This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

The same was true in Viet Nam. John Mecklin, chief information officer in Saigon during the time when David Halberstam of the Times and Malcolm Browne of the AP were official dirty words, writes in his book, Mission in Torment, that Halberstam and Browne were essentially correct in their reporting and the government essentially wrong.

The White House obsession with PR would be easier to handle if it came from another source. Most correspondents learned to cope with flackdom a long time
ago: they react when special pleaders originate news; they recognize the implausibly rosy release; they instinctively check with the opposition; they treat with contempt a man who deliberately fiim-fiams them.

What is special here is Kraft’s observation: most reporters have trouble looking at the President as just another flack. He is not just another flack. He is a PR man in his obsession with image, his unrestrained attempts to create illusion for tactical reasons, and his concern with appearances no matter how implausible. But he is also President of the United States, carrying the burdens of his office seriously.

The problem is that Lyndon Johnson appeals to reporters with all the dignity and power of his position as President and when this does not produce the results he wants, begins manipulating them and the news in ways that are not highly regarded even at the Press Club bar. He is trying to have it both ways. The weakness of many correspondents is that the President is too valuable a source in the competition for news to be ignored as a lesser PR man would be. But deeper than that is the conflict the President creates in many serious correspondents who respect the office of President and the man in it, but whose professional standards tell them that what is going on is common, ordinary press agentry.

The President and his aides often seem to ignore the demands of professionalism upon correspondents, which require exercise of independent judgment based not on personality or pressure but on honest discrimination. Too often correspondents are asked to choose between disrespect for the reader and disrespect for the President. One simple answer may be to report the unabashed intervention of the White House into the news process. The dialogue in U.P.I. Reporter was seen widely in the trade, but it was not on the UPI wire. Ordinarily this would be healthy avoidance of narcissism. But perhaps the time has come to report the President not only as originator of news but also as editor of it.

 

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Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.