- 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
By general consensus the first attempt to start a regularly published newspaper in America was Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick , issued in Boston on September 25, 1690. Its founder was a transplanted British printer, Benjamin Harris, who had been sent to the pillory in London for faking a story about a popish plot against the crown. First, he ran an exposé of the plot, and when it turned out there was none on at the moment, he took credit for breaking it up. Harris tried again in Boston with a monthly journal, printed on four sheets about the size of modern notebook paper, that offered a number of local stories ranging from house fires to a suicide. There was an account of a smallpox epidemic raging in Boston and a hair-raising tale of the depredations of Indians who “barbarously Butcher’d” forty white settlers. There were also a few snippets of foreign news about sexual improprieties within the French royal court.
Boston authorities were not pleased. The Indian story was especially troublesome because colonial policy had become one of conciliation with the native population. The governor ordered the paper shut down four days later for publishing “doubtful and uncertain Reports.” Harris fled back to England, where he ended his days hawking quack medicines.
If Greeley thought he’d get a break from fellow newsmen when he ran for President, he was deeply mistaken.
This cautionary tale presages several elements of American newspapers today. Although they are among the best in the world, their reputation has never been terribly high. They dote on scandal. While their product is suspect, they are often denounced not for printing things that are untrue but for printing things that the government doesn’t want its people to know about.
The printing press had been a matter of concern to those in authority ever since the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type stirred fears his creation could become an engine of subversion. William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, wrote to London in 1671 that “we have not free schools nor printing. . . . For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both.”
But the desire of governors to rule unimpeded is matched by the desire of the governed to know what’s going on, and colonial newspapers began to flourish in New England. The first continuing journal was the Boston News-Letter , which relied heavily on shipping news of interest to that port city. The News-Letter was a no-nonsense paper that was soon in competition with the New-England Courant , which published a great deal of nonsense. Started by James Franklin, with his thirteen-year-old brother, Benjamin, working as an apprentice, the Courant was a lighthearted weekly that promised to “entertain the Town with the most comical and diverting Incidents of Humane Life.” The conflict between hard and soft news was joined.
The Courant enjoyed needling the great Boston divines Increase and Cotton Mather and made their public lives a chore. “The Town is become almost a Hell upon Earth, a City full of Lies,” Cotton Mather said. “Satan seems to take a strange Possession of it.”
Attacking the clergy was one thing, but when James Franklin turned his editorial guns on the Massachusetts governor, he was clapped into jail.
Several elements of the modern newspaper were now in place. Spirited editorials in the form of letters to the editor were common, and Ben Franklin, moved to the Pennsylvania Gazette , published one of the first political cartoons. In 1754, as the French and Indian Wars began, Franklin editorialized for colonial solidarity with the drawing of a snake cut into eight parts depicting New England and other colonies over the legend “Join, or Die.” The press began to draw financial support from local merchants by accepting advertising. The first known paid notice offered a reward for the return of two lost anvils.
Original reporting on anything but the most local stories was scanty, and newspapers relied on neighborhood publications to send them copies of their stories to be reprinted. A paper would sometimes headline such stories with the caveat “Important—If True.” It was not a bad system, and one that might be profitably revived. Much later, in the early 1800s, Henry Blake, a writer for the Mercury and New England Palladium in Boston, became known as the father of American reporting for his initiative in getting stories from incoming ships. Instead of waiting around the local coffeehouses, as most reporters did, he hired a boat to meet arriving vessels and, after scribbling notes on his cuffs, was the first one back with the news.
Governor Berkeley’s concerns bore dangerous fruit a century later, when colonial newspapers were the bellows of revolution. One of the most incendiary sheets of the day was the Boston Gazette , where Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and other members of the Caucus Club “worked the political engine.” One night Gazette editors changed into Indian disguises and dumped a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. In doing so, they were creating fine propaganda, if poor journalism. Not only had they become part of the story, but they were the story, though concealing this from their readers. Intolerable by modern standards.
It was not a good time for disinterested journalism. One attempt was made by James Rivington, the son of a prosperous London bookseller, who came to America after squandering his family fortune at the racetrack . . .
Let me pause for a moment to show how easily scandal seeps into journalism. I do not know Rivington actually impoverished himself betting on horses. I took that from Frank Luther Mott’s American journalism , a well-respected text. But I did not check the betting slips of eighteenthcentury British bookmakers, and I doubt Professor Mott did either. I am willing to risk blackening Rivington’s historical reputation for a bit of color because I can get away with it. He has been safely in his grave for two centuries and is beyond recourse. My defense is I am in competition with all the other articles in this issue, and I am afraid if I don’t jangle my cap and bells, you may desert my story in favor of what I understand is an essay on baseball. Rivington is thus sacrificed so you may be entertained. Notice how I have switched the blame from me to you. It is an old journalistic defense called “giving the public what it wants.”
Rivington was a Loyalist, but he tried to print both sides of the story of colonial discontent in his paper, Rivington’s New York Gazetteer . For this the Sons of Liberty labeled his paper a Tory rag and smashed his printing press.
Now I try to make some amends to Rivington’s memory by calling him a Loyalist rather than a Tory. They mean the same thing, but Loyalist sounds less harsh. This is how journalists tint a story to suit their purposes.
Of course, we do not sing the praises of Rivington’s journal and its commitment to being an “Ever Open and Uninfluenced Press.” We reserve that right for revolutionary papers such as the Pennsylvania Journal , which on December 19, 1776, printed one of the greatest leads in the history of journalism: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
George Washington had a keen appreciation for the value of a sympathetic press and saw to it that old tenting materials were made into paper so the troops could have something to read. Rewarded by Thomas Paine’s essay “Crisis,” he had it read to his soldiers the day before their Christmas morning attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton.
No reporters were present during the four months spent hammering the United States Constitution together in Philadelphia in 1787. Some modern critics might say that was one reason why the Constitutional Convention was able to make such a good job of it. The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, was a difficult issue. Alexander Hamilton inveighed against the liberality of the provision, saying, “What is the Liberty of the Press? Who can give it any definition which does not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?” When his question could not be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, it was left to the courts.
The Constitution went to the states for ratification, and the press responded with political commentary of uncommon brilliance as Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay contributed their Federalist papers to the New York Independent Journal . When reprinted in other newspapers around the country, they provided the principal defense of this bold experiment in government.
It was the age of political giants, but none was so great he could not be assailed by the press. Today President Clinton, perusing his more unhappy press clippings, may take some solace knowing that in comparison with the editorial attacks on George Washington, his administration has been one long Easter-egg roll on the White House lawn. Describing Washington’s administration, the General Advertiser was moved to write: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington.”
Washington did not have a thick political skin, and he raged against an attack in the Republican Aurora , saying, “There seems to be no bounds to attempt to destroy all confidence that people might and ought to have in their government.”
The practice of leaking information to the press was an old one even then, and the President was furious when portions of the Jay Treaty leading to the evacuation of British forts in American territory appeared in newspapers before it could be ratified. Washington’s opinion on leaking changed when he was in control of the spout. He slipped a copy of his Farewell Address to a friendly newspaper, Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser .
There were no wealthy press barons in the eighteenth century. For all their troublesome fervor, editors frequently led lives of not very quiet desperation. John Zenger, the son of John Peter Zenger, who had gone to jail in the service of journalism, struggled to keep his father’s paper going, but it was difficult. Some of his readers were seven years behind in paying for their subscriptions. On March 18, 1751, he literally begged for money from readers of the Weekly Journal , saying his clothes were worn out and asking them to “send the poor Printer a few Gammons [dried pork], or some Meal, some Butter, Cheese, Poultry. ...” Apparently they did not. That was the last issue of the Journal.
Following the Revolution, American newspapers fell into a sleazy decline. They had, however, become a political necessity. Martin Van Buren said if his followers did not have control of some newspapers, they might as well “hang our harps on the willows.” Political leaders eagerly took on the role of publisher. Office seekers rarely make good journalists, and their newspapers resorted to the worst kind of political savagery. Thomas Jefferson, a master manipulator of the press who was not above simply buying a newspaper to ensure good coverage, suffered more grievously than most. The New-England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser , a Boston Federalist paper, said this of Jefferson’s candidacy in 1802: “Should the Infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the Most High.”
There was genuine concern that good men might shun public office in the face of a voracious popular press. In 1821 John Quincy Adams dismissed the possibility of trying for the Presidency, saying, “If that office is to be the prize of cabal and intrigue, or purchasing newspapers, bribing by appointments, or bargaining for foreign missions, I have no ticket in that lottery.” But the lure of high office was too potent for Adams to resist, and three years later he successfully ran for President.
Newspapers cannot conduct themselves much differently from the society in which they exist or no one will buy them. If the press was frequently scurrilous in the early nineteenth century, it reflected a time given to intemperate political speech. Reviewing his eight years as Chief Executive, Andrew Jackson said the two greatest disappointments of his administration were that he had neither shot Henry Clay nor hanged John C. Calhoun.
Although the press can rarely provide more than what Woodrow Wilson called “the atmosphere of events,” that is frequently enough. For all their imperfections, papers did the job of getting out the word to a young republic eager for news. Hurried by teams of horses, dispatches from the Atlantic shore could be read in St. Louis within a week. The unhanged Calhoun did not always like newspapers, but he marveled that “a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic.”
Several factors contributed to the development of the modern American newspaper as it began to emerge in the 1830s. Instead of laboriously cranking out a few hundred papers during the night, cylinder presses could now produce fifteen hundred copies in an hour. As America became increasingly urbanized, publishers could get at new readers profitably instead of chasing circulation in remote rural areas. It had once been a mark of social distinction to be able to afford to subscribe to a newspaper. Now newspapers cost pennies a day. Most important, a new generation of brilliant, often quixotic, editors came on the scene with something interesting to say, and now they could get rich saying it.
The editor was so often roughed up that the Herald kept a standing headline: BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN.
The first of the new papers was the New York Sun , published on September 3, 1833. Edited by Benjamin H. Day, it was a sprightly sheet heavily larded with crime news that soon was selling eight thousand copies a day, almost double the circulation of its nearest competitor. Reporting standards on the Sun were sometimes dodgy. There had been faked stories in American journalism before, but in 1835 the Sun perpetrated a monumental hoax when it ran a series on the discovery of men on the moon who resembled bats. This foolery was accepted in pretty much the spirit as modern readers of supermarket tabloids on being told Elvis Presley is alive and well and propagating somewhere on Mars. The Sun became a significant paper after the Civil War, when Charles A. Dana took over, promising his readers “a daily photograph of the whole world’s doings in the most luminous and lively manner.”
That was a reasonable definition of a good newspaper that holds true today. Max Frankel, who recently stepped down from his post as executive editor of The New York Times , says the function of his paper is to offer “a wellwritten, well-presented summary of what is interesting as well as what is important to intelligent readers.”
The Sun twice went into journalism legend. Its city editor John Bogart is generally credited with the aphorism “When a dog bites a man, that’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news.” And the paper delivered America’s most treasured editorial in 1897, when a young girl, whose playmates had told her there was no Santa Claus, wrote and asked the Sun to tell her the truth. The Sun answered, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.”
A year after the Sun , James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald first saw the light of a gaudy day. The Herald redefined news. It did not simply cover murder trials; it presided over them. The Robinson-Jewett case had everything a newspaper could ask for. Helen Jewett, a beautiful prostitute, was found bludgeoned to death in her bordello bedroom, and one of her socialite customers, Richard Robinson, was charged with murder. Robinson was acquitted in a decision even less creditable than the nondecision in the Menendez trial this year, but the Herald stuck with the story for more than a year, piling one ghoulish speculation on another until it became the paper of record for crime news in New York City.
Bennett was famous for vituperative editorials. After Lincoln’s first inaugural address the Herald called for a coup to oust the President. Bennett also sailed into religious controversy, with particular ferocity. Although a Roman Catholic, he was a rabid anticleric, once writing, “If we must have a Pope, let us have a Pope of our own . . . not such a decrepit, licentious, stupid Italian blockhead as the College of Cardinals at Rome condescends to give the Christian world of Europe.”
Bennett was so frequently roughed up for his fiery opinions that the Herald kept a standing headline: BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN .
The Herald was also the newspaper of giddy stunts. A writer, wearing a full suit of armor, appeared at a dress ball to report on the quality of the hostess’s diamonds. In 1869 the Herald pulled off the greatest newspaper stunt of all by sending Henry Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone, who had disappeared somewhere in Africa but not beyond the reach of the Herald .
For all its excesses, the Herald had a core of solid journalism. It was the first American newspaper to maintain regular overseas bureaus, and its financial coverage was the best in the city. Its combination of glitz and news was so successful that Bennett’s son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was able to squeeze some thirty million dollars out of Herald profits to support himself in Parisian grandeur before turning the paper into a money loser.
The quality of American newspapers turned very much for the better when Horace Greeley, who it was said put his first trust in the “unshackled mind,” established the New York Tribune in 1841. Like his competitors, Greeley covered soft news, but he was a crusader at heart and did daily battle over clean streets and pure milk for the children. Bennett had said that the American press was the “living jury” of the nation. Greeley thought it should be prosecuting attorney as well. He established the modern editorial page, whence he harangued his readers on everything from abolition to temperance. The Tribune was not always right. Its editorials on the conduct of the Civil War were often woolly-headed, but they came from a good heart.
Wilson had violated two cardinal rules: Never deviate from your prepared text, and never make a joke.
If politicians make poor editors, editors make even worse office seekers. Probably the only journalist to become a head of state was Benito Mussolini. Greeley, who had helped found the Republican party in 1854, knew what politics should be but had little idea how they worked. Few Americans ran for high office with purer motives than the eager Horace Greeley when he opposed President Grant in 1872. If Greeley thought he would get a break from his journalistic lodge brothers, he was in desperate error. Greeley campaigned for decency in government, and the press wrote funny stories about his old-fashioned white hat and his farmer’s boots. Finally Greeley said sadly, “I hardly know whether I am running for the Presidency or the penitentiary.”
He died soon afterward, leaving no estate save a tradition that it is not enough for the press to report the news. It should also care.
William Randolph Hearst, said one of his contemporaries, blew into New York City “with all the discreet secrecy of a wooden-legged burglar having a fit on a tin roof.” Hearst had enjoyed himself with the San Francisco Examiner making trouble for the Central Pacific Railroad and was fond of referring to passengers on late-arriving trains as “survivors.” Now he wanted to spread himself. In 1895 he picked up the old Morning Journal , which was known as “the chambermaid’s delight,” and set about painting the town yellow.
It is difficult to believe now that anyone other than “the Chief,” as he liked to be called, ever took the old Hearst newspapers seriously. Their reputation for fakery was a long one. The Examiner once ran a story about an impoverished orphan newsboy named McGinty who was the sole support of his two brothers. The piece was so touching that Hearst’s mother, moved to tears, sent a hundred dollars in crisp bills to the Examiner office to help the little boy with his family needs. There was, of course, no McGinty, and the editors sensibly spent Mrs. Hearst’s money at a local saloon. It was probably a better way of handling the situation than the editors of the Washington Post did in 1980, when they nominated for the Pulitzer Prize a story any experienced police reporter should have pegged as a phony. The story blew apart, and the Post returned the prize.
William Randolph Hearst, Jr., liked to recount the tale about a Journal-American reporter who wrote a terrific page-one story based on an exclusive telephone interview with an escaped convict. The story swept the competition but was slightly flawed when it turned out the felon was a deaf-mute. “Gee,” the reporter explained to his editor, “the guy never told me that.”
This story is instructive on two points. It probably is not true. It has the feel of night-shift humor about it. Also, it is generally repeated with affection. In any other business so terrible a breach would be a hanging offense. This is one reason the public believes journalists are not as serious as they should be.
In a fitting irony of history, the most famous anecdote concerning William Randolph Hearst is not true either. He whipped America into armed conflict with Spain to sell newspapers, and when the artist Frederic Remington, who had been sent to Cuba to draw war scenes, could find nothing, Hearst cabled him, saying, “You provide the pictures. I’ll provide the war.” American hawks were eager for war with Spain and did not need a newspaper circulation drive to goad them into it. Hearst was perfectly capable of sending such a cable, but he did not.
It is easy to get caught up in the waywardness of the American press, but it must be remembered the nineteenth century also saw the birth of The New York Times . The Times was the first major newspaper that made a systematic attempt to present the news as something separate from the paper’s editorial position. It went after the grunt work of reporting complicated stories the penny press wouldn’t bother with. All journalism students know about Thomas Nast’s cartoons showing the bloody tiger of Tammany Hall, but the Times went through the municipal books and got hold of the receipts and put together the evidence that helped put Boss Tweed in jail.
Few journalists speak well of management, so let me do so here. The Times was blessed with the kind of owner the business rarely sees. By 1921 Adolph Ochs had owned the Times for a quarter of a century, during which time the paper had generated some $100 million in profits. Ochs contented himself with a 4 percent return. He put the rest back into the paper for better presses and better people. After all its saucy competition has withered away, the Times is still here, the most powerful, most envied, most examined newspaper in the world. It is not as good as it should be, but it is the best we have.
As old soldiers say about the Army, the Times isn’t what it used to be, but then it never was. The cult of objectivity fostered by the Times was always more of an American journalistic aspiration than a fact. Except for the Associated Press, which is forced into noncommittal coverage by the multiplicity of its clients, no newspaper has ever been truly objective. Apart from spot news such as fires at sea, there is always a reason for running a particular story. With a reason invariably comes a slant in one direction or another.
There were other bright spots. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World started as a rag not much different from the Herald but built itself into a paper of rare intellectual achievement. Like the New York Herald Tribune of later vintage, it was known as a “writer’s paper.” It was staffed by reporters who not only covered the news but set the news to music and made it sing. The World and the Herald Tribune share one other distinction. They both are dead.
By the later part of the nineteenth century newspapers had become so central to American political life they were ready to take on covering the President full-time. Technically, the difference between covering the White House and City Hall is not spacious except that it frequently requires a better reporter to cover City Hall. A review of White House reporting indicates it was neither better nor worse than press coverage in general. There was simply more of it.
Grover Cleveland had weathered the cartoon “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” concerning an illegitimate child he may have fathered. Once in office, however, he found an insistent press particularly vexing. He married during his first term, and the press turned his honeymoon into the kind of feeding frenzy we see today. Reporters shadowed the couple to a cottage in Deer Park, Maryland, where they filed four hundred thousand words of copy not worth reading, until one editor grumbled, “The profession becomes the lowest of human callings—lower than brothel-keeping or liquorselling.”
Teddy Roosevelt handled the press with success only Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy has known since. He set up the first White House press room and smothered reporters with news, still the best way of keeping them from asking difficult questions. One reporter said Roosevelt’s press conferences were “more fun to see than a circus.” Typically, the President received reporters while sitting in a chair as he was being shaved by a barber. The exuberant Roosevelt could never remain seated for long, and when he got excited, the lather flew.
Roosevelt, who had a sense of what made a good headline any editor would envy, tried to instruct his successor, William Howard Taft, in the ways of the press. Taft, however, was a poor student. He preferred to work quietly, trusting that substantive work on dreary items such as civil service reform would win the day over breezy sensationalism. It did not. Style is easier to write about than substance.
Woodrow Wilson had a thorny time with the press. The elegant collegian was not used to the rough ways of journalists and made it clear he thought they were little better than police reporters who had meandered onto the White House grounds. His feelings were not without justification. College graduates among White House reporters were a comparative rarity. Today the positions are almost reversed. Now that it requires a graduate degree in journalism to get a job spiking copy on a suburban weekly, the press is often criticized as a bunch of hoity-toity snobs who think they are too good for the rest of us while George Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom saw the inside of Yale, seem to go to great lengths trying to speak as if they had never been formally educated at all.
It seems every President must endure at least one incident that the press simply bungles. Wilson’s was the tobaccojuice story. When he was the head of Princeton, Wilson gave a speech on rural migration saying it was difficult to think clearly in the cities. Thought, he said, came more easily at a village store where men could sit around the stove spitting tobacco juice. Then he paused to make a little academic joke. “Whatever else may be said of the habit of chewing tobacco, this much must be admitted in its favor, that it makes men think because they must stop between words to spit.”
Next day the headlines read, PRESIDENT OF PRINCETON SAYS CHEWING TOBACCO MAKES MEN THINK . Wilson had violated two cardinal rules of modern-day spin doctors: Never deviate from your prepared text, and never make a joke. The press will mangle a joke every time. President Clinton’s was the hair cut story. It was a peach. Our populist President hung up commercial air traffic over Los Angeles for nearly an hour while getting his hair cut by some Beverly Hills salon stylist. The scene lacked only Clinton asking how the cake was holding up for the little people. The story ran throughout the country and was flat wrong. No flights had been delayed. Very few papers printed retractions.
Another White House rule. The press is now grown so large it has become like a pet dragon kept out on the back lawn. If you don’t keep feeding the creature with handouts, it will break into the kitchen and rattle the crockery.
During World War II the Tribune went for ad profits while the Times limited ads in favor of news coverage.
Wilson grew contemptuous of the press and started playing a dangerous game with reporters. His aide Col. Edward House called it “grazing the truth.” When Wilson wanted to mislead reporters, he gave them answers that sounded factual but were actually evasions. A flat lie, if it holds up long enough, is more effective. When Tom Wicker, the White House reporter for the Times , tried to pin down President Kennedy on our military commitment to Asia, he asked a direct question. “Mr. President, are American troops now in combat in Vietnam?” Kennedy looked directly in Wicker’s eyes and lied, “No.”
For all their doggedness White House reporters blew the biggest presidential story of their generation. Wilson was struck down by thrombosis and for about seventeen months was virtually unable to perform his presidential duties. The press ran reams of innuendo, but it never got the story. Similarly it never reported that President Franklin Roosevelt suffered so severely from polio he could barely walk. Nor did it report what every American politician assumed when the Democratic party nominated Roosevelt for a fourth term in 1944: It was running a dead man.
It is axiomatic within the profession that the White House press corps gets so tied up with what Bill Moyers calls “asking bumper-sticker questions and getting fortune-cookie answers” it never breaks really important stories. The Watergate scandal was ripped open by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post without setting foot on the White House lawn. In the case of Wilson and Roosevelt, however, more human factors were likely at play. Reporters, it appears, suspended their news-gathering function in favor of a sense of compassion and fair play, two qualities that are now missing almost entirely from press coverage.
Following World War II, America’s newspapers largely took the form we see today. Color printing and cleaner graphics aside, the look of today’s paper is not vastly different from those of fifty years ago. And they were riding high. The New York Daily News , the country’s largest tabloid, claimed a daily circulation of 2.4 million and almost double that on Sunday. The American press had put in a good war and was ready to cash in. It did for a while, and then came television, which changed the rules for everybody.
Newspaper people sneer at television the way high school geometry nerds sneer at football players. They are certain of their intellectual superiority, but they also know they will get beaten up any time the big guys want to make a fight of it.
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.
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.
To me it seems obvious that such major newspapers as the Post and the Los Angeles Times consistently come down on the left side of the ledger, but Ben Bagdikian says the bulk of American newspapers swing from the right. You will never get to see all your particular political prejudices fully reflected in one newspaper. My advice to you is to read around what you don’t like and hope they are fair.
Where journalists have a perceptible, and largely selfadmitted, bias is in social questions. Any reasonable reading on abortion issues shows the press coming down on the side of the “pro choice” constituency.
The press can legitimately be criticized for its institutional inability to deal meaningfully with religious questions. It is not that the press is irreligious; it is simply secular. Except for stories on wackos storing arms for Armageddon, most newspaper stories about religion are done by somber men with spots on their ties writing up Sunday sermon notes in the back of a newsroom. I recently heard a reporter say he was going to make it a point to meet more people who go to church. He sounded as if he were about to travel to some distant place on the globe for National Geographic .
They are paid to be. My father, Bert Andrews, who was the Washington bureau chief for the old Herald Tribune , used to say it was all right to know politicians socially, but he didn’t want them in the home, where the children might see them. A healthy cynicism is the first line of defense against public figures who do not always tell the truth. George Bush said race was not a consideration in nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and Judge Thomas told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had never thought about abortion. It is all but impossible to get through the nomination procedure without lying.
Papers are scurrying to become “user-friendly.” Unofficially this is known as “dumbing down.”
Press cynicism reflects current public disenchantment with public officials as much as it fosters it. When a Russian fighter plane shot down a civilian Korean airliner in 1983, a public opinion poll found 60 percent of the American people felt they were not being told the whole truth by the Reagan administration. About the same percentage of Russians felt they weren’t getting the truth either.
While holding public office is not yet direct evidence of miscreancy, it seems inconceivable to many reporters that a congressional representative could support a piece of legislation for reasons other than political or personal advantage. If St. Francis of Assisi appeared on the floor of Congress to advocate the installation of municipal birdbaths, the press would immediately begin to investigate possible Bernardone family connections with marble-quarrying interests in Carrara.
There has always been a deep strain of moral preachment in the press. In colonial times ministers frequently drew their sermons from current events, and newspapers continued the theme by making sermons into editorials until Thomas Carlyle noted that journalists had replaced clergymen as the modern nation’s moral guardians. This is a mandate the press sometimes takes on with too much relish. An unpleasant, hectoring tone has crept into contemporary journalism at even the lowest level. Last winter The New York Times ran a story on the bitter cold weather in which its reporter chided people for being abroad without hats or gloves; then “were unable to provide satisfactory explanations.”
The Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Shogan has a keen sense of his own moral worthiness. As a guest at Vice President George Bush’s residence, Shogan went through the receiving line and saw Bush was wearing a suede jacket. “That’s a handsome coat,” Shogan said. “What poor animal was sacrificed to make it?” After the Vice President passed him off with a joke, Shogan wrote, “beneath that well-bred veneer lurked a broad streak of arrogance.”
In several ways. Newspapers are in a dreadful bind for new readers in a country where literacy levels are discouragingly low. A federal study by the Department of Education indicates nearly half our adult population has difficulty writing a simple business letter. Nor is the level of political awareness particularly high. At Ivy League colleges 50 percent of the students do not know the names of their U.S. senators. On the Monday night of the Democratic party convention in 1992, television network convention coverage in New York City was outdrawn by the Fox station showing a movie, The Revenge of the Nerds, Part III . Political coverage on MTV was considered a major factor in the election of Bill Clinton.
Newspapers are scurrying to make themselves what they call “user-friendly.” Unofficially this is known as “dumbing down.” Whenever Rupert Murdoch buys a new property, one of the first things he insists on is adding a horoscope column. And who is to say he’s wrong? Twenty-five percent of American readers check their horoscopes before looking at the headlines.
Increasingly, papers are reaching out for softer news stories that may not seem so forbidding to potential readers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the nineteenth century newspapers were almost entirely a men’s political and sports club. They hardly covered women’s news—never call it that now—at all until department store advertising drove them to it. Life is not all agriculture quotas and prime rates.
The New York Times has been harshly criticized by some of the older debenture holders within the hard news fraternity for running sections on themes such as sports, science, and entertainment, most of which are excellent and reported up to Times standards. It does run a Sunday feature called “Styles,” which has not yet found one, but we live in hope.
An old theory holds that when a newspaper is sick of a story, the readers are just beginning to get it.
The king of soft stuff is USA Today , which slices up the news into a tray of canapes. I used to hate the paper but have come to realize it is a cleverly conceived operation that takes a particularly strong hold in areas where established newspapers are weak. USA Today is like a bus schedule for people who can’t get to the depot. It doesn’t give you much, but it tells you when the bus is leaving. For such a modern paper some of its components are refreshingly reminiscent of yellower days. In an editorial meeting the founding director, Al Neuharth, was said to have been displeased to see a picture of an attractive woman displayed near the bottom of the page. “The next time you run a picture of a nice, clean-cut All-American girl in a tight sweater,” he ordered, “get her tits above the fold.”
There is a difference between being more sensitive, which the press needs, and getting squishy soft at the center, which it does not. During a conversation over the observance of Columbus Day, my suburban edition of the Times ran an interview with a distinguished professor of European history in which the reporter asked, “Was Columbus a nice man?” When the Times starts running baby talk, we are all in trouble.
Perhaps the Times is being smart. William Safire says the public is more interested in asking what kind of guy a politician is than in trying to find out where he wants to lead us. This journalistic search for the unknowable soul has led to curious changes in political perception. In 1972 Sen. Edwin Muskie was reported to be in tears when denouncing a slander made against his wife. Crying, it was determined, meant Muskie did not have the stern stuff for high office. Now, after years of watching guests sobbing into their handkerchiefs for Sally Jesse Raphael, we suspect that a candidate who does not publicly weep may be insufficiently simpatico to be one of the people.
Sensationalism is an aged sin and not likely to go away because it is one of the things the press does best. Benjamin Day wrote in the Sun that “newspaper people thrive best on the calamities of others. Give us one of your real Moscow fires, or your Waterloo battlefields; let a Napoleon be dashing with his legions throughout the world, overturning the thrones of a thousand years and deluging the world with blood and tears; and then we of the types are in our glory.”
The ideal newspaper story is one that yokes celebrity with scandal in an action that can be simply stated but provides the possibility of endless speculation. This is why editors dream of the headline POPE ELOPES !
There are few things closer to the journalistic heart than “fall from grace” scandals. When Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was brought into court in 1874 for sexual misadventures with another man’s wife, it got the kind of saturation coverage recently accorded the public discord between Woody Alien and Mia Farrow. The Beecher story was so yeasty that last year the New York Daily News ran the details all over again as a historical piece. Now we get stories of falls from less exalted heights. Whenever Oprah Winfrey gains a pound or two, the National Enquirer lets us know about it on the front page.
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.
Interpreting the news gets you on slippery ground. How should you play H. Ross Perot? If you feel, as I do, that the principal difference between Perot and one of those people who appear at political conventions on stilts wearing Uncle Sam suits is that Perot has a lot of money, does that give you the right to peg him as an aberration? Or should you call him a new political voice and let the public decide how valid it is? The second, obviously, but the urge to give the public the benefit of your superior knowledge runs deep.
The modern editorial is dreary pap compared with the firebrand stuff of the nineteenth century, when papers were not so afraid of offending their readers. Their place has been taken by a phalanx of columnists full of opinion. It used to be a mark of distinction for a reporter to be given a column. Now columns are routinely awarded to reporters who have grown weary of working stories and just want to favor us with their thoughts. The newest big-gun pundit on the block is Frank Rich, syndicated by The New York Times , who seems to write his stuff between visits to the movies.
If you can believe it after all this carping, the American press is doing a good job. There are dead spots, of course. When New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, last year wanted to talk about the state budget, he couldn’t even get airtime on public television because the subject wasn’t considered interesting enough. Still, I cannot think of an instrumentality as deeply flawed as the press that gives such good service.
It is, of course, never as good as it should be. The Columbia School of Journalism holds regular seminars on how to improve America’s newspapers, so perhaps I may be allowed a few brief paragraphs on the subject. Nothing here is terribly original. Much of the following has been suggested by people more deeply involved in the business than I.
Almost twenty years ago Sen. J. William Fulbright called on the press to reconsider its priorities. It is skilled in uncovering “the high crimes and peccadilloes of persons in high places,” he wrote, but fails in its responsibility to educate the public. “A bombastic accusation, a groundless, irresponsible prediction . . . will usually gain a Congressman or a Senator his heart’s content of publicity; a reasoned discourse ... is destined for entombment in the Congressional Record.”
The Times is changing. “We have become brilliant in covering election campaigns,” says Frankel. “The problem is to make the art of governance as interesting and exciting as campaigning.”
Traditionally, the best and most experienced reporters cover politics—"he said,” “she answered,” “they meant” stories. Howard Kurtz, the perceptive media reporter for the Washington Post , calls this sort of thing covering the “uproar du jour.” The newest member of a Washington bureau is usually put on boring beats such as regulatory agencies. But they are where big stories are usually broken too late. If reporters with skill and vision and the clout to make their editors pay attention had been covering the banking industry, America might have saved a few billion dollars before the savings and loan industry turned upside down.
Newspapers should go after the more difficult, complicated subjects and report them in the kind of interesting detail no other medium can match. This goes contrary to the USA Today experience, but there is room for only so many billboards.
Perhaps it is time to forgo our yearning for objectivity, which has frequently been something of a fig leaf covering journalistic indecision, and opt for perceptive coverage by reporters who make it clear they are coming from a particular point of view. British journalism has a partisan hue to its coverage, and when it’s good, it is lively stuff.
Afternoon papers with their heavy emphasis on news as entertainment have been particularly hard hit by television and supermarket tabloids. Let’s yield that field to them. They can always outjunk a newspaper. By all means, let’s have trend stories and personality profiles, but let’s have some decent reporting. How much do you really want to know about the tensile strength of Madonna’s underwear? How does she work? How does she achieve her effects? What is her appeal? How is she marketed? All I know is she apparently puts her brassiere on with rivets. If that’s all there is to her story, it isn’t worth reading.
Newspapers have specific relationships with their readers that the press would do well to reinforce. Television news, like meals in a poorly run state prison system, rarely varies from one indistinguishable portion to another. If it were not for the anchor, would you have the slightest idea which network news telecast you are watching? Would you care?
I cannot imagine caring about television news the way I do about newspapers. My paper is the Times . I didn’t have much say in picking it. I came over when the Herald Tribune folded. But I live in New York, and so the Times is my paper just as the Giants are my football team. For good or ill they are a part of my extended social family. No one rages at the Times more than I do. It has a sports section that appears to be assembled at random, and I have yet to get to the bottom of an A. M. Rosenthal column. When it blows a story, I feel as if Lawrence Taylor had missed a tackle. When I am away, I miss the paper terribly and take back everything I said. When it gets it right, as it did recently with a series on scandals in education funding, the stories were so good they made my hair crackle. Newspapers get into trouble when their readers cease to care.
The ideal newspaper story is one that yokes celebrity with scandal in an action that can be simply stated.
Part of the special relationship exists because readers like to read. This sounds obvious but is sometimes forgotten even within the business. Anyone who writes for periodicals knows how the advertising department, after claiming a readership so well educated as to be made up entirely of graduates of the Sorbonne, complains to the editorial side that any story more complex than the annual appearance of the circus is over the heads of subscribers who only get to read while having their golf shoes cleaned.
Several years ago Gov. Lester Maddox was discussing state prison reform when he made the wonderful point that Georgia jails would not improve until they started getting in a better class of prisoner. Which brings me to the final piece in the equation, the newspaper reader. It is all right to get readers angry. I imagine I have left a wake of discontent with this article. It is even acceptable to befuddle them. I have rarely read newspaper articles with more interest and less comprehension than I did about the discovery of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. But you must engage their interest.
Readers have to play their part and not sit by passively. Too many are conditioned by the lethargy of television and want everything spelled out for them. A newspaper is a call to action. It cannot know all the answers, but it can ask the right questions so you can find the answers on your own.
If you aren’t getting all you need from a single newspaper, read more newspapers. The same day I read a charming account of the English actor John Gielgud in the Times I read in the Post that the actress Shannen Doherty was not going to wear a shirt in her next film. I read the Post the way a wino drinks muscatel. I know it isn’t good for me, but I can’t stay away from it. Besides, it has Phil Mushnick, who holds roughly the same position among sports media columnists as Shakespeare did among Elizabethan playwrights.
Back your newspaper reading up with magazines. Try The Washington Monthly . Its politics are, as the old joke has it, “to the left of whoopee,” but its reporting is wonderfully cogent. If you find the mainstream press too liberal, a subscription to The National Review is all the antidote you require.
I am always surprised at how well this ukulele of a press manages to get played. One of the local papers I read is the Putnam Reporter Dispatch . Like all papers in the Gannett chain, it’s on the soft side, but today it delivered thirty-eight pages of pretty good stuff. There was reasonable world news coverage from Bosnia to North Korea. Locally I read that Rep. Hamilton Fish, a strong right arm in Congress, is being criticized by another Republican who says Fish has become too liberal. There was some good political commentary and a spirited exchange between opposing columns on recent statements by Louis Farrakhan that took some editorial grit to run. Plenty of sports and my daily dose of comics, including “Doonesbury” and “The Far Side,” which I must have. I worked the bridge column and did the crossword puzzle. I read an interesting review of a new Edward Albee play, was warned by Ann Landers about the dangers of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, and found out which cooking oil heats best for Chinese food.
Not bad for forty cents.