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The Intimidated Press

Seventeen years ago The New York Times and then The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers—and fought off the Nixon administration’s attempts to stop further publication. Examining that episode afterward, a law review article by Professors Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt, Jr., of the Columbia Law School said it marked “the passing of an era” for the American press. It was an era, they said, in which there was a “symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press.” But now, by printing the secret history of the Vietnam War over strenuous official objections, the Times had “demonstrated that much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate [of the Government], devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary.”

A year after the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post began looking into Watergate. What it published, in defiance of administration pressures, set in motion a process of law and politics that ended in the resignation of the President. That surely seemed to confirm what Professors Edgar and Schmidt had said. The symbiotic relationship was over. We now had an independently critical press.

I thought about Professors Edgar and Schmidt this past September when I read an editorial in The Washington Post. It was about the statement by the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, that the CIA had admitted, in secret testimony, helping to arouse anti-government protests in Nicaragua in order to provoke repression that would harm the image of the Sandinistas. The editorial was critical—of Speaker Wright, not the CIA.

The Speaker’s statement was harmful to the Nicaraguan opposition, the Post said. It noted Mr. Wright’s claim that what he said had already appeared in other news reports. But that explanation, it said sternly, failed to consider “the crucial authority that a Congressional figure can add by his confirmation.” Finally, the editorial came to the question whether the CIA had in fact helped to set off Nicaraguan protests. That would have been “incredibly stupid,” it said, and public testimony in Congress had absolved the CIA of the charge.

The CIA has in fact done some “incredibly stupid” things, in Nicaragua among other places. I think a genuinely critical press would have taken a hard look at the facts before chastising a congressional leader for improper leaking or abuse of authority in this case.

But what struck me about the editorial, and the reason I mention it now, was not so much its factual assumptions as its reverential tone. Its premise was that legitimacy rests in the executive branch of the United States government, not in the legislative. Congress, along with the rest of us, owes respect to the secrecy that the executive, with its special knowledge and expertise, deems necessary in the interest of national security.

Those were the very attitudes that the Times and the Post and other newspapers rejected when they published the Pentagon Papers. As a result of the Vietnam War they had come to realize that executive officials did not always have superior knowledge and expertise—and did not always tell the truth. They were not entitled to reverence, from the press or Congress. The country would be better off—more wisely led—if policies were subject to unstinting scrutiny, including a good many policies covered up by secrecy.

Of course my point does not lie in the particular editorial, and there were reasons to question Speaker Wright’s wisdom in speaking out when he did. But I think the tone of the editorial reflected a general trend. The established press in this country has to a large extent reverted to the symbiotic relationship with the executive branch. We are an adversary only on the margins, not on the fundamentals that challenge power. We have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate.

Think about press treatment of the presidency in the 1970s and, by comparison, in the last eight years. In Ben Bradlee’s phrase, there has been “a return to deference.” We are all uneasily aware that something like that has happened. We are not sure why it came about. But we can place the change in the Reagan years.

When President Reagan took office in 1981, the press at first reported with gusto on the gaps in his knowledge and interest, the confusion of fact and fancy. The evening television news noted his mistakes at press conferences, and newspapers detailed them the next day. But it turned out that the public did not care about Mr. Reagan’s flubs. James David Barber, the scholar of the presidency, said the public treated his contempt for facts “as a charming idiosyncrasy.” So the press’s interest in recording Mr. Reagan’s wanderings from reality waned. More important, the press did not give the public real insight into the working of the Reagan White House—into the confusion and vacuity that have been described so convincingly now in books by former insiders.

After Mr. Reagan had been President for about a year, I wrote a column puzzling over why the press seemed to hold back from giving us an unvarnished picture. The reporting was gingerly, sometimes almost protective. Why? I ventured a few guesses on the possible reasons.

One was Mr. Reagan’s political standing. He had won in a landslide in 1980, and rolled over Congress in the tax and budget battle of 1981. He had the most convincing validation a democracy can give, and the public was not interested in carping at the details. Who was the press to challenge that? To put it another way, I thought some in the press were subconsciously asking themselves what our critics like to ask: Who elected us?

Second, some in the press may have felt uneasy because they were liberals. If they did tough stories, they might be accused of treating Mr. Reagan unfairly for that reason—accused, that is, of being insufficiently “objective.”

Third, I guessed that some reporters and editors who watched Mr. Reagan were reluctant as citizens to speak out about what they saw. They saw the most powerful of offices occupied by a man with an anecdotal view of the world, giving simplistic answers to complicated questions, or tuning out. They found it upsetting to acknowledge, to the public or to themselves, that American leadership was in such hands.

My friends in Washington did not think much of my speculations; they denied that they were holding back for any such reasons. But looking back now, I still think that my concern had a basis. I believe there were unacknowledged constraints on the vigor of the press in covering the Reagan White House, including the three I mentioned. To them I would now add a weightier fourth reason: in a word, fear.

For nearly twenty years now the political right in this country has been working to intimidate the press and arouse public feeling against it. Spiro Agnew may be taken as the starting point, with his denunciations of the liberal elitist press and the nattering nabobs of negativism. We treat him as a joke figure now, with his notion that someone should start a good news newspaper; and, after all, he did turn out to be a particularly cheap crook. But the resentments he touched and aroused were not a joke, and they have not gone away. There are a good many Americans who use the phrase “elitist press.”

Watergate fed the resentment. Nixon had his supporters to the end, and they were enraged at the part played in his fall by an unelected press. A certain amount of hubris on the part of the press about its role made the feelings worse. After the President resigned, even some citizens and politicians who knew he had to go resented what they considered the display of the power of the press. So there was a Watergate backlash against the press. We felt it, we worried about it, and we tried to compensate for it.

Most important of all, in these historical causes, there was Vietnam. Millions of Americans, including some in high office, are convinced that we lost that war because the press showed us the horrors of it in graphic detail—and somehow favored the other side. What the press actually did, in its noblest tradition, was to show the reality that it was an unwinnable war. But the anger remains.

Today intimidation of the press is a standard item on the agenda of the organized political right. There are self-appointed monitors who circulate denunciations of articles and television programs that depart from their ideology. There are groups that support libel suits. And there is Jesse Helms, threatening to buy up a network that is not far enough to the right for his taste.

There was an important example of the effectiveness of intimidation in the election campaign. When Vice-President Bush appeared on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather tried to question him about his role in the Iran-contra affair. Mr. Bush ducked, weaved, barracked, picked a fight. It was a beautifully staged performance, well prepared by Mr. Bush and his handlers. The purpose was to make it seem that Rather was leaning on the Vice-President improperly—and to frighten others away from asking him questions about Iran. And it worked. Even before the Rather interview ended, Bush telephone banks made complaining calls to CBS affiliated stations; they are a nervous lot, and they got the chilling message. After that evening nobody in the press went after Mr. Bush about his role in a sustained way, though there is every reason to believe that he was more deeply involved in the affair than he said.

Lately one of the right-wing extremists who goads the press has again denounced Mr. Rather over that episode. It showed, he said, what an unfair liberal Mr. Rather was that he pressed such questions on the Vice-President of the United States. Lèse majesté! That is where we are: the price of pressing a question of fundamental importance on a political candidate who will not answer is to be denounced as “liberal.” And I repeat: it works.

There was another example of the effectiveness of intimidation in the 1988 campaign. That was the handling of the press in the Dan Quayle affair.

When George Bush chose Senator Quayle as his running mate, reporters at the Republican Convention soon discovered that Quayle had avoided military service in Vietnam by getting himself public relations duty in the National Guard. How did he get it? By all indications, through family influence. Then came the counterattack. Republicans compared the reporters to sharks in a “feeding frenzy.” Senator Quayle staged a press conference in the middle of a political rally in his home town, Huntington, Indiana. When reporters tried to ask questions about the Guard, people in the audience booed. When Ellen Hume of The Wall Street Journal stood her ground, the crowd shouted against “the redhead.”

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