You’re not going to believe this, but last year C-SPAN broadcast a news media get-together that did not put everyone to sleep. As a rule, soul-searching sessions of media stars, or journalistic entities, as Wes Pruden of the Washington Times calls them, end in self-congratulatory hosannas to their integrity and their courage in calling it as they (collectively) see it.
The forum in Washington sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists was different. There was disagreement. Even spite and snarling. Syndicated columnist and former speechwriter for President Reagan Mona Charen was entirely ladylike, but on two occasions David Broder looked ready to pop her on the nose, if she were a man.
Broder, perhaps the leading entity at the Washington Post, had proposed the subject: “Journalists in Government.” In recent years he has been sounding the alarm about journalists entering and leaving government service in a “revolving door.” As he put it to the panel: “My original concern was the reputation of journalism in this country and our ability to maintain the public perception that we were separate from, and different fundamentally in our function from, the government officials that we cover.”
This was not a new kink in journalism when Broder discovered it. A decade ago I was, like Broder, alarmed at the revolving door. It was a sub-theme in a book I wrote in the early 1980’s, eventually published in 1984, Bad News. At that time interchangeable journalist-government officials infested particularly the New York Times, usually serving in the State Department, Defense Department, or White House—even during the Vietnam War, against which the Times campaigned with some passion. I was concerned that these interchangeable men took their knowledge of secrets and their confidential sources with them to work at the Times, which gave the newspaper an additional edge in spreading its viewpoint.
Clifton Daniel was an active Democrat, Washington nabob, and then Times managing editor. William Safire left the Nixon White House to become the Times‘ conservative, filling a void. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned the Carter administration to return to the Times‘ board of directors. When the Times published its house-written version of what it called the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the documents had been compiled by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Affairs Paul Warnke, his deputy Morton Halperin, and Leslie Gelb, an interchangeable man and the brother of a Times editor. All were doves.
While it was never suggested that this dovecote in the Defense Department alerted the Times to the secret study, Gelb later went to a choice job at the Times and both Warnke and Halperin appeared on the Times‘ op-ed pages. Their Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg stole from the Rand Corporation, ended up at the New York Times, where they inspired the creation of the White House Plumbers (J. Edgar Hoover would not look for Ellsberg) and were the catalyst for profound changes in the direction of history.
While I suggested a decade ago a conflict of interest in interchangeable men, Broder’s concern was something else. He worried about the reputation of journalism, apparently unaware that the public perception is that journalism is hopelessly corrupt.
On the Washington panel, commentator Hodding Carter III—a newspaper heir and the Carter administration’s State Department spokesman—suggested leaving out “television gong-show participants, commentators and columnists”—that is, himself—and limiting discussion to the possible conflicts of reporters of news. Broder declined; he meant to include anyone who is a journalist. “All I’m saying is there ought to be a clear and visible difference between who journalists are and what journalists do, and who politicians and government officials are and what they do,” Broder argued. “That distinction is being erased.”
Broder directly challenged Carter, Charen, and Ron Nessen, NBC radio news chief and former press spokesman for President Ford. Broder cited Washington Post reporters working government beats in Washington, who, he said, were entirely independent precisely because they had been raised exclusively in newsrooms and had never worked in government. Broder got some support from Washington Post ombudsman Richard Harwood, who said that the paper’s editor Leonard Downie, Jr., would not hire anyone from government as a journalist.
Charen did not believe that the Post reporters cited by Broder were unbiased, but she did not say so directly. She suggested that the issue was not whether a person could cross over from government to journalism and back, or whether a reporter on the beat was more pure than a columnist, but whether a journalist allowed himself or herself to be used by a politician or official. She said her experience in the Reagan White House taught her to recognize at a glance news stories from Washington in which the reporter had put a spin on the facts “to flatter or advance the cause of the person they are intimate with.” “I can pick up the morning paper and recognize the fine hand of [Secretary of State] James Baker in every single sentence of that story, and there is absolutely no way the public would know this,” she stated.
She believed that Broder “would say that was okay,” provided the reporter addmg the spin had never worked for government. “You think that is what I would say?” he demanded. “That is not what I would say, just for the record.” “In the last couple of minutes,” he added, “we’ve heard something displayed that frankly had not crossed my mind in previous efforts to think through this question. That is, that there is one more thing that those who are line-crossers bring with them, and that is scorn for people who work as career people in journalism.”
By now expert insulters were trading insults. Carter, feeling that he had been addressed, intervened to protest the implication that he had scorn for mere newsmen. He agreed with Charen that reporters acting as conduits for officials dishonor journalism and that journalism in Washington is in a sad state. Officials who invite you to sup at their tables on Saturday night, give you your lines to write, then read their lines in the newspaper Monday morning: “Those are the ones who have scorn for you, not me,” he said. “Not me.” Nessen offered soothing agreement with Broder, that some of the gong-show participants perform as dispensers of advice on television but then go back the next day pretending to cover a beat as straight reporters. “I don’t see how Eleanor Cliff gets away with it,” he said. Cliff is a McLaughlin Croup regular, a Newsweek reporter, a liberal like Broder, and a militant feminist.
Charen, who often performs on the Capital Gang gong show, had clashed with Broder earlier, when she said “Fred Barnes is a conservative columnist with the New Republic—and everybody knows it—and a good reporter, too.”
Broder, brusque: “Excuse me, but is that identified in the New Republic?”
Charen, puzzled: “The New Republic is a magazine of opinion. It isn’t like the Washington Post.”
Broder: “But you said that everybody knows Fred Barnes is a conservative columnist for the New Republic. I’m asking you, are the readers of the New Republic told that?”
Charen: “Most people can make that distinction for themselves. They know when somebody is grinding an ax. It’s clear and it’s obvious.”
Nessen, helping Broder: “But it’s not obvious, that’s the point.” He said the public does not recognize the difference between news people and politicians, giving as the prime example Jesse Jackson, political activist, Washington senator, acting “just like talk-show host Larry King.”
In these exchanges Broder walked into a sort of buzz saw running smoothly and quietly. Television is a hot medium, and performers strive to maintain their cool. Charen, who is poised, calm, and speaks in clear, brief, complete sentences, is a natural, while the menacing Broder came across like Torquemada.
Nessen remarked that when President Ford lost the election and was looking for work, he was told at CBS that he would have to “undergo a period of decontamination.” That was echoed by a voice from the audience, that of Jerry terHorst, who had been Ford’s first press spokesman for 30 days, then resigned because Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. TerHorst, who had been a well-known Washington correspondent and later worked for a time as a Ford Motor Company flack, regretted ever having left journalism. He got a round of sentimental applause, but nobody asked the important questions of him: Had he done the right thing in resigning, and did he still think that Ford should not have pardoned Nixon?
An unidentified voice from the crowd asked the panel to comment on the fate of John Meeklm, Time magazine reporter, who was hired as United States spokesman in Vietnam because he was expected to communicate with fellow reporters. Mecklin wrote in Mission in Torment, the questioner said, that “he ended up by being thought a sellout by the government to the journalists, and a sellout by the journalists to the government. Is this an impossible thing, a nowin situation?”
Carter gave a nattering nonanswer to the question, saying these things depend on eases. Someone should have pointed out that Mecklin was dealing with his friends David Ilalberstam and Neil Sheehan, the original antiwar activists, who took refuge in his house in Saigon, fearing that the brother of Ngo Dinh Diem might have them killed. Halberstam later wrote that he had agreed to join a coup against Diem (a coup that was called off), and years later it was learned that a key source for the journalists was Pham Xuan An, erstwhile correspondent for Reuters and Time who was a North Vietnamese intelligence colonel, so perhaps Halberstam and Sheehan had reason to worry. Diem was later assassinated in the American-authorized coup. Mecklin indeed suffered from divided loyalty, which his book describes.
Note that the remarks of terHorst and Nessen, and the Mecklin question, go back to the 60’s and 70’s, to the days when the present journalist priesthood was formed, during which time carrying the adversary relationship to extremes became the rule. the drama of Vietnam and its spin-offs through the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations cemented the polarization.
During that time journalists who crossed into government or vice versa included most notably those at the New York Times and some others who had unusual impact: ABC reporter John Scali, who became United Nations ambassador after giving President Kennedy’s government, not ABC, priority during the Cuban missile crisis, and President Johnson’s press spokesman Bill Moyers, who graduated to become Public Television’s taxpayer-funded doctrinaire liberal oracle. But since that era a slew of publicists who worked for the Reagan and Bush administrations have now been loosed on the public, even former Governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
In her column after the forum deflate, Charen pointed out:
One has a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Broder and others of his persuasion lived happily with the revolving door until conservatives began circulating through it. Turn on television or pick up a newspaper and you’re likely to encounter a number of prominent conservative journalists who have served in government: George Will, Patrick Buchanan (until he revolved back again a few months ago), Charles Krauthammer, John McLaughlin, David Gergen, William Safire, and others.
At the same time, there are far too many journalists, some at Mr. Safire’s paper, who have never served in government but are nonetheless shameless flacks for their sources who do. These supposedly virginal watchdogs in the Fourth Estate somehow allow themselves to be used by secretaries of state and assistants to the President not just to get the news, but to settle scores and to spin the story. Their reward is enhanced access and improved relations with the principal source. You can’t get at that kind of corruption by erecting a wall of separation between government and the press.
Corruption is the key word. Broder’s very narrow goal of protecting a holier-than-thou press from unfavorable public perceptions is entirely beside the point. No one can put the stopper back in the bottle of journalists becoming officials and vice versa.
Indeed, Broder’s contention that Washington Post reporters, or anybody’s reporters, are entirely independent is not possible. Sometimes a reporter agrees 100 percent with his publisher and chief editor, so he or she can feel independent. But if a reporter disagrees with his bosses, let us not kid each other, he or she cannot get a report into the paper the way it should be written and is most unlikely to be allowed a free-swinging column. Broder is dead wrong that being brought up in the newsroom makes one independent. If you quit a job in journalism, you may not get back in again easily.
Broder’s approach illustrates how much we have overdone the adversary relationship. As a young lady in the audience at the Washington panel who identified herself as a journalist for 12 years put it: “When a government official compliments me on a story, I wonder where I went wrong.” She wanted to know how Ron Nessen felt when he took the job with President Ford. How he felt, going over to the enemy. An Oprah question. Here is a young lady who is likely to go far in a profession that demands conformity. When the definition of journalism includes unswerving opposition, even hostility, to all government officials, the intensity of which is tripled or quadrupled for a Republican government and Republican officials, we have gone off the deep end, just as we have done in our too-adversarial justice system.
The issue for journalists is corruption. Use of anonymous sources (which means spoon-feeding) corrupts; conformists bowing to peer pressure from their colleagues (joining with the pack) corrupt. Identifying journalism with a conformist line of thought and then putting loyalty to journalism over loyalty to government corrupts. If journalists should adopt a uniform conservative dogma instead of the liberal unithmk of the 1970’s, it would be equally corrupting. Maybe there are more ways to say that conformity corrupts. It won’t be easy to fix. But more knock-down deflates like this one might help. For that we’re indebted to David Broder, even if he struck out this time.