Times’ Square

The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy

by James Reston
Harper & Row, for the Council on Foreign Relations, 108 pp., $3.95

Governments lie; newspapers catch them. It’s as simple as that, or should be, but somehow the game of political reporting has been invested with a set of rules that effectively impedes play. Editors identify with an elusive “national interest,” reporters cultivate confining and ultimately unproductive relationships with news sources, and readers demand an anesthetic “objectivity” as the price of credibility. And everyone, press and public alike, worries about who is influencing whom, and to what end. As the dean of American political reporters, James Reston must not only abide by those rules, but enforce them. He appears to welcome the task—performed implicitly in his thrice-weekly column in The New York Times, and now explicitly in this modest (by his own characterization) volume of lectures delivered last year unto the Council on Foreign Relations.

Reston on butcherpaper goes down smoothly. His columns are tightly structured: premise, argument, counter-argument, summary, with hardly a variation of subject. He never threatens his readers by brilliance or controversy; like them, he is just smart enough for his role. Or perhaps a bit smarter. He was once a sports columnist for the AP, and he is still the second-best sports writer in America writing about politics (Arthur Schlesinger must be first). He writes evocatively about the mood of the crowd in the stands, the excitement of a summer afternoon at the ballpark, the conversation in the dugout. He knows all the records and all the averages. If it is true, as an admiring old Times hand once said, that Reston’s ideas, like his column, seem to end at 700 words, he at least has that form down to perfection.

Reston in hardback is less authoritative, and long before the 108th and final page of his book the thinness begins to show. His conception of the press and its function in America is not illiberal. Nor is it noticeably unconventional. As much as anything, it seems to be a compendium of every liberal cliché about the people’s right to know, the reporter’s responsibilities, and the government’s duties. Like a city-room Polonius advising a cub, Reston neatly phrases the self-evident. The press should be independent (“the American assumption”) rather than controlled (“the Soviet assumption”). It must be the critic rather than the instrument of government. Objectivity does not demand that reporters give equal weight to untruth and truth. A well-informed citizenry will produce more satisfactory solutions to social problems than any leader or elite. Analytical reportage is helpful and should be encouraged. Talented young men should be hired at once. Sensationalism distorts the news. Ideas should be reported along with events, causes with effects. The press cannot directly influence Presidential foreign policy very much these days. Television has changed our lives, in some ways for the better, in other ways for the worse.

There are a great many more nuggets in that vein. Although these maxims may be unexceptionable in themselves, they indicate a turn of mind and a pattern of assumptions …

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