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.
As a copyboy in 1954, fresh out of college, I delivered mail to Hanson Baldwin, then the Times’s highly respected military correspondent. When Baldwin wrote a news story or a piece of analysis, it was read in the Pentagon and in Congress. They had to read him because his years of coverage and his insights made him as expert as top generals and civilian defense officials. I didn’t know it then, but those days had a major influence on my approach to journalism.
I am a Democrat, and everyone knows it. No one is more aware of it than I am as I write stories for The Washington Post. I worked for Senator J. William Fulbright twice in the 1960s, when I was lucky to run two eighteen-month Foreign Relations Committee investigations for him. The first grew out of magazine articles I had written about lobbying in the U.S. by foreign governments. The second focused on military involvement in foreign policy, and grew out of discussions I had with Fulbright during my initial time with him. Those two sabbaticals were among the most important and enlightening years of my life, and influenced my view of reporting on government. They showed me how little I knew as a reporter about how government really worked.
Part of the explanation for this lack of knowledge is the emergence of the idea, among reporters in Washington and perhaps elsewhere, that we should avoid socializing or developing friendships with public officials—even those who are our peers. As a result of this artificial separation, public figures remain one-dimensional to many journalists; they have no wives, children, or lives outside their professional positions.
Not to me. After fifty years of living and working in Washington, I’ve had personal friends in Congress, on federal court benches, in high government positions, even in the White House. We should be measured by our work, not by what we say or do elsewhere. I certainly hope that as witnesses to wars, civil-rights riots, peace marches, famines, and terrorist events these past decades, we all have developed opinions which at times we may discuss or even argue about—or we just are not human.
Such experiences make us better observers and thus better reporters. With more and more PR peddled as news, journalists need the experience to sort out what really is news, and to deliver it in context.
As we’ve seen, fewer national and local newspapers are in the hands of fewer companies that in turn provide newspapers that are less appealing and relevant to people who have limited time to read them. And with the arrival of first the Internet and now the financial downturn, advertisers have panicked. The result is far less money to support serious journalism.