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Washington And The Press

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Summary
Louis Lyons interviews James Reston, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times about the relationship between the media and the American government. Reston talks about the need to monitor and investigate the ever-growing American government. He does not believe the government is willfully conspiring to suppress information from the people, but he does believe they are more likely to manage the news that is released to the public. Now that the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower is drawing to a close he talks about government entering a transition period from men born in the 19th century to men born in the 20th century; that a whole new generation of politicians is coming to the fore and we need to start paying attention to these new candidates now, rather than waiting until the parties are at their final selection processes.
Topics
China--History--1949-1976, Berlin (Germany)--History--1945-1990, Journalism--Washington (D.C.), Mass media--Social aspects--United States, Newspaper publishing--United States--History--20th century, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989--Decision making, Mass media criticism--United States, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989--Citizen participation, Media and politics, Mass media--Economic aspects--United States, New York Times--History, Mass Media--History--United States
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Transcript

Announcer A:
Today and every day the American people must make decisions on which their whole survival may depend. To make sound decisions the people must be informed. For this they depend on the nation's free press. How well is the nation's press doing its essential job? The people have a right to know the truth. They have a responsibility to ask. The right to question.
Kimball:
I'm not a guest on the program you are about to see, but I am as interested as you are in the subject, Washington and the Press. And I think we both agree that a good form of government like ours ought to be watched just as carefully as a bad one, and that's a job for the press. It's a tough job though, because the news out of Washington gets very complicated and there's so much of it, too much sometimes for us to digest over breakfast or after a hard day's work.
Then once in a while a story comes along that seems very important to us and there's no news about that one at all. I wonder if that impression is our fault, yours and mine, or is it the government's, or does the Washington reporter fall down on the job. Mr. Louis Lyons, I'm addressing those questions to you and your guest on this program. Can you give us any help?
Lyons:
To go into these questions we have as our guest one of America's most distinguished correspondents, the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, Mr. James Reston.
Announcer B:
Mr. Reston has said, and I quote, "Power in any free society has to be watched. The greater the power, the greater the need for skepticism on the part of the press."
Lyons:
You have heard the view of a veteran political journalist. In just a moment we'll ask him to go into this.
Announcer A:
The Press and the People.
To answer our questions, we have the distinguished correspondent from the New York Times, Mr. James Reston.
As moderator from Harvard University, the winner of the Peabody Award for television and radio journalism, and the Lauterbach award for outstanding contributions in the field of civil liberties, Mr. Louis Lyons.
Lyons:
Mr. Reston, can you illustrate this great power complex in Washington that you have to watch?
Reston:
Yes. I think we can illustrate it very easily. Uh, when the Defense Department of the government used to spend, say, four billion dollars, it wasn't necessary to watch them too carefully. Today they spend over forty billion dollars and are perhaps the greatest employers of people in America today. With that amount of power, my point is a, is a very simple one, namely, that you have to watch that kind of power very carefully.
Lyons:
Well, Mr. Reston then, as to the chances of the Washington correspondents to do an adequate job of keeping this great complex under watch, what are some of the reporter's channels and sources? We've all heard of the President's press conference. How good a chance is that to get really into [inaudible]...?
Reston:
Well, it's a very good source of information. It's perhaps, it's perhaps the only way in which the people have a direct opportunity to see the President precisely as he is. More and more, in the last ten or fifteen years, as you know, as things have got very complicated, the tendency has been to see the President, through speech writers, only in formal occasions. This at least is avoided by the press conference, because the press sees him uh, informally. They can put to him any question they like, and he responds. Thus you see him naturally.
Lyons:
As to how much of a chance do they have really to press a question and challenge the administration in such a forum as the press conference?
Reston:
Well it's limited, Louis. You are always uh conscious of the fact um, that here you are standing before the President of the United States. I don't know about most people, but I think most reporters uh have a sense of the majesty of the Presidency, and you cannot press the President very far without intruding upon uh proper manners and courtesy, and so on.
Lyons:
You wouldn't say this is more of a ritual then than a real questioning opportunity?
Reston:
No, I wouldn't go that far. You can ask the question and wait for your answer. My only point is that you cannot be impertinent with the President of the United States.
Kimball:
Mr. Rest, Mr. Reston uh, would you say that your colleagues stand a little more in awe of President Eisenhower than they did of Mr. Truman?
Reston:
No, I wouldn't say that. As a matter of fact, President Eisenhower has put the press corps much more at its ease than President Truman ever did. Uh, what I mean by that is this: When we used to question President Truman – or, more particularly, President Roosevelt – this was a little bit like pitching-batting practice to the Yankees. Every time you threw one in, you wanted to get ready to duck. Uh, Eisenhower is much less inclined to give back the sharp answer to a direct question. Therefore one is more, more at ease, I would say.
Lyons:
Mr. Reston, I suppose this question also implied whether there's as much tendency on the press to question hard a Republican administration.
Reston:
Well.
Lyons:
Whether the correspondent feels he has the sympathy and backing of his home office if he is pushing or criticizing a Republican President.
Reston:
Well, I think early on in this discussion we ought to define what we mean by the press.
Lyons:
Why don't you?
Reston:
Well, I'll try. When you're talking about the press, of course you get uh, you're talking about an institution that stretches all the way from The New York Times to the New York News, which, incidentally, is quite a distance. And I think you get one reaction one way and a totally different reaction from other groups in the press.
Lyons:
You can't generalize?
Reston:
But I don't want to duck the question, Louis. Of course uh the press of this country, it's been perfectly obvious for a long time, is more partial to the Republican administration than it would be to a Democratic administration.
Lyons:
We are all conscious of Adlai Stevenson's 1952 needling of the one-party press, that's in our minds somewhat.
Reston:
Yes, but the point I was trying to make, you began talking about reporters, and you shouldn't, I think, equate reporters with the press. The institutional ownership of the press may be biased toward the side of the Republicans. Reporters — I think the Republicans are always complaining — have precisely the opposite balance...
Lyons:
Yes.
Reston:
...uh, bias. They tend to lean the other way; indeed, they're leaning, in some ways, they usually tend to lean against the wind, even against their own publishers.
Lyons:
And they get away with this and get adequate backing usually from their publishers?
Reston:
I think they do, yes.
Lyons:
Well that's a very interesting observation, Mr. Reston, and you've seen a lot of them. Well there's also been a great deal of talk about secrecy and barriers to news and classifying news. How much does all of this keep important news away from us?
Reston:
Well I think it does to a certain extent. I know a great many of my colleagues are very worried about this. They think there is a great conspiracy in Washington to suppress the news. And of course it's true in this sense: I suppose everybody who is confronted by a reporter on any given subject always tries to emphasize the good and minimize the bad. This is human nature, and politicians of both parties always do it.
I don't happen to believe that we are in a situation in this country where the government is willfully conspiring to keep information from the people. I think that, if we have a problem, it's more in the line that they're more inclined to manage the news and to suppress the news.
Lyons:
To manage the news?
Reston:
Yes.
Lyons:
Now as to what you mean by that. You mean through press conferences, off-the-record conferences, speeches? What do you mean?
Reston:
Well in a variety of different ways. They're inclined I think more and more to make the big, set presentation of their policy, say in a television address, where they cannot be questioned; whereas ten years ago the press conference was a much more common thing than it is today. For example, when I first went to Washington seventeen years ago, Secretary of State Hull used to have a press conference every day at noon. Secretary of State Dulles has one on the average of, oh, say two every three weeks.
Lyons:
And how many...?
Reston:
And he's much better than most members of the Cabinet.
Lyons:
How many went to Mr. Hull's press conference seventeen years ago?
Reston:
Well, this is one of the great, this is one of the great changes, of course – seventeen years ago, a dozen, I should say.
Lyons:
And you all had a chance to get at him?
Reston:
And now, and now it's go, it was a very informal, casual kind of thing. Now it's very formal, with television cameras and batteries of propagandists all around and so on.
Kimball:
Mr. Reston, whose fault is that? Why aren't the reporters digging in there and getting those press conferences? Why are they letting themselves be managed?
Reston:
Well this is an interesting question. I would like to have a memorandum from you or a suggestion from you as to how you force a President of the United States or a Secretary of State to hold a press conference. We can report the fact that they don't, we have not got the power to compel. We can go to the Congress, we will go, we do go to the Congress, if we find the sources and channels of information closing up. But we have no power to compel, we have the power to expose, but not to compel.
Lyons:
Well Mr. Reston, to what extent would you say officials who try, as you say, to manage the news and their interest succeed in the image they want to create?
Reston:
Well I think that they manage uh, they manage to succeed to a certain extent, Louis, uh. Uh, let's take a case in point. If an administration finds it is in good luck, that events are running with them, their policies are succeeding, they can have as many press conferences as they like. If, however, they feel they are running into a bad spot of luck, events are running against them, they can find it convenient not to have press conferences.
Again, the question comes up, what do you do about it? Well, what do you do? You can report this as a fact and, then, if there is no response from the public – to compel through public opinion – if the people are not interested whether we get in or not, uh then this will continue.
Lyons:
I know some of you do go digging into agencies, an digging out the stories you feel the public ought to know. Now, if you dig out a story which makes an agency look less good than it would like to look, is the reporter penalized for this? Does he lose his news sources?
Reston:
No, I don't think so, Louis, the uh...Occasionally one runs into this kind of thing, but uh I don't think good, aggressive reporting on proper subjects uh, uh leads to any penalizing by the source of news against the reporter, no.
Kimball:
Mr. Reston, are you saying it' the public's fault if we are not getting the information we ought to get out of Washington now?
Reston:
No, I am not saying that. But if you press me, I'll say this: that there is more good, hard, tough reporting coming out of Washington than the public shows much stomach for. There is more good information, solid information, about the great events of our time available to the public than the public takes advantage of.
Kimball:
Do you mean the public isn't reading it?
Reston:
Yes. I think all you have to do is take a look at what papers the people of the country read. They are more inclined, I think the facts show quite obviously, they are more inclined to purchase the newspapers that amuse and entertain than the papers that concentrate upon informing.
Kimball:
Well, Mr. Reston, can you go through The New York Times from cover to cover every day?
Reston:
Getting through The New York Times, my friend, is a life career.
Lyons:
I think that this is a point worth punctuating for a minute: communication isn't a one-way street. The reporter has some right to feel that the reader will do something about it, he can be discriminating in his sources of news. Mr. Reston says he isn't enough so, he needs to do a little homework to try to inform himself.
That in effect I think is what uh our correspondent is asking. Well, Mr. Reston, looking at things as they are now and looking ahead a bit, what would you say are perhaps the most important stories that you would want a good correspondent to keep an eye on?
Reston:
Well I think perhaps the great developing story at the present time is who shall exercise executive power uh in this country after the resignation or retirement of President Eisenhower.
Lyons:
After 1960?
Reston:
After 1960.
Lyons:
That is, we have a whole row of candidates and we ought to watch them?
Reston:
We're in an interesting situation at the present time, we're at the point where the country is trying to pass power from the men born in the nineteenth century to the men born in the twentieth century. This is always a difficult exercise. A whole new generation now is coming along.
This involves something like fifteen or twenty different young men, and I would think it was of immense importance that the press in its widest sense, by which I mean magazines, books, and all the rest of the newspapers, ah that they concentrate upon digging into the pasts of these men, not in the sense of trying to do an improper personal exposé, but in terms of trying to find out ahead of time uh what the qualities of these men really are.
Kimball:
Mr. Reston, you said resignation. Is that a Reston scoop?
Reston:
No, that was a Reston slip.
Lyons:
And as these correspondents ought to be giving us an appraisal of the candidates between now and 1960?
Reston:
Yes. My point, you remember we talked about this some time before, Louis. My point is this, that uh, if we pay no attention to these candidates now, in the period before the nominating convention, once they are nominated, then people tend to choose up sides. Then you can only choose between the two men given to you by the two nominating conventions; whereas, if there is good, aggressive reporting and informing the people about all potential candidates now, you may have a wider selection.
Lyons:
This suggests that timing is important in reporting?
Reston:
Yes.
Lyons:
And still looking at thing—We have a new Congress coming in pretty soon and uh, what about, is this an easy, slack period from now until January or what?
Reston:
Well, there are no easy, slack periods in Washington. This is the period of the budget, the present...the, the preparation and drafting of the State of the Union message and so on and so forth - the economic message.
Lyons:
When you mention budget and economic message, sounds complicated to me. And I'm thinking not so much of your office as some of the many one-man newspaper offices in Washington. Are there many things in the government that are too complicated to get adequate reporting attention?
Reston:
Well it depends on the kind of bureau you're talking about. As you say, most of the one-man bureaus however in Washington are there primarily to report on the events that affect the particular region or town from which that correspondent comes from. The one-man bureau would not attempt to go into any detailed analysis of the budget, for example.
Lyons:
And he wouldn't have a great deal of attention to keep all these candidates under appraisal. That'd be a job for the whole newspaper, right?
Reston:
I think so, yes.
Lyons:
And then such a newspaper depends on the wire services to cover the whole of Washington?
Reston:
That's right, yes.
Kimball:
Well Mr. Reston, getting back to the way the public has to handle it, you've talked about political and economic stories and covering the State Department. What would you say is the number one source of important information right now? What is the big running story at this time in Washington?
Reston:
Well, the primary story at the present time, of course, is Berlin. And uh, you see there is a curious thing about a democratic society – it gets uh, it gets involved with politicians who, as we indicated earlier, may want to give only one side of the story. But when the country gets involved, as it now is, with a great coalition of nations, this means that every move has to be cleared with a whole lot of different nations.
It has to be checked with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House. It has to be checked with the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. Therefore, a variety of people get involved in this. And fortunately, the politicians of America are blabbermouths, naturally, thank goodness, and this information has a way of coming out if a reporter uses his legs and his curiosity and keeps going after the information.
Kimball:
Mr. Reston, I remember Senator Humphrey came back from Russia recently and he gave no statements but there seemed to be more press copy about that particular trip than any story than I've ever read. How did all that happen?
Reston:
Well, I think the Senator, um, uh, who has never been known for his silence, was concerned to exploit the fact that he had seen Mr. Khrushchev in Moscow, and he was concerned – as all politicians are – to get the name in the paper. Perfectly normal, proper procedure, I think.
Lyons:
I think the point that Mr. Reston has just made is worth stopping for a moment on. He spoke of the news from Berlin. And that also comes from Washington, that is, Washington as a great center of world power, uh deals not only with our national affairs but, through the State Department and other agencies, with our whole position in the world and is therefore in many senses a double center, which increases the importance of the job of the correspondent.
Mr. Reston, we have just been reading in the Saturday Evening Post an article by Stewart Alsop, "How We Drifted Close to War," the story of our whole China policy, ending up in Quemoy. And the question it raises with me – this is really a great chunk of history, as you know – is: Is this something we have to wait for a great magazine to do? Is it more than you can expect the daily press to do for us?
Reston:
No, I don't think so. I think the two functions are really different uh, Louis. This is an extraordinarily good job of reporting by a first-class professional reporter. It is, however, as you know yourself, much, much easier to come along and pull together a story after the fire has gone out of an event, when all the information has been brought in, it's easier to do the round-up and pull it together than it is at the moment when the Communist guns are shelling Quemoy and Matsu.
Now, a great deal of this information is, of course, printed day by day in the press. This is why newspapers have magazines that do pull that kind of material together, why we on the Times have the Review of the Week, which concentrates on, on the round-up, in putting the news of today in relation to its historical background and its implications for tomorrow. But these things are not competitive, they're complementary. We need all these media. The press should not be considered only as the newspaper. All these things have to come into it.
Lyons:
Good. Well now, Mr. Reston, you yourself are both a correspondent – the head of a bureau of correspondents – and also a columnist, and it is the columnist aspect I want to mention as to whether that implies that there are certain limits expected of a correspondent that leave out the views and the issues which the columnist has a greater range to discuss?
Reston:
Well of course, you uh, we have over thirty men uh working for The New York Times as special correspondents in Washington. These mens are there primarily to report what happens, and not to state their opinions about what happens. Now from time to time they are asked to put these events into their proper historical perspective, and they do. But even this does not give them the leeway that is normally given to the critic or, as he is now called, the columnist.
Lyons:
But short of the critic function, I think I have heard you say that reporters should do more of what you call interpretive reporting, more explaining, getting below the surface. And there is more of that done, isn't there?
Reston:
Well, yes. Of course, this is the great, this is the great change.
Lyons:
Is there enough?
Reston:
Well it's pretty hard to have enough, Louis. We are living perhaps in the most complicated period in the history of the Republic. This is no longer like war reporting or sports reporting, where you merely tell who won. When you get into the budget, when you get into Germany, you've got to explain – in the German, in the Berlin question, for example – how it was that we got into this pocket. And that means going back into the history of the postwar struggle between the Allies. Now, without telling that background, the reader today cannot know, cannot fully understand what is happening in Berlin.
Lyons:
And this, of course, requires the informed reporter who knows this history in addition to the day-to-day development?
Reston:
Yes.
Lyons:
Well as you've been watching this over a certain time, uh, how is it going with the reporter and the correspondent? The government is getting more complicated all the time, and the job of getting at the news is more and more difficult. Are we keeping up with it or falling behind?
Reston:
Well I don't suppose the press is in a very different position from that of almost any other institution in America today – the university, the, the Executive branch of the government, the Legislature...
Lyons:
But it's a very strategic institution for us, to inform us.
Reston:
Yes. But my point is, and my point is this, Louis, that uh, of course we're making great progress, but the basic problem of the country is that we are in a kind of race with the pace of our own history, and the pace of our history is so swift that we should be going faster, we should be quicker, we should be achieving more things than we are achieving. Are we doing as well as we should? Of course we're not. Nobody is doing as well as he could in this particular generation.
Lyons:
And this is a very key problem with us, particularly in the terms of the sources of our information.
Reston:
Yes.
Lyons:
And Washington, as you've been saying, is a key spot for that. Well, thank you, Mr. Reston. Our discussion tonight has been with the top correspondent in Washington, the head of the largest newspaper bureau representing the greatest newspaper in the United States. And of course the average performance of the newspaper with a single correspondent, which is much more typical, or without any, depending on wire services which perhaps don't have as much opportunity to go below the surface of events is quite another story.
Now, as has been demonstrated by Mr. Reston, the job of keeping an eye on this tremendous complex of government that's so vital to us, is one that requires the most alert and informed correspondents. And requires them to be on their toes. And one man, the correspondent of his newspaper, can't do this job all alone of keeping an eye on our government. He's got to have the backing of his office, which must feel the need of pressing for the fullest reader service, and, back of that, he needs the pressure of the reader.
Letters to the newspaper are uh, always open to the reader, and they make some difference. There can never is enough pressure from any source for the fullest and best reporting we need. And I think the last word might well be to the reader that there is a chance to be and to evince more interest in this vital matter of reporting on our government. Well, until next week at this time, on The Press and the People, this is Louis Lyons, good night.
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