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The Wayward Media

ISSUE:  Summer 1994

(Excerpts from a speech to the National Press Club)

My love affair with Washington began on the day I arrived in April 1957, because the Associated Press, the AP, which brought me here, raised my salary from $120 a week to $140 a week. Then, when the Wall Street Journal two years later offered me a job at $160 a week, I thought I had reached heaven.

It was, of course, a vastly different city in those days. The White House press corps was even manageable. I remember taking a trip with President Eisenhower down south, and only a dozen reporters went along. There were only a handful of big names in the press corps, and the print journalists were the ones who were most prominent—James Reston, Walter Lippmann, David Lawrence, among others. The best way to get around the nation’s capital was not on the subway, but by streetcar. And one of the best meals in town was right here at the National Press Club, renowned for its sumptuous Thursday night buffet. And if you wanted to go to see the Redskins, all you had to do was to go out to Griffith Stadium, walk up to the box office, and get your tickets before game time on Sunday. You didn’t have to wait hours for season’s tickets because the Redskins didn’t have the fanatic following of today.

In politics, there was, believe it or not, a lot of talk about gridlock and deadlock. There was something called the Republican/Southern Democrat coalition which was viewed by critics as a great stumbling block to progress. In fact, James McGregor Burns, the historian, wrote a book called The Deadlock of Democracy, suggesting the president had to be given more power.

Even so, I look back in amazement at how far we’ve come in these three-plus decades. There was no federal aid to education, no Medicare, no consumer protection programs, no environmental protection laws, no right of choice for women. Nor were there any meaningful civil rights laws or laws guaranteeing the right to vote. For good or bad, the world moves on, and that includes Washington as well. Just to illustrate how rapidly the changes occur, during my time here since 1957, nine presidents have served, 343 senators and more than 1600 House members. So much for all the current term-limit mania.

To me, the best beat in town is Capitol Hill, which I still regard as the greatest show on earth. Thirty-five years ago, hardly anybody was under the age of 60, and the Southern barons, people like Georgia’s Dick Russell and Virginia’s Harry Byrd, reigned supreme. Carl Hayden was still around, the first representative from the state of Arizona, a man who would serve 56 years in the House and Senate. I remember Theodore Green, a peppery little senator from Rhode Island who gave up tennis at the age of 87 because he couldn’t work it into his schedule. And Eddie Hebert, a fast-talking member from Louisiana who once said the only way to have a volunteer army was to draft ‘em.

There was Speaker Sam Rayburn, the great rock of integrity; and, of course, Everett Dirksen, the wizard of ooze. When I was at NBC, I once did a radio newscast that mentioned the Senate Republican Leader. He had gone into the hospital for a serious operation, and a line in my copy read, “Senator Dirksen is recovering satisfactorily after an operation for removal of his right lung.” Only when I got to that line, at I said was, “He is recovering satisfactorily after an operation for removal of his right wing.”

Well, on Friday nights on “Washington Week in Review,” over which I had the honor to preside for two decades, we always tried to get it right and to tell it like it was, but it’s not always easy to do that in a town where, as Mark Twain once said, so many people look upon the truth as a precious commodity, and therefore it has to be rationed. I found that many times when I was on the Hill. Russell Baker said he finally decided to leave the Hill as a reporter after standing for hours outside of closed-door meetings and then having a senator come out and say something which was absolutely untrue with everybody knowing it was untrue, but nonetheless writing the remarks as if they were gospel.

When Jimmy Carter took office, he said he’d never lie to the American people, and many thought that was his first lie. Ronald Reagan promised to balance the federal budget in four years, but never once submitted a balanced budget to Congress. And, of course, we all read George Bush’s lips, and we all remember Bill Clinton promising a middle-class tax cut. It’s all in keeping with what Senator Dirksen once said, that he was a man of principle, and one of his principles was to be flexible at all times.

Another thing I discovered about the capital was that what passes for conventional wisdom more often than not turns out to be conventional nonsense. For example, one of the first things I was told when I arrived here in the 1950’s was that a young senator who was emphatically pursuing the presidency stood no chance of being elected, that he was too young, that he didn’t have enough experience, that he was too much of a playboy, that John Kennedy could not possibly make it to the White House. Then in 1964, after Barry Goldwater was decisively defeated by Lyndon Johnson, many of the pundits said the Republican Party was finished for a generation. Yet the GOP came roaring back in the congressional elections of 1966, and in 1968 it recaptured the White House in what turned out to be the beginnings of a new conservative period.

Will Rogers had it right when he said, “It’s easy to be a humorist when you’ve got the whole government working for you.” Or to put it another way, in a town where there’s never been a shortage of egos, there are simply too many people who have, in the words of Dorothy Parker, delusions of adequacy.

Some years ago, I was in the Senate press gallery when Roman Hruska, a nice old solon from Nebraska, came in. He came in to be interviewed about a Supreme Court nominee named Harold Carswell, who probably was the worst nominee ever proposed for a seat on the Supreme Court. One of my colleagues asked the senator how he could support such a mediocre man. And Senator Hruska replied, dead serious, “There are a lot of mediocre people, and they’re entitled to a little bit of representation, too.”

Now, as a group, I’ve always found politicians pretty much like the rest of us, with their faults and foibles. Often it is the little things that stand out, like George Bush not being able to remember how many grandchildren he has or Dan Quayle not knowing how to spell potato, or a certain Virginia senator chosen by a magazine as the dumbest man in the Senate, promptly calling a news conference to say it wasn’t so. Who among us has not said or done something equally stupid or idiotic? After all, we all are mere mortals. And that includes presidents, especially presidents.

In 1925, Calvin Coolidge said, “When many people are out of work, unemployment results.” More recently, in 1976, Jerry Ford said, “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.” And even more recently, George Bush acknowledged he had “strong opinions of my own, but I don’t always agree with them.” One I really liked was a comment of former D.C.mayor, Marion Barry, that “outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”

Next to covering politics inside the Beltway, there’s nothing like covering politics outside the Beltway. One of my first campaign assignments was the make-or-break West Virginia Democratic primary between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in 1960.I traveled across West Virginia’s hills and valleys and hollows, talking to coal miners, local politicians and others. My front-page story in the Wall Street Journal confidently proclaimed that Hubert Humphrey looked like a sure winner. And sure enough, JFK won.

Then, of course, there are the presidential conventions, the grand carnivals of American politics, eternally a reminder that when it comes to speechmaking, many speakers let us know they have nothing to say by saying it. The speech I best remember the most was the keynote address delivered to the 1956 Democratic convention by Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee, one of those boy-wonder types that you often get in politics, the kind that rises very quickly and then plummets just as quickly. Anyway, this speech was so windy, so filled with bombast and all kinds of Biblical references, that one reporter was prompted to write, “The Democrats attacked the Republican Philistines last night with the jawbone of an ass.”

So there’s no business like political business. In retrospect, I agree with Barbara Tuchman that the march of man has been pretty much the march of folly, although I think I would say today that since women have now joined the march, maybe it will improve in pace and performance. In almost half a century of writing and reporting and broadcasting, I’ve witnessed and reported on any number of follies, most of which all of you here today know too well—the futile struggle over segregation, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-contra and Ronald Reagan’s notion that we could have it all and never pay for it. As Groucho Marx once quipped, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

It is our business, the press’s business, to chronicle all the deeds and misdeeds. And clearly the press is no more perfect than the politicians or the policymakers. Indeed, the press and/or media’s prestige could scarcely be lower these days. For example, a recent ranking of the top jobs in the country by Money Magazine, according to occupation and profession in terms of job security, prestige, and satisfaction, did not rank journalists among the top 10 or even the top 25.The Money survey found the top three jobs to be respectively biologist, geologist, and physician. Journalists ranked well below funeral director (27), economist (36), and even—God spare the mark—hair stylist (81). The journalist finally came in at 83rd, which may underscore what Walter Lippmann meant when he described journalism as “the last refuge of the vaguely talented.” There are good reasons why so much of journalism is held in low repute. There is too much careless reporting today, too much cynicism, too much reliance on unnamed sources, and too much instant analysis which all too often turns out to be instant baloney. True, the news business has changed like everything else. And in the case of television, some of the change is for the better. Today’s viewers have a much broader menu of broadcast news than ever before, with a steady expansion of informational programming on cable channels—CNN, ESPN, C-span, Court TV and so forth.

Television has become a national marketplace for the great issues of the day, and it certainly enables us to get to know our public officials better. We see them nightly on MacNeilLehrer or Nightline or on the weekend programs, thus contributing substantially to public accountability. Just think for a moment back to the 19th century, when most Americans never even knew what their president looked like, much less heard him speak.

Television has also become a mighty force in shaping public policy, as we know from the civil rights struggles, Vietnam, and more recently, Somalia. It has become the great window to the world, permitting us to watch man on the moon, the Berlin Wall tumbling down, and the freedom fighters of Tiananmen Square. And along with all of this, television has introduced us to so many interesting and engaging people that we’d never otherwise meet. Television can be and often is a powerful educational force, as consistently proved by MacNeil-Lehrer or Bill Moyers, who has made intelligent conversation an art form.

But having said all this, having cited the good news, I must also say that all change does not equate with progress, nor does more news necessarily translate into better news. In some very basic ways, the medium that Edward R.Murrow once exalted as “the biggest classroom in the world” has become a widespread slum, populated by electronic barbarians. Hence for a good part of TV news these days, it is onward and downward, with style prevailing over substance and rating over solid reporting.

Because the standards have been lowered, there is a greater blurring of fact and fiction, with entertainment values frequently taking precedence over journalistic values. Thus the trend toward tabloid-type programming, the increased emphasis on sex and sleaze and sensationalism, and the disregard for context and perspective in favor of snappy sound bites growing ever more brief; in the presidential campaign of 1992, they averaged 9 seconds.

One of the worst developments has been the decline of the single-issue documentary, once television’s pride, although I must say that PBS is trying to keep the faith in this area with programs such as Frontline and Hedrick Smith’s recent series on competitiveness. Not only are outstanding documentaries few and far between these days, but they rarely pack any wallop. Instead, the notion that news is entertainment has spawned a flashy and slurpy brand of programming that leans heavily on sob stories or celebrity interviews, shows that are little more than video versions of the old Hollywood movie magazines and the Police Gazette.Thus what we’ve seen is the news business becoming more like show business, as the recent excessive coverage of the Michael Jackson and Tonya Harding troubles so vividly demonstrated.

Yet what disturbs me, the truly bad news, is that the TV Philistines are not being repulsed. Indeed, the surrender to superficiality may be accelerating as we grow accustomed to a new, lower-denominator type of news programming, thus adding to the medium’s credibility crisis.

Let me explain in more detail. First is the dominant new corporate culture obsessed with bottom-line decisionmaking, that disdains the old notion that covering the news amounts to a public trust. Today the profit motive rules first and foremost. I am disturbed at the sharp cutbacks in foreign coverage; that so much of local news is now crime news; that the emphasis on crash-and-burn often gives a distorted view of reality.

I’m disturbed that so many young people seem more interested in stardom than reporting; that the networks hire fewer people off major newspapers where they get good training; that there’s a tendency today to make the anchorman superman, to cover everything; that a new breed of producers seems more devoted to technological razzle-dazzle than providing essential information; that the choice of on-air talent tends to be based more on personality than professionalism.

And speaking of professionalism, I find it troubling that some otherwise outstanding and talented news people are willing to be entertainers to get on the air, that opinions are substituted for facts—and the more outrageous, the better— that a kind of persnickety quality has crept into so many stories, suggesting that almost everything that goes on here in the capital is bad.

Some newsmen are even doing commercials these days. The other day, I was riding along in my car, and I heard Charles Osgood of CBS doing a commercial. The next morning, I flipped on my set to watch “CBS Morning News,” and there he was delivering a commentary—one day selling a product, the next day selling a viewpoint.

Then there is the romance with TV’s newest toy, live coverage by satellite. During the Persian Gulf War, we saw all those reporters standing in the sand, giving the illusion of covering the war, when in reality they were covering what the government told them was happening in the war.

I am aware that some of you may think it is easy for someone from public television to be critical of commercial television. Well, the truth is that I am a graduate of commercial television, having spent 10 years with NEC and thus can speak with authority about its decline. At the same time, I do not regard public television as any paragon of perfection either. For all the good things it does, PBS still needs a greater commitment to public affairs, to do what’s needed and courageous and not just be satisfied with safe programming that offends no one. It should be more adventurous and pioneering.

Back in the 1970’s, it was not unusual for us to carry 20 or 25 congressional hearings a year, but that territory has now been largely ceded to C-SPAN.As Bill Moyers suggested, we have lovely shows that keep everyone humming when what we need are shows that stop people from humming.

In my judgment, journalism, both print and television, needs to renew its dedication to an old adage, its dedication “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalism—or what the Reporter s Douglas Cater raised to “the Fourth Branch of Government”—should heed, too, and steadfastly adhere to what Jefferson held to be the ideal for the university he founded when he declared, “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

It is not given for me to see what will come in American journalism. I can only hope that tomorrow will be better. But as I now turn toward what Milton called “fresh woods and pastures new,” as an old journalistic soldier, I can lay down my arms—these having been pad, pen, pencil and typewriter—with a sense—indeed, a surety—that I have been lucky—lucky indeed—to have been on the front lines of so many important events that have shaped our society since the 1950’s.

H. L. Mencken was right when he said “journalists live the life of kings,” even if few ever approach the luxury level of royalty.

My favorite definition of a journalist was given many years ago by a famed New York Herald Tribune editor named Stanley Walker.”A newsman knows everything,” he wrote. “He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. . . He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him. Women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him. He hates lies and meanness and sham, and keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession whether it is a profession or merely a craft; he resents attempts to debase it. When he dies, a lot of people are sorry and some of them remember him for several days.”

I hope some of my listeners and viewers will remember me for a while—at least until next Tuesday.


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