Can The Press Tell the Truth?
By Mark Danner
and , Lewis H. Lapham, Walter Karp, Frances Fitzgerald, et al.
January 22, 1985
When General Westmoreland hauled CBS into court for libel last year, the American press responded with a flood of sober commentary on a cherished subject - itself. A decade after Watergate, editorialists observed, the press was widely maligned, criticized, abused, and, most of all, "distrusted." As evidence of this distrust they cited the ubiquitous polls and pointed to the public's conspicuous failure to be outraged when reporters were barred from Grenada.
Though Americans ritually intone their devotion to the "freedom of the press," they delight in repeating another prized national dictum: "Don't believe what you read in the papers." While acknowledging that the press enjoys a freedom of sorts - to behave however it wants to in its quest to sell newspapers - Americans realize that it is nowhere required to provide "truth" to its customers. Perhaps the widespread skepticism toward the press implies a recognition that the truth-or even just the "facts" - seldom survives in a competitive marketplace without being tainted by prejudice, ideology, or embellishment.
What, then, can we really learn from the daily papers? Can the American
press tell the truth? If not, what does it tell us, and why? To consider
these questions, Harper's invited a group of journalists and a First Amendment
lawyer to discuss what Americans can fairly expect from their press -
and what they cannot.
The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Lewis H. Lapham served as moderator.
LEWIS H. LAPHAM
LEWIS H. LAPHAM: Ladies and gentlemen, this conversation has to do with what I take to be the common misperceptions about the press in this country. Americans seem to want to find truth in the press; they expect to learn how the world really works, why events happen as they do. When they are disappointed in these expectations - as they inevitably are - they become angry and resentful. They tell poll takers that they "distrust" the press. They applaud when the government excludes reporters from the Grenada invasion. And, more and more qften in recent years, they bring libel suits. I think we can conclude that, in general, the public seems to want to criticize, and often to punish, the American press.
Now, I think this is somewhat unfair. Certainly there are many things
wrong with the press, but to me the punishments seem out of line with
the alleged crimes. This might be partly ascribed to the public's almost
idealized conception of the power of the press. We speak in solemn voices
about "freedom of the press." But what exactly is a "free press"? Do we
really have such a press in the United States? Or perhaps a better question
might be, do Americans really want a free press? And would the men and
women who constitute the large and established press - the New York
Times, the Washington Post, and the newsmagazines - really
want a free press? By considering these questions; we might, I hope, come
to a more accurate under- standing of the actual role the press plays
in this country. Tom Wicker, what exactly do we mean when we talk about
a "free press"? Do we mean an "adversary press"? Must a free press by
definition be negative, mean, rude, opposed to the so-called establishment?
TOM WICKER: Yes, when we speak of a free press, I think we necessarily do mean an adversary press, but then we have to explain what we mean by "adversary." The American press is not an adversary in the way that two nations at war, or two neighbors fighting over a boundary line, are adversaries. Rather, I think of the press as an adversary in the sense that, in a courtroom, a lawyer is the adversary of a witness he is cross-examining. The lawyer has a dtity not simply to listen to what the witness says and elicit responses from him, but somehow to draw from him as near a true story as possible. Ideally, the press plays an adversarial role by making a similar effort to dig beneath the surface of things, instead of simply broadcasting or printing what appears to be the case without questioning it.
You asked whether the press need be "negative" or "rude." Here again
I think the analogy to a lawyer in a courtroom is useful. If the witness
is forthcoming and responds honestly and fully to questions, a lawyer
need not employ rough tactics. But if the witness is not forthcoming,
if he attempts to mislead, the lawyer is forced to take a more high-powered
WALTER KARP: I define a free press as one that protects and, if need be, strengthens government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Now, such a press will certainly look like an adversary to some people. It will look like a very serious threat to any usurper of legitimate power - to a would-be tyrant, for example. And it will look like a threat to men who hold power secretly or irresponsibly. For what does a free press do? It makes available to the public information about the deeds and the intentions of people who are entrusted with power. If those people find that the press has become their adversary, then I believe that they are holding power in an illegitimate way.
HERBERT SCHMERTZ: That definition leaves no room for any legitimate constraints on the press and precludes any criticism of it. I think the United States probably has the freest press of any society in the world, but there are nonetheless some obvious constraints on it. The marketplace is the most powerful of these - the press is made up of businesses that are trying to make money. Indeed, I think many of the problems Lewis mentioned have been generated by the marketplace. The public support of the government's refusal to admit journalists into Grenada, for instance, was a marketplace respons - the press's market, the public, generally agreed with the government's restrictions on it. I feel strongly that the most effective constraint on the press ought to be the marketplace, and our Mobil ads have said so repeatedly. I've never advocated prior restraints on the press by the government.
But the American press today is not satisfied with the right to publish without prior restraint. It wants the right to publish anything without the threat of any consequences whatever, whether legal or marketplace. But the press's actions and what I would call its abuses do have consequences.
The most obvious abuse is that the American press often attempts to make policy rather than report it; it seems to see itself as the surrogate of the people. I simply don't buy that. We elect leaders to make policy in this country. When the press departs from its proper role of disseminating information and reporting policy, and begins trying to make and influence policy, then I object. Of course, I exempt from this criticism editorialists, and newspaper columnists such as Tom. But when straight-news reporters slant their supposedly objective stories, I object. And I think the American people object, too.
Second, the press tends to present American leaders and institutions as far more corrupt and self-serving than they are. Public figures, government officials, and especially businessmen are too often presented as villains. The marketplace response to this exaggerated depiction of public figures is, again, a progressive loss of trust in the press.
Finally, the press often employs questionable tactics-soliciting stolen
documents, depending on unnamed sources, intruding on people's privacy
- in its eagerness to get a story. As for the libel suits Lewis mentioned,
at Mobil our position has been outspoken and clear: we think that a person
who has suffered damage, financial or otherwise, because of untrue statements
in the press should have some right to redress.
SIDNEY ZION: I certainly don't share Herb's concern about a too vibrant press. I don't think it's vibrant at all. In general, the press goes with the flow of American public opinion - which can change dramatically, often as a direct response to government policy. Before World War II, for example, the American public generally considered Stalin to be exactly what he was, a tyrant. But then, when we became Russia's ally during the war and our leaders started saying nice things about Stalin, the newspapers were suddenly saluting him as Uncle Joe. So government, much more than the press, shapes public opinion and thereby guides and influences what the press writes. The press understands that the government must by definition be the adversary - that the fact that officials are elected by free people doesn't mean they continue to represent those people's views after the election.
No press in the world has ever had a better warrant than we've got under the Constitution.
The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law abridging the
freedom of the press." I believe the First Amendment makes the press libel
- proof I don't think there ought to be any libel laws. That doesn't mean
a reporter shouldn't be taught, at the outset, to get the facts right.
I'm proud that I never had to write a correction. But look at the libel
laws now in effect. You can bankrupt a newspaper today through discovery
procedures alone. That's how to kill the First Amendment - not through
prior restraint. The Constitution doesn't say anything about any restraints.
You can ruin a newspaper much easier by suing later.
WICKER: I don't agree that government is necessarily the adversary of the people. Too often, the political necessities of government - or at least the political necessities perceived by government officials - make government an adversary of the people.
FRANCES FITZGERALD: We are really confounding two issues: the press's constitutional rights on the one hand, and its sense of obligation to the public on the other. When we talk about freedom of the press in America, we're really talking about the First Amendment guarantees that protect the press from government interference. At the same time, this "free" press is, as Mr. Schmertz said, a variety of separate business enterprises competing in the marketplace. The people who own these businesses, particularly the larger ones, may believe strongly that they have an obligation to the public. But the press's own sense of obligation is a question of a very different order from the issue of its rights and freedoms under the Constitution. To say "the public has a right to know" is to affirm that the government has a duty to allow people to have the information they need as citizens in a democracy. It follows that the government cannot prevent the press from printing whatever it chooses. The obligation is on the government, not on the press. In fact, the public's right to know does not oblige the press to do anything at all.
Now, when we discuss a "free" versus an "adversary" press, we are no
longer talking about constitutional rights but about what we think the
press ought to do. When Mr. Schmertz points out that journalists are not
surrogates of the public, and on that basis objects to their trying to
influence policy, his objection must stand outside any definition we have
of a free press. For, seen as a variety of businesses with certain rights
guaranteed by the Constitution, the press has a perfect right to try to
influence policy. Whether you would like the press to do that is another
WICKER: Before I was a columnist I worked as a news reporter for more than twenty years for many different newspapers. I learned very well from that experience that a reporter can't avoid influencing policy. Suppose I write a news story about the Geneva arms-control negotiations from the point of view of, say, Paul Warnke, President Carter's SALT negotiator, because he has explained the negotiations to me. That influences policy in one direction. If I write the piece from the point of view of Richard Perle, the current assistant secretary of defense, after he has explained what's happening, that influ- ences policy in a different direction. And if I write my story as if I worked for the Associated Press-which is to say, with the least possible interpretation - then that influences policy in still another direction. No matter how a journalist reports news stories, no matter how much he tries to be neutral, what he writes tends to influence policy.
CHARLES REMBAR: But isn't there a difference, Tom, between a reporter's necessarily having an effect on policy, whether or not he intends to, and the deliberate distortion of the news that Herb was referring to?
WICKER: Not in the final analysis, because it comes down to basic choices a reporter has to make in writing his story - what to include and what to leave out, for example. Suppose it's the early fifties and I am reporting on one of Joseph McCarthy's speeches. After my lead paragraph - "Senator McCarthy declared today that he has found forty-two communists in the State Department," or whatever - I write a paragraph explaining that no one else in the country has any evidence to support McCarthy's assertion and no one else believes it. Now, including that paragraph is a deliberate effort on my part to influence policy - to tell readers how to interpret the news I've just given them. But is including that information more iniquitous than omitting it?
FITZGERALD: It seems to me absolutely naive to believe otherwise than what Tom is saying. Putting a sentence on a piece of paper is necessarilya subjective act. There is no such thing as objectivity in writing. When people talk about ethical standards in journalism - "objectivity," and so on - they are really talking about a set of conventions that have been created in this country over the past fifty years or so. These conventions tell the journalist how to write, and the reader how to read, a news story in an American newspaper. They set out what sort of information should go in the lead, who should be quoted in reference to what, and so on. As newspaper readers, we are so accustomed to these conventions that we barely notice them anymore. But their effect is to allow the reporter and the reader to share certain markers. You as the reader cannot be certain that what you are reading is "the truth"; you cannot be certain that it is "objective" in any real sense. But you can be sure that the reporter will interview certain people and ask certain questions, that he will go about constructing the written account in a certain way, and that certain standards of accuracy and, if you like, fairness will be observed.
SCHMERTZ: I disagree. A reporter can approach his story intending to write it as objectively as he possibly can, giving us the facts as he sees them. Or he can bend the facts to suit his own political agenda. When too many reporters let their politics dictate their reporting, the news columns become filled with what I call advocacy journalism.
WICKER: But I am asserting that all journalism is in fact advocacy journalism. There is no way for a reporter to be neutral; to report an event is to select what is important and significant about it. Of course, if I were an editor sending out reporters, I would prefer that they approached the government or whatever they're covering with an open mind. If a reporter comes to an event with a fixed conviction, he is much less likely to be evenhanded - and evenhandedness is, it seems to me, the desired consequence. But in the final analysis, as to whether the story influences policy - it doesn't matter whether the reporter is advocating a particular position deliberately or not.
SCHMERTZ: I think there's a big difference, Tom.
FITZGERALD: Any writer knows the truth of what Tom is saying: from the first sentence he sets down on paper, from the simple subjective act of choosing what the lead of the story will be, a writer influences the way in which the story he is telling will be interpreted.
Freedom of the Purse
In the same sense, we have a free press today. (I am thinking of big-city and middling-city publishers as members of an upper ana lower house of American opinion.) Anybody in the ten-million-dollar category is free to try to buy or found a paper in a great city like New York or Chicago, and anybody with around a million (plus a lot of sporting blood) is free to try it in a place of mediocre size like Worcester, Mass. As to us, we are free to buy a paper or not, as we wish... .
The newspaper owner is a rather large employer of labor. . " He is nowadays forced to deal with unions in all departments of his enterprise, and is as unlikely as any other employer to be on their side. As owner of a large and profitable business, he is opposed to government intervention in his affairs. . .. As an owner of valuable real estate, he is more interested in keeping the tax rate down than in any other local issue. . . .
The profit system, while it insures the predominant conservative coloration of our press, also guarantees that there will always be a certain amount of dissidence. The American press has never been monolithic, like that of an authoritarian state. One reason is that there is always important money to be made in journalism by standing up for the underdog (demagogically or honestly, so long as the technique is good). The underdog is numerous and prolific - another name for him is circulation. His wife buys girdles and baking powder and Literary Guild selections, and the advertiser has to reach her. Newspapers as they become successful and move to the right leave room for newcomers to the left. . . .
Another factor favorable
to freedom of the press, in a minor way, is the circumstance that
publishers sometimes allow a certain latitude to
-from The Wayward
WICKER: Here's another problem. Most people would agree that a reporter who deliberately prints a lie is violating ethical standards. Now, suppose that in following the conventions of journalism the reporter does not dispute a statement he knows to be a lie.
SCHMERTZ: That's just as bad.
WICKER: Exactly. But under the conventions of journalism prevailing today, there is sometimes no alternative to doing just that. It is impossible, under those conventions, for a reporter to step in and refute a false statement in his own voice.
ZION: There were countless examples of that during the Vietnam War. The State Department's official White Papers were full of lies, and every reporter knew it. But if a reporter described what one of those statements said without disputing anything in it, that was called "objective" reporting.
KARP: I want to retUrn to Mr. Schmertz's statement about a reporter giving us the objective facts as he sees them - a reporter giving us the truth. Or perhaps "truth" is too lofty a word; after all, the Founding Fathers themselves spoke only of "information," as in James Madison's statement that "a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both." So, ideally the press should provide the public with "popular information." I'd like to cite an occasion when providing the public with the "truth" of an event would not have involved bias or advocacy reporting but merely facts. Do you remember the elections in El Salvador in 1982 and 1984? In the months before those elections, the American press, which I won't call entirely "free" but which certainly has a formal freedom, published hundreds of articles about their significance. According to the President of the United States, according to House majority leader Jim Wright, according to the State Department and all the trusted experts, the chief measure of the significance of those elections was voter turnout. If there was a high turnout at the polls, we would know that something positive and encouraging had occurred. But what was scarcely mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post in those days and weeks and months of articles that preceded the elections was that voting is compulsory in El Salvador: every adult, by law, must vote.
So here we have a perfect example of an objective news event - let's
say a statement by the President of the United States on the significance
of voter turnout in El Salvador. Reports say that the turnout was 75 percent,
and the President declares that this is an example of unparalleled heroism
by the Salvadoran people and, not incidentally, proves the success of
his policies. Now, to puncture this story, a reporter didn't need to practice
advocacy journalism or smuggle his own opinions into the news columns.
All he needed was a fact.
SCHMERTZ: But you're making my point, Walter. If the reporter knowingly omitted that fact, then it is advocacy journalism.
KARP: No, Herb, I think I've just given an example, a very rich example, of completely objective journalism as practiced in the United States. It's unreasonable to expect to gain a full understanding of public life in America from the daily newspaper, but the citizen ought not to be deprived of information the reporter has. Yet because of our rules of journalism, this often happens.
For example, it seems to be an unwritten law in the journalism profession
that a reporter cannot, in a news story, infer a motive from the actions
or words of a public figure; only another public figure can do that. The
reporter can discover two facts, but he can't add them together to make
four, at least not in his own voice. The reporter has to present the secretary
of state with his facts, and ask: Mr. Secretary, does this make four?
If the secretary replies, No, that makes five, that's what the reporter
has to print. I've read so many newspaper stories over the years in which
the obvious political motive behind an action or a statement goes unstated.
Instead, we get an analysis by some interested party. For the last five
or six years, Washington journalists have gone to Tip O'Neill to ask him
why things are happening in Congress as they are, as if Tip O'Neill were
a disinterested observer. Daily-newspaper men seem to feel safest, or
their editors feel safest, asking a high official to explain the significance
of the news they themselves have just gathered.
WICKER: I've argued for years that reporters ought to be given greater leeway to bring their own experience and knowledge into a story, instead of having to trot back and forth between two senators who can be counted on to take opposite positions so the reporter can look even-handed. But to assume that we can just change that situation if only we wanted to is not very realistic. The reasons for these rules go very deep; they have to do with who owns and who controls the press in this country, and what their interests are, subjects Frankie touched on. I hope we get into those reasons later in the discussion. But first, I think we have to ask ourselves what the press's role really is in this country. Herb said the press is wrong to assume it's a surrogate of the people. To the extent that he qualified his statement by saying that the people elect leaders to make policy, I agree with him. But I think there are occasions, such as the elections in El Salvador, when the press can and should playa surrogate role. The press does have a proper surrogate function, not in usurping the role of leadership but in trying to serve as the eyes and ears of the public in places the public cannot reach for itself Evidently it didn't fulfill this function very well in El Salvador.
SCHMERTZ: Obviously, one of the justifications of having a free press is that citizens can make more rational judgments on important issues if they have available to them the widest spectrum of views, opinions, and facts.
REMBAR: That's the political argument for it, the argument judges always cite. But I think there's another argument for free expression, and that is that it makes us feel good. We should not separate the citizen's right of free speech from that of a free press. To be able to say what you want to say is a very important part of life. We've been talking about an institution, the press, where the function of free speech is political. But the First Amendment carries important rights for individual citizens as well.
KARP: I think Walt Whitman had that in mind when he said, "There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their supreme confidence in themselves, and lose their roughness and spirit of defiance." To feel good is to have a press that is brave, that works without fear and favor, that asks bold questions of the men in power - not nasty questions, just the questions. A press that asks the basic questions is part of what gives people in a democracy the "supreme confidence in themselves" that Whitman was talking about, and part of what keeps tyranny from entering the door every week and every hour.
In that sense our press bears a heavy burden. The press must work to
destroy mystagogy - it must not allow people in power to wrap themselves
up in "reasons of state" or "national security." A truly free press would
never allow the condition that prevails in this country today: the American
people do not know why their own government does certain things. Do we
really understand why the United States is
fighting a covert war against Nicaragua, for example? The reasons seem to change every day. Ideally, the whole body of the press should be constantly pressing upon the issues of the day, reporting the facts, reporting what public men and women say and do, describing the circumstances under which they say or do it.
Finally, the press should not be afraid to draw inferences from the
words and actions it reports. Or at least it should report in a way that
gives any thinking person the chance to draw inferences. This is not advocacy
of anything other than the largest principle - that people are not going
to be free very long if they're given no chance to judge fairly what might
secure or endanger their freedom.
SCHMERTZ: I agree with what Frankie said earlier - there is nothing in the Constitution preventing the press from trying to influence policy. But when the public complains about it, the press shouldn't get so upset. The press wants to have it both ways: it wants to play an active role in the policy-making process and to be treated as a neutral observer of it.
The Constitution merely gives the press the right to publish in an unfettered
way, a right I support. Once something has been published, the law of
the land says the press must take the consequences, both legally and in
the marketplace. There is nothing in the First Amendment guaranteeing
the press protection from citizens who have been damaged by it. Why shouldn't
citizens have the opportunity to seek redress for damage the press has
done, by libeling someone, for example?
REMBAR: But you do fully support the doctrine of no prior restraint on the press's right to publish?
REMBAR: Well, the doctrine of no prior restraint really has no historical basis in the law. The danger to the press's freedom is just as great from subsequent punishment as it is from prior restraint. Indeed, I think subsequent punishment is more effective in limiting the press. Imagine you're the dictator of a country. What's more effective from your point of view? To forbid dissenting views from being published, thereby forcing these ideas to be whispered about and helping discontent to fester? Or to let people speak relatively freely and then shoot a few of them who get too far out of line?
SCHMERTZ: Is it better to let the press publish lies that destroy the good reputation a person has worked all his life to build? To destroy his ability to earn a living?
REMBAR: I was talking about the press's coverage of the government and public figures. You are really asking whether the press should be totally free to say what it likes. That is, your question is, Do we really have a free press in this country? And the answer, I'm afraid, must be no, and not just because of libel suits. Our press is obviously controlled by the people who own it. All the Constitution says is that the government shouldn't interfere with the press's freedom to publish what it likes. It says nothing about anyone else interfering, whether it be the people who exert direct control over newspapers by owning them or the readers who exert indirect control by being pandered to. So we are left with a choice - should the government control the press or should people with enough money control the press? Both are distasteful, but history shows the latter is preferable.
SCHMERTZ: I already said that the one constraint I favor is the marketplace.
ZION: Yes, but Cy Rembar is alluding to another constraint, what we might call self-censorship or editorial censorship. As far as I know, there's not even an hour devoted to the subject in any journalism school in the country. But anyone who has worked for an editor knows that censorship is a daily event, the daily blood of newspapers - editors spiking stories, making decisions on what to assign, who to assign, what to keep out of the paper and what to put in. If we're arguing that the government must never censor, we must raise the question of why editors and publishers can censor. That happens constantly, and, in terms of what you read, it's much more important than anything the government can do.
WICKER: Editorial censorship has to be distinguished from what one might call the professional process of deciding priorities in the news business - obviously, no newspaper can include every bit of material that comes across the table. But aside from that, one dramatic example of editorial censorship comes to mind immediately: the New York Times's decision to play down its advance information on the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In his memoirs, Turner Catledge, who was managing editor and then executive editor of the Times, gave an account of his decision about how to run that story. Catledge explained that he played down the story not because he was primarily concerned about the national interest but because he felt sure the invasion would fail and he didn't want the New York Times to be blamed for its failure. He was acting to protect his newspaper, not the national security of the United States.
FITZGERALD: I think we're getting close to the real issues of why the press behaves'the way it does. We are beginning to distinguish between what we would like to see in the press and what the American press really is. I couldn't agree more with Mr. Karp about what the press ought to be doing. But the press is first, as I said before, a series of businesses that respond to market pressures and that tend to provide people with what they want to hear. As Mr. Rembar said, the press responds to the demands its owners make on it. This means the press is not homogeneous in its views but embraces a wide spectrum of political stances and opinions; it also means that the quality of reporting differs widely.
The American press is malleable. It can be easily hurt and easily influenced.
It really has no obligation to tell the truth about anything. None. We
would like it to tell the truth. But there is nothing that says that it
must. Nothing prevents a publisher from buying a newspaper and turning
it into a vehicle of political propaganda for one side or another - as
happened in New York when Rupert Murdoch bought the Post. So
before we talk about what our ideals and goals are for the press, I think
it's important to see what is really at stake.
ZION: Frankie is right. Every day, editors censor writers. The basic problem is that the American press, and especially the so-called establishment press, takes the implicit position that the government is generally right in what it does and says. I think we should remember that the establishment press forms an important part of what we might call this country's "League of Gentlemen." Even when the press attacks a particular administration, its owners and managers still belong to that League of Gentlemen and still consider the government to be basically right. It can be the hardest thing in the world to get the truth over the desk of an editor. Unless a reporter can bring documents and data proving beyond any doubt that the government is wrong about something, the press will go with the government view. Yet if a reporter just echoes the rcceived opinion, of course, that goes right in the paper the next morning.
WICKER: Yes, that League of Gentlemen exists. The people who run the press -particularly the metropolitan, largely capitalized institutions of the press - are part of it, along with the people who run the government and the major businesses and the big foundations. This league isn't like a group of industry price-fixers who get together every so often and decide on their line. But the members of the league do share a sense of community, a broad common perception of the general interest. Which is why I've always considered it ludicrous to speak of how "left- wing" the press is in the United States. President Carter said to me not long ago, after he'd left office, that he thought he had suffered from a kind of class distinction in Washington, that the press was more hostile to Johnson and Nixon and Carter because they weren't really prod- ucts of the Eastern establishment.
I think that kind of attitude is almost irredeemable; I think it's in
the nature of the press. The major organs of the press are big businesses.
The New York Times is listed on the American Stock Exchange.
I think the best you can hope for from such a press is that on occasion
it will see its duties and obligations as a free press clearly enough.
The Times's Pentagon Papers coverage was one such occasion. But
if you look at the American press as it really is, you'll see it's idle
to suppose that such a press will be constantly straying off the reservation
of the establishment.
LAPHAM: On the other hand, as Frankie says, the press is really under no particular obligation to tell the truth. And Cy Rembar says one of the main purposes and functions of the press is to make people feel good. I agree with both of them - after all, there's no contradiction between not telling the truth and making people feel good. Today's journalism is increasingly an amalgam of fact and fiction. This isn't done with evil intention, as Herb thinks, but because journalists work in the usual alloys of flawed information and unconscious bias. I don't think the New York Times is being written by ideologues who distort the news to conform to their politics. I think it's a matter of sensibility. You can't know the whole truth - pardon the expression - about anything. So the President Reagan that the journalist writes about becomes a character in a play.
Journalism is sculpture in snow. To have the expectation that it's somehow
cast in stone - that it will reveal the truth to us - is to load it down
with a burden it can't carry. But why do people load it down with such
FITZGERALD: Someone recently called this the "post-factual age," and I think there's something to be said for that. Perhaps it's in part the influence of television.
Television is very good at conveying impressions, but less good at conveying
facts and information. Certainly people raised on television read less,
and it's reading above all that encourages critical thinking. But nonetheless,
I think you may be overstating the case when you call journalism "sculpture
in snow." Journalism does convey facts, and the conventions we've been
discussing are at least partly intended to ensure that facts find their
way into the papers. That was what the Washington Post/Janet
Cooke scandal was all about. The Post, with its irritating rhetoric,
was defending a certain set of conventions, one of which is not to invent
an interview subject who doesn't exist. These conventions are all that
stand between us and the totally anarchic view that there are no facts,
that there is no possibility of ascertaining the "truth of the matter."
Of course, there is no final truth, no final objectivity. Nonetheless,
between here and the "post- factual age" there are a lot of barricades
to be defended.
LAPHAM: All I was trying to say was that I don't think a person is going to become a truly in- formed citizen by reading nothing more than the American press. If you're serious about trying to find out how your political system works, that will require a good deal of effort. Newspapers tell a story - a very sophisticated one, but a story nonetheless. Read the memoirs of states - men who have suffered the idiocy of the press over a period of years, and they all say you can't believe what you read in the papers. Historians make exactly the same point. The press is a midden heap, full of bits and pieces of things, some of them true and maybe valuable, but all of them fragments from which the citizen must construct his own distorted portrait of reality. I object to the idea that somehow the press, the media, are going to provide people with all the necessary answers.
WICKER: I think Lewis has taken a very subtle and complex view of the press, and one that is essentially right. You can't work in this business as long as I have without seeing its limitations. Herb Schmertz mentioned the constraints of the marketplace - the press has to sell its product. There is that League of Gentlemen we talked about earlier, with its establishment views. And then there is a more mundane constraint - the simple dailiness of the press. Before one day's news can be fully comprehended, the press must deal with the next day's news, which may be entirely different. The best you can do is to keep reporting day after day, writing down what happened and what was said yesterday. That's a far cry from fully informing people about a situation. The best the reader can expect from the daily metropolitan newspaper is that it give a reasonably complete sense of what in fact happened yesterday, what was actually said.
KARP: And it doesn't come close.
WICKER: It doesn't come as close as it should, and I don't think that there's much chance of it getting closer, given the dimension of the task. But to expect more than that, to expect a newspaper to provide its readers with an in-depth understanding of many serious subjects in public affairs, is unfair.
KARP: It's true one must go beyond the daily press. But it's also true that the press hamstrings itself It makes it a rule that what happened is what politicians say happened. The rule would work well enough if the party in opposition ceaselessly questioned the people in office. The fact is it doesn't. So the official view of what happened often becomes the only view of what happened.
Elegy for a Foreign Correspondent
RUTH (angrily): You bet I am. I'm not
going to let you think he died for free speech and the guttering
candle of democracy - crap! You're all doing it to impress each
other and be top dog the next time you're propping up a bar in
Beirut It's all bloody ego. And the winner isn't democracy, it's
just business. As far as I'm concerned, Jake died for the product.
He died for the women's page, and the crossword, and the racing
results, and the heartbreak beauty queens and somewhere at the
end of a long list I suppose he died for the leading article too,
but it's never worth that -
-from Night and Day, by Tom Stoppard
We need a free press most when our politics grows corrupt and collusive, but that is exactly when the American press is most helpless, thanks to its own conventions.
SCHMERTZ: Certainly the daily press is not perfect, but it could be substantially better than it is. The press takes a defeatist attitude - it won't listen or respond to criticism. It doesn't make what I would consider an honest attempt at self- improvement. That's where my main complaint lies. I want the press to be more aware that it has certain problems, and to try to do something to resolve them. But at the first sign of criticism the press in this country puts the wagons in a circle and starts shooting.
ZION: To see that the press can do better you need only look at it at its best - covering Watergate, for example. The press is most effective when its reporters write about someone they don't like - Nixon, say, or Begin - and can play the adversary role to the hilt. When the press shows you how good it can be, then it's hard to believe it can't do better because of the demands of daily journalism.
WICKER: Investigative journalism flourishes for brief periods, then dies for the same reason we have many of these restrictive conventions - because the surges of criticism inspired by bold journalism have an inhibiting effect. The press seems overtly hostile to Nixon, or appears to harm national security by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Criticism of the press builds. Sure, we ought to hold fast and withstand it. But we don't. Because in the end we are still part of the League of Gentlemen. We don't want to be out in front, to attack the establishment, to criticize major institutions, to be accused of endangering national security. The people who run the establishment press don't like to hear angry critics calling for a National Press Councilor warning that the First Amendment is going to be modified. So the press pulls in its horns. Certain story assignments are not made. Certain investigations are not launched, or completed, or the results published. Approving articles begin to balance inquiring articles. The press gains readmission to the League. That's exactly what happened after Watergate and the CIA investigations of the seventies. Sure, someone could write a two-line memo tomorrow and change the news policy of the New York Times to be more skeptical and challenging of established institutions. But they won't do it, not because they couldn't do it, not because they don't have the power to do it, but because they don't want to suffer more than the minimal necessary disapproval of the League of Gentlemen.
LAPHAM: I think Tom has just answered one of our questions: Does the press really want a free press? If by a free press we mean a group of boisterous, rude scoundrels likely to criticize the establishment and cause embarrassment, then the answer is no. The next question is, Does the American public really want a free press?
REMBAR: Let me give you a practical answer. When I was trying the censorship cases - Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill - I did everything I could to avoid jury trials. I felt that while everybody on the jury wanted to read those books, they wouldn't want to vote in favor of them. Most Americans don't really approve of the expression of ideas they don't like. Who really cares about freedom of speech in this country? People like those sitting around this table, and most of the judiciary - perhaps they have an idea of freedom of expression. But not the so-called man in the street.
KARP: I don't think it's that simple. The public's trust in the press was highest in 1973, according to the Harris poll. The American people trusted the press most, that is, during the Watergate revelations. When the press appeared to be vigorous, when people were hearing about the corruption and lies of men in power, that was when the press was admired most. The Washington Post's pollster told me recently that he found a majority of Americans want more aggressive reporting about the government, and a plurality want the news media to do more stories about official corruption.
LAPHAM: But jury decisions in libel cases are running about four to one against media organizations, although appellate courts overturn many of them. The instinct among people on juries seems to be to punish the press for crimes against the hopes and wishes of its audience.
KARP: Those juries are sympathetic to the victims of libel. But in 1973, Americans were watching high officials being exposed and embarrassed in all sorts of ways- and they greatly enjoyed it.
LAPHAM: But that's always a joy and a pleasure to watch.
ZION: And remember, a lot of people at that time were warning the press that we were talking about things that could tear the country apart.
KARP: Yes, and those people never quite forgave us for not being tom apart.
SCHMERTZ: The press is very good at investigating virtually all the institutions in our society. But the press won't practice any investigative journalism on itself. One publication won't criticize another. Reporters won't criticize other reporters. I have had reporters tell me this when I've come to them with a story, and I think it's a weakness of the American press.
ZION: You're right. We don't criticize ourselves. If we did, we'd discover something strange about the First Amendment - it's really only for editors arid publishers. Editors should be made to explain why they spike stories, and why writers get blacklisted. Editors don't kill just bad stories. They kill excellent stories, stories that are important - stories that are too controversial.
WICKER: Let's say we made public the meeting in which the editors decide what goes on the front page of the Times. You admit a limited number of the public, including reporters, and seat them along the wall. Do you think this would alter the decisions on the part of the editors toward more bold, irinovative journalism, or would it result in more cautious journalism, don't-rock-the-boat journalism?
ZION: You'd get more cautious journalism.
WICKER: I think you're wrong. In my judgment, the editors' reluctance to take risks results from their need to have an explanation for the decisions they make. And I think it would be easier, in the presence of an audience, to justify bold and innovative decisions than to justify playing it safe against the public interest. But it's not just investigative stories that get spiked. When 1 was the Times bureau chief in Washington, I was a member of the League of Gentlemen; otherwise I never would have been bureau chief. Time after time, good reporters down there complained about not being able to get stories in the paper. And time after time I said to them, You're just not going to get that in the New York Times - it's too interpretive, it's too reliant on your judgment rather than on official judgment, it's too complex, it contradicts the official record more flagrantly than the conventions of daily journalism allow.
On occasion, the daily establishment press will publish something like
the Pentagon Papers; it will fight to expose a Watergate scandal; it will
publish revelatory stories of one kind or another. But it will rarely
provide in-depth and insightful and original reporting about a subject
like arms control, because it's too focused on yesterday's developments
and on the official record of events and remarks.
REM BAR: But the choice is between having a government-controlled press and a privately controlled press. In neither case do we have real freedom. Obviously, the people who own the systems of communication control them. Our press is freer than most, but that doesn't mean we ought to congratulate ourselves on having real freedom of the press.
I'd like to see the government finance a newspaper and a television
network in which any citizen could have a voice. The average citizen doesn't
really have a voice now. He can write a letter to the editor, which mayor
may not get printed. There should be something additional, some way in
which people who aren't rich enough to own a newspaper or a broadcast
station could transmit their ideas to the public.
ZION: I would never support public ownership of the press. Rather, I would try within the limitations of capitalism and private ownership not to make reporters feel that they are only hired hands. I want to take off reporters' handcuffs - loosen the conventions, let reporters use their own judgment and speak in their own voices. I think you'd get better reporting.
LAPHAM: I would like to lower the public's expectations of the press. When Carol Burnett is awarded $750,000 by a jury because she has been "libeled" by a gossip item in the National Enquirer, I think that points to a problem in, people's understanding of what the press is. The Enquirer regularly publishes claims of sightings of UFOs and conversations with Elvis Presley from beyond the grave. To sue that kind of newspaper for libel - and to win - suggests to me that an earnest educational effort needs to be directed at the consumers of the press.
REMBAR: But nobody has said anything about how to improve the press itself, except by appeals to virtue. Nearly everything that has been said here today is hortatory: let's try to be better than we are.
WICKER: We haven't said anything because there isn't any formula that will automatically make things better. The press won't do better because of reform movements or new definitions or improved systems. It will do better because more people try to do better. That, in my judgment, is the only thing that we can hope for- that more and more people in the press will sincerely try to do a better job. I don't think that's an idle wish. What's wrong with the press in this country arises out of much larger forces, some of which we've tried to point out. I don't really think that we could sit down and come up with plausible reform proposals that would be accepted or observed- - or that would even make much difference if they were.