What’s Wrong With the American Press?
April 21, 1960 — Women’s National Press Club, Washington DC
I am happy and flattered to be a guest of honor on this always exciting and challenging occasion. But looking over this audience tonight, I am less happy that you might think and more challenged than you could know. I stand her at this rostrum invited to throw rocks at you. You have asked me to tell you what’s wrong with you — the American press. The subject not only is of great national significance but also has, one should say, infinite possibilities — and infinite perils to the rock thrower.
For the banquet speaker who criticizes the weaknesses and pretensions, or exposes the follies and sins, of his listeners – even at their invitation – does not generally evoke an enthusiastic — no less a friendly — response. The delicate art of giving an audience hell is always one best left to the Billy Grahams and the Bishop Sheens.
But you are an audience of journalists. There is no audience anywhere who should be more bored – indeed, more revolted – by a speaker who tried to fawn on it, butter it up, exaggerate its virtues, play down its faults, and who would more quickly see through any attempt to do so. I ask you only to remember that I am not a volunteer for this subject tonight. You asked for it.
For what is good journalists all about? One a working, finite level it is the effort to achieve illuminating candor in print and to strip away can’t. It is the effort to do this not only in matters of state, diplomacy, and politics but also in every smaller aspect of life that touches the public interest or engages proper public curiosity. It is the effort to explain everything from a summit conference to why the moon looks larger coming over the horizon than it does when it has fully risen in the heavens. It is the effort, too, to describe the lives of men — and women — big and small, close at hand or thousands of miles away, familiar in their behavior or unfamiliar in their idiosyncrasies. It is — to use the big word — the pursuit of and the effort to state the truth.
No audience knows better than an audience of journalists that the pursuit of the truth, and the articulation of it, is the most delicate, hazardous, exacting, and inexact of tasks. Consequently, no audience is more forgiving (I hope) to the speaker who fails or stumbles in his own pursuit of it. The only failure this audience could never excuse in any speaker would be the failure to try to tell the truth, as he sees it, about his subject.
In my perilous but earnest effort to do so here tonight, I must begin by saying that if there is much that is wrong with the American press, there is also much that is right with it.
I know, then, that you will bear with me, much as it may go against your professional grain, if I ask you to accept some of the good with the bad — even thought it may not make such good copy for your newspapers.
For the plain fact is that U.S. daily press today is not inspiringly good; it is just far and away the best press in the world.
To begin with, its news gathering, news printing, news dissemination techniques, and capacities are Without rivals on the globe.
he deserving American journalist himself enjoys a far more elevated status than his foreign counterpart anywhere. And this, not only because Americans passionately believe that a free press is vital to the preservation of our form of democracy, but because the average American journalist has, on the record, shown himself to be less venal, less corrupt, and more responsible than the average journalist of many foreign lands.
No capital under the sun has a press corps that is better equipped, and more eager to get the news, the news behind the news, and the news ahead of the news, the inside, outside, topside, bottomside news, than the Washington press corps.
I must add only half jokingly that if the Nation’s dailies are overwhelmingly pro- Republican in their editorial policy, then the Washington press corps is a large corrective for this political imbalance. Not because Washington reporters are all Democrats. Rather because they place on the administration in power their white-hot spotlight of curiosity and exposure. So that no one — Republican or Democrat — can sit complacently in office in this Capital unobserved by the men and women of the press who provide the news and information that can make or break an elected or appointed office holder.
Certainly no press corps contains more journalists of competence and distinction, zeal and dedication. What minds regularly tap more “reliable sources” in government, politics, diplomacy? What breasts guard and unguard more “high level” confidences more jealously? What hearts struggle more conscientiously and painfully to determine to what extent truth telling, or shall we say “leaking,” will serve or unserve the public interest? What typewriters send out more facts, figures, statistics, views, and opinions about great public questions and great public figures?
And in what other country of the world are there so many great newspapers? Who could seriously challenge the preeminence among the big city quality press of the New York Times? Where in the World is there a “provincial” newspaper (I use the term only in its technical sense) greater than, to take only one outstanding example, the Milwaukee Journal? Even the biggest and splashiest of the foreign English-language press, the London Dally Mirror, cannot touch in popular journalism the New York Daily News. (And since we are talking in superlatives — good and bad — is there a worse paper in England, Japan, France, or India than the New York Sunday Enquirer?)
While the range between the best and the worst is very wide, America’s some 1,800 newspapers nevertheless average out a higher quality, variety, and volume of information than any other press in the world.
Certainly no other press has greater freedom, more freely granted by the people, to find the news and to print it as it finds it. The American press need not be caught in the subtle toils of subsidies by groups or interests. It does not have to fight Government newsprint allocations — that overt or covert censorship exercised in many so-called free countries. Except as the American press is guided by the profit motive, which is in turn guided by the public demand for its paper, it is an unguided press.
All this is what is right with the American press. And the result of this situation is that our people have more ways to be well informed about issues and events near and far than any people in the world. And they are, by and large, better informed.
But now let us come to the question of the evening: “What is wrong with the Amer can press?” We cannot answer this question unless we will voluntarily abandon our relative measurements of it against the press of other countries. We must measure it, in absolute terms, against its own highest ideal of freedom, responsibility — and let us not forget, success.
It is easy to point to many instances in which the American press — especially its individual members — tend to abuse their freedom and shirk their responsibility.
For example, one could note that nowadays the banner of press freedom is more often raised in matters of printing crime, sex and scandal stories, than it is in matters of printing the truth about great national figures, policies, and issues. Or that too many members of the working press uncritically pass on — even if they do not personally swallow — too much high-level government and political cant, tripe, and public relations; or that there are too many journalists who seem willing to sell their birthright of candor and truth in order to become White House pets, party pets, corporation pets, Pentagon or State Department or trade union or Governor’s mansion pets; who wistfully yearn after gray eminency, or blatantly strive for publicity for themselves, on lecture platforms or political rostrums.
While agreeing with most journalists that people are not as much interested in the issues as they should be, one could at the same time note that neither are many journalists. One could mention that such journalists seem to have forgotten that men, not names alone, make news, and that men are made by the clarity with which they state issues, and the resolution with which they face them. One could express the hope that more journalists would encourage rather than avoid controversy and argument, remembering that controversy and argument are not the enemies of democracy, but its friends. One could wish for fewer journalist prodigies of the well written factual story, and more gifted talents for drawing explanations from the facts, or that working pressmen would be more creative in reporting the news, or that they would reflect less in themselves of what in this decade they have so roundly condemned in American leadership: Apathy, cynicism, lukewarmness, and acceptance of the status quo about everything, from juvenile delinquency to nuclear destruction. One could pray, above all, for journalists who cared less about ideologies, and more about ideas.
But such criticisms and complaints — important as they may be — cover only one area of the American press. It is, alas, a relatively small area. A large, unmeasurable percent age of the total editorial space in American newspapers is concerned not with public affairs or matters of stately importance. It is devoted instead to entertainment, titillation, amusement, voyeurism, and tripe.
The average American newspaper reader wants news but he wants lots of things from his newspaper besides news: He wants the sports page, the comics, fashion, homemaking, advice to the lovelorn, do-it-yourself psychiatry, gossip columns, medical, cooking, and decorating features, TV, movie, and theater coverage, Hollywood personality stories, Broadway and society prattle, church columns, comics, bridge columns, crossword puzzles, big-money contest. Above all, he wants news that concerns not a bit the public weal but that people just find interesting reading.
I confess to enjoying much of this myself. And I do not mean to suggest that every newspaper must read like the London Times. But the plain fact is that we are witnessing in America what Prof. William Ernest Hocking and others have called the debasement of popular taste.
Is it necessary? An editor of my acquaintance was asked recently whether the new circulation rise of his increasingly wild-eyed newspaper was being achieved at the expense of good journalism. He replied, “But you don’t understand; our first journalistic need is to survive.” I submit that a survival achieved by horribly debasing the journalistic coin is short lived. The newspaper that engages in mindless, untalented sensational ism gets caught up in the headlong momentum it creates in its readers’ appetites. It cannot continue satisfying the voracious ap petites it is building. Such journalism may suddenly burn brightly with success; but it will surely burn briefly.
We have the familiar example of television closely at hand. The American press has rightly deplored the drivel, duplicity and demeaning programing that has marked much of television’s commercial thrust. A critic, of course, need not necessarily always have clean hands. The press is right to flail what is wrong in television just as it is obliged to recognize the great service tele vision has provided in areas where its public affairs, news, and good programs have succeeded in adding something new and enriching to American life.
But if the press criticizes what is wrong in television without recognizing the moral for itself, it will have missed a valuable and highly visible opportunity for self-improvement.
The double charge against the American press may thus be stated: its failure to in form the public better than it does is the evasion of its responsibility; its failure to educate and elevate the public taste rather than following that taste like a blind, wallowing dinosaur, is an abuse of its freedom.
In view of the river of information which flows daily from the typewriters of American correspondents at home and abroad, why are the American people not better informed? Whose fault is it? At first glance it would seem to be the fault of the publishers, and especially editors. But the publisher or editor who does not give his readers plenty of what they want is going to lose circulation to a competitor who does. Or if he has a news monopoly in his city, and feels too free to shortchange them in these things, he is going to lose circulation as his reader slack is taken up by the radio, the TV, and the magazines.
Add that even the news the reader wants in most cities, especially the smaller cities throughout the United States, is primarily local news. He remains, even as you and I, more interested in the news of his neighbors, his community, and his city, than he is in the news out of Washington, Paris, or Rome.
Can we quarrel with this? We cannot. The Declaration of Independence itself set the pattern of the American way, and with it American reading habits. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were to be man’s prime and legitimate goals.
Perhaps the history of our country would have been better — and happier — if “the pursuit of truth, information, and enlightenment” had been his third great goal. But that was not the way our Founding Fathers saw things. And that is not the way the American public sees them now.
The fact is that while man is a rational animal, all men and all women are not pre eminently rational, logical, and thoughtful in their approach to life. They do not thirst, above all, for knowledge and information about the great domestic and international issues, even though these issues may profoundly affect not only their pocketbooks, but their very lives.
Today, as yesterday, people are primarily moved in their choice of reading by their daily emotions, their personal, immediate, existential prejudices, biases, ambitions, desires, and — as we know too well in the Freudian age — by many subconscious yearnings and desires, and irrational hates and fears.
Very well then: let us accept the fact.
Should the American press bow to it? Accept it? Cater to it? Foster it?
What else (the cynical and sophisticated will ask) is there to do?
The American press, no less than the TV and radio, is big business. It is now, as never before, a mass medium. As big business it faces daily vast problems of costliness and competition. As a mass medium it cannot handle these problems without seeking to satisfy the public’s feelings, desires, and wants. It publishes in the noisiest and most distracted age in our history. It seems doomed to satisfy endlessly the tastes of the Nation — pluralistic, pragmatic, emotional, sensuous, and predominately irrational. By its big business, mass media nature it seems compelled to seek ever more and more to saturate the mass markets, to soak the com mon denominator reader-sponge with what it wants.
Certainly we must face this fact: If the American press, as a mass medium, has formed the minds of America, the mass has also formed the medium. There is action, reaction, and interaction going on ceaselessly between the newspaper-buying public and the editors. What is wrong with the American press is what is in part wrong with American society.
Is this then to exonerate the American press for its failures to give the American people more tasteful and more illuminating reading matter? Can the American press seek to be excused from responsibility for public lack of information as TV and radio often do, on the grounds that after all, “We have to give the people what they want or we will go out of business”?
No. Not without abdicating its own American birthright, it cannot. The responsibility is fixed on the American press. Falling directly and clearly on publisher and editor, this responsibility is inbuilt into the freedom of the press itself. The freedom guaranteed by the Constitution under the first amendment carries this responsibility with it.
“Freedom,” as Clemenceau said, “is nothing in the world but the opportunity for self-discipline”; that is to say voluntarily to assume responsibility.
There are many valiant publishers, editors, and journalists in America who have made and are making courageous attempts to give readers a little more of what they should have, and a little less of what they want — or, as is more often true, what they only think they want, because they have no real knowledge of what is available to them. America owes these publishers and editors and journalists an incomparable debt of gratitude.
What is really wrong with the American press is that there are not enough such publishers and editors. There is hardly an editor in this room who could not — if he passionately would — give every day, every year, a little more honest, creative effort to his readers on the great issues which face us — the issues which, in the years to come, must spell peace or disaster for our democracy. A beginning would be to try courageously, which is to say consistently, to keep such news (however brief) on the front page, playing it in some proportion to its real importance. For a newspaper which relegates to the back pages news which is vital to the citizenry as a whole, in favor of sensational circulation building headlines about ephemeral stories of crime, lust, sex, and scandal, is actively participating in the debasement of public taste, and intelligence. Such a newspaper, more especially its editor, is not only breaking faith with the highest of democratic journalism, he is be traying his Nation. And, you may be surprised to hear me say, he may even be courting commercial failure.
For there is enough in American life in these exciting sixties to keep interested and absorbed many of the readers who have been written off as impossible to reach except through cheap sensationalism. The commercial challenge is not to achieve success by reaching backward into cliche-ridden ideas, stories, and situations. It is rather to recognize that uniquely now in this country there is natural and self-propelled drive toward a better life, more sustaining and relevant interests. There is, in sum, an infinity of new subjects that make exciting, inviting, and important exploration for the American press.
There can be no doubt that honorable and patriotic publishers and devoted and dedicated editors can increase little by little, in season and out, the public’s appetite for better information. There can also be no doubt that they can also decrease, little by little, in the rest of their papers the type of stories which appeals to the worst in human nature by catering to the lowest Common denominator taste in morals and ethics.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that a good journalist should be part St. Paul and part St. Vitus.
A good editor today must be part Santa Claus, part St. Valentine, part St. Thomas (the doubter), part St. Paul, and certainly he must be part St. Jude. St. Jude, as you know, is the patron saint of those who ask for the impossible.
It is not impossible to ask that the Amer can press begin to reverse its present trend, which Dean Ed Barrett of the Columbia School of Journalism called giving the public too much froth because too few want sub stance. If this trend is not reversed (which it can be only by your determined effort) the American press will increasingly become the creature, rather than the creator of man’s tastes. It will become a passive, yielding, and, curiously, an effeminate press. And ‘twixt the ads for the newest gas range, and the firmest girdle, the cheapest vacuum cleaner, and the best buy in Easter bonnets; ‘twixt the sports page, the fashion page, the teenage columns, the children’s comics; ‘twixt the goo, glop, and glamor handouts on Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor, and above all ‘twixt the headlines on the sexiest murders, and the type of political editorializing which sees the great presidential issues of the day as being between the case of the “boyish forelock” versus the “tricky ski-jump nose,” the press will lose its masculine prerogative which is to educate, inform, engage the interest of and guide the minds of free men and women in a great democracy.
As I know that the American Society of Newspaper Editors holds hard to the belief in masculine superiority in the realm of the intellect, and could only view with horror the picture of the Fourth Estate as the “kept man” of the emotional masses, I, for one, am certain this will not happen.
Let us watch then, with hope, for the signs of a new, vigorous, masculine leadership in the American press. For if you fail, must not America also fail in its great and unique mission, which is also yours: To lead the world toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of enlightenment—so that it may achieve happiness? It is that goal which the American press must seize afresh — creatively, purpose fully, energetically, and with a zeal that holds a double promise: The promise of success and the promise of enlightenment.
Source: Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 86th Congress, 2nd Session, Vol. 106 — Part 7, April 25, 8606-8608.