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“the First Rough Draft Of History”
… is today’s newspaper. Here the executive editor of the Washington ‘Post’ takes us on a spirited dash through the minefields that await reporters and editors who gather and disseminate a most valuable commodity.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Why do they want to become newspaper people?
I don’t know. Ten years ago the answer to that was Woodward and Bernstein. It’s still the most exciting business there is. I mean, what the hell would you do if you weren’t in the newspaper business? I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know who’d hire me, either. And I don’t know what I’d be good at except maybe chopping wood.
Are papers better today because you’re hiring better people?
Yes, higher standards, better-educated reporters. Have you ever heard the really wonderful story of the first background briefing ever given in the United States? It’s Eddie Folliard’s story. Eddie was the White House reporter for the Washington Post , a Pulitzer Prize winner. He told me this, I guess back in the forties. He said it occurred the day the United States went off the gold standard, which was March of 1933. Steve Early was Roosevelt’s press secretary, and he called the entire White House press corps together, twelve people—eleven men and May Craig from Portland, Maine—and said that he had a very important announcement, that the United States was going off the gold standard. So these people all went to their typewriters and sat down and threaded them and tapped out a lead that was some variant of “in a move that shook the economic capitals of the world today, the United States went off the gold standard, period, paragraph.” And they sat there and they rubbed their hands, and they looked at their typewriters and they looked at each other and they looked at the typewriters again and realized they didn’t know whether it was good or whether it was bad. And one by one they sidled up to Early and said, “Steve, you know we need a little help on this. ” So they trotted out some faceless mole from the Bureau of the Budget, who in effect wrote that story. Today, among the people you would send to the White House would be a handful of Ph. D.’s in economics. There would be people who had written economics textbooks.
Can their editors understand?
I think that’s a real problem. I took Economics A at Harvard, and I probably got a C, and that’s the only economics course I ever took. But I have learned at Hobart Rowen’s feet, man and boy, since 1957, for twenty-five years, and I know enough to keep out of trouble. I know enough to call a pro in. That’s just one of the great problems, and editors have got to know a little bit about a whole lot of things. And you’ve got to know when you’re over your head.
Do you think that press freedoms and liberties are imperiled?
I really don’t know. I look at the years I’ve been in the business, and I can’t say that. I can remember that when this chief of police threw me downstairs in Manchester, New Hampshire, my freedom was imperiled. That hasn’t happened since. I didn’t think my freedom was imperiled when we were engaged in a mortal struggle with the President of the United States. I’m goddamn glad we didn’t lose it, though. I think my freedom to find another job would have been exquisite.
You never had any doubts that the Supreme Court was going to uphold you on the Pentagon Papers?
I had doubts. But I didn’t see how they could permit prior restraint.
Do you ever worry about the First Amendment?
Yeah. Sure I do. I worry about it all the time. I worry about the excesses of the press too. I worry about how some people scream “First Amendment” awfully fast, it seems to me.
Well, what are our First Amendment rights to print absolutely anything?
Well, I can’t give you details on this. I’ve got one story that I’m struggling with right now, in which the Post has knowledge of something that I don’t think we have any right to know.
CIA. And our First Amendment rights are such, as I understand them, that we can publish it. I don’t know of any law that says we can’t.
Are you going to publish it?
We decided not to.
Because I think you have to serve some useful social purpose by publishing something.
Other than its just being interesting?
And this particular fact is interesting?
It’s goddamn well interesting. Oh, yes, it is.
But it isn’t going to further the cause of mankind?
I think it would set mankind back.
Would it blow us up?
Well, that makes me sound too heroic. I don’t know. But it’s a very important thing, and it could lead to things that could lead to other things that could blow us up.
Would you print details of how to make an atom bomb?