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 that can account for the failure of daily journalism to serve as an independent force in the society. Independence is what the press proclaims and what it lacks. In ways which journalists themselves perceive only dimly or not at all, they are bought, or compromised, or manipulated into confirming the official lies: not the little ones, which they delight in exposing, but the big ones, which they do not normally think of as lies at all, and which they cannot distinguish from the truth.
IT IS EASIER to describe the system than to understand its fundamental dynamics. Reston talks about the more obvious pressures on journalists, particularly the huge Washington contingent. The wire services have to cater to such a disparate and dispersed audience that little opportunity is afforded for originality, analysis, depth of coverage, or controversialism. The “tyranny of time and geography” encourages the “flaming lead and the big headline.” Fear of reportorial imbalance leads many reporters to pass along as news “anything a big shot said.” Beyond that, Reston says, the growth of the government as well as the expansion of the press corps militates against personal reporting and interviewing and makes necessary the big formal press conference and the flow of hand-outs.
There are other pressures, too, which may be subtle or not so subtle. The “beat” system gives reporters a stake in the fortunes of their sources. Like it or not, newsmen become spokesmen for their beats. They mostly like it. A reporter who must continue to cover the War on Poverty is not going to antagonize his best sources by exposing the frauds and futility of their programs. He will accept the top officials’ perceptions of their work, and criticize only within narrow terms. A Times reporter may make trouble about a Head Start center or a Job Corps camp, but he could not on his life report the whole anti-poverty show as a failed gimmick (which would not be difficult to do). In the more totalitarian communities in Washington—the military and judicial establishments, to name two—beat reporting is almost indistinguishable from propagandizing. Scores of newsmen “cover” the Pentagon, which means presenting its cases and causes to readers unsullied by analysis or criticism. Aside from a few stories per year on inter-service rivalries and Defense Department grievances against the President and Congress, no running critique of militarism can be found. Reporters might dig into the dealings of the Pentagon with private industry, the personal relationships between military men and friendly congressmen, and the influence of the defense establishment on areas (such as civil disobedience and race tensions) not generally thought to be of military concern. But reporters stick to their safe stories; for their caution, they get the open-door treatment, a few beers with the colonels, and a sense of swinging, having the inside dope. There is no overestimating the status value of inside-dopesterism—in a profession that gives few other symbols.
The judicial community is in some ways more closed than the military. Reporters may write brilliantly or banally about court decisions, but they invariably shy away from the important stories of judicial politics and the exercise of power outside the courtroom. Who influences whom on the Supreme Court, and to what end? What is Abe Fortas’s role in Washington politics? How do judges get promoted? There are a hundred stories worth reporting, and they are not to be found in hearing transcripts or briefs. But newsmen covering the courts soon take on the professional attitude of their subjects, which is that no one who hasn’t been to law school is even remotely capable of understanding legal problems, and in any case must be patronized if spoken to at all. Furthermore, what goes on in the judges’ chambers and lawyers’ offices is not construed as a valid subject of public interest, much less a political issue. The journalists agree.
Every major newspaperman in Vietnam must accept the basic premises of US policy there, although he may carp, within limits, about this or that military tactic or one or another political move. Often the reporting is just bad. There was monumental misreporting of the “build-ups” during the recent Têt truce, about the elections last year, about the work of the constituent assembly, about civilian casualties, about the conditions for negotiations, about the composition of the National Liberation Front, about the pacification program. But more depressing has been the failure of good reporting—including much by the Times’s able correspondents—to lead to logical conclusions about the nature of US foreign policy. The essential preconceptions somehow remain, and in turn color the day-to-day reportage. For example, many reporters in Vietnam found out long ago that the war they were reporting was not a simple case of “aggression from the North” as the Administration would have it. And yet none of them reports it as a civil war (in which there might be journalists sympathetic to both sides).
THE CRUCIAL QUESTION is how reporters so mysteriously take on the ideological coloration of their surroundings. Reston is no help at all in articulating possible answers, but by indirection and unwitting example he suggests a great deal. Compare, for instance, these two fragments of an analysis of California politics:
The significance of the left-wing radicals was not that they had any power in and of themselves, but that they could energize the radical right which has power in California.
The New Left is not powerful in California, but in the last few years, with its provocative extremism, it has energized the conservative right.
The first is a verbatim quotation by Clark Kerr in the issue of Newsweek that was running through the presses on January 29th last. The second is Reston’s own thoughts in his column in the Times of the same day.
The point is not that the similarity of language is at all shameful. One of the privileges of columnar journalism is the freedom from footnoting it confers on its practitioners. Reston says that journalists must indulge in “compulsory plagiarism” to protect their sources. By the time Reston saw him in Berkeley, Kerr had apparently formulated a way of talking about his dismissal as president of the University of California; like a politician on the hustings, he repeated a set speech with only minor variations at each whistlestop. What is important (and seems so stark in juxtaposition) is Reston’s total identification with Kerr’s perception of the interplay of forces in California. Reston wrote from Berkeley. He could have interviewed any number of students, or teachers, or regents, or politicians who would have given different pictures of what was happening; and he may indeed have spoken to them all. Their perceptions would not necessarily have been more valid than Kerr’s. But Reston, the dean of the responsible, liberal press, chose Kerr, the dean of responsible, liberal education.
Reston’s role, like most working journalists, is to feel that responsibility. As reporters advance in their “careers,” they gravitate toward establishments, which reward them with compliments, power, jobs, and an overall sense of security. Some become satellites around powerful men, justifying their orbits as paths to good sources, as part of the game. Officials read them speeches for approval before they are delivered, or take their little suggestions. The reporters get sucked in further. To his great credit, Reston has never been a crony of any politician. But he uses his power as a Times-man and his competence as a journalist to draw important people to him; the cadillacs line up. He deals with important men, as with important issues, gently. He is trusted for his deference. Friends at the Times say that he will check back with sources in the morning if they have slipped stories to him the night before in an unguarded moment at a party. (Murray Kempton has a better rule: never quote a man unless you’re sure he means what he’s saying.) But it is not without some sacrifice that Reston has climbed to the top of the tree (he is the only journalist of his generation to be on the cover of Time). He enrages no one and worries few.
Whether he changes anyone is another matter. He likes to think of himself as a teacher (or, his mother said in the Time cover story, a preacher), bringing people along to his point of view by gentle persuasion. But he probably succeeds only to the degree that the distance between his readers and himself is small. And when they all arrive at the same place, where are they?
For Reston and his fellows in daily journalism have an unbreakable engagement with the society as it is. They may criticize its efficiency but do not question its values. Reston believes strongly in journalistic support of the “national interest,” which he interprets in roughly the same way as would the people he likes to interview—Clark Kerr and all that. For “over a year” he knew that U-2’s were flying over the Soviet Union from a base in Pakistan, yet he did not report that story until the first plane was shot down in 1960. It is necessary, he says, even “obviously essential,” for the CIA to conduct operations around the world and “research projects in our own universities” without a public accounting. He tends to agree with President Kennedy’s notion that a premature exposure of plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion “might have saved the nation from the consequences of that fiasco.” But it would have been disastrous to reveal US preparations for the missile crisis of 1962 which, Reston says, “proved to be an essential and spectacularly successful exercise of American power and diplomacy.” The press must choose its stories to save the nation:
There is no guiding principle that will cover all cases, yet it is clear in this time of half-war and half-peace that the old principle of publish-and-be-damned, while very romantic, bold and hairy, can often damage the national interest…. The responsibility of the press is increasing with the world power of the nation.
Reston has few doubts about the nature of that power:
The record of the American people in adapting to new conditions since World War II is not merely remarkable but unprecedented in the history of democratic societies. Whatever the conflicts between past and present, between officials and reporters, between old traditions and new responsibilities, the central fact is that the United States has changed its policies fast enough to be an effective force in world affairs.
It has created a new balance of power in the world. It has abandoned its old traditions of isolation, low taxation, no military conscription, and laissez-faire capitalism; and in the process, it has helped remove the spirit of domination that stained national and international politics, even in the Western world, during the period before and between the two world wars.
All that is more than inaccurate reporting. It is also a particular view of the world, which implies a set of values as its fundament and a set of perceptions about the operation of men and institutions as its consequence. The principal demand of the ideology of imperial America is the cooperation of all institutions. Independence is quite literally unthinkable. Reston obligingly postulates a new “alliance” between the government and the press: “They have more to gain by cooperation with one another…than by regarding one another as ‘the enemy,’ ” he concludes. The new spirit of alianza is in most respects akin to the developing partnership between government and the big corporations, government and the big foundations, government and the big unions, the big private organizations, the big universities. Journalists—like the managers, the union leaders, the foundation directors, the teachers and students—are indoctrinated by the institutions they serve. The Times shop is as useful an instrument of ideological training as any. What students pick up in four years at, say, the University of Pennsylvania is much like what a reporter picks up in however many years at The New York Times. He is trapped, but he is permitted an illusory kind of freedom. Dissent is allowed, even encouraged, as long as it is irrelevant to change. Resistance is out of the question.
GIVEN THAT IDEOLOGICAL context, it is hard to make much sense out of Reston’s discussion of the independent “influence” of the press in foreign policy (his assigned topic in these lectures). As it turns out, Reston can’t make much sense of this question himself. “The influence of the press on foreign policy depends on the attitude of the President toward the press,” he says, and John Kennedy’s reading habits “enhanced the influence of the press during his thousand days at the White House.” On second thought, Reston says that the press influences foreign policy through the Congress and “the intellectual and communications communities of the nation.” And after all that, he decides that the very idea that the press has a decisive influence at all is “preposterous.”
Reston is not alone in his inability to think clearly about press influence: a coherent theory would be an epistemological landmark, and it has not yet been written. He is probably right to dismiss the press’s role in affecting discrete decisions. But the press does have influence, as much as any other institution in the society, in transmitting the material of the ideology. It works not by scoops or exposes; the policy changes they may cause are always short-lived or insignificant. But in the unperceived, exquisitely subtle arrangement of ideas, day after day, the press tells its readers what’s what—which values are safe, what politics are profitable, how they can make it to the top. No working journalist on a powerful publication in the US is truly independent of that function.
The restrictions on the independence of the press (a different quality than freedom of the press) are those journalistic values which working newsmen hold dear: the rules of the game. The “national interest” comes first. Sources must be “protected.” And above all, reporters must be objective.
“Objectivity” is the rationalization for moral disengagement, the classic cop-out from choice-making. Reston, like most reporters, is careful to preserve the appearance of objectivity; he is in no politician’s pay, accepts no favors for his opinions, and has no formal relationship with the Administration. Harrison Salisbury may want to testify at Foreign Relations Committee hearings, but not Reston (or Walter Lippmann, who was invited and refused). He is a member of the most uncontroversial organizations: the board of the Population Council in New York and National Educational Television (he is leaving, as NET has become a political issue). But the form of objectivity is of no consequence. Reston is as involved with an ideology as any editor of the Worker or Human Events—except that they have made the moral commitment, and he has not. Only the morally conscious are free, and only a press which makes its own choices, and its own commitments, can be independent.
May 4, 1967