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The Right People and the Wrong Times

Don’t Blame the People

by Robert Cirino
Diversity Press (Box 45764, Los Angeles, California 90045), 341 pp., $2.95

The Information Machines

by Ben H. Bagdikian
Harper & Row, 359 pp., $8.95

The Image Empire

by Eric Barnouw
Oxford, 396 pp., $9.75

My Life and The Times

by Turner Catledge
Harper & Row, 319 pp., $10.00

The Last of the Giants

by C.L. Sulzberger
Macmillan, 1,063 pp., $12.50

And it was neither coincidental nor surprising that The New York Times as a whole would reflect, in miniature, the collective style of the government because the two institutions at the top are shaped by the same forces, historically, socially, and economically—what happens to the government inevitably happens to The Times. Should the United States continue as a preeminent power, The Times‘ words will continue to carry weight in the world. Should the United States decline as an international influence, so will The New York Times.”

—Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power

In the winter of 1945, George Orwell, who had been literary editor of the socialist London Tribune, went to Paris as correspondent for the Observer.

In Paris,” he remembered, “Tribune had a prestige which was somewhat astonishing…. It was impossible to buy it…. Yet all the French journalists I met seemed to have heard of it and to know that it was the one paper in England which had neither supported the government uncritically, nor opposed the war, nor swallowed the Russian myth.”

The opposite number of Tribune in Paris was, Orwell quickly discovered, “a weekly paper named Libertés…which was opposed to the Gaullists on one side and the Communists on the other.”

A day or two after I reached Paris…[a] large working man in black corduroy breeches came up to me, exclaimed “Ah, vous êtes George Orrvell!” and crushed the bones of my hand almost to pulp. He had heard of me because Libertés made a practice of translating extracts from Tribune…. It seemed to me somewhat touching that one could have acquired, without knowing it, a public among people like this: whereas, among the huge tribe of American journalists at the Hotel Scribe, with their glittering uniforms and their stupendous salaries, I never encountered one who had heard of Tribune.1

Our great private institutions of public information seem to have reached the point—observable in the development of so many other institutions—where very little art is required to demonstrate their deficiencies but considerable contrivance to argue their merits. So, if Mr. Cirino’s flat indictment of the press and the broadcasters seems the most persuasive of all the books under review, he can thank the condition that his is the most destructive approach.

His tone has the effect of “Let it come down.” The real world, he argues, has been concealed from us by “media bias, distortions, myths and censorship.” The commercial communications system is to him no more than the device the rich use “to persuade people to their point of view.” And experience has already made us ready to feel as he does; what we read and hear and see from the system has left us with little sentiment for its preservation.

So Cirino does not need the credentials of intimacy with the process; he concentrates on the product, and brings the peculiar authority of the consumer into a court where, most of the time, only the producer gets summoned as a qualified witness. Cirino need only complain to command our attention. He has assembled his complaint with great industry, but has presented it with such minimal attention to the ordinary conventions of exposition as to have listed nothing more artful than a catalogue of sins.

But the catalogue is no less crushing for the suspicion that, far from being edited, Cirino’s book was not even proofread; the frequency of typographical errors comes at last to seem almost a conscious expression of contempt for that customary journalistic standard which is unashamed to print the lie of a public official and then embarrassed because the linotypist dropped the final syllable of his name. While professional editors are careless about consequential facts and obsessive about word spacing, Cirino insists on being careful about facts and careless about typography. These cranky ways of his do not matter; his case is too strong for any damage so minor.

If Mr. Cirino’s book serves as the best direct testimony to the way it is, Messrs. Bagdikian and Barnouw are more detailed and thoughtful witnesses to the nuances of why it is. Messrs. Catledge and Sulzberger, who are more used to authority than any of the others, are rather less helpful to us. For one thing they suffer the handicap of appearing now only after we had previously satisfied ourselves with them as portions of that rich plum cake of The New York Times which Gay Talese presented to us two years ago.2 They are already characters in someone else’s novel: once Balzac had guided us on the passage through Paris of the young man from the provinces, it is doubtful that the most authentic recollection issued by Lucien himself would have given us much more than a deepened appreciation of the novelist’s fidelity to his subject.

The memoirs of Turner Catledge, retired executive editor of the Times, do hold out for our respect an honorable and, even beyond the standards of the corporate life, uncommonly decent man. The 1954-63 diary of C.L. Sulzberger, the Times‘s foreign affairs columnist, is a swollen folio of pressed flowers from his admirably indefatigable courtship of those news sources whose capture journalism has always valued as the highest trophy in its search for reality—the Averells, the Deans, the Chips, the Couves, the Stus, and the Chets. Both are lives of true dedication; still, near their ends, one finds it hard to believe that each was not wasted to some degree, Catledge’s in the company of the more amusing people, Sulzberger’s in the vicinity of the better kitchens.

Catledge came to command at the Times after a career which began on Mississippi weeklies like the Neshoba Democrat and the Tunica Times, carried him to Memphis, thence to Baltimore, and then to the Washington Bureau of the Times. The pause in Memphis provides one anecdote which helps to explain his character. He was a good friend of Mayor Crump, an intermittent feudist with Catledge’s own Commercial Appeal. Once, while investigating vote frauds in the Negro wards, he was badly beaten up by bravoes in Crump’s service. In his innoncence, Catledge went to Crump, who heard him out with every show of sympathy and indignation. He could not, the Mayor said, think of a punishment sufficient to such wickedness. And then, his pleasure in this comedy concluded, Crump said:

I tell you what we’re going to do, Catledge….” He pushed his hat back on his head and pointed a long finger at me. “From now on, you stay away from places like that or someday you may really get hurt.”

My humiliation was complete. His thugs had beaten me and he had made a fool of me.

That experience may have been pivotal to Catledge’s education and may explain the special common sense about himself which is the most attractive feature of his narrative. To have been beaten by hirelings of your most powerful friend and then to have that friend mock your helplessness is a most useful antidote to self-importance. It also puts the friendship of the mighty in its proper scale of value: if you are not a lackey by nature, you learn to walk a little wide. Catledge, for example, seems never to have trusted Roosevelt and preferred the intimacy of Southern senators, whose powers did not include executive functions.

One attraction of journalism as a job is that it opens doors to young men with no inherited claim for admittance; but Catledge had been fortunate in the painful instruction that the mere opening of the door carries no title to residence within. He became the master of all the devices of career and the victim of none of its illusions. He had the proper modesty never to have assumed that the wisdom of the Times in recognizing his merits was any final proof of its wisdom in all things. He was much too shrewd to believe that the Times was a complete success because he was a success at the Times. His dissatisfaction with it so thoroughly survived the rewards of its satisfaction with him as to give his aspirations for its improvement an almost utopian cast, which, you begin to think, is possible only for someone as worldly-wise as he.

The great aim of Catledge’s tenure is fleetingly suggested in what he tells us of an argument he once had with Edwin L. James, the managing editor he was being groomed to succeed. Catledge had said that the Latin American coverage of the Times was a disgrace.

[James answered] that no one cared about Latin America unless there was a revolution. I argued that we had a responsibility to develop an audience, that our readers should never be surprised by anything that happened anywhere in the world.

That happens to be the basic test, and so far the failure, of all journalism; and Catledge retired rather far from having met the test. He did of course improve the Times measurably; but we have to say that, if the readers of the Times are less surprised at what happens in the world than they once were, they owe their improved sense of reality less to the efforts of its editors than to the succession of events which has made so many of us less dependent on the assumptions of the Times, and thus less surprised at seeing them overturned, than we used to be.

In any case, Catledge could hardly be any better than the human instruments at his command. Sulzberger’s notebooks on his travels suggest to us that it is the very passion that the best journalists bring to the cultivation of the most expert sources of information which disables them from anticipating the unexpected. Sulzberger had unique access to the great; and, if he was often surprised by events, it has to be because the great are often surprised too. Sulzberger is so loyal a friend to the powerful that we cannot be sure that he has not sanitized the loonier of their confidences for reasons of delicacy. Still he has preserved enough howlers from the highest sources to limit what envy we might feel for his access.

In 1957, Adenauer tells him that General Zhukov is overcoming Nikita Khrushchev and that, within a year, the Soviets will have a dictatorship of the army. In 1960, Arthur Schlesinger tells him that President Kennedy will have to make Adlai Stevenson his Secretary of State. In the summer of 1960, Allen Dulles, then chief of the CIA, tells Sulzberger that the Russians are too smart to put bases in Cuba. In 1961, Sulzberger showed Llewellyn Thompson, the United States ambassador to the Soviets, the first draft of an interview with Khrushchev. Thompson says, “This means war. We are all going to be dead.” In October of 1962, Walt Whitman Rostow, then the State Department’s policy planner, informed Sulzberger and others that “despite Russia, Castro is being squeezed out in Cuba.”

  1. 1

    The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume IV, page 279.

  2. 2

    The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese (World, $10.00; Bantam, $1.50, paper).

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