“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.”
It has often been argued that journalism would be much improved if its practitioners knew more about the great world. Catledge sometimes suggests that he feels it a weakness in himself that his intimacy with movers and shakers never extended much wider than the society of Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi. Sulzberger’s is a case very strongly arguing the opposite. He has worked as hard to understand the world as the harshest task-master could demand of him. Yet to read him is finally to be convinced of the proposition that travel narrows and familiarity breeds only deference. For when you sup with kings it becomes terribly hard to be attentive when you come to sup with anyone less than kingly. Sulzberger can be at once snobbish about high culture and scornful of its less conventional manifestations: he meets Graham Greene in the Saigon airport (“Although he is a dilapidated-looking character, he is certainly adventurous enough…”) and seems to feel almost freed of an incubus when he flies off to Manila and the more consequential company of Admiral Spruance.
Sulzberger could hardly have put us through the longueurs of so many hours with important persons if he had not considered their mere presence a warrant of excitement. As it was, these personages told him very little, and too much of that either designed to mislead or the result of having been misled themselves. Still he retains the capacity endlessly to endure tedious and useless conversation simply for the reward of being able to attribute a shadow of it to some eminence or other. And so we have whole days with de Gaulle and hardly a sentence that might not as well have been inscribed on a public monument.
Such feeble results from so much labor to learn more about the world may have had their origin in the circumstances in American journalism when Catledge discovered the world. He was formed in the Twenties when most newspapermen were confined to unnoticeable places and thus spared illusions about their subjects. It required heroic abjection to look up to Mayor William Hale Thompson of Chicago, although, the trade having always been resouceful, I have no doubt that there were reporters who managed it. Even so, a mayor’s destiny was hardly your destiny unless you were on the take with him.
The distractions of grandeur were much more disabling for Sulzberger’s generation. He began as a war correspondent, which is a course in accompanying the chariots of heroes for whose cause you have every excuse to pray. The reporter who flattered his sources for ignoble purposes was hardly an invention of the war years; but the cheerleader for noble ones became a common figure only then, and he was, if far more decent in motive, rather more destructive in his final effect, patriotism having become the ultimate pitfall of an honest man. The subject of discussion changed; it became the cause to which the journalist felt a dedication hardly inferior to his source’s. The only sort of question President Roosevelt seems to have asked Catledge was about whether the Democrats would carry Illinois; but the potentates Sulzberger talks to ask him how they can restore Franco-American relations or whether they should develop instruments with names like the Saadabad Pact.
It is a general practice of officials to ask reporters questions, if only to distract reporters from asking them questions; but being a Sulzberger and possessed of all that family’s sense of social duty, he seems to bring at least as much concentration to his answers as he does to any of his questions. One night, near the close of the 1956 election campaign, he is dining with the Harrimans. Lucius Clay, who is close to Eisenhower, calls to ask what should be done to help the Poles in the first signs of their breaking free from Moscow. Offer them economic aid, but do not intrude, says Sulzberger. Adlai Stevenson calls to ask how the Democrats can capitalize on the Polish situation; “Averell, at my suggestion, told Stevenson that he should make no statements except of the most vague and general sort.”
Sulzberger, in the guise of his friend John Sherman Cooper, even contributes a socially enlightened sentence to the 1960 Republican platform. He is affectingly assured that this sort of thing is required of anyone in the nation’s service. His own attitude is perfectly recognizable in the notice he pays Governor Averell Harriman’s statement, issued when the Polish and Hungarian crises had burst into the last week of the 1956 election, that “Eisenhower is President of all the American people, not just Republicans, and it is everybody’s duty to get behind ‘our president.’ ”
“Averell,” Sulzberger reflects, “grows with the years.”
That last observation well illustrates the rule that the better the best journalists get at cultivating their sources the duller their critical faculties in their presence. Despite this respectful judgment, Harriman emerges in Sulzberger’s account as an extraordinarily spiteful man incapable not merely of generosity but even of fairness toward anyone who happened to be in political competition with him. There is a most unsavory portrait of Harriman when he was grasping for the Democratic nomination for President in 1956: “Roy Cohn is going to vote for me…. He knows I’m not soft on Communism the way Stevenson is.”
This revelation of Harriman’s nasty side when the fit is upon him happens to be one of those new things one reader—a most insular one and thus more open to instruction than most—was able to learn from Sulzberger’s thousand pages. A second involved the mechanical ingenuity with which the Japanese temporarily stirred the torpid juices of their crown prince when state policy required their interesting him in a bride: they chose a girl with thick legs—an ideal of their culture—and set her before him in a tennis dress. Another suggests the refined sophistication of President Eisenhower, who was visited by Sulzberger in the summer of 1956. “It’s too bad,” Eisenhower said, “we don’t have the old Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. They still had plenty to give up, if necessary, under pressure. Take Syria, for example. What do they have to give up?” I find this the charming fancy of a very wise man. Sulzberger finds it “(a curious view).”
It is possible to respect the sincerity of Sulzberger’s commitment to such gossip and also find it difficult to preserve the tatters of one’s faith in the detachment of the Times when one comes upon its chief commentator on international affairs refreshed by his visit to the Moroccan air base “where we have some of our best H-Bomb retaliatory power,” or reflecting in Saigon in 1955 that “we have to support Diem because there is no alternative.”
A great deal of journalism’s failure comes from the very sort of success at earning the companionship of its sources which Sulzberger has so splendidly achieved. The habit of reliance upon official sources is ingrained early in the profession, and its stubborn survival may explain why so many highly intelligent men can sometimes seem so dumb. I once knew a man who covered the Moscow trials with such unalloyed certainty of the guilt of the defendants as to convince anti-Stalinists that he could only be a Communist. They pursued him with their denunciations almost to the grave. Being Europeans, they were unfamiliar with our custom of training journalists by assigning them to the police, who teach them that if you always follow the police version no editor can ever dispute your spelling of a name. My acquaintance, in spite of a most intense education thereafter, had, in a police state, simply reverted to being a police reporter.
But what is, if anything, worse, fidelity to sources produces that exclusive concentration on the subjects that happen to attract the notice of sources. This does most to explain why reporters and their readers are so often surprised by events. I had always argued, and almost sincerely, in defense of my trade that Washington journalists retailed those statements of Senator Joe McCarthy’s which most of them strongly suspected to be lies only because anything a senator says is news and therefore entitled to print. But Cirino’s researches entirely dispose of any such argument; he proves without even trying to that a senator is no more attended to than anyone else when he chooses issues which, however important they ought to be the rest of us, do not seem important to important people.
So when Senator Lee Metcalf draws from a Federal Power Commission report the evidence that power companies are overcharging their customers he is completely ignored by The New York Times. Senator Gaylord Nelson warned against cyclamates in food six months before the Food and Drug Administration banned them; he received just two inches in the Times. Senator George McGovern’s complaints about hunger seldom draw more than six inches far inside.
The Los Angeles Times did not even bother to print the 1969 statement of Senator Allen Ellender, who at least had the eminence of having the second highest seniority in the Senate, that his own observations on the ground had convinced him that “the Russian people are very desirous of peace” even though “our country has spent $130 billion to isolate Russia” over the past twenty years.
Joe McCarthy deserved attention not because he was a senator but because he shared an obsession with official Washington. Talking about the problems on the mind of the news source is routine for a journalist; talking about the problems that might concern members of the public is a departure from custom except under the most extra-ordinary circumstances, carrying the risk of embarrassment and likely to be undertaken more often than not only after prompting from one’s editor or publisher.
Catledge had no reason to hope to protect his readers from continual surprises until he could protect his reporters from them too. But the best of journalists are unused to becoming aware of public problems until their news sources have become aware of them, that is well after a good many informed private citizens already are. A problem does emit signals long before it bursts. Cirino reminds us—or anyway such few as managed to find out—that auto safety was a cause of alarm for officials of the American Medical Association and the American College of Surgeons long before government even began thinking about it. Yet the Times generally ignored those substantial early warnings; and anyone who read that paper closely in the Fifties could be excused for deciding that the only peril to life and limb capable of arousing the spokesmen of organized doctors was socialized medicine.
Throughout the year 1950, the Times did not run a single front-page story about pollution; and 1960 passed with exactly the same display of indifference. In 1953, after fifteen years of keeping the issue of cigarettes and cancer well into its back pages, the Times finally moved it up front. This breakthrough, Cirino notices, came with “an article implying that there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the link between smoking and disease.”
The venality of our instruments of information is Cirino’s basic explanation for such delinquencies. Simple-minded explanations are quite often the best ones; but there are others not entirely useless. For one thing, since newspapers and television stations are privately owned, their proprietors are the final repository of their conscience. Catledge, discreet though he is about the subtleties of power, makes it clear that he found that it could most conveniently be exercised if he maintained a certain confusion in the minds of his subordinates over whether the views he was expressing were his own (compliance voluntary) or those of the publisher (compliance compulsory).
One day, not long after I took command, I made a suggestion to [Assistant Managing Editor Theodore M.] Bernstein which he ignored. The next day I told him that I was sorry he hadn’t followed my instructions, because it was something the publisher had wanted done. “Why didn’t you tell me that?” Ted asked. I replied that he had best assume that anything I wanted the publisher also wanted.
But the publisher of the Times is by definition someone under enormous pressure from the highest officials of a government to which he has every reason to be loyal. Politicians are generally exempt from that ordinary decency which inhibits so many other persons from complaining against a man to his boss; when Arthur Ochs Sulzberger paid his first visit to the White House after being installed as publisher, President Kennedy welcomed him with the suggestion that David Halberstam had been in South Vietnam a little too long. In 1956, C.L. Sulzberger was on his way to China with his visa when he called his uncle Arthur, then his publisher, to say good-bye:
“Where are you going?” he asked. “China,” I told him. “My God, you can’t do that!”…Then the whole sad story came out. It seems that in a moment of mental aberration, Uncle A. promised Dulles that he wouldn’t let anyone from the Times go to China until Dulles gave his okay.
The decision that the Times would not print its advance warning of the Bay of Pigs invasion was made by Orvil Dryfoos, then its publisher. In 1965, when the Times was preparing a series on the CIA, Secretary of State Rusk called Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Catledge:
He did not suggest specifically that we kill the series. But he did make it clear that he believed that publication of the series might upset delicate US intelligence efforts all over the world, might endanger agents…encourage enemies and otherwise harm the national interest.
The Times yielded to the degree of calling in John McCone, former director of the CIA, to “let him read the entire series.” By the spring of 1966 Catledge was able to assure his publisher that “every point raised…by Mr. McCone has been carefully considered and in almost every case the piece has been revised or modified in line with his suggestions.” At last the series could be printed.
That December, Secretary Rusk was back on the phone to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, disturbed this time by the discovery that Harrison Salisbury was in Hanoi, preparing a series for the Times. “Is Mr. Salisbury asking the right questions?” Rusk inquired softly. “I hope so,” Sulzberger answered. After hanging up, he called Clifton Daniel, his managing editor, and asked him to get from Rusk any question he wanted Salisbury to ask the North Vietnamese. Rusk had no questions. 3
When we consider winds of such force, it is rather admirable of the Times to have yielded most of the time only to the degree of trimming before them. But since broadcasting began as the pampered child of government, the occasional displays of resistance by its news staffs seem almost heroic. Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, served under President Johnson as chairman of the United States Advisory Commission on Information, which oversees the USIA, and as chairman of the Executive Committee of Radio Free Europe, the loudest voice of the otherwise covert CIA.4
The struggle of Fred Friendly, then president of CBS-News, to maintain its objectivity against the displeasure of a company president with so committed an interest in his government’s propaganda network is nicely summarized in Eric Barnouw’s The Image Empire, the final volume of his history of broadcasting:
When a Murray Fromson broadcast in January, 1966, mentioned the United States air bases in Thailand—springboard, since February, 1965, of incessant bombing of the North Vietnamese—Stanton protested to [Friendly], saying that all correspondents had agreed to embargo this information…. Stanton said the United States government might be embarrassed—which was certainly true.
In 1966, hardly a premature moment, Friendly arranged a half-hour television interview with Senator William Fulbright. “What a dirty trick that was to play on the president of the United States,” said Stanton to Friendly afterward.
To his credit, Stanton took no action beyond these incessant grumblings. Still it would not be too much to expect such an attitude in the company’s highest official not to produce some inhibitions in CBS’s news coverage. There is, for example, the sour atmosphere that followed what ought to have been a proud moment for CBS, the 1965 broadcast of Morley Safer’s film of Marines burning a village suspected of Viet Cong sympathies: “The Defense Department made it clear to CBS,” Barnouw tells us, “that Safer was persona non grata. CBS upheld Safer and those who put him on the air, but CBS officials let Fred Friendly…know that they felt uneasy about Safer. Such crises inevitably encouraged self-censorship.”
Ben Bagdikian is a news executive with the Washington Post; The Information Machines is the result of a RAND Corporation grant to study the developing “technologies that will change the way the next generation receives its news.” He communicates a certain fascination with the machines; but he has much too much common sense to believe that technology alone can produce any fundamental improvement, and he is most interesting for his quietly despairing analysis of the institutions that now control the assembly of news and will be responsible for its operations no matter how dazzling its machines may be.
Who, he asks, controls what people see on television today?
The greatest access is by national corporations that manufacture mass consumption goods…. The second most influential access to the communications power of networks is by the network corporations themselves…. The third most powerful access to the centralized television system is national leadership, particularly the President of the United States.
The interaction of this triangle, in times when they are united, helps to explain that curious period when John Foster Dulles was grand ringmaster of so much television news.
In the early Fifties, Barnouw says in The Image Empire,
…world events were seen to a large extent through the eyes of Dulles. Crises erupted during those years over Guatemala, Vietnam, mainland China and other places without network news bureaus. The troubles were, in any case, not of a sort that could yield their essence to newsreel cameras, even if available. This meant that a filmed press conference excerpt, or a newsman’s report “from a reliable source” or a filmed statement by Dulles from a lectern at the edge of an airstrip became the news. For networks he often seemed a welcome deus ex machina. In a 15-minute newscast, a 90-second report on Southeast Asia by the Secretary of State himself seemed grand and took care of Southeast Asia nicely. That television was beginning to pay a high price for its dependence on pseudo-events was guessed by few.
Things have rather fallen apart since. Even so, in 1966, Frank Stanton could excuse CBS’s decision not to broadcast George Kennan’s testimony on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the ground that Kennan no longer held an official position.
Access does widen in times of anarchy like these as it contracted in times of order like Dulles’s. Still it is hard to believe that improvement is otherwise possible. Even if the Times were improved, it would, so far as newspapers go at least, make very little difference in the sum of information about the real world that flows to the public. Bagdikian convinces us that newspaper readers are implacably local in their interests; no national newspaper, however ideal, is ever likely to alter that prejudice. The newspaper most Americans read has contents chosen by their neighbors. No machine of the future has for Bagdikian anything like the compelling interest aroused in him by the news editor, that depreciating human instrument he calls “the gatekeeper,” because someone of his type exercises the essential control of what the average reader of a newspaper can learn there about the world.
A news editor on a large metropolitan daily “may see ten times more words and seven times more stories than the reader ever sees. What the gatekeeper throws away is generally never known to the reader. It is as though 80 percent of the stories that arrive in local newsrooms never happened. That is inevitable but it is awesome.”
On the basis of observations during the RAND study, the typical gatekeeper of news makes his decisions with remarkable speed. Discarded stories took from one to two seconds of reading each. The time taken for the initial decision on stories destined to go into the paper was somewhat longer, but not a great deal on the average…. One very fast gatekeeper took an average of four seconds to handle [read, decide to use it, and indicate the changes he wanted made] a story of 225 words.
The ultimate machine that controls the flow of what we are given to know would appear to be in this case as in so many others our old friend, the conditioned reflex.
The reflex, to be sure, is less automatic and predictable than it used to be or than Cirino is quite ready to concede. The Mylai case suggests the difference: the little Dispatch News Service offered Seymour Hersh’s account of it to fifty newspapers, all of them substantial ones, and was able to place it in thirty-six. Few of us could have believed even ten years ago that a time would come when so young and unfamiliar a journalist, represented by so new and obscure a syndicate, could effect so crashing an entree with a story that discredited so many national pieties and so powerful an institution as the United States Army.
We may credit this change to Ho Chi Minh more than to any American because just by enduring he wore away the armor of national assurance that had served so long to repel every dubiety. Because of Ho we can feel the suspicion that in reading about C.L. Sulzberger’s tours of inspection of America’s proconsuls in their garrisons we are being informed of the peregrinations of a dying species. As the rule of the proconsuls does not run as it used to, so the voice of their herald has lost its authority.
Then, too, that facility of travel which makes possible the awesome variety of places where Sulzberger can pause and fortify his prejudices has also made possible the reporter who carries more doubts and questions with him. Whether or not we really know more of the world than we used to, we very clearly know more of America. Those journalists who traveled the South in the early Fifties were very rare birds indeed; one could wander for days and never come across a voyager of one’s own species except John Popham of The New York Times.
For most of what the public knew depended on what the native journalists told us; and though their standards both of performance and honor were admirable, still they had to live with the politicians and the policemen they covered and there was a point of candor beyond which they could not go. The opening of the South to a degree of reality was made possible only by national television and by the journalist who came in from the outside and was free of the restraints of permanent residence. The journalists who did most to describe the facts of the 1968 police shooting of three Negro students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, were itinerants like Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, Jack Bass of the Knight Newspapers, and Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post.
At Orangeburg, Hoagland says,
The [police] version [of the shootings] was accepted by most local newspapers….
Enveloped in an admittedly dangerous situation and realizing that they, unlike outside reporters, would have to rely for other stories on men like Pete Strom the state’s top policeman, and Henry Lake…the governor’s top representative in Orangeburg, the South Carolina reporters were plainly in no mood to rile the police by pressing.5
The inhibitions of the reporter who has to live with the people he is covering explain one ironical reflection that is bound to follow Bagdikian’s finding that the consumer of information is more anxious to hear about his own community than about his country or the world: journalism seems to do best the job that is least demanded.
Radio and television, Bagdikian murderously proves, offer local coverage that is in general so pitiable that newspapers have survived largely because they do it better. But, for the inadequacy of the better, we need only look at The New York Times. Improvement of the local coverage of the Times was one of Catledge’s special aspirations and, beyond some artful cosmetology, probably his largest failure.
The crises of cities show themselves most often when one of their more substantial institutions is under challenge; and, at such moments, the detachment—one almost has to say the honor—of the Times collapses before its passion to defend the institution and repel those besieging it. In emergencies, it permits itself to be used with an entire absence of the dignity of its day-to-day bearing. It so shamelessly permitted Albert Shanker to manipulate it during the 1968 New York teachers’ strike as to be a major force in the propagation of the black anti-Semitism scare he cried up to protect his union’s private interest. The Times’s coverage of the 1968 Columbia strike was so committedly—one might almost say venomously—against the student rebels as to draw upon itself the criticism of the Columbia Journalism Review, which you would normally expect to be less detached from the interests of the institution that sponsors it than the country’s most respected independent newspaper would be.
If the conditioned reflex can offer us surprises when it observes what happens at a distance, it remains lamentably predictable when it observes what happens at home.
April 8, 1971
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume IV, page 279. ↩
The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese (World, $10.00; Bantam, $1.50, paper). ↩
The story of the Secretary of State’s intervention in the matter of Harrison Salisbury, like the story of the President’s intervention in the matter of David Halberstam, is drawn from Talese and not from Catledge. ↩
See Mass Communications and American Empire by Herbert I. Schiller (Kelley, $9.00). ↩
Incident at Orangeburg: A Reporter’s Notes by Jim Hoagland, Columbia Journalism Review, Spring, 1968. ↩