Every generation likes to look through rose-colored glass at the preceding ones.
The same goes for the press. People in and out of the press like to pine for the “good ol’ days” when all reporting was fair and balanced, not just Fox’s.
With apologies to David Byrne and the Talking Heads, the press is the same as it ever was.
The other day, I was cleaning out an overcrowded bookcase and came across a book I read years ago but had forgotten about.
It’s called “If No News, Send Rumors: Anecdotes of American Journalism” by Stephen Bates.
The title refers to a cable that Wilbur Storey, the editor of the Chicago Times, sent to a reporter during the Civil War. Demand for any information about the war was high and it had greatly boosted the paper’s circulation.
Bates writes that Storey told the reporter, “Telegraph fully all news you can get and when there is no news, send rumours.”
One of the greatest laments these days is that the press is hideously biased toward liberalism. Perhaps. But the press has always been biased.
The newspaper wars of the old days were not between leftist papers. They were between Republican and Democratic papers, or pro-business versus pro-labor, isolationist against interventionist.
If you had a point of view, there was a paper to read that supported it.
Conservatives have complained that it’s just the liberal papers that are left.
Maybe, but isn’t that just the free market at work? Or is it that it serves conservatives’ political interest to claim bias so any story critical of a conservative is disbelieved?
Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s running mate in 1968, was among the first to decry journalistic liberalism. He did it in the year that two-thirds of newspapers endorsed Nixon for president.
One of the common themes that comes out of Bates’ book is that every president, liberal or conservative, hated the press.
The two most liberal presidents of the 20th century – Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – both disliked the press. And not just the opposition press.
In 1944, at the height of World War II when the U.S. and its allies were winning in all theaters, 796 out of 1,000 newspapers endorsed Republican Thomas E. Dewey for president.
In 1955, when Johnson was Senate Majority Leader, a rookie TV reporter tired of cooling his heels outside Johnson’s Texas ranch waiting for him to start a press conference, snuck into the senator’s house to call editors for guidance.
Johnson caught him and threatened to beat him up. The reporter fled down the street only to be picked up by Lady Bird Johnson, who apologized and gave him a ride back to the ranch.
The reporter? Dan Rather.
Rather became the CBS White House correspondent and the incident at the ranch was just the beginning of a long feud between the two.
The New York Times these days is frequently criticized for being un-American for printing information about U.S. war policies, strategies and spying.
However, even the beloved Abe Lincoln wasn’t opposed to leaking war policy when it suited him, according to Bates.
Gen. George McClellan in his campaign against Lincoln for president in 1864 complained that he didn’t like to discuss his military plans with Lincoln because they would be printed in “the New York Herald the next morning.”
Lincoln also wasn’t opposed to jailing reporters to stop leaks that didn’t suit him.
The conventional wisdom today is that President George W. Bush is the most secretive president since Nixon, who famously deployed his bumbling “Plumbers” to stop leaks from his administration. We also bemoan that government leaks are often attributed to anonymous sources.
Lincoln, though, was so furious in 1862 when the text of his first speech to Congress appeared in the New York Herald before it had been delivered to Congress, he demanded an investigation.
The House Judiciary Committee demanded the Herald reporter reveal who gave him the speech. He refused because he had promised to keep the leaker’s identity secret.
The committee threw the reporter in jail.
Sound familiar, Judith Miller?
The book isn’t all that scholarly. It’s just what it says it is, a collection of anecdotes. But taken together, it shows not all that much has changed in the past 100 years of modern journalism – not the quality or style of reporting, nor the amount or vehemence of the complaining about it.
It is what Washington Post publisher Philip Graham described before he died in 1963: “So let us drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never understand.”
Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?”
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