On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, by Matthew Pressman, Harvard University Press, 336 pp, £23.95, ISBN: 978-0674976658
Reporter: A Memoir, by Seymour M Hersh, Allen Lane, 368 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0241359525
In the 2011 documentary film Page One: Inside the New York Times, the American newspaper is presented as the journalistic ideal, battling the collapse of the business model that has sustained it for over a century. A young reporter on the paper’s media desk, who is about to go off to be a correspondent in Iraq, confides to the camera that working at the Times was for him a boyhood dream: he was inspired by the idea of the newspaper as a place where great things happened. In the new age of Twitter and Wikileaks – then curiously benign – the film keeps returning to loving shots of the presses turning, the reams of newsprint stretched out, the lorries queuing to take bundles of papers onto the streets at dawn. These images represent a storied history of industrial craft that buttress the paper’s claims to survival in a new, uncertain era. For the filmmakers, it is as if the integrity and authority of The New York Times – by then becoming a significant presence on the web ‑ are synonymous with printed paper (and not its dubious coverage of issues such as the presence, or not, of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). At this time, Wikileaks is a worthy partner; Vice magazine is more of a villain than Twitter, and Facebook is merely a platform, not a powerful publisher. Nothing worse is on the horizon.
Six years later, despite the speed of destructive change in the interim, the credibility of print was more subtly sanctified in The Post, Stephen Spielberg’s drama about the Washington Post’s battle in 1971 against President Richard Nixon’s attempt to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers, a damning secret history of the Vietnam War commissioned by Lyndon Johnson’s defence secretary, Robert McNamara. In the official poster for the film the steps of the Supreme Court resemble lines of type and the action is interspersed with close-ups of printers at work and reporters sitting at typewriters, spindly keys making solid indentations on paper instead of the ghostly shapes of letters on a screen we have become used to, as if digital is inherently fake and unreliable. In The Post the crisis of the newspaper business appears secondary. The story of the Pentagon Papers is a modern parable: Spielberg’s primary purpose is to identify the president of the United States as a threat to press freedom and therefore the constitution, with Nixon standing in for Trump, menacing and truculent. However, given that Trump’s improbable victory in the presidential election owed much to social media and that his attacks are concentrated on the once powerful newspapers now threatened by the digital revolution, Spielberg’s argument seems to be that victory for legacy media over the digital disrupters is as necessary for democracy as the Washington Post’s victory over Nixon’s efforts to stop the paper publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Compared to the chaotic impulsivity of social media, The Post and Page One together invite us to admire the judicious care of the newspaper world. In addition to the veneration of print, both films are a tribute to the practice of editing. Much of the action involves people discussing, debating, assessing and evaluating what should appear in print, discriminations that in the social media age are characterised as just another form of censorship. This collective endeavour and the settings in which it takes place – recognisable newsrooms in grand buildings – also remind us that newspapers are created by institutions and are not the product of the hive mind. These institutions are nurtured by public-spirited owners. In the second half of the twentieth century these great American newspapers were family businesses, the Post run by the Grahams, the Times by the Sulzbergers. In their heyday publications of comparable status were also run by family dynasties such as the Chandlers (The Los Angeles Times) and the Bancrofts (The Wall Street Journal). Monopoly status and guaranteed profits meant it was easy to imagine that these papers were created each day for a noble purpose. As in the trust arrangements governing The Irish Times or The Guardian, the commercial performance of the newspaper was meant only to serve its public utility. This was also the experience of journalists who worked on them and at the American network broadcasters who followed their lead: a separation was observed between what the historian John Nerone called the “sacred” work of the news business (journalism) and its “profane” mission (to make money). Ted Koppel, the presenter of the ABC News Nightline programme at the height of its influence in the eighties and nineties, described “an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn’t know that we could become profit centres.”
We now know how contingent and relatively short-lived this set-up turned out to be. Not only has this paradise been invaded by profit-seekers contemptuous of the distinction between the sacred and the profane but the facts that were once venerated and the methods used to gather them have been dismissed as fraudulent. For Trump, his clones around the world and their millions of followers, journalism as practised by these institutions is a conspiracy against “the people” and their struggle to survive in the digital world is proof of their irrelevance.
Contrary to Trumpian rhetoric, as Matthew Pressman explains in On Press, his history of the changing values of the American press in the1960s and ’70s, newspapers have long struggled with how to define and present facts. American filmmakers like to celebrate the press for gathering facts which disturbed the powerful, sharing the secret miscalculations of American policy-makers in Vietnam or revealing Nixon’s dirty tricks in pursuit of power. But such heroics conceal the reality that throughout much of the twentieth century major American newspapers were the opposite of adversarial. Their fact-gathering was passive: reporters and columnists were deferential to authority and officialdom and waited for news to be “announced” rather than digging for the story while they were also happy to have their analysis anonymously shaped by powerful figures. As the authors of an essay in Village Voice in 1970 put it, editors on major newspapers lived “in dread of stories which will be considered irresponsible”. In the straitjacket imposed by the demands of “objective reporting” – always a much stricter regimen in the US than in Europe – even good journalists were forced to renounce judgment and flair and were drained of initiative. It was no wonder that at the beginning of the 1960s Tom Wolfe could pillory the typical journalist as “a pallid little troll” possessed of “a pedestrian mind … a faded personality”.
By the time Wolfe wrote this even some of his targets would have begun to acknowledge the pitfalls of objectivity. The reporting of the McCarthy hearings suggested that the routine definition of what was news was open to manipulation. From the moment that Senator Joseph McCarthy produced his list of 205 communists working at the State Department in February 1950, the press was crucial in turning his witch-hunt into a Red Scare. Newspapers splashed his accusations on the front page, even though many disbelieved him; to express scepticism would be to commit the unpardonable sin of editorialising. Just like Trump during the 2016 election campaign, some journalists revelled in McCarthy’s baiting of the establishment and the sensation created by his outlandish claims. Like Trump too, McCarthy tried to intimidate reporters who challenged him or to undermine trust in their newspapers. Gradually even the most docile reporters and editors realised how their passivity, bred by objectivity, allowed McCarthy to manipulate the news. A debate began within the profession on whether reporters had become stenographers to a demagogue. Critics argued that McCarthy’s claims needed to be analysed and put into context. Following the rules of objectivity, as a radio commentator put it, “makes the news business merely a transmission belt for pretentious phonies”.
The shift to interpretive reporting which followed in the early 1960s was partly an attempt to rectify the naivety that had allowed McCarthy to flourish. It also coincided with competition from television. Newspapers needed to offer explanation and context rather than repeat news already broadcast. And the changing nature of coverage was also explained as a necessary response to a more complicated world. In a speech in 1965 the executive editor of The New York Times, Turner Catledge, said news was no longer to be found in reporting crime and fires but in “cybernetics, the new mathematics, the structure of the chromosome, the deep philosophical and religious implications of man’s expanded universe … the complex splintering and elaboration of Marxism in many parts of the world”. This ambitious agenda required more knowledgeable reporters, confident in their own judgment and authority. Power flowed from editors to writers, often a new generation of college-educated reporters disdainful of the police beat. Some, like Tom Wolfe, aimed to emulate the prestige of the novelist. But it was not just a question of literary style. The turmoil of the 1960s provoked a more lasting assault on the procedures of objectivity by inviting a reconsideration of who should be the sources for the news. Whether in coverage of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation or Vietnam, political upheaval exposed the close connection between journalism and the viewpoint of the powerful. The assertions of the police spokesman were now contested by street protesters, the military briefing in Saigon was ignored in favour of the insights of American officers in the field. Editors who tried to hold the line faced challenges from staff who would previously have accepted routine assignments and their place in an editorial hierarchy but now claimed that objectivity was a sham. “It is the most difficult period of struggle in this connection that the Times has ever gone through,” the New York Times managing editor, AM Rosenthal, wrote in an internal memo in 1971, “for the very plain reasons that we are living in a period when more and more young journalists question the principle and when the Times, like all institutions, is buffeted by pressures of unrest and disruption.”
This was the moment in which the freelance journalist Seymour Hersh came to national prominence after revealing that American troops had slaughtered several hundred civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968. News of the prosecution of Lieutenant William Calley Jr for murder of an unspecified number of civilians had appeared in three paragraphs on page thirty-eight of The New York Times but Hersh sought out Calley to get the full story. Life and Look magazines refused to publish it and he finally distributed it through a small anti-war news agency. Hersh’s efforts to track down the story of My Lai and get it published – which inspire the best passages in his memoir – revealed that, for all the challenges that distressed Rosenthal, neurotic caution prevailed at America’s leading newspapers and magazines. Although Hersh became celebrated as an exemplar of the reporter’s trade, his story revealed that he was an exception not a paragon. Despite their vast resources no American newspapers had pursued the story, even though after Hersh’s pieces appeared several journalists wrote accounts of witnessing massacres and atrocities in Vietnam. Hersh was hardly surprised because he already understood how closely American reporters aligned themselves with the powers that be.
From a lower middle class background (his father ran a dry cleaning shop on the south side of Chicago) Hersh started out in a small agency covering crime for the city’s newspapers. When he got to Washington in 1965 to work for Associated Press he admired the wire service reporters for their ability to produce “fact after fact, with no analysis, presented in clean, spare prose under rat-a-tat pressure”. Assigned to cover the Pentagon in the summer of 1966 when the deployment of US troops in Vietnam was massively escalated, he discovered that his colleagues were happy to report uncritically on what they were told about the war by defence secretary Robert McNamara and his top officials. He was horrified at how the Pentagon correspondents were used to discredit reports from Hanoi by Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times documenting how, despite official denials, American bombing raids were causing civilian casualties within the city. Hersh’s solution was to seek out and cultivate officers at the Kremlin who were ambivalent about the war.
His My Lai stories led to his being hired by The New York Times, where he encountered the same deference to power. Henry Kissinger would call the Washington bureau chief and then be put through to the Times man covering the National Security Council, who would listen dutifully and produce a foreign policy story for the next day’s paper based solely on Kissinger’s briefing with quotes attributed to “a senior government official”. Hersh asked the reporter if he ever checked what Kissinger had told him with sources at the State Department or the Pentagon. The reporter said no – “Henry” wouldn’t speak to the Times if he did that. Instead of taking dictation from people like Henry Kissinger, Hersh sought out government employees who were appalled by Nixon – “honourable men in that disgraced administration” – and had contrary points of view on Vietnam or the activities of the CIA. These “fellow moralists” were prepared to help him get critical stories and when he published them other dissenters in government or Congress contacted him. His informants were assured they were not risking their careers because Hersh showed how he took care to disguise their identities, often not revealing everything he knew if it might endanger the anonymity of his sources. In the mid-1970s his stories helped the Times to catch up with the Post on Watergate and he published articles on the secret bombing of Cambodia and the CIA’s role in the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. Hersh loved the power conferred on him by having his stories appear in the Times but he was perpetually frustrated in his six years there by the wavering between daring and timidity of editors like Rosenthal. The paper hated to be beaten on stories such as Watergate but shirked taking the lead. In the words of his former colleague Bill Kovach, the Times “was scared to death of being first on a controversial story that challenged the credibility of the government”.
Still, working for such a prestige newspaper conferred benefits. Hersh concedes that he is a survivor from “the golden age of journalism”, when newspapers were cash-rich and could allow reporters “to travel anywhere, any time for any reason with company credit cards”. As the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s subsided and the debates about objectivity cooled, the profitability of the news business bred complacency. Secure in their economic position, the major American newspapers convinced themselves that they occupied a position of independence in the centre of political debate, assaulted from the extremes but accepted by the majority as a source of reliable, trustworthy information. The only worrying trend was evidence that the newspaper reading habit was declining. Long before the internet, people were starting to decide that buying a newspaper was an unnecessary expense. To appeal to an increasingly suburban audience distracted by television and magazines the major American newspapers led the way in publishing more soft news – entertainment, leisure, “lifestyle” – intended to help readers make practical choices about their individual lives, to think like consumers. One of Pressman’s most interesting arguments is that the press accelerated its own weakening as an institution by contributing to the hollowing out the idea of citizenship during the Reagan era which redefined the shape of American politics. The newspapers reflected the philosophical shift which turned citizens into customers and exalted private choice over public solidarity. Significantly, Pressman argues that journalists were largely unaware of this deep and long-term change.
They were equally unaware of the slow bubbling up of anger about their institutional power among the swathe of voters Richard Nixon referred to as the silent majority. While Watergate and the fame achieved by Woodward and Bernstein may have inspired talented young Americans in the 1970s to consider journalism a glamorous and reputable profession, Republicans had already discovered an untapped contempt for the press among their followers. One of the first signs of this potential well of loathing was when Dwight Eisenhower – to his surprise – received a long and fervent ovation at the Republican convention in 1964 after he criticised Washington columnists for their treatment of the right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
An important source of this rage is likely to have been the deep sense of grievance harboured by white southerners over the reporting of civil rights in the previous decade. Reporters from the major newspapers and the television networks in New York and Washington had come down to document the horrors of segregation. They filmed black schoolchildren being knocked known by water hoses and attacked by police dogs. (David Halberstam, whom Kennedy had tried to have removed as the Times correspondent in Vietnam, described his earlier coverage of the civil rights struggle as excellent preparation for reporting from Saigon, “in the sense that you were covering our colonial era here at home”.) From the outset the civil rights movement saw journalists and broadcasters as crucial allies; Martin Luther King talked of the need to “arouse the conscience of the nation” through press and television coverage. He was largely successful. In the South the media counted as another enemy alongside the Supreme Court, which had ruled against segregationist laws, and the federal government, whose troops and officials were ensuring that desegregation measures were carried out. CBS was commonly known as the “Communist” or “Colored Broadcasting Company”, ABC as the “Asshole Broadcasting Company” and NBC as the “Nigger Broadcasting Company”. “The trouble with this country,” according to Bull Connor, the police chief in Birmingham, Alabama whose men were filmed turning the fire hoses and police dogs on protesting schoolchildren, “is communism, socialism, and journalism”. Defenders of segregation attacked the press and television at their most sensitive point, their credibility, accusing reporters of being tourists with an archaic view of the South who slanted and distorted the news. Their tribune was George Wallace, a fierce press critic as governor of Alabama in the early 1960s, who tried to articulate an even more general contempt for the supercilious, interfering media when he ran for the presidency as an independent in 1968. “The average American is sick and tired of all these over-educated, ivory-tower folks with pointed heads looking down their noses at the rest of us, and the left-wing liberal press writing editorials and guidelines.”
Wallace lost in 1968 but Richard Nixon had paid attention to his baiting of the liberal media. In November 1969, on the same day as Seymour Hersh published his revelations about the My Lai massacre, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, delivered a speech to a Republican audience in Des Moines, Iowa, criticising the television networks for broadcasting instantaneous critical commentary on a televised speech Nixon had made about Vietnam ten days earlier. This was merely the prelude to a wider assault. “The American who relies upon television for his news,” the vice president said, “might conclude that the majority of American students are embittered radicals, that the majority of black Americans feel no regard for their country, that violence and lawlessness are the rule, rather than the exception, on the American campus.” Echoing Wallace, Agnew asserted that power and influence was concentrated “in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government”. He urged people to complain and, following the speech, television stations and newspapers were swamped with letters of support for the vice president’s position. Typical were letters to the Times which accused reporters for “stirring up trouble” among the poor, blacks and the rebellious young. A White House memo at the end of November concluded: “We have discovered an issue on which we can rally a majority of the country and the South.” Pressman argues that the Watergate scandal initially made little impact during Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972 because television stations were reluctant to cover it thoroughly for fear of losing their licences. In the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh was achieving fame as a shock-jock by castigating the established media, the nascent revulsion on the floor of the 1964 Republican convention had hardened into the conservative orthodoxy that the press and television was self-serving and biased. By 2016, the vast majority of Republicans told pollsters that they did not trust the media; almost half of Americans believe that stories about Trump are fabricated.
To survey American journalism from the 1950s to the present day is to pass from an era when a narrow conception of facts was venerated and underpinned by powerful and economically secure institutions to the age of the contestation of all facts in a disorderly public sphere in which these “legacy media” are regarded as almost another pressure group. American journalists are puzzled and frustrated by the impunity enjoyed by Trump when he lies; all the more so since his act borrows so much from the seemingly discredited playbook of Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. They debate whether to report his utterances “objectively” or to call him a liar, which might risk confirming in the eyes of his supporters that they are indeed just a more hypocritical band of partisans. They long for the days when they possessed the corrective powers eulogised in films like The Post.
So is the cinematic homage to print merely nostalgia for an irrecoverable craft? On the contrary, there is now compelling evidence that the print era, for all its flaws, offered some indemnity from fraud. This is what Matthew D’Ancona means when he argues that the web has become “the all-important, primary, indispensable engine of Post-Truth … precisely because it is indifferent to falsehood, honesty and the difference between the two”. The demands of the commercial digital world offer an incentive to produce anger, conflict and polarisation. This is why some of the networks who now see Trump as the enemy were drawn towards giving him hours of free publicity during his election run in 2016. Remedies to the indifference of internet publishing to the distinction between falsehood and veracity point towards the practices associated with print: one strand of the increasing demands that Facebook be regulated means pushing it towards editing content rather than turning over decisions to algorithms.
However, the impotence of the press when faced with Trump suggests a bigger crisis. It is not the first time in history when public lying seemed the norm. The spectacular success of allied propaganda in the First World War incited fears that these new techniques of mass manipulation could become the accepted way of managing democracies. “If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbour’s cow, I can go to jail,” the American essayist Walter Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News in 1920. “But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible.” The loss of trust in public information created conditions in which “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist” could flourish. For Lippmann, worries about whether the press was lying spoke to a bigger problem with how democracies were managed. The consolidation of major American newspapers run by public-spirited families and staffed by journalists dedicated to high professional ideals served as a solution for the rest of the twentieth century. The decline of this model, years in the making, has been accompanied by the erosion of what John Nerone termed the “regulative fiction” of a wise, intelligent, compassionate public represented by the press. Arguing in favour of unapologetically calling Trump’s lies falsehoods, the editor of The New York Times compared today’s circumstances to the civil rights era when journalists had to be brave enough not to equivocate about the evils of segregation. Back then Martin Luther King could be confident there was such a thing as a national conscience, not just a manipulable set of data. This idea needs somehow to be reinvented.
Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-23 (Faber) and is working on a book about Graham Greene and the 20th century. He teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London.