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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
Well then, what about when they write editorials about the news side? For instance in that “Ear” flap. [“The Ear,” a gossip column in the Post, printed an erroneous item about President Carter. The Post eventually apologized, and then it editorialized about the incident.]
It makes for kind of a family scrap. It’s like Sunday lunch with all the kids around the table when one starts criticizing another, but I think that’s ultimately good, too. I think a newspaper should be a vibrant, not totally structured, enterprise. There should be some things as you go through the newspaper that make you say, “I’ll be damned, look what they’ve done now.” So what if the news department gets criticized by the editorial page? If anybody thinks that even the best news department is always right, they’re benighted.
There aren’t many editors in America who pay parking tickets. And I do, because I’m so scared of getting caught if I don’t.
What’s your batting average on being right?
Well, this is a terribly important thing about our business. We are writing what Phil Graham called the “first rough draft of history.” We are writing it under terribly difficult circumstances. The first difficult circumstance is time. We’ve got to stop doing it at a certain time, stop reporting it and go ahead and write it. The event doesn’t stop, we stop. The second thing is that people don’t tell you the truth. I mean it’s just quite as simple as that. Including those people who think they are telling you the truth. One of the really glorious aspects of modern history, for me, is to read the versions of participants in major events and to see how they differ. Each one thinks he’s telling the truth, and it comes out different. So if you have the President of the United States look you straight in the eye and say the reason he can’t tell you something about, say, Watergate is because it’s national security, you write that. You’ve told a lie. I mean you’ve misled the ————out of the readers, but it’s not really your fault. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” about computers is even more true about newspapers. You’re no better than what people tell you. Obviously you try to screen out the deceptions. I think if Washington has changed in any way in the last twenty years, it is in the increased deception by the government. Under the veil of national security the government tries to slip past the people an awful lot that has nothing to do with national security.
So, you’ve got lying sources, and good reporters and editors who screen, and a time problem, What’s your batting average?
Wait a minute, I’ll get to the batting average. You have frail reporters and you have editors who slip, who don’t spot something. Our batting average— if you would allow me a year’s batting average rather than one game—is consistently high. The truth should emerge from a newspaper. It may not be all there in one day, but it comes out. Walter Lippmann said that truth emerges day after day, and if you have a situation like the Falkland Islands or a situation like Nicaragua or El Salvador, you do the best you can today and you go back at it tomorrow and learn different facts that change it slightly. You’ve got to do that. And the readers have got to trust you, got to go with you on that. The reader has to understand that you don’t get it all the first time. And I think editors over the years have been reluctant to admit that newspapers at their best are incomplete, and at their worst they are wrong.
Do reporters understand this?
I think the best ones do, and by the time a reporter in this town has been hitting the best pitching, he understands it. I mean, you can’t go through something like the Vietnam war as a reporter, either here or there, and have any faith that you are being told the truth at any given time. Really, it almost comes down to this: If the director of the CIA or some other big agency asks to see you, he’s going to lay something on you that’s probably not right.
Do you think your reporters make that assumption?
Well, I hope they are trained to be more than just a conduit.
But what you’re saying is that you and the Post reporters and the newspaper industry in general are skeptical and cynical?
I am. And thank God for that.
Doesn’t that just add to the public’s distrust of the press?
Well, it may, and I don’t see any way out of that. But I think that the public should take some time to understand. Life is terribly complicated now. For instance, I don’t happen to know whether we have enough weapons or weapons systems or the right ones. I hate to have as important a question as that absolutely closed to me. Yet I don’t know the answer. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve had people I respect tell me yes and tell me no.
So what do you do?
So, I say, let’s find out. And that’s one of the goals of the reporter, to find out.
And if you find out, you print it and the public believes or doesn’t believe. Does the public believe what it reads in the paper? Not your paper or my paper but any paper.