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Evaluative Journalism: A New Synthesis


ISSUE:  Summer 1982

Somewhere along the line, even those of us who are not deeply versed in Hegel probably have heard the popularized version of his theory that historical change is the product of clashes of ideas. “Thesis,” the leading idea of an age, confronts “antithesis” and out of that comes “synthesis,” a new idea that contains some elements of both and becomes the next era’s thesis.

The model is chemical—mix blue paint and yellow paint and you get green paint. But one can also imagine a physical model for this process: two masses collide, then shatter, producing not synthesis but something else—”multi-thesis,” perhaps.

It is not yet clear which of these models describes the changes that have taken place recently in American political journalism. It’s clear which one seems to apply at the moment—the clash between the partisan journalism of the 19th century and the objective journalism that until recently has characterized the 20th has produced a variety of only partially satisfactory new forms, investigative reporting and the “New Journalism” chief among them. But the 13-year experience of a magazine called The Washington Monthly offers hope that a new synthesis really is emerging. Without any of Adam’s confidence that the name I give this synthesis will stick, I call it “Evaluative Journalism.”

II

“Thesis” manifested itself in the form of partisan journalism. The political press of the 19th century literally was conceived in partisanship: the capitol’s first newspaper, the National Intelligencer, was founded in 1800 because President-elect Thomas Jefferson suggested the idea to editor Samuel Harrison Smith. There was no question about the Intelligencer being the house organ of the Jeffersonian party or about the journal being rewarded for its loyalty with all the government’s printing business. Nor was it any surprise that the change of parties that followed Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 produced a new paper (the Globe) edited by a member of Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet (Amos Kendall—”the president’s thinking machine, his writing machine—aye, and his lying machine,” in one hostile congressman’s words), or that it would start receiving what subsidies the government had to give.

Washington correspondents from newspapers around the country were as unabashedly partisan as the locals. As Bernard A. Weisberger points out in Reporters for the Union, a journalist might describe one senator as having “a fawning, sinister smile; a keen, snaky eye;. . .his whole air and mien suggesting a subdued combination of Judas Iscariot with Uriah Keep.” The speech of a senator who shared the same reporter’s partisan views, however, was “full of marrow and grit, and enunciated with a courage which did one’s heart good to hear.”

Partisan journalism survived until the end of the 19th century, Usually its purpose was to win support for a political party and its candidates, but sometimes it tried to direct public opinion in support—or even creation—of a special cause, as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal did with the Spanish-American War. Sometimes, too, the partisan press seemed to whoop up enthusiasm for its own sake. One can flip through story after story about “The Coming Crisis” in some 19th-century newspapers without finding the barest description of what the crisis was.

In the later 1800’s, two forces, both related to the rise of a national economy, militated for change in the partisan journalism ethic—for an antithesis, if you will. First, a large class of readers developed who were educated and interested in happenings around the country. They provided a constituency for accounts of political news that did not try to make their minds up for them. Second, the wire services, which were serving more and more papers in every part of the nation, decided that partisanship was bad business: in the course of pleasing one party’s newspapers, they would displease not only the other’s, but also those readers who wanted their news unleavened with overt political bias.

A new, “objective” model for journalism was the response to these developments. No paper embodies it better than The New York Times. When Adolph Ochs bought the Times in 1896, its circulation was 9,000. Yet, writes David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, Ochs “wanted as little partisanship as possible . . .he wanted to make as few judgments as possible.” Even as “Citizen” Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World gained renown by fanning the flames of war in 1898, the Times’ more subdued appeal to educated readers raised its circulation to 82,000 by 1900. Soon it became the standard by which all American newspapers were to be judged.

The ethic of objective journalism could be stated simply: it was the business of the press to report the news, not make or evaluate it. Reporters and editors were to check their personal opinions and judgments at the newsroom door and report neutrally, with an emphasis on such qualities as providing balance and getting the facts straight. The subject of objective journalism’s political attention was the sayings and doings of public officials. The kind of stories it typically produced were long summaries of congressional debates, with quotes from both sides of the issue, and presidential campaign dispatches that told readers what the candidate said, the weather, and the size of the crowd, the latter based on the police chiefs official estimate.

Objective journalism was a useful corrective to the partisan press, and it still is what most readers want most of the time. But over the years, its limits as a way of telling the public what it needs to know about politics and government have become evident.

The major problem with confining journalists to neutral and nonjudgmental reporting on the words and actions of public officials became clear when Senator Joseph McCarthy began his wild campaign against the State Department’s imagined “205 card-carrying Communists” in 1950. Though most reporters knew better, they felt constrained to write “Senator McCarthy charges—” stories and leave it at that. In this case, Douglass Cater observed in The Fourth Branch of Government:

The extent of the communications failure McCarthyism presented can be measured by the fact that few of the reporters who regularly covered McCarthy believed him. Most came to hate and fear him as a cynical liar who was willing to wreak untold havoc to satisfy his own power drive. But though they feared him, it was not intimidation that caused the press to serve as the instrument for McCarthy’s rise. Rather it was the inherent vulnerabilities—the frozen patterns of the press— which McCarthy discovered and played upon with unerring skill. “Straight” news, the absolute commandment of most mass media journalism, had become a strait jacket to crush the initiative and the independence of the reporter.

An additional limit on truth produced by the norms of objective journalism grows out of its stimulus-response character. If the rules require that stories be written on a subject only after a public official speaks or takes action, the news media have ceded much control over the definition of news to those who are its objects. An incident in Peter Maas’s biography of New York City policeman Frank Serpico illustrates the problem. David Burnham, a reporter for the Times, wrote a story about police corruption in February 1970 based on what he had learned from Officer Serpico and others. The editors sat on it—Serpico was not a public official, and if they ran the story, they feared, it might seem as if they were making, not reporting the news. As it happened, Burnham met Mayor John Lindsay’s press secretary at a party in April and told him what he had learned about the police department. Two days later, Lindsay announced an official investigation. Given their stimulus—a public official had acted—the Times responded by running Burnham’s story the next day.

This example draws attention to another of objective journalism’s big problems: its definition of political news as the province of high public officials. One effect of this definition is to narrow the field of newsmakers artificially. It includes the congressmen, presidents, and cabinet members, who articulate policies and pass legislation, but not the middlelevel bureaucrats who actually carry them out. Charles Peters, founder and editor of The Washington Monthly, characterizes this in How Washington Really Works as the “Winter Palace Effect”:

Under Nicholas and Alexandra, there were constant earnest discussions of the lot of the poor, but the discussions were never accompanied by effective action. In Washington, bureaucrats confer, the president proclaims, the Congress legislates . . .[and reporters] cover official pronouncements. But only rarely do they find out whether the new weapons system they write about really works or whether the poor are being hired or the drugs are being tested.

Most of the remaining problems with objective journalism have to do with its effect on objective journalists. The public officials they deal with are experts in the art of public relations—the survival-of-the-fittest nature of the world of politics guarantees that. Reporters, though equally talented, are hamstrung by the constraints of their profession. Frustrated, they all too easily can get used to fashioning stories out of press releases and leaks from the people they cover. Such leaks, which often are used as rewards for the cooperative, may amount to nothing more than a one-day lead on the name of the new nominee for deputy undersecretary, but they give the reporter scoops that are likely to keep him in his editor’s good graces.

More than anything else, Watergate brought home the limits of objective journalism. While White House aides plotted their crimes within a hundred feet of the press room, reporters stayed busy writing up the day’s presidential announcements or tagging along on the latest presidential trip. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two police reporters, broke the story for The Washington Post, White House correspondents responded by asking the president’s press secretary and other top aides for their reactions. Not a single Watergate story was uncovered by the White House press corps—they were too busy doing their jobs.

III

Hegel’s synthesis, you will recall, contains some elements of both the old thesis and the new antithesis. So does the multi-thesis I described as another possible result of the collision of ideas.

Not surprisingly, then, the journalistic reaction to the discovered limits of objective journalism that Watergate so dramatized preserved some of the qualities of objective journalism yet also harkened back to some abandoned ones of the partisan press. One response, investigative journalism, restored the partisan school’s preoccupation with scandal, but it preserved the objective concern for facts. A second response was the New Journalism, which usually is associated with writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. Like their partisan precedessors, new journalists called for subjectivity in the form of the opinions of the writers. Like the objective reporters, they wanted facts, but they also wanted something else, feeling that facts and the truth are far from synonymous.

The investigative model is the mirror image of two qualities of objective journalism. If objective reporters looked at what officials said and did publicly, investigative journalists would look at what they said and did privately, at least so far as it concerned their official responsibilities. If objective reporting moved in response to official behavior, investigative journalism would be the stimulus—investigators would go after stories, not wait for them.

The triumphs of investigative journalism are legendary (Watergate, My Lai) and legion (the countless local stories that have been uncovered by newspapers around the country). But, like its forebears, the investigative model has limits as a way of telling readers what they need to know about the political system. First among them, a point which I wish to return to later, is the emphasis on scandal. Not only is scandal not typical of government; it is not typical of the problems of government. Congressional failings have little to do with bribery or sex; fraud is merely the tip of the iceberg in the welfare system’s ills; and although cost overruns make our national defense more expensive, they are not the main cause of its poor products and poor performances.

If the emphasis on scandal is misplaced, it also is often misapplied. The rush to uncover wrongdoing through investigative reporting seems to have left undone the defining of what wrongdoing is. A frequent error is to equate scandal with secrecy or with perceived conflict of interest. A few years ago, the Times broke a sinister-sounding story about a CIA effort to raise and study a sunken Soviet vessel from the bottom of the ocean. Granted that the CIA kept its operation secret, did that make it scandalous? Isn’t gathering intelligence about Soviet weaponry part of what the CIA is supposed to do? Equally unrevealing are those stories that present the revelation that a government official’s public responsibilities and private economic interests overlap as proof of scandal, without ever telling us whether he ever actually used his office for private gain. Recently a Nashville newspaper told about a health department officer who flunked two of his own restaurants. Instead of congratulating him for unusual scrupulosity, the paper complained about his “conflict of interest.”

IV

Richard Nixon’s resignation made 1974 a landmark year for investigative journalism. In a less spectacular way, the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book on The New Journalism also signified 1974’s importance for writers of that school, which had developed rapidly since its “birth” in New York magazine a decade earlier. The rationale for the new journalism is a complicated syllogism that runs as follows: reporting cannot be absolutely objective (true enough—as John Hersey notes, “the minute a writer offers nine hundred ninety-nine out of one thousand facts, the worm of bias has begun to wriggle”); even if you had them all, facts alone do not equal truth (accurate again—is there not truth in the parables?); fiction can lead us to truth (granted—the most revealing writings I have seen about Washington politics are the short stories of Ward Just); therefore, journalists should draw on some of the techniques of fiction in telling in their stories. Wolfe cites four: scene-by-scene construction, dialogue, point of view, and what he calls “status details.” What all this adds up to is the glorification of subjectivity.

The injection of the writer’s judgment into his reporting can be a desirable thing. But the new journalism has been for the most part a loose cannon. At its worst, it has distorted the obvious point that facts do not equal truth to mean that facts don’t really matter. One reads page after page of dialogue that the writer did not overhear, thoughts by characters that the writer did not think, and descriptions of events the writer knows did not happen. There is, for example, a long section in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail about the effects of Senator Edmund Muskie’s use of a drug called ibogaine. It is hilarious and preposterous, and Thompson no doubt would justify it on the grounds that he was telling some larger “truth” about, say, Muskie’s erratic behavior as a candidate. But many readers, including several of Thompson’s fellow reporters, believed the story. And why not?—it was presented as news.

Few new journalists go as far as Thompson, but even the best feel that they have the right to violate what Hersey, in a recent Yale Review article, describes as the “one sacred rule of journalism: the writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read; None of This Is Made Up.” By using the fiction-writer’s license as well, the reporter blurs the distinction between fiction and journalism that readers rely upon to keep their bearings.

V

Just as each of the contemporary models of journalism has limits that need to be overcome if a journalistic synthesis is to develop, so does each have virtues that need to be preserved. In the third paragraph of this essay I mentioned a magazine called The Washington Monthly that I think has taken us close to the “Evaluative Journalism” ideal, in theory if not always in accomplishment. Some background on the Monthly, whose relatively small circulation has left it unknown to most people, may be helpful.

The Washington Monthly started publishing in 1969, but as the late Richard Rovere recalled in his early history of the magazine, its roots can be traced to the Peace Corps Office of Evaluation that Charles Peters founded in 1961. Peters, then a 34-year-old West Virginia lawyer-politician, had earned his position by backing Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential candidacy early and vigorously. His job was particularly important to the fledgling Peace Corps because, as Rovere noted, “precedents [for the agency’s activities] were few and for the most part irrelevant.” Peters’ approach was to “put together a staff of full-time evaluators, some of them experienced journalists, and dispatch them to various parts on the globe to cast a cold eye on what they saw and report back to Washington.”

Though Peters stayed with the Peace Corps into the Johnson administration, he also began developing plans for a new magazine that would apply his office’s technique to a broad range of American institutions. The force of his vision and personality enabled him to raise the necessary seed money from a variety of contributors; unlike the publishers of The Nation, The New Republic, National Review and virtually every other political magazine in the country, Peters is not independently wealthy. Peters also was able to attract good effort from well-known writers and scholars: the magazine’s inaugural issues featured first-rate articles by Russell Baker, David Broder, Murray Kempton, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others.

What distinguishes the Monthly, however, is not established writers plying their trade, but the young writers Peters has developed—James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Tom Bethell, Taylor Branch, and Nicholas Lemann, among them—and more important, the purpose to which he has put them. That purpose—evaluative journalism—is made up of several ingredients, most of them selectively borrowed from the other models. From objective journalism, Peters took the primacy of facts. Accuracy may not be a sufficient condition for good reporting, but it is a necessary one. Peters argues that journalists who move beyond the “stenographic” recording of information and offer analysis and opinion in their stories have, if anything, an even greater obligation to be accurate than objective reporters. It is hard to disagree—we demand more precision from an engineer who is digging a foundation for a building than we do from an engineer who is just digging a hole.

From the new journalists, Peters took the desire for reporter subjectivity: if someone has probed deeply into a subject, why shouldn’t we be interested in learning at the end of the piece what he has concluded about it? To Peters, the usual segregation of fact, which goes in the news sections, and opinion, which is relegated to the editorial pages, simply gives us news stories untempered by judgment and editorials unsupported by journalistic research. The idea—not for every news story, of course, but for those that have been worked on for a period of time—is to hold reporters to high professional standards, turn them loose without preconception, and allow their judgments to grow out of their research.

The third element in evaluative journalism is borrowed in part from investigative reporting’s command to journalists to find out what lies behind the press releases. But even more important than going behind, in Peters’s view, is the need to go beyond. If the investigative concern is for today’s scandal inside the Winter Palace, the evaluative one is for what happens every day outside the walls. If objective reporters define news as man-bites-dog and investigative reporters as man-bites-dog-and-covers-it-up, evaluative journalism is concerned with dogs biting men—why, where, how often, and what can be done about it. It is a preoccupation with the ordinary and unchanging, with the iceberg rather than the tip.

Most important among our political system’s constants, Peters suggests, is the “culture” of its various institutional structures—”the customs and rituals and pressures that govern life in these institutions.” For example,

Reporters who understand the culture of the bureaucracy would have known that one or more tragedies such as My Lai were likely to occur in Vietnam as soon as the Pentagon began publishing body counts of enemy casualties to prove America was winning the war. The reporters would have realized that the pressure for more casualties would lead commanders to find those casualties wherever they could. . . .

One more example: In May 1978, The Washington Post ran a front-page scandal story telling how one government agency spent money recklessly at the end of its fiscal year in order to use up all its appropriations for the year and avoid risking a budget cut because it hadn’t spent all its money. Neither the author of the article nor the editor seemed to realize that the end-of-the-fiscal-year spending spree has been a government-wide practice for years.

The value of Peters’s journalistic prescriptions is nowhere better illustrated than in National Defense, a recent book by Monthly alumnus James Fallows. Fallows’ substantive conclusions—most notably, that more dollars do not necessarily equal more defense—have been discussed widely. Less notice has been given to this method of research, which is, in a word, evaluative journalism at its best. Fallows gathered a mountain of facts that would satisfy any objectivist’s standards, but he gathered them by talking to the sergeants and colonels in the field, not the generals in the Pentagon’s public relations office; to the Senate staff people who research and write the speeches rather than the senators who read them. He also has given us the fruits of his investigative reporting. What he has investigated, though, are questions like will the weapons fire and will the soldiers fight? And he has not hesitated to offer his own analysis and opinion on defense issues. By going down to the ground floor of the debate on defense, he has been able to inspect the foundation, find the cracks and termites, and point out that in many cases the very terms of debate on which hawks and doves disagree are wrong.

What Fallows discovered at that foundation is something he calls the military’s “culture of procurement”—a culture rooted in habits of thinking that grow out of the assumption that technological advance in weaponry is an unalloyed good and sustained by personal ambition. In this culture, “tanks and ships must carry more and more complex computer systems, whether or not there is reason to think that the computers will help on the battlefield, and often when there is reason to think they will hurt.” However pathological this may sound, Fallows reports, “procurement management is more and more the surest path to advancement” within the military and, says retired Navy Captain John Morse, success is measured by the amount of money the manager procures. For the officer who eventually wants a job in the defense industry, there is the added realization that, as former Assistant Secretary of Defense J. Ronald Fox puts it, “if he takes too strong a hand in controlling contractor activity, he might be damaging his opportunity for a second career following retirement.”

“This is corruption,” Fallows concludes, “but not in the sense most often assumed. The bribes, the trips to the Caribbean in corporate aircraft do occur, but they distort the essence, as Abscam distorts the essence of congressional irresponsibility and payoffs in the General Services Administration distort the pathology of the civil services. The real damage is not spectacular but routine; it is the loss of purpose in daily operation of the military machine, the substitution of procurement for defense.”

Fallows’ accomplishment in National Defense— his integration of fact, judgment, and opinion in reporting, his concern for the polity’s “icebergs,” and his preservation of the best elements of objective, investigative, and new journalism—represent all that Washington Monthly-style evaluative journalism can be. (Nicholas Lemann’s The Fast Track is another recent example. ) But like all noble aspirations, the Monthly’s have not been fulfilled consistently. A small staff and tight deadlines have meant that facts, however central they may be to evaluative journalism, don’t always get checked. An article on “Why Senator Eagleton Fired Me” by a former aide, for example, was excellent if true, but Eagleton claims not only that it wasn’t but that nobody at the Monthly even asked him if it was. Sometimes, too, the magazine has displayed a wise-guy tone that suggests some of the qualities of new journalism it deplores. (“How to Stop Masturbating” may not have been the best title for an essay on strengthening volunteer programs). Even more serious, Peters rarely seems willing to do what he advocates and let reporters derive their own judgments from their research. The process more often appears to be: “Here’s the conclusion, now find some evidence to support it,” In a wonderfully self-mocking article by contributing editor Art Levine in its Tenth Anniversary issue, the Monthly provided a “clip-and-save” coupon that stated Peters’s “Gospel,” his “grab bag of unusual ideas, half-baked schemes, and petty prejudices.” Peters gets credit for laughing at himself so publicly, but you never will find an article on transportation that deviates from the line that “railroads should be the country’s leading form” or a piece on unions that doesn’t conclude that “The UMW, UAW, and the union that protects people who empty bedpans are the only useful unions. All the rest are bad for America.”

All this, though, can be forgiven because of the good effects Peters’s evaluative journalism model has had on the rest of the press. A week’s reading of the Times for example, will turn up a piece on the internal bureaucratic rivalry between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System, an assessment of the value of standardized tests, and a dozen similar studies. The Post is, if anything, even better because it has recently begun daily coverage of the federal bureaucracy on a “Federal Report” page. Lemann, one of the best of the Monthly alumni, transplanted his training directly to the Post, where he produced a superb series on welfare by testing all the Washington assumptions about how the programs work against the actual experiences of a welfare neighborhood in Philadelphia. Hundreds of newspapers pick up Times and Post stories; even the wire services are improving as a result of the competition. Editors at both papers give at least partial credit to Peters, and the Columbia Journalism School has given him its highest award, previously bestowed on Walter Lippman, I. F. Stone, and William Shawn, among others.

VI

If the spread of the Washington Monthly-style method of evaluative journalism is cause for rejoicing, so is the continuing neglect by the press of the substance of that journalism— the day-to-day workings of the bureaucracy—cause for despair. A study by Stephen Hess of The Washington Reporters reports that of all the institutional “beats” in national government, “domestic agencies” and “regulatory agencies” rank lowest in prestige among journalists. Anthony Lewis’s statement in the Times that “the only journal I know that pays regular attention to the bureaucracy and chronicles its excesses is The Washington Monthly” is as much a criticism of the mass media in general as it is an endorsement of the Monthly.

As if to compound the error, when the press does turn its eye toward bureaucracy, it usually is to dramatize some incident of waste or criminal fraud—a welfare cheat, a kick-back scheme, a payroll full of brothers-in-law, or the like. Yet, as Peters points out, careful examinations of national political institutions almost always will reveal that their major shortcomings are not crookedness, but “the much more significant problem of why good and decent men produce an inefficient, uncaring, and sometimes evil government.” Walter Shapiro, a former Monthly editor, says that on the basis of his experience as a special assistant to Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, he has concluded that the press’s vigilant search for indictable actions in office not only promotes inefficient, uncaring behavior in government, but actually makes fraud more likely. In an interview, he argued:

Each time the press reports, say, a scandal involving public service jobs, it makes the program even worse. Administrators up and down the line become obsessed with the need to make the program fraud-proof. That means more forms, more regulations, more clearances, more rigidity. It also means more fraud. The more clearances a decision has to go through, the more the responsibility for making sure that it’s legitimate gets spread around. If someone sees something wrong, he may well tell himself, “Oh hell, I don’t want this aggravation; somebody upstairs will catch it anyway.”

Press inattention to the culture of bureaucracy is reflected in the behavior of public officials. “A president who devoted his energies to being a good administrator of programs,” writes Erwin Hargrove in The Missing Link: The Study of the Implementation of Social Policy, “ would not be playing the game of capturing public attention [through the media] with new initiatives and might suffer politically.” David Mayhew, author of Congress: The Electoral Connection, notes in a similar vein that in part because of the press’s lack of concern for how laws are implemented by the bureaucracy, “members [of Congress] display only a modest interest in what goes into bills or what their passage accomplishes.”

The argument of the press, of course, is that, in Lewis’s phrase, “bureaucracy is not a very sexy subject” to the reading public. This may have been true at one time but not any longer. In the course of my own research, I have found that the aspect of government that concerns citizens the most is not presidents, elections, policy issues, or the rest of the topics the press usually labels as “politics,” but rather the bureaucracy, particularly the myriad specific government agencies they feel intruding into their daily lives. The Post discovered this for itself in a survey study of the “tax revolt” it commissioned in 1978. Three-fourths of the nation, it found, was ready to support a severe Proposition 13-style tax cut. But the public’s real concern was not high taxes or the welfare state per se, reported editor Barry Sussman: “Their real concern [was] that it is the bureaucracy, not the public, that benefits from taxes.” In this light, it is clear that helping readers understand the bureaucracy that so concerns them will be good not just for the media’s soul but, if done skillfully, good for its purse as well.

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