In 1968, Joe Alsop, discussing the Vietnam War, wrote that “facts influence events.” The increasing reports by war correspondents of U.S. failures in the war gradually undermined public support for the fighting. Five years later, facts presented by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and published day after day in The Washington Post proved Alsop’s words in dramatic fashion. The Post’s newspaper stories led to the resignation of a president.
Watergate, I believe, was the high-water mark for newspapers as vehicles for bringing the public previously unknown information about serious matters. But I also think that, in many ways, it has been downhill ever since.
The celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein, along with financial rewards that accompanied Bob’s continued hard work, set new goals for others in the profession. At the same time, the impact an aroused press could have on government and politics was not missed by conservative supporters of the Nixon administration. Their response was twofold: demand more conservative columnists on newspaper op-ed pages and equal treatment in news columns for politicians and experts from “both sides” of issues. It was an informal way of applying the fairness doctrine, which was required of the electronic media, to print.
In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver—one of the great public-relations men of our time—began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.
After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news—and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.
At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.
When President George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan and occasionally drifted off the appointed subject, criticism began to appear that he “couldn’t stay on message.” When Bill Clinton did two, three, or four things in a day, critics went after him for “mixing up the daily message.” Being able to “stay on message” is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the “message” is what the White House wants to present to the public.
These two elements on the editorial side of journalism—a move away from expertise and the growth of public relations in government—have been facilitated, in part, by the changing nature of newspaper ownership.
Newspapers across the U.S. were often begun by pamphleteers, political parties, or businessmen who wanted to get involved in local, state, or even national affairs. The founding editors of The New York Times started that newspaper as supporters of the Whig party and later switched to the Republican party. Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896, was helped in his negotiations by a letter from President Grover Cleveland, who wrote that Ochs’s management of The Chattanooga Times had “demonstrated such a faithful adherence to Democratic principles that I would be glad to see you in a larger sphere of usefulness.” The Washington Post’s publisher Phil Graham helped put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with John F. Kennedy.
They used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. The idea was that citizens in a democracy were to read more than one paper or pamphlet, weigh all opinions and facts as presented, and make up their own minds.
Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were 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.