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.
There is very little difference politically between the newspaper correspondents and the correspondents for radio and television, wire services, and magazines. There are nearly four times as many Democrats as Republicans among the radio-te1evision correspondents, nearly four times as many Democrats as Republicans among the wire-service correspondents, and nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans among the magazine correspondents. In the entire Washington press corps, liberals outnumber conservatives, 56.6 percent to 27.6 percent. (Interestingly, even though liberalism and conservatism have never been sharply defined—and the definitions that are used in Washington are subject to continuing debate—only 15.9 percent of the correspondents described themselves as “Middle Roaders” or refused to label themselves.)
It should be obvious from all this that most of the Washington correspondents believe that their superiors do not require slanted reporting. It is worth considering, however, whether this freedom is more apparent than real, as some social scientists believe. A study by Dr. Warren Breed that was published in 1955 is often cited as evidence that political correspondence is under control. Breed, a Tulane University sociologist who once worked as a newspaper reporter, analyzed six factors that may tend to produce general conformity to a newspaper’s policy among its staff. Most of the factors are subtle. For example, “in-groupness in the newsroom,” in Breed’s phrase, is that friendly, first-namish atmosphere in which staffers and executives often work together on a job they all like and respect: getting the news. Although Breed’s study was limited to newspaper newsrooms in the home office, the same atmosphere—and the same united effort of executives and staffers—can be observed in offices of mass media in Washington. Can part of the reduction in home office pressure be explained by the possibility that social controls have brought correspondents’ reports more in line with superiors’ policies?