Hugh Sidey, Time Magazine Political and White House Correspondent
March 27, 1980
Power and the Media
Thank you President Acker. It seems my life has been consumed with presidents ever since I left Iowa, which is pleasant in some respects and particularly so on this morning. You can't imagine how proud I am to be back in the prairies having grown up in them. I've never lost the feel, nor gotten it out of my system. This morning flying from Kansas City in that small plane, I could look down and see the winter wheat beginning to ripen and the Kansas River full and the Missouri River, which was near my home. It was a great sensation.
I must say that I have been privileged over these last years to have been able to roam around this world a good deal and watch so-called great men and women participate in so-called great events. I get more gratification when I come back here than through almost any of those experiences. I've watched the process of government and power all around the globe. I sometimes think that if this system is going to survive, it's going to be up to you people who live in the Midwest. It may be the lone repository of common sense left. So you see you have great responsibilities.
We are in a changing world, more so today than any time I remember in the 23 years that I have been covering the world's events from Washington. I've watched it change.
I was with John Kennedy in Dallas when he was killed and I can remember standing on the lawn of Parkland Hospital and wondering if this system would ever recover. And I can remember a few hours later standing on the lawn of the White House and looking out through those iron gates at the thousands of people who had come to mourn Kennedy. I know that all of them, and I know all of you, too, and myself wondered what was in store for us. We survived that, but the system did change.
Politics was pushed back a generation and a man who had been defeated became president. From his presidency came another man, who had been rejected once before. Our system in many ways is just now recovering from that.
I stood on that same lawn at the White House the day after the death of Martin Luther King. I watched while people looted and burned Washington two blocks away from the White House. And I remember when the White House guards put automatic weapons underneath the bushes. A friend of mine turned and said, "What have we come to in this nation?"
Well, we got through that also. But then there was the death of Robert Kennedy, there was the recession that came later, the Viet Nam War and all of the anguish when Washington was filled with protest by those who marched for peace. There was Watergate and that sequence of sad, squalid crimes against the Constitution, against the government, against the people. Probably more than other major civilization this nation has been through more shocks in these last twenty years, and yet the system has come back. It has proved its resilience. It is strong, it is healthy in so many ways.
But you know, I think in many ways we face more difficult challenges today than any time in these last twenty years. As a journalist I could write about the assassinations, the wars, and the recessions. That's the standard fare of journalism. There were heroes and villains. And there were statistics that we could follow.
But the problems that began to accumulate roughly three or four years ago were brand new to us all. We, the people in the media business, simply have not had to cope before with these shifting currents of emotion all around the world, with the rising aspirations of the third world. We as a society have never before lived on a globe in which another power as great, or greater, than us felt deeply hostile towards us. That's a new experience. We have never before lived in a time in which we have had inflation at 20 percent and interest rates at 20 percent, at least for an extended period. We sail on new waters. We don't know the effects of any of these things, not only on our economic system, but on what happens to people, individuals. What happens to families who cannot buy homes? What happens to neighborhoods that cannot improve? What happens to states? And finally, what happens to this country?
Out of this accumulated change over the last few years has come this world. I am one part of it. I am in the media. It is an important part of it and so this morning I would like to talk to you a little about my feelings.
It is disconcerting to those of us who believed we were in a holy war for clarity and truth to have it suggested that we journalists may be part of the problem. But it is being suggested and with increased emphasis not only by the public, which must consume our product, but by an extraordinary number of thoughtful men and women who study what we do. Nor is that all. Many of the leaders in our craft, now known as the media, have raised their own questions, not so much about our goals, but about our techniques and the size and momentum of this relatively new world of encompassing communication.
The most recent voice is one that is very special to me. James David Barber, head of Duke University's Department of Political Science, will have a new book out next month in which he declares without qualification that the new powerbrokers in presidential politics in America are the journalists. The media create and destroy the contenders for our most powerful office. I hold great store in what Dr. Barber says. In 1969 before Richard Nixon had assumed power, Dr. Barber predicted that because of Nixon's character his administration was headed for trouble. Dr. Barber's book, "The Presidential Character," published in 1972, offered the most telling measure of presidents in this era that I have read. So when Dr. Barber talks, I listen.
But others have had their say, too. Columnist Joseph Kraft, one of our very own lamenting our personalization of the presidency, singled out what has now become the dominant member by far of our fraternity television. If you detect a slight prejudice on my part, for the print and against television, you are correct. And I live a little, at least, in their world. Kraft declared that television focused on personal traits, and not necessarily those that assured a good leader but turned a blind eye toward institutions and ideas. His feeling was that it left a great void in the discussion of leadership in this campaign.
Here are some others in this rising chorus of concern about the media. Richard W. Jencks, former vice president of CBS, declares: "For us, news is bad news, something going wrong, or at least that is the accepted cannon of most U.S. journalists." The Washington Post's Myra McPherson found in her coverage of the faltering campaign of Senator Edward M. Kennedy that many of the young reporters who were on that erratic journey reflected the dour belief that "there are no heroes." In McPherson's view, there reporters reflected the kinds of limping, grinning, despair so often portrayed on "Saturday Night Live" under the guise of humor.
"Television now dominates politics," writes columnist Richard Reeves. "The Tuesday night primaries are, for most Americans, the nominating process. What television chooses to report is the reality of what happened. In most political cases, I would argue," that's Reeves speaking, "if television isn't there, it didn't happen." That's a stunning thought. He's a writer and an astute one. And he says, "in most political cases, I would argue, if television isn't there, it didn't happen." Ted Kennedy himself confirmed this. Talking on a press bus a while back he worried about all the political spectacle that had to be created and his part in it. "In people's houses," Kennedy said, "I find myself talking to the camera rather than to the people in the homes. It sort of interferes with what we're trying to achieve . . ." That is Kennedy talking.
Dr. Ernest W. Lefever, president of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, has raised a point about the diminishing distinction between newsmaker and newsman. Advocacy or personal journalism has made celebrities out of those who used to concern themselves only with gathering news. Former Undersecretary of State George Ball noted that prior to 1952 candidates for the presidency felt compelled to expose their views in half hour speeches. But television has now demanded that "their insights on complex issues" be condensed into 90 second spots, or at the most, three-minute spots.
To all of these, let me add my questions, grown large now as I have moved through the modern media spectacle. Though I am not terribly ancient in years, I have been in various parts of journalism for a long time. I was born in it. I can recall among my first memories wandering through the weekly newspaper shop of my family and watching with wonder the linotypes do their marvelous work, standing transfixed while the old flatbed press began to heave and groan. All too quickly I was involved with those machines and wasn't that fond of them later; but at that time, they were a marvelous experience.
We never had any lofty ideas that we were professionals. We were in a trade or craft; important, indeed, a part of the public business. But we were gatherers and assemblerers of the weekly story in our small part of the prairies. At no time were we to be a part of the news.
My heroes of those days were William Allen White of Emporia and Ed Howe of Atchison. They were the journalistic stars of my father and before him his father. The papers of both came to our shop long after both men had died and it was while pouring over these "exchanges" that I had my first taste of Kansas.
For the first few of my five decades in the trade, the old rules were pretty good. Bylines were coveted as a reward for good work. But use of "I," the personal pronoun, in a piece was something very special and something not to be repeated too often. The idea that a reporter would actually get mixed up in the events of a story, or help create or destroy a political contender was not only out of sight, but out of mind.
In my Washington years, I began to see change take over that fine old world. As a matter of fact, it was not that fine. And not that good. Certainly it was comfortable. But much too much went unnoticed, unwritten. Change came with a rush, and rightly so. Television was the principal new source of energy. When I was covering the White House for Time Magazine, back under John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, there used to be about 25 so-called White House reporters. These reporters attended the twice-a-day news briefings, other times prowled the back offices for special stories. In the last twenty years, that number has risen to fifty or one hundred reporters who more or less keep permanent watch on the White House. The front lawn has become an outdoor television studio and each day the video journalists struggle to gain time on the evening newscasts. What had been a fairly calm ritual of weighing the days doings became a dramatic contest. The television reporter who could uncover the most important or bizarre, or unusual stories was soon noticed and led his colleagues not only in professional esteem, but in air time and pay.
I remember how shocked Lyndon Johnson was the day he discovered an NBC reporter was actually paid $60,000 a year. LBJ knew a little bit about our business and the idea that a reporter, one of his friendly enemies, shall we say, could command that kind of salary, upset him. In my view it was entirely justified, of course, although it was not generally spread around the business. But it did signal a change in the media business. It was the first hint of the merger then underway between show business and modern journalism. Stars were needed. Personalities were cultivated, not only to bring the news in the most agreeable manner, but to add luster. The rumor that swept the White House press room the day Tom Brokaw (now of the Today Show) arrived was shattering. It was said he was to be paid $125,000 a year for being a White House reporter.
By today's standards, of course, those figures are peanuts. ABC's Barbara Walters went on to become the first million dollar reporter and Dan Rather's new $8 million contract for the next five years to be CBS anchor man sets a new record for sheer wealth and a new record for media stardom. The concern is not about the dollars themselves, for surely Dan Rather is worth as much as some corporate executives, and surely his services are as valuable as that of some real estate developers. The concern is that such wealth turns a vital public function towards entertainment. With millions riding on these stars and their programs, the audience must be lured and sustained. Sometimes in this process, hype replaces substance. Sometimes emphasis is directed more at the Nielson ratings than national understanding.
I should pause here to say that the United States people are the best informed in the world. For all of its imperfections and the mounting concerns which we now acknowledge, the fact is that a diligent listener and reader in this nation can emerge closer to the truth than ever before. We argue about excellence. There always is more anguish and difficulty in new advances than in the previous effort on which all else is based. It's that old analogy of the high jumper, "the last inches are the toughest." The media cherishes freedom, justice and liberty. How best to serve that cause is the more profound question as we polish the product. It is critical now since instant, overwhelming communication all around the globe is fundamental in our struggle to preserve and advance our civilization.
One of the biggest growth industries in the last twenty years is the media. I dare say it is reflected here on your campus in your department of mass communication, or whatever it may be called. There is no Kansas wheat farmer who can, or should, plan his spring crops without knowing how the president thinks. There is no stock broker who can go to work in San Francisco ignorant of a presidential speech of the night before. If he is that careless, he is apt to be wiped out by afternoon. I can recall one day listening to Lyndon Johnson express his amazement of the impact of his words. "Why," he said, "if I get up in the morning and my color is bad, all I have to do is be seen that way on television and the stock market drops 10 points." That is very true. And I can remember John Kennedy one time when I asked him what surprised him most about being president. He said, "I," speaking for himself, "can get used to the idea of sending troops into battle, but the thing that is most baffling is that one word or one thought has such a ripple effect on the country, can influence lives and change the direction of all segments of the society." To live with that responsibility was something brand new to him. And then he reminded me that a couple of weeks earlier, somewhat in jest to get the people's minds off many of the world's problems at that time, he had suggested that Americans ought to take fifty mile hikes like marines, to get in shape. We had half a million people with heart seizures, wrenched backs, leg cramps, ankle sprains. The AMA actually called the White House and told Kennedy that America was not ready for a fifty mile hike.
So within the past few years we journalists have suddenly found ourselves on a gigantic revolving stage. Everybody needs information. They need help in understanding the complex issues besides the facts. Then, too they want the process to be pleasant. That is not unnatural. The various parts of that equation may not always be compatible. Here, I believe, is where we create some trouble for ourselves. In searching for that formula of quick, colorful, meaningful news, we stumble over ourselves in the competitive search and sometimes we grasp superficialities.
I am still pondering whether Richard Nixon lost the first debate with John Kennedy in 1960 because he had sweat on his upper lip and looked nervous. I'm not at all chagrined at the outcome of that election but if, as some analysts believe, the first debate tipped the process in Kennedy's favor, we must wonder if that is any way to go about selecting a president.
Take some more recent examples. Should that ridiculous debate over the debate in New Hampshire among Republican contenders have injured the presidential prospects of George Bush as much as some suggested it did? Bush, as you may recall, sat impassive and even a little flustered at the unseemly spectable, his ivy-league blood undoubtedly riled at such raucous behavior. Ronald Reagan, an old Hollywood trouper, was plainly more at home in such unscripted dramatics and he grabbed the mike and asked everybody in on the match. In a few seconds he had won over Bush.
Remember Gerald Ford, out of it now; but remember when he was president and running for re-election. Gerald Ford fell down the ramp in Salzburg, he repeatedly bumped his head on the helicopter door as he tried to get out of it. He swam into the side of the White House swimming pool. He liberated Poland in his debate with Jimmy Carter. And down in El Paso, Gerald Ford ate an entire tamale with the husk still around it. Medical science has not yet figured that one out. But the accumulation of those images may have sunk his second term ambitions. If I read the data right, if an election were held today, Gerald Ford would be elected. Gerald Ford, the perceived klutz loomed larger in American imagery than Gerald Ford who had a gut feeling about the dangers of inflation, and he vetoed seventy bills to prove it, and a gut feeling about Soviet armament.
Let's go to the act of governing. Indeed, I judge the current preoccupation by myself and others with this interminable, inane, expensive political comedy that we have so far to be one of the gross distortions nurtured by the media. It is so much easier and so much more fun to cover politics, and, of course, so much more entertaining for our audiences, that we overdo it. There is almost an unwitting conspiracy between candidates and journalists. Candidates like to get away and talk where they don't have any responsibilities, and in Boise, in Denver, and wherever they go they can say things that they know they will never have to back up with votes. Journalists like the freedom also. Political reporting is the most inexact science in the whole business. Predictions will frequently go wrong, but the writers aren't held to them. You create one scenario today and by tomorrow you tear it up and you write another one.
Meantime, politicians pander to us as these campaigns go on, and as Dr. Barber points out, they end up being skilled at nothing much but running for re-election. We are in the age, as many have said, of the permanent campaign. And from election to election some men and women simply run for office.
I was disturbed to watch Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite conducting Middle East negotiations on the evening news back when Anwar Sadat made his dramatic offer to go to Israel in quest of peace. I cannot argue with the outcome of that event. But I watched with dismay as the television impressarios fought for exclusive interviews and sought to push the developments further in each interview. The U.S. State Department looked on helplessly and never did catch up. That episode was a positive diplomatic development. The next one may not be. Any such drama played over the air like that is essentially uncontrollable. Events ride men and therein lies the danger.
In Washington, a continuing debate revolves around the degree to which the media aggravates protest marches, sit-ins, and forms of violence. There is a considerable body of informed opinions that contends if the cameras and hordes of reporters had not been in Tehran when the American hostages were seized, that crisis might now have been resolved or at least less severe. There is a rule in physics that states the very process of measuring certain phenomena affects the results. That is now apparent in the media and we have not compensated for that in our work.
I was disturbed in the past by the Pentagon Papers to bring this back to the print. The use of stolen government property by the New York Times and the Washington Post in the name of a higher morality, parallels to a disturbing degree lawless acts of others whom we condemn. We demand public scrutiny of all high officials and measure them by a rigorous standard of rectitude. Yet, the media, as noted in the Pentagon Papers case, sometimes violates those very basic tenets of honor demanded of others.
For years the media have lamented the lapse of war on organized crime in this country. Story after story pointed out how the FBI in the last days of J. Edgar Hoover had become bogged down in protecting its own empire, in gathering petty gossip and seeking imagined enemies of Mr. Hoover and the United States. Yet, when a new drive on major crime was discreetly launched by the FBI and reached a delicate state in its development, the story was leaked by some sources presumed to be in the Justice Department and eagerly seized and printed by major newspapers. And then editorial writers, who had hailed the recent sting operations by police which caught petty thieves trying to fence television sets and jewels, suddenly choked over the idea of catching members of Congress and business executives in larger nets. Journalists who have worried about infringements on their rights, who have lamented premature accusations from others and fought for confidentiality of information taken to grand juries, seemed eager to rush into print with the Abscam details before proper procedures to assure justice had been confirmed. As one of my colleagues, George Will said, "we were not quite sure that we had a crisis in the FBI or Justice Department, but we were sure after the first stories that we had a crisis in journalism."
Detailing the problems that we in the media now find ourselves confronting is much easier than providing the answers. The world in which we dwell does not wait an instant. It moves with blinding speed. It shrinks with each day. It grows more perilous as each new weapon is manufactured. I do not have any tidy solutions for these problems nor any handbook for its practitioners. I do have a thought or two.
We cannot legislate against media abuses and mistakes. That is far more dangerous than the problems which arise from our stumbles. Like most of my colleagues, I am alarmed by some of the actions of the courts recently designed to restrict access to proceedings and to give access to some of the confidential information which we gather. That Federal judge who some years ago suggested that there must be some rules created to once and for all resolve the conflict between courts and journalists, was hopelessly out of touch, not to suggest even ignorant of our system. The conflicts will always be, should be.
But since the media has grown to be so powerful and play so large a part in the exercise of public power, then I would say that we in the business must begin to apply the same standards in behavior and judgment to ourselves that we demand in the public's business. That is essentially a personal matter. It means having accepted standards of truth and honesty. It also means, in most instances, employing fairness, decency, understanding even sympathy and kindness.
Too often in these times we in the media have behaved as if we were theologians. Having established a religion, we were the high priests, possessors of all wisdom, knowledge of objectivity, understanding of what was moral and what was not, judges of character and the authors of some kind of holy writ for other societies and their leaders.
Indeed, from our lofty perch we sometimes seemed to suggest that we were not Americans but some special breed granted special intelligence and we could look down and render our judgments impartially on all below. The time has come, I believe, when we of the media must realize that we are shaped like other people by our backgrounds, environments, and education, that objective judgments, while nice in theory, rarely exist in actuality.
I would go so far as to suggest that the media these days should look with more understanding on the United States and its economic system and its government. That system produced the first amendment and all the other elements in this extraordinary creature we call the media. That system is imperfect, even as the humans who run it are imperfect, even as the media is imperfect. That system is in crisis. It needs to be judged. But that judgment needs to be rooted in the understanding that not every human error is a conspiracy, that not every imperfection is cause for loathing, that without some hope and some trust no system can survive. Thank you.