- 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
It may be well to remember that Lippmann once said selfimportance ruined more journalists than liquor.
The media critic Ben Bagdikian once wrote a classic evaluation of journalism, saying, “Trying to be a firstrate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion on the ukulele: the instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience and for the performer.” Bagdikian has lost none of his spirit in the last twenty years. The press is greatly improved, he says, and may now be likened more to an acoustic guitar.
Max Frankel doesn’t have much patience with the comparison. “So what?” he says. “It is the instrument we have. The point is to play that instrument as well as we can.”
In the nice phrase of Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post , newspapers are “the first, rough draft of history.” But why so rough? Here is the kind of homey reference the press likes to make when humanizing a story. A reporter on deadline is like a cook trying to prepare a complicated dinner that has to be on the table at precisely seven-thirty. Twenty-three ingredients are required to make the entrée, but the cook has only nineteen of them, and six of those are wrong. It’s no good telling the guests to come back tomorrow evening. Dinner will be served. As they say in the trade, “Go with what you’ve got.” The surprise is not that the dinner is imperfect but that it gets to the table at all.
Readers would do well to develop a bit of patience with newspaper coverage. It frequently takes more than one pass to get a story nailed down properly. Admittedly, sometimes the press never seems to get the story right. The congressional “check bouncing” scandal is a reasonable example. It was discovered that members of Congress were granted lines of credit that not all were quick to repay. One may argue the merits of this legislative perquisite, but contrary to most press coverage, no one actually bounced a check, which is a criminal offense. The press defends such loose reporting, saying it is the kind of analogy readers identify with. But it is an incorrect analogy, and the press should provide more meaningful dialogue than crank callers burning up the telephone wires to C-SPAN .
In Washington, when an official wants to deprecate his knowledge of a given situation, he admits to being only “newspaper deep.” Richard Nixon’s presidential aide John Ehrlichman used to chafe the press saying they knew only 1 percent of what was going on in town. President Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, generously kicked that up to 10 percent. Perhaps he is right, but that is the 10 percent that the public most needs to know.
William Safire, a columnist for The New York Times , once chided the then Vice President George Bush for ducking his questions because Bush had not returned a phone call. Told the Vice President was on an airplane, Safire demanded that as soon as Bush landed, he should call him on the Secret Service telephone. “Not returning calls in my mind is evidence of being either fearful ... or contemptuous,” Safire said later. “I don’t buy that they’re too busy.”
Safire needs no defense from me. He is a tough man in a difficult line of work, and if it requires a bit of muscle to get the job done, so be it. When the Secretary of Defense designate Bobby Ray Inman recently cut and ran because of hurt feelings over a sharply etched Safire column, it amounted to a public service.
Still, it may be well to remember Walter Lippmann once said self-importance has ruined more journalists than liquor.
This accusation changes directions with the times. Today the assumption is that the press is slanted left. David Broder, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post , however, first heard complaints of press bias from people in the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign who said Democrats could never get a break in the newspapers. Hilton Kramer, formerly the art critic for The New York Times , now writes a column for the New York Post every week in which he scours the Times to prove it is liberal. That is like checking the towers in Pisa and finding that one of them is not plumb. Yet a friend of mine, recently departed from the Times , said he was not sorry to leave the old paper now that it had turned into the lapdog of economic imperialism.