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

Now, twenty-five years after Rosten’s analysis, I am trying to update it. Inevitably, there are differences in the two studies. Newspapermen and wire-service reporters dominated the Washington press corps in the 1930’s and Rosten limited his investigations to them. Today, the radio, television, and magazine correspondents are quite as important, and they are included in my study. In part for this reason, and in part because of the growth of the press corps, my sample is larger than his, 278 to 127. (In both studies, the “official” lists of correspondents—all of which were misleading—were sifted to eliminate those who did not actually work as Washington correspondents. My figure for the total number of bona fide correspondents is 634, not the 1,500 usually cited.) In most significant respects, however the studies are similar. The same techniques—primarily interviews and questionnaires—were used in both, and many of the same questions were asked. And, perhaps most important, the motivation of both studies was the same: to discover the facts about an institution of American democracy.

Of all the changes in the Washington press corps during the past twenty-five years, none is more significant than a new sense of freedom from the prejudices of the home office. Rosten measured the degree of freedom to report objectively by including in his questionnaire a battery of statements that had been made by correspondents during interviews. One read: “My orders are to be objective, but I know how my paper wants stories played.” Slightly more than 60 per cent of the correspondents of the 1930’s replied “Yes” to this, indicating that they felt subtle pressure. Today, only 9.5 per cent reply “Yes” to the same statement.

This difference is so marked that one may immediately suspect that there was a misunderstanding or mistake. However, another statement that also tested freedom from home-office pressure drew a similar response. Rosten asked the correspondents whether this could be said of their work: “In my experience I’ve had stories played down, cut, or killed for ‘policy’ reasons.” Slightly more than 55 per cent of the correspondents of the 1930’s answered “Yes.” Today, only 7.3 per cent answer “Yes” to the same statement.

This is not necessarily a record in which the press can take complete pride. After all, nearly 10 per cent of the Washington correspondents will admit that they feel subtle pressure; more than 7 per cent will admit that they have been subject to direct retaliation. The change to these figures from 60 per cent and 55 per cent, however, is an improvement so startling that it demands explanation.

A veteran correspondent explains it by pointing out that the political issues are not nearly so clear cut today as they were in the 1930’s: “You’d have to have been around in the ’30s to understand the difference. The publishers didn’t just disagree with the New Deal. They hated it. And the reporters, who liked it, had to write as though they hated it, too.” According to this correspondent and others, the passing of the publisher-tyrants—the William Randolph Hearsts and the Robert R. McCormicks—has changed political journalism. “The day when a publisher would order his Washington bureau to beat a bill with news stories is just about gone,” he said.

This is not to say that the newspaper publishers and their correspondents now have the same political stance. In 1960, 57 percent of the daily newspapers reporting to the Editor & Publisher poll supported Nixon, and 16 percent supported Kennedy. In contrast, there are more than three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among the Washington newspaper correspondents; slightly more than 32 percent are Democrats, and fewer than 10 percent are Republicans. About half of the newspaper correspondents today call themselves “Independents,” but it is notable that the newspaper correspondents, like the rest of the Washington press corps, are predominantly liberal. More than 55 percent of the correspondents for newspapers consider themselves liberals; 26.9 percent consider themselves conservatives.

William L. Rivers died in 1996. After working in newspapers and magazines, he became a professor in Stanford's communications department, where he taught for 33 years.