- Historic Sites
The American newspaper: beleaguered by television, hated both for its timidity and for its arrogance, biased, provincial, overweening—and still indispensable. A Hearst veteran tells how it got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
The regular daily press has been pushed, not entirely unwillingly, ever more deeply into sensationalism by two new and unruly figures on the block. What television is pleased to call “reality programming” in the form of shows such as “Inside Edition” and “Hard Copy” is a dynamic source of electronic scandal the press cannot ignore. “Inside Edition” recently paid a reported six hundred thousand dollars for an interview with the ice skater Tonya Harding that received nationwide publicity. In fairness, buying the news was an old, disreputable newspaper practice now largely abandoned. American supermarket tabloids, which are to journalism what women’s mud wrestling is to sports, afford pale copies of British originals. Unlike their British models, they are not deeply sensational or even interesting. Generally they simply slap together items on celebrities or make up copy to support arresting headlines such as NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD . Occasionally they do produce news. The Star stopped Clinton’s presidential campaign for a time when it produced Gennifer Flowers, and after some clucking over how terrible it was, the mainstream press ran the story, as I have just done. The problem is not that garbage journalism exists. It always has. What is worrisome is that mainstream journalism is adopting the standards of the tabloids. A lawyer saving you from a libel suit is not the same thing as getting the story right.
Sooner or later the press buries a big story in deadening detail. Can there be one more scrap of information you want about Princess Diana? Stories live through an interchange between editors and readers. As long as readers are interested, editors cater to them. An old journalistic theory holds that when a newspaper is thoroughly sick of a story, the readers are just beginning to get it. Stories cannot exist in a void. If they are not driven by public interest, competition, or governmental action, they wither and die. I once had a terrific scoop about a Soviet spy working out of the United Nations. No investigative reporting on my part was involved. The story was handed to me by an intelligence official eager to embarrass the State Department. My hotshot exclusive dropped like a stone because my stories appeared in the Journal-American , which had a certain amount of clout among the Broadway saloon set but not much anywhere else. I could have revealed the imminent end of the world, and it would not have caused Gov. Averell Harriman to hasten his dinner.
It also searches without a warrant, and practices without a license. According to the Constitution, it doesn’t need one. The press is allowed considerable latitude in examining the character of public officials and has always considered it its duty to afflict the mighty. This is not a bad thing. Clearly, however, the press sometimes abandons legitimate hunting for poaching. Patrick Buchanan says ever since the press helped bring down President Nixon, it got real blood in its mouth and has learned to love the taste.
When the bloodlust is up, few are safe. Jesse Jackson was accused of plagiarism in a widely reported story that turned out to be a pipe job based on, if anything, mistaken identity. So what? Jackson is a demagogue, and we don’t have time to check out everything. Dan Quayle may not have been the strongest Vice President in American history, but no one deserved the press he received. At the time of his nomination Quayle’s financial assets were approximately a million dollars. It was reported he was worth $600 million. So we’re off by $599 million. He’s still a rich guy.
Something near the bottom of a very deep barrel was reached when Vincent Foster, a White House lawyer and friend of the Clintons, was found dead, an apparent suicide, in a Washington park. There is much that needs to be known about Foster’s death and even more that was badly handled by the investigators. The spew of speculation unleashed by the press, however, was doleful by any standard. In short order, stories were floated saying Foster was a homosexual, was having an affair with Mrs. Clinton, was covering up a financial scandal, was murdered. All these possibilities may turn out to be true, but the one element holding them together at the time was that few of the reporters knew what they were talking about. They produced no evidence, hard or soft, simply yards of conjecture.
This is a variation of the charge of bias. Newspapers prefer to say they are interpreting the news, but it frequently amounts to the same thing. Two factors are involved: The press is no longer the first bringer of news, and the news it does bring is increasingly complex. David Broder traces the rise of such reporting to a reaction to the Communist witch-hunts carried on by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, when, as one reporter said, “Joe couldn’t find a Communist in Red Square.” McCarthy took skillful advantage of journalistic objectivity to fill the air with unanswerable charges.