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.
When is the last time you saw a major newspaper or television network set out its own agenda for candidates to take up? At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have lost their voices.
Beginning in the 1960s, papers large and small started being bought for large sums, first by newspaper chains, which in turn became controlled by outside financial interests. A few papers remained privately owned, but eventually almost all sold stock to the public. With that financial change came monopoly ownership, one newspaper per city or town, and the notion that the newspaper that survived should be neutral, presenting all points of view in each controversial story. As I said, the fairness doctrine has been transferred from radio and television to the newspaper. How ironic is it today, then, that there are dozens of competing electronic voices in almost every city, most of which now have only one newspaper.
The Graham and Sulzberger families’ ownership of The Washington Post and The New York Times is, I believe, a major reason why these newspapers continue to provide quality journalism. But even they and their editors are nervous when accused of showing favoritism or antipathy toward one party or another.
My post-Korean War generation entered journalism because we wanted to change the governmental system. Our role models were James Reston of The New York Times, whose column I proofread during the five months I was a copyboy at the Times; Edward R. Murrow; Richard Rovere, then writing the Washington Letter for The New Yorker; and even playwright Arthur Miller. They were among the journalists and writers who led the challenge to Senator Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting at a time when most mainstream journalists were being “objective” and reporting, uncritically, his accusations about Communist infiltration of government and his unproven allegations about individuals.