the Wall Street Journal challenged these findings (on the basis of inconsistencies in the description of the morgue), the reporter acknowledged that he personally had spent only two minutes on the scene, and Newsweek fell back on an earlier unpublished report of a UN observer who claimed to have witnessed something similar in the Santiago morgue at some different time. While the dispute remained unsettled, the burden of proof was shifted from Newsweek's own reporter to an outside “authority.”
Finally, journalists cannot even claim the modicum of authority granted to academic researchers because they cannot fulfill the requirement of always identifying their sources, let alone documenting their claims. Protecting (and concealing) the identity of their informants is a real concern for journalists, and one on which their livelihood might well depend, but it also distinguishes the journalistic from the academic product. Without identifiable sources the account cannot be reviewed or corroborated by others with specialized knowledge of the subject. Even the most egregious errors may thus remain uncorrected. For instance, in what purported to be an interview with John W. Dean III, the President's former counsel, Newsweek reported that Dean would reveal in his public testimony that some White House officials had planned to assassinate Panama's head of government, but that the plan was aborted at the last minute. This Newsweek “exclusive” was circulated to thousands of newspapers in an advance press release, and widely published. When it turned out that the story was untrue—Dean did not testify about any such assassination plot, and denied under oath that he had discussed any substantial aspects of his testimony with Newsweek reporters—Newsweek did not correct or explain the discrepancy. Presumably, Dean was not the source for the putative “Dean Interview,” and the unidentified source had misled Newsweek on what Dean was planning to say in his public testimony. Since the error was that of an unidentified source, Newsweek did not feel obligated to correct it in future editions.
It is not necessary to belabor the point that gathering news is a very different enterprise from establishing truth, with different standards and objectives. Journalists readily admit that they are dependent on others for privileged information and the ascertainment of facts in a controversial issue (although some might argue that the sphere of measurable and non-controversial issues is larger than I suggest). Indeed, many of the most eminent journalists in America submitted affidavits in the Pentagon Papers case attesting that “leaks” and confidential sources are indispensable elements in the reporting of national news. And despite the more heroic public claims of the news media, daily journalism is largely concerned with finding and retaining profitable sources of prepackaged stories (whether it be the Weather Bureau, the Dow-Jones financial wire service, public-relations agencies, or a confidential source within the government). What is now called “investigative reporting” is merely the development of sources within the counter-elite or other dissidents in the government, while “stenographic reporting” refers to the development of sources among official spokesmen for the government. There is no difference in the basic method of reporting.
Even in the case of Watergate, which has become synonymous with “investigative reporting,” it was the investigative agencies of the government and not the members of the press who assembled the evidence, which was then deliberately leaked to receptive reporters at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and other journals. Within a week after the burglars were caught in Watergate in June 1972, FBI agents had identified the leaders of the break-in as employees of the Committee to Reelect the President (and former employees of the White House), traced the hundred-dollar bills found in their possession to funds contributed to President Nixon's re-election campaign, and interviewed one of the key conspirators, Alfred Baldwin, who in effect turned state's evidence, describing the wire-tapping operation in great detail and revealing that the transcripts had been delivered directly to CRP headquarters.
This evidence, which was presented to the grand jury (and eventually in open court), was systematically leaked by investigative agents in the case. (Why members of the FBI and the Department of Justice had become dissidents is another question.) The crucial evidence which the FBI investigation did not turn up—such as the earlier burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, the offers of executive clemency, the intervention with the CIA, the suborning of perjury, the cash payoffs made from campaign contributions, the “enemies list,” and the 1970 subversion control plan—came out not through “investigative reporting,” but only when one of the burglars, John McCord, revealed his role in the cover-up to Judge John Sirica and when John Dean virtually defected to the U.S. prosecutor and disclosed the White House “horror stories.” Indeed, it was John Dean, not the enterprising reporters of the Washington press corps, who was the real author of most of the revelations that are at the heart of the present Federal conspiracy indictments and the impeachment inquest. (And it was Ralph Nader, another non-journalist, who unearthed the contributions from the milk industry.) To be sure, by serving as conduits for the interested parties who wanted to release information about Watergate and other White House abuses of power, journalists played an extremely important role in the political process—but not as investigators or establishers of the truth.
The reliance on “leaks” or “authoritative” sources might not be an insoluble problem for journalism if reporters had some means of evaluating them in advance, and publishing only those portions which did not distort reality, by being either untrue or out of context. Unfortunately, however, the inherent pressures of daily journalism severely reduce the possibility of verifying a leak or disclosure in advance of publication. Reporters can of course seek out more than one source on an issue, but there is no satisfactory way available, other than intuition, to choose among conflicting accounts. The democratic criterion of adding up confirming and disconfirming interviews, as if they were votes, produces no decisive result, as even total agreement might simply mean that a false account had been widely circulated, while total disagreement might mean that only the original source was privy to the truth tbout an event.
“Plausibility” is also an unsatisfactory criterion for evaluating leaks, since the liar is always capable of fashioning his account to fit the predispositions of the journalist to whom he is disclosing it, and thereby to make it appear plausible. Nor can a reporter simply give weight to the source that is most intimately involved with the issue, since those closest to a dispute might have the greatest interest in distorting or neglecting aspects of it, and might well be the least impartial. In certain instances, leaks, if publication were delayed, could be tested by the direction of unfolding events—for example, the advance disclosure of John Dean's testimony could have been refuted if Newsweek had delayed its story until Dean actually testified—but such a procedure would undercut the far more basic journalistic value of signaling the probable direction of events before they fully unfold. Given these circumstances, a journalist has little basis for choosing among conflicting sources. The New York Times thus carried two completely contradictory reports of the same insurrection in the Philippines in different sections of the same Sunday edition (February 17, 1974). The “News of the Week” section placed the casualties at 10,000 dead or missing, while the general news section refuted this higher figure and placed the total casualties at 276. Both accounts were based on sources within the Philippine government, and the editor of each section simply chose the account he preferred.
When journalists are presented with secret information about issues of great import, they become, in a very real sense, agents for the surreptitious source. Even if the disclosure is supported by authoritative documents, the journalist cannot know whether the information has been altered, edited, or selected out of context. Nor can he be certain what interest he is serving or what will be the eventual outcome of the leak.
Consider, for example, the disclosures by the columnist Jack Anderson of the minutes of a secret National Security Council meeting on the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Anderson claimed that the blunt orders by Dr. Henry Kissinger in these private meetings to “tilt” toward Pakistan contradicted Kissinger's public professions of neutrality; this claim received wide circulation, and sharply undermined Kissinger's credibility (although the Wall Street Journal demonstrated by printing the public statements to which Anderson referred that Kissinger was in fact consistent in both his private and public statements in expressing opposition to the Indian military incursion into East Pakistan). At the time it was generally presumed that the leak came from a dissident within the administration who favored India, or, at least, opposed the administration's policy in the subcontinent. Only two years afterward, as a byproduct of the Watergate investigation, was some light cast on the source of the leak. A White House investigation identified Charles E. Radford, a navy yeoman, who was working at the time as a stenographer, as the proximate source of the National Security Council minutes supplied to Anderson. But the investigation further revealed that Yeoman Radford was also copying and transmitting to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff highly classified documents in a “surreptitious operation” apparently designed to keep them aware of Kissinger's (and the President's) negotiations. And Yeoman Radford has testified that he acted only on the express orders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and not on his own initiative, in passing documents. If this is indeed the case, it would appear that members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff authored the Anderson leak in order to undermine the authority of Henry Kissinger (who was involved in developing the détente with China and Russia at that time). In this case, Anderson was used as an instrument in a power struggle he probably was unaware of—and which might have had nothing to do with the Indo-Pakistani war he was reporting on.
The important question is not whether journalists are deviously manipulated by their sources, but whether they can exert any real control over disclosures wrenched from contexts to which they do not have access or with which they are unfamiliar. In most circumstances, the logic of daily journalism impels immediate publication which, though it might result in a prized “scoop,” divorces the journalist from responsibility for the veracity or consequences of the disclosure. Jack Anderson was thus able to explain a blatantly false report he published about the arrest for drunken driving of Senator Thomas Eagleton, then the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Democratic party, by saying that if he had delayed publication to check the allegation he would have risked being scooped by competitors.
But even in rare cases in which newspapers allot time and manpower to study a leak, as the New York Times did in the case of the Pentagon Papers, the information still must be revised into a form and format which will maintain the interest of the readers (as well as the editors). Since the Times decided not to print the entire study of the Vietnam war—which ran to more than 7,000 pages and covered a 25-year period—or even substantial parts of the narrative, which was complex and academic, sections of the material had to be reorganized and rewritten along a theme that would be comprehensible to its audience. The theme chosen was duplicity: the difference between what the leaders of America said about the Vietnam war in private and in public. The Pentagon study, however, was not written in line with this theme: it was an official Department of Defense analysis of decision-making and, more precisely, of how policy preferences crystallized within the Department. To convert this bureaucratic study into a journalistic exposé of duplicity required taking certain liberties with the original history: outside material had to be added and assertions from the actual study had to be omitted. For example, to show that the Tonkin Gulf resolution (by which in effect Congress authorized the escalation of the war, and which was editorially endorsed at the time by most major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post) resulted from duplicity, the Times had to omit the conclusion of the Pentagon Papers that the Johnson administration had tried to avoid the fatal clash in the Tonkin Gulf, and had to add evidence of possible American provocations in Laos, which were not actually referred to in the Pentagon Papers themselves.
Journalists, then, are caught in a dilemma. They can either serve as a faithful messenger for some subterranean interest, or they can recast the message into their own version of the story by adding, deleting, or altering material. The first alternative assures that the message will be accurately relayed to the intended audience, although the message itself might be false or misleading. The latter alternative, while lessening the source's control over the message, increases the risk of further distortion, since the journalist cannot be aware of the full context and circumstances surrounding the disclosure. In neither case can journalists be certain of either the truth or the intended purpose of what they publish. Such a dilemma cannot be remedied by superior newsmen or more intensive journalistic training. It arises not out of defects in the practice of journalism, but out of the source-reporter relationship which is part and parcel of the structure of modern journalism.
To some degree, the tension in the dilemma could be alleviated if journalists gave up the pretense of being establishes of truth, recognized themselves as agents for others who desired to disclose information, and clearly labeled the circumstances and interests behind the information they reported so that it could be intelligently evaluated. By concealing the machinations and politics behind a leak, journalists suppress part of the truth surrounding the story. Thus the means by which the medical records of Senator Thomas Eagleton were acquired and passed on to the Knight newspapers (which won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for disclosing information contained in these records) seem no less important than the Senator's medical history itself, especially since copies of the presumably illegally-obtained records were later found in the White House safe of John Ehrlichman. (In rifling through Larry O'Brien's personal files, the Watergate burglars were probably looking for material damaging to O'Brien and the Democrats; if they had succeeded, such material would no doubt have found its way into print by being leaked to “investigative journalists.”) Similarly, the motives and circumstances behind the well-timed leaks to the press by elements in the Nixon administration which ultimately forced Justice Abe Fortas from the Supreme Court do not necessarily make a less important part of the story than any of the alleged improprieties committed by Fortas. And the leaks provided by senior executives in the FBI and other investigative agencies in an attempt to resist White House domination still remains the unreported part of the Watergate story.
Since journalists cannot expose these hidden aspects of a story without damaging the sources they are dependent on for information (and honors), they cannot realistically be expected to label the interest behind any disclosure. (Indeed, it is a practice among journalists to mislead their readers by explicitly denying as occasion arises that they received information from their real source.) Under these conditions, journalism can serve as an important institution for conveying and circulating information, and signalling changes in the direction of public policy and discourse, but it cannot serve as a credible investigator of the “hidden facts” or the elusive truths which determine them.
1 For a fuller account, see my article, “The Black Panthers: A Question of Genocide,” in the New Yorker, February 13, 1971.