- 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
First the sneering. As a conduit for information, television is a joke compared with a newspaper. The full text of a network evening-news telecast takes up about one-third of the front page of a regular newspaper. The quality of information put out by a typical television station makes the old Herald seem circumspect. From nine to five on weekdays, the NBC affiliate in New York City runs six hours of talk shows from Jane Whitney to Phil Donahue, the rough equivalent of reading 1,440 letters to “Dear Abby” every day.
Now, the beating up. Whenever television wants to be first with a story, it can be. It doesn’t matter how well or poorly television has covered the story. Those damned pictures get there first. This simple technological truth switched the primary focus of journalists from news bringers to commentators.
The modern American newspaper, as of old, is expected to fulfill two contrary functions. It must provide news, and it must provide a profit for its owners. There are only so many rich people in the world who are willing to pay to have their names well known, and most of them would rather make movies or buy baseball teams. The combination is a curious one, for if a newspaper does not properly fulfill its first function, it cannot, for long, fulfill its second.
Some owners understand this. Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post , took an enormous gamble when she authorized running the Pentagon Papers at a time when the paper’s finances could not tolerate much embarrassment, and she was rewarded by the Post ’s stepping into the forefront of American newspapers. Some owners do not. During World War II, when newsprint was limited, the owners of the New York Herald Tribune elected to go for profits and maintained a large advertising schedule while the Times limited its advertising and went for the news. The Tribune made some extra money but lost out to the Times in reader acceptance and eventually died.
The American press is constantly under attack and should be. It is too important not to be repeatedly challenged. But beware when victims of the press squeal too loudly. It frequently means they have been found well out of bounds. During the Korean War American troops were caught flatfooted by the intervention of the Communist Chinese army. Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence on General MacArthur’s staff, when criticized for not calling the turn, delivered a stem-winder attack on the press: “These ragpickers of modern literature, roughly between belles-lettres and the police blotter, have developed an insufferable but peculiarly American characteristic: They have come to believe that they are omniscient.” In fact, the failure is now a well-documented blunder.
These days are particularly difficult ones for journalists. Opinion polls generally rank them somewhere around used-car salesmen for trustworthiness. We have come a long, dreary way from the movie All the President’s Men , in which reporters were portrayed as selfless watchdogs of probity. In a more recent film, The Silence of the Lambs , which told a story of sexual perversion, cannibalism, and mass murder, the most immediately dislikable character in the scenario was a doctor who sucked up to the press.
Reporters claim to wear the banner of condemnation proudly because it means they are doing their job of bringing unpleasant facts to a public that does not always want to hear such things. To a point, but journalists have brought a great deal of this odium upon themselves.
I shall leave straight press bashing to Patrick Buchanan, who does that sort of thing so well, and look at some of the charges against the press that have brought it to such low estate and see how much justification there is for them.
Just so there is full disclosure in what follows, these are my journalistic credentials. I got my first newspaper job as a young man with no experience, when I lied my way onto the Somerset Star , a five-day-a-week sheet in New Jersey. For sixty dollars a week, absolute candor in stating one’s experience was not expected. Later I was hired by the Washington bureau of the United Press International, and from there I went to work for the Hearst Headline Service, a small bureau covering Washington for the Hearst newspaper chain. The operation is well regarded now but was not then much of an adornment to the profession. The television personality Jack Paar, upset by one of our stories, called us “the Ritz Brothers of American journalism,” a harsh but not inaccurate description. After three years I proved to my own and my editors’ satisfaction I was better suited to feature writing than hard news reporting and escaped into magazine work. I have not done much newspaper work recently, but I have sold a number of articles and book reviews to The New York Times and various other journals.