This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
A number of correspondents apparently also consider it impossible for any person who deals in opinion to be fair and reliable. Slightly more than 11 percent failed to list a newspaper columnist as “fairest and most reliable,” and nearly 10 percent wrote in “None.” It is nonetheless clear that Walter Lippmann stands highest among the columnists in judgments of fairness and reliability. He received 10 votes (see earlier table) and no other columnist was even close. There is a question, however, about the standing of James Reston of The New York Times, who may not have been given his due because of confusion. Reston, who tied with Roscoe Drummond for fourth place, also works as a reporter and as bureau chief.
Like newspaper columnists, radio and television newscasters and commentators are considered by some of the correspondents not to be judged in terms of fairness and reliability. This became apparent in comments made during interviews, and it was borne out later in written responses. Nearly 25 percent of the correspondents listed no commentator as “fairest and most reliable;” nearly 17 percent wrote “None.”
It is nonetheless clear that a definable group of commentators stands high among the Washington correspondents. It is a group that CBS should ponder, for only one of the four, David Brinkley of NBC, is still working at the kind of reporting that gave him his standing among the correspondents. Eric Sevareid, of CBS, who was in first place with nearly 17 percent of the votes, is no longer reporting from Washington. Edward R. Murrow, who was second, left CBS shortly after the poll was taken. Brinkley was third. Then came Howard K. Smith, who quit CBS in 1961 in a policy dispute and is now with ABC. The ten leaders are listed in this chart.
Murrow, Daly, Huntley, and Edwards probably stood higher than the figures indicate. Although all of them report on politics, some of the correspondents undoubtedly failed to list them because they were not, at the time of the poll, working as Washington correspondents.
There are many important facets of life and work in the Washington press corps that cannot be analyzed statistically. Impressions gathered during three years of work and observation in Washington may help to round out the picture.
Accuracy? Some of the correspondents will admit that it is often sacrificed at the altar of speed. “I phone in the stuff from my beat,” a wire service reporter complains, “and it gets botched.” A newspaper correspondent: “My editor doesn’t realize how complicated Washington can be. He just wants copy.“ One of the leading columnists confesses, “I have to keep in mind always that if I don’t get my column in, the money won’t come in either.”
Depth reporting? At least one Washington correspondent customarily accosts his news sources with the cub reporter’s query: “Have you got any news for me today?” It is interesting, too, that when correspondents are asked to name the Washington reporters whose work is characterized by hard-digging investigation, the list is never very long. It is true, of course, that the Washington press corps is too large to permit any one correspondent to be able to evaluate the work of all the others. The recurring and six-name lists of reporters who persistently investigate in depth are revealing, nonetheless. They usually include, among others, Clark Mollenhoff of the Cowles publications, Vance Trimble of Scripps Howard, and Reston.
Perspective? Just as the home-city reporter writes about the local husband who decapitated his wife yesterday—not about the hundred thousand couples who lived happy lives—many of the Washington correspondents must focus on the flamboyant twenty-hour filibuster, not on the quietly effective ten-minute speech. Fixed ideas of what constitutes Washington news work against coverage in depth.
And yet, with all of the shortcomings, the dominant impression is one of advance over 1937. Accuracy is highly prized; the inaccurate report is the exception. Even those correspondents who are hard-pressed for time occasionally report in depth. Reading the newspapers and magazines of the 1930’s against those published today leaves one with a distinct feeling that analysis and interpretation of meaningful events are now providing more perspective on government.