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.”
On television, that made a wonderful piece of “press harassment”—all planned by the Quayle handlers. And then there was another perfect television clip. A few days later Quayle was shown taking the garbage out of his house—and reporters surrounded him and shouted questions. An outrageous invasion of privacy, right? Wrong. What television did not say in showing that episode was that the Bush-Quayle campaign had listed the trash dumping on its schedule as the only time that day when Quayle would be available to the press.
There were a lot of questions about Senator Quayle that never got answered in the campaign. How did he graduate from college without meeting the requirements that all other political science majors had to meet? Why was he given a second general examination when he failed the regular one, and what was the nature of the second exam? How did he get into law school when his grades were below the levels expected of other applicants? His academic records would have told us the answers, but Senator Quayle refused to let anyone see the records. I know some reporters were interested, but somehow they did not press the questions hard enough or often enough to make the refusal to answer an issue—which it properly was.
I wonder what part the intimidating effects of the attacks on the press had in the way the Quayle story trailed off into nothingness. I wonder whether the press would have let such a story about a Democratic candidate trail off. Nowadays, at least, Democrats are not much good at bullying the press. And bullying has its effect.
The boldest press enterprise in the runup to the 1988 election was the investigation of Gary Hart’s sex life. Whatever its other merits, that performance showed no particular courage. Senator Hart was vulnerable and a loner, in no position to bully his accusers or arouse public resentment against them.
The 1988 campaign left some reporters who covered it, and their editors and producers, feeling uneasy. One said she thought she had been complicit in a fraud on democracy. Another said: “I feel dirty.” I think we can identify a number of reasons for those feelings: a number of press failures in the campaign.
One was the failure to make clear how Vice-President Bush was insulated from the press, kept away from unprogrammed questions. It was the same kind of insulation practiced in the Reagan campaigns, but this time without the excuse of Mr. Reagan’s personal aura to disarm the press. Yet the press essentially accepted the role assigned to it by the Bush campaign, grumbling but in the end largely passive. There was hardly any effort to describe what was going on.
After the election I had a letter from a reader saying that, yes, this had been a frustrating campaign for voters, one in which the candidates had not grappled with the real issues facing the country; but that was not just the fault of the candidates or their handlers. They can only be “handled,” the reader said, if the press cooperates. Why didn’t reporters traveling on the candidates’ planes at least have the backbone to demand weekly press conferences? That would work, he said, “because no candidate can afford to risk the concerted antagonism of his mouthpieces.”
I doubt that that remedy would work so easily. It is difficult to get reporters to work in concert, and it should be. The public relations men have ways to get around us, at least for a considerable time. But surely we in the press ought to be putting up a fight against the insulated campaign, describing it, focusing on it in a sustained way instead of shrugging our shoulders. The problem was particularly acute this time for television. While George Bush was refusing to meet the press, Michael Dukakis at first held daily press conferences. He was rewarded by having embarrassing bits shown on the nightly news up against sound bites staged by the Bush campaign. Paul Friedman, executive producer of the ABC World News Tonight, said he was aware of the problem but did not know how to deal with it. He and the rest of us had better start trying to figure out how.
A second problem in this year’s coverage was fascination with the process of the modern campaign, and with its manipulators: process, not substance. And not values. We celebrated Roger Ailes for his craft as a maker of television ads that created a picture of Michael Dukakis as a friend of murderers and rapists. There were lots of stories about the superiority of the technicians on that side. One newspaper political analyst even wrote a piece arguing that the inferior quality of Governor Dukakis’s television ads had “disturbing implications about Dukakis’s leadership.”
I wonder how Thomas Jefferson, an introspective man, would rate as a political leader by that standard. Perhaps our democracy has been so corrupted by technology that a person such as Jefferson could no longer hope to lead it. That may be. But I do not think the press should be cheering the corrupters for their efficiency. I say that not out of concern for Michael Dukakis, who should have replied to the smears long before he did. My concern is for our business. There were times in this campaign when we looked like theater critics—critics interested only in the artfulness of the scenery, not in the substance of the play.
The press in this campaign actually participated in the degradation of the democratic process. It did so by taking up, as if they were real, the non-issues invented to distract voters from the hard economic and other problems ahead. The two so-called Presidential debates provided embarrassing examples. I say so-called because of course they were not debates, not head-to-head confrontations like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. They were games, in which members of the press played stage roles. I think CBS News people were right when they decided not to participate in the second debate.
In that second debate Governor Dukakis was told by one of the journalists that the public didn’t seem to like him; he was asked whether a President should be likable. That was one of the questions in the supposed focal point of our great democratic process. Then there was the opening question, put by the moderator, Bernard Shaw of CNN: Would Governor Dukakis favor the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered? I leave it to Roger Ailes to comment on that. In an interview in the Gannett Center Journal, just published, he says: “It was an outrageous…question.”
Another disturbing feature of the 1988 campaign was the press’s inability to deal with lies. For example, the Bush campaign had a highly effective ad blaming Dukakis for the polluted state of Boston Harbor. It showed a sludgy pool of water with a sign saying: “danger/radiation hazard/no swimming.” The picture was in fact not of Boston Harbor, and it had nothing to do with Dukakis. It was taken at an abandoned nuclear submarine repair yard.
What is the responsibility of the press when it is paid to carry such flagrant distortions? As a general rule it is sensible not to try to edit political advertising for truth. The New York Times used to print, once a year, full-page ads containing the thoughts of Kim II Sung, the dictator of North Korea. I think it was right to take the money and let him say whatever he wanted. But it is another thing to refrain from comment on advertising that directly affects the American political process and that is deliberately false. Run the ad, yes—but say something.
That leads to a final problem. It is the press’s desire to look “objective,” which I think has become a dangerous obsession of American journalism.
Go back to Boston Harbor. George Bush took a cruise around it one day during the campaign, and said its condition proved that he was a better environmentalist than Dukakis. Most television networks and stations used the nice visual and a Bush sound bite, without any critical analysis. The simplest check would have shown that Dukakis had a fairly good record on environmental issues, while Bush as Vice-President had a negative record and indeed had often pointed with pride to his activity in pushing development over environmental interests. But to report that would not have been “objective.”
I had the feeling in this campaign that we were not getting enough writing by political reporters following their instincts for the deeper springs of politics. It was only very late in the campaign, for instance, when attention began to be paid to what is surely one of the determining factors in national voting patterns: race.
The Bush campaign’s appeal to white fears of blacks, in the heavy emphasis on the Willie Horton case, for example, was blatant and effective. How could the press have failed to point it out? I think one reason was the anxious concern for “objectivity” that now seems to fill most editorial breasts, the demand that every story be “balanced.” A penetrating description of the racist tactics in the Bush campaign would not have “balance.” Old-fashioned political reporting would certainly have homed in on the phenomenon, but there was a lot less of that in the 1988 campaign. Instead we had more of what could be called market research.
Political campaigns have used market research methods since 1968, when the Nixon campaign did so well with them. The technique is to survey the voters, find out what they want in a candidate, then reshape the image of your man to fit that desire. Now the press seems to have become entranced by market research for campaign coverage. We had “focus groups” of our own, collections of voters whose impressions we reported. We all had polls, and devoted enormous space and time to reporting the results of our own and others’. It all left the impression that the press’s main interest was in what tactics were working, who was winning and who was losing—not in the substantive choices facing the country, and not in truth. We have less individual flavor in our political reporting today: less of the writer with a distinctive style and background and point of view. Those qualities are suspect, I think, because they are not “objective.” It is safer to write about polls and focus groups, which are “objective.”
The craving for objectivity was carried to great lengths in this campaign. One television report did try to deal with the low road of the Bush campaign. It showed the falsehoods in a Bush ad stating that “Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we have developed.” (In fact, Dukakis supported the Trident II submarine, the D5 missile, and the Stealth bomber, among other major new weapons systems.) But the report went on to show a Dukakis ad that slightly exaggerated Bush positions. The story had to be “balanced.” Even editorial pages balanced their criticism of the Bush smears with comments on this or that in the Dukakis campaign, as if its faults remotely approached the impugning of Dukakis’s patriotism.
The idea of “balance” sounds appealing but can be a menace to serious journalism. Fairness is one thing. The American press today rightly believes that someone who is attacked should be asked for a comment before the criticism is published. But to pretend that all issues have two sides—and that any print or television account must show both—is something else altogether.
The framers of the First Amendment would scarcely have understood the idea of a “balanced” press. Papers in those days were far more biased, more partisan, than ours. The Madisonian thesis was that truth would emerge from the clash of different opinions. The thesis is far more important when it comes to facts. That was what the Pentagon Papers case was all about: the right and duty of the press to publish the facts of public life, and not in the “balanced” form desired by government.
In a speech at Yale in 1974 Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court said that in Vietnam and Watergate the American press had performed “precisely the function” envisaged by the First Amendment. To see the press as “a neutral conduit of information between the people and their elected leaders” was a great mistake, he said: a constitutional mistake. The framers did not intend the press to be a vehicle for “balanced discussion.” They wanted it to seek the truth.
Some of us remember when we had a hard lesson on the limits of “He said, She said” journalism—when we learned that just repeating what a politician said was not “objective” in the true sense. Senator Joe McCarthy taught us the lesson. When he denounced fifty-seven or twenty-two people as Communists, the wire services would flash what he said. For a long time they maintained that it would not be right to add any perspective: to tell the readers what had happened to his last charges, and the ones before that. But eventually the wire services and some of the newspapers and broadcasters understood that their obligation went beyond carrying the propaganda of a demagogue. They had an obligation to bring out the truth, and they still do.
January 19, 1989