But before any of this could happen, the general public, or that part of it that saw television and heard radio the evening of April 11, had an opinion, based on the word and image of the President himself in their living rooms. Television networks carried the press conference in full, live or delayed an hour, “to a maximum of 8,500,000 homes (data not being exact on an unsponsored program like this). Even more effective were the evening network television shows, almost all of which used most of the video tape of the opening statement. These were seen on a maximum of 13,000,000 sets when perhaps as many as 35,000,000 people were watching. The radio networks fed the taped full conference to affiliates (but had no way of knowing how many took it or when they used it). Radio Press International transmitted the full conference in voice to its eighty subscribers and believes that at least twenty used it in full that same day. RPI’s transmission also used four minutes of the President’s voice at his conference on its news broadcasts, which most clients used.
The next day, all broadcast media carried something of the press conference by Roger M. Blough, chairman of U.S. Steel, but this was less impressive, partly because the head of U.S. Steel cannot compete for attention with the head of the United States. That night the CBS television documentary, “Eyewitness,” reviewed the events before an audience of possibly 6,000,000.
The effective difference between the broadcast and the printed news was not just speed and numbers. It was in emotional impact, in the mechanical limitation of broadcasting that permits a lone man to present his own words in their full emotional context without opposing views or critical analysis.
Without any medium’s wanting it to happen, television has become the President’s medium. The newspapers are somebody else’s medium—the reading public’s, the business community’s, the publisher’s— as well as the President’s. Neither in emotional response nor in sociological makeup are the two audiences the same. What necessarily comes across in live television and radio is what most public figures would like to see of themselves in print if they could manage it—their own words verbatim and without filtration by reporters and editors, intruding comments by others, or editorializing by the medium.
Many people were worried by the President’s quick victory over steel—people who have no special love for U.S. Steel, but who feel that steel, for all its unlovable qualifies, was outmatched. The same awesome power of the President to transmit himself electronically into the American living room could be turned on a less powerful adversary.
The newspaper tradition of presenting the other side of an argument is indispensable, though it is often resented by readers who believe that when angels speak the press should not drag in the devil for a word in reply. This is an old problem of reporters and newspapers: Partisans seldom want nonpartisan reporting. Not to say that broadcasting is without editorial balance but that the nature of the medium usually makes the lone news source seem far more credible than he is in print. While the news source is talking no contrary voice can be transmitted.
Newspapers now have to report an event to a public whose opinion about the event may already have been formed by another medium. This will be especially so on any issue in which the decisive impact is made by television. In one sense it is a healthy discipline on reporting, since the reader will have viewed the event and heard the words himself. But prior knowledge could be misleading—as anyone can recall who ever heard Senator McCarthy standing in front of a closed hearing room to give his interpretation of what went on inside. To the newspapers—and the later broadcast news programs—falls the burden of preventing stampedes of opinion on issues where only one side has been presented.
This burden will test the public’s faith in newspapers at a poor time in the political history of the contemporary daily press. The disadvantage of the printed word is not just that it is slower, but more that there is an undercurrent of suspicion about the politics of newspapers, based on their overwhelming opposition to the mainstream of social and economic change in the United States during the last thirty years. What papers may do out of a conscientious regard for the whole truth will inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind with what papers have done in the past out of partisan politics.