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

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.

For a long time the main body of the daily press was in full cry against Roosevelt and Truman, as it was never against Eisenhower. There will probably be a time when it will be pitched against President Kennedy. But now a Democratic President has an effective method—broadcasting—to bypass a hostile press and even to attack it. Publishers were disturbed about Jack Paar’s emotional outbursts on television against the press. What if it were not Paar at midnight but the President of the United States at 6 p.m.?

Particularly on issues of family economics, the press is vulnerable to attack because since 1934 the general public has shown—through its votes and its folk sayings—its belief that in any conflict between business and the consumer, the newspapers are on the side of business. This set of mind is the Achilles heel of the daily press in American society, and every intelligent politician knows it. In a sense, this is unfair, considering the large body of honest reporting in newspapers. But public skepticism exists.

The quick television victory of the President on April 11 makes it plain that newspapers are not always the most effective link between the President and the public and that any time he chooses, a commanding public figure can go over the head of the press. Implicit in this demonstration is the possibility that should the press consolidate against a President, as it has in the past, he need not be so chary as before of antagonizing the newspapers and, if need be, he can appeal to the endemic suspicions of the press’s own readers.

 

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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.