Walter Pincus takes the press to task

A few days ago, New York University journalism professor and press critic Jay Rosen flagged an essay on the perils of journalistic neutrality by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. The essay was published in Frank: Academics for the Real World, a product of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Frank editor Patrick Kennedy has kindly granted permission to reprint the essay here.

A Call for Journalistic Courage
by Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the national news staff of The Washington Post. He has written about a variety of national news subjects including nuclear weapons and arms control, political campaigns, the American hostages in Iran, and investigations of Congress and the executive branch.

In 1959, Douglas Cater, then Washington editor for Reporter magazine, wrote a book titled “The Fourth Branch of Government.” In it, Cater argued that the press and more importantly television, which was coming into its own as the primary source of news, is a powerful participant in the governmental process.

This was not a new idea. Edmund Burke in the 18th century described three estates in the British Parliament, and then added: “But in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. ‘Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.’ ”

Cater’s view almost 50 years ago—and one I hold today—was that the power of the press can be used to both
good and bad effect, depending on your point of view. Cater wanted journalists and their editors and managers to realize their actions and decisions directly affected government, whether they liked it or not.

“The reporter is the recorder of government but is also a participant,” Cater said. “He (or she these days) operates in a system in which power is divided. He (she) as much as anyone, and more than a great many, helps to shape the course of government.”

Electronic and print media today probably have more potential influence over public opinion than they had 50 years ago. Yet owners, editors and reporters today rarely push issues they believe government should take up. If a vote were taken among editors of the major daily newspapers, the vice presidents of network news divisions, television and radio anchors, and I hate to say, probably even most younger print and electronic reporters, the result would be that few to none want or believe they have the right to shape government actions. They don’t want to play activist roles in government—either personally or professionally—unless, of course, it could affect the bottom line.

I believe this failure is a threat to our democracy and a poor example for the rest of the world, where we supposedly are spreading the need for a free press. This is my romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but it is the one that caused many of us to take up the profession in the first place.

A Political Press

I grew up reading about journalists as a teenager—“The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens,” the man who wrote “The Shame of the Cities” at the turn of the century; “Guadalcanal Diary” by Richard Tregaskis, a war correspondent’s story from the front lines in World War II; and “The Autobiography of William Allen White.”

Steffens, in his forward to “The Shame of the Cities,” wrote that his collecting of information about corruption was “all very unscientific, but then, I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. I did not gather with indifference all the facts and arrange them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis … My purpose was no more scientific than the spirit of my investigation and reports; it was … to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, would not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride. That was the journalism of it. I wanted to move and to convince.”

William Allen White was editor and publisher of the small-town Emporia Gazette in Kansas, whose editorials and writings were circulated throughout the nation and helped explain and promote Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive ideas in the first years of the 20th century. It did not bother his readers that he was a Republican state committeeman; personal friend of Roosevelt and other presidents; promoter and supporter of candidates at the local, state and national levels; and even a delegate to GOP presidential conventions, which he also covered as a reporter for a nationwide syndicate. His writings spoke for themselves.

The founding editors of The New York Times started that illustrious newspaper while supporting the Whig Party and later switched to the Republican Party. One of its founders, Henry J. Raymond, was, in the words of writer Gerald W. Johnson, “as much a politician as an editor.” He was elected to Congress and for a time was chairman of the Republican National Committee, even while editing the Times. But he had integrity, and when the Republicans turned away from Lincoln’s policies of reconciliation in the post-Civil War period, he turned against his party both personally and in the newspaper. His political career ended, but the Times’ “honesty and courage (were) established beyond a doubt,” Johnson wrote.

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, other newspaper giants at the time, were also players in government policies. And Phil Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, helped put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with John F. Kennedy. So what? He also helped integrate Washington’s public swimming pools.

Sure, they all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated
when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds.

Strictly Neutral

Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have dropped the idea of having
experienced reporters provide analysis and context and turned instead to retired public figures or so-called
experts to provide commentary. It was not always this way.

As a copy boy at The New York Times in 1954, fresh out of college, I delivered newspapers and mail to Hanson Baldwin, then the paper’s highly respected military correspondent. When Baldwin wrote a news story or an analysis piece, it was read by Pentagon officials and members of Congress. They read him because his years of coverage and perceptive views made him as much an expert as top generals and civilian defense officials.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, I could name reporters and columnists whose experience on their beats or in their areas made them thoughtful and respected commentators. Younger reporters today are regularly shifted
around from beat to beat, never really having enough time to master totally complex subjects, such as health, public education and environmental policies. Coverage then depends on statements and pronouncements by government sources or their critics.

Starting sometime in the Nixon administration, probably with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the liberal press, newspapers began pulling back. Ironically, the press’ Watergate success led to increased conservative criticism of newspapers and enterprise reporting. Publishers and editors began to worry more about critics, who for their own either biased or political reasons disagreed with what they read. In fact, the electronic media, because of government licensing, had a “fairness doctrine” requiring presentation of opposing viewpoints on controversial issues.

Voluntarily, the fairness doctrine was transferred from radio and television to newspapers, and it was undoubtedly influenced by the change in ownership of America’s newspapers.

For the most part, newspapers started as family and privately owned enterprises in cities and towns across the country, offering competitive news and differing opinions of local and national government. But beginning in the 1960s, papers large and small were swallowed up by corporations.

Eventually almost all went public, while only a few remained privately owned. With it came monopoly ownership, one-newspaper cities and towns, and the notion that publications should be neutral.

I don’t believe newspapers should be biased in their reporting, but in its own way an element of the public has
shown it wants its news somewhat slanted, like partisan newspapers of old. For example, Fox News, with its open bias towards conservatism, has gained popularity over CNN’s attempts to be seen as neutral.

The abstract idea that journalists need to appear objective has passed down through the ranks. Some standards are obvious and accepted. No staff member gives campaign contributions, marches in demonstrations involving hot-button issues, speaks publicly on behalf of candidates for any political office or takes trips paid for by foreign governments. The executive editor and the editorial-page editor of The Washington Post do not vote in elections to preserve the appearance of neutrality, but they luckily don’t demand that of others on staff.

Recently, Byron Calame, former public editor of The New York Times, took to task Linda Greenhouse, the
distinguished Supreme Court correspondent of that paper. His complaint? She had spoken before 800 people at Harvard University upon receipt of the Radcliffe Institute Medal and gave what he considered her personal opinions about issues of the day.

She said the government “had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward
creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world.” She added, “Let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” Greenhouse told Calame that she considered her remarks to be statements of fact and not opinion. He raised questions of whether she had violated a Times ethical guideline against expressing personal opinions in public and whether allowing her to cover Supreme Court cases that involve topics she mentioned “risks giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage.”

But Calame went on to say that Times editors appear willing to take that risk, and his successor as public editor, Clark Hoyt, said that Greenhouse’s published coverage showed her own strong opinions do not affect her journalism. That is the way we all should be measured—by what appears in our newspapers and not what we say elsewhere. I certainly hope that as witnesses to public events these past decades, we all have developed strong personal opinions that at times we may privately act upon, or we just aren’t human.

Taking Back the Agenda

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for the Nieman Reports on the subject of courage in journalism. Reporting from a war zone such as Iraq or from a totalitarian country where a reporter’s life or safety is at risk are examples of traditionalistic courage. In Washington, it’s a far less dramatic form of courage if a journalist stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities.

But I wrote that I believe a new kind of courage is needed in journalism in this age of instant news, instant analysis and instant opinions—in this time of government by public relations and news stories based on prepared texts and prepared events or responses. This is the time for reporters and editors, whether from the mainstream media or blogosphere, to pause before responding to the latest bulletin, prepared event, or the most recent statement or backgrounder, whether from the White House or the Democratic or Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.

Today, there is too much being offered to the media about government than can be fit into print or broadcast on the nightly news. The disturbing trend is that more and more of these informational offerings are nothing but PR peddled as real “news.”

At the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver—one of the great public-relations men of our time—began using early morning “tech” sessions at the White House to alert television producers as to when and where the president would appear each day. He turned that meeting into an initial shaping of the news stories for that evening. For example, he would say something on the order of, “President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and will discuss it in terms of Chicago and San Francisco.” This would allow networks to shoot footage in those two cities so there would be pictures other than the president speaking when the story aired on the evening news.

After a while, the network White House correspondents would attend these early morning tech sessions, and print reporters soon followed. The Washington Post prior to that time did not have a standing White House story scheduled each day, only running one when the president did something new and thus newsworthy. But the Post during the Reagan presidency began to have similar daily coverage.

This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give “exclusives”—stories that found their way to the front page of the daily newspapers—in which readers learned that during the coming week President George W. Bush would do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy, because his poll numbers were down. Such stories were often attributed to unnamed “senior administration officials.” Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and most others, carried each of the four speeches, in which Bush essentially repeated what he’s been saying for two years.

A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the president’s statements when he or she—or any public figure—repeats essentially what he or she has said before. Journalistic courage should also include the decision not to publish in a newspaper or carry on a television or radio news show any statements made by government officials that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.

This is far from the concept of the media being the fourth branch of government. But I don’t know what will bring back the media to play their full role, other than new owners, editors and reporters who see their newspapers, magazines, or radio and television properties as more than merely a way to gain notoriety and make money.

Reprinted by permission from Frank: Academics for the Real World


16 thoughts on “Walter Pincus takes the press to task”

  1. when did the fourth estate become a fifth column ??

    there are people on the right, who think that the media is liberal, there are people on the left, who know that it is not, and there are people all over the country, who unfortunately think that what they hear, see, and read is actually accurate and complete

    we don’t need a return of the fairness doctrine, but we do need increased competition, and that means more and diverse ownership

    thanks be to clinton for the telecommunications act of ’96 and all the white noise and misinformation that it has brought us

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  3. i would like to know the history of when and how it came to be that reporters quit insisting that all comments were on the record unless specifically agreed to beforehand that they were not.

    also, when did it become o.k. for reporters to receive security clearances thereby becoming a stenographer for the administration? shouldn’t a reporter have to include some sort of disclaimer when filing a report based on information gained this way?

    i mean, don’t you have ethical standards that are mandatory, across-the-board within your profession? what have they teaching in journalism school? shouldn’t there be some sort of standards for paid, professional reporters?

  4. marydem, I don’t know any reporters who have security clearances related to their work as journalists, but there’s plenty of stenography coming from reporters who as far as I know don’t have any security standing, so I’m not sure there’s any causal relationship there or that there’s an issue with sourcing beyond the usual anonymice problem.

    There are standards for reporters, but in many cases they’re ignored–the NY Times, for instance, in theory places pretty severe restrictions on the use of anonymous sources that in practice are largely ignored–and in other cases they’re secondary to the sort of willful institutional obtuseness Pincus is addressing.

    Lots of reporters abide by the conditions on anonymity you describe, although many will give someone like Samantha Power a break when she suffers a bout of political Tourette’s. As for the Tim Russert father-confessor/gatekeeper/confidante syndrome, it’s always been a problem at some level; it’s just more widespread now because people like him are setting such a horrid example for their proteges.

  5. A book on Woodward and Bernstein noted they gave a lot of speeches while investigation Watergate, in part decrying the stenographic quality of the media. A book/documentary discusses how the media has made war easy, Iraq fitting into a broader history. The reference to Reagan underlines the long history of the problems at hand.

    We have our special concerns, but the lack of any true golden age is a useful thing to remember.

  6. Pincus has been at it for nearly 50 years, so I don’t think he’s under any illusions on that score. I do think the problems he’s describing have worsened considerably during my lifetime, anyway.

  7. weldon…the instance that stands out in my mind of a reporter getting a security clearance was Judith Miller. because of her inside status, she reported the Bush administrations spin to justify our nation’s attack on Iraq, without divulging her special status.

  8. Well, Judy Miller would have been regurgitating what she was told no matter what, and she was far from alone in that. I’d say that the more serious problem with her was that she essentially picked a side and reported only what was helpful to her fellow travellers. I don’t think it had much to do with enjoying security clearance and I doubt that disclosing it would have led to any more skeptical readings of her crap, but yeah, that’s the sort of thing that should be disclosed.

  9. Mr. Pincus has written an excellent article.
    but I think that historians will disagree with his assessment of New York Times editor Henry Raymond. Raymond broke with the Republicans because they stood up to President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act and the Freedman’s Bureau Bills. In effect, Johnson was supporting the former slaveholders who were trying to impose a new form of bondage–the Black Codes–on African Americans in the South. The actions of white Southerners who were, in effect, trying to reverse the consequences of the Civil War, made it impossible for the Republicans to carry out conciliatory policies. It is possible to give Henry Raymond credit for being loyal to President Johnson but it was for a poor cause.

  10. This is a very interesting article. I had never heard of this publication before (Frank: Politics for the Real World). They seem to have provocative articles… is there any way for you to tell me how we can order copies of this publication? Also, is it available online?

  11. re marydem’s
    “don’t you have ethical standards that are mandatory, across-the-board within your profession?”

    The Society for Professional Journalists has a code of ethics, but when I asked (in 2007?), I was told that adherence to it is optional.

    (and I believe there’s no way to tell which SPJ members consider themselves to be bound by it and which don’t)

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