Profit Without Honor

by Henry Fairlie | May 7, 1977

One of the roots of the confusion of the American press about its proper role lies in the kind of privileges it now thinks it can claim. There is and there can be, for example, no "right to know," the most ludicrous of claims for the press to make. For one thing, there can be no right that cannot be enforced or guaranteed, and there is no way of enforcing or guaranteeing a "right to know." If one opens a cabinet meeting to the public, it merely means that the private debate is removed elsewhere; and will the journalist then press "the right to know" into the privy, where the president presumably will have retired with his advisers, the reporters permitted to stand in the bathtub while he sits enthroned on the seat?

There is no "right to know" anything; but there is (or there should be) a right to publish. There is a world of difference between the two concepts. If the Washington Post or the New York Times see fit to publish some stolen documents purveyed to them by Daniel Ellsberg, that is their right. But it has nothing to do with the alleged "right to know." This is one example of the way in which the claim to a false privilege may in the end weaken a legitimate privilege. There is something absurd in the picture we have been given of Kay Graham and her executives waiting breathlessly in the old newsroom of the Post for the decision of the Supreme Court about the Pentagon Papers, and the excited cry of grown men, "We've won. We've won." They had won what? Really little more, and perhaps much less, than the more traditional right to "publish and be damned!"

There was nothing very glorious, no journalistic skill involved, in a man stealing the Pentagon Papers, or in the Times and the Post determining to publish them. What is more, there was nothing new in them, of any significance, that the public had a "right to know." I once spent three months with my head inside those hoods where one looks at microfilm, reading every word that the Times published about Vietnam during John Kennedy's administration, when the American involvement was begun; a large proportion of the words that the Post published; much of what appeared in the news magazines; and much also of what was printed in The New Republic and the Nation (the only two journals that emerged with clean hands). An abbreviated version of my findings was published in the Washington Monthly. Those findings were clear and irrefutable: that every supposed revelation of fact in the Pentagon Papers had been published by the American press, and especially by the Times, at the time between 1961 and 1963 when it occurred. There was no secret involvement in Vietnam. I did not extend my study beyond 1963, but I know someone who has done so, and with the same result: under Lyndon Johnson as much as under John Kennedy, the facts were published at the time, especially by the two newspapers that then published their versions of the Pentagon Papers with such fatuous bravado.

If I were to give a date for the beginning of the confusion about its role that now bedevils the American press it would be June 1971, when the Pentagon Papers were published. The stealing of public documents by someone whose knowledge of them was derived from his employment as a public servant does not seem to me an act of good journalism, or indeed of journalism at all; the publishing of them does not seem to me an act of bravery; but perhaps above all, the failure of either the Times or the Post to point out that there were no significant revelations in them of anything that they had not themselves published at the time, seems to me an act of dishonesty. And it is from there that we have come now to the stage of being invited even to honor Daniel Schorr, who purloined and then commercially purveyed other public documents, again resting his case on the "right to know," as he flies round the country from lecture fee to lecture fee, the example of the upstanding journalist.

The alleged "right to know" has taken the Post, especially, into a relentless series of "exposures" of some of the less public activities of public figures, primarily of members of Congress. The most droll example of this new zealotry was the revelation that Joseph Califano has a chef at HEW, who is paid some trifling sum. One would hope that he has a chef, for it is certainly cheaper for the taxpayer if the Secretary of HEW does his necessary entertaining in the office, rather than go to the Montpelier Room at the Madison Hotel, where the editors (and half editors and quarter editors) of the Washington Post pay extravagant sums for lunch with their credit cards, those sums then to be written into the cost of the paper we buy.

Wayne Hays clearly was open to the accusation that he had misused public funds: a rather trivial misuse of them, one must say, but a misuse of them nonetheless. In helping to expose this misuse, the press was engaged in a legitimate activity, although one cannot be rid of the irksome suspicion that it would have been less interested if sex had not been involved. But there was not the slightest evidence that, beyond that indiscretion (for it was hardly more). Hays had exercised his power and his influence, however ruthlessly, except in ways which, however much one may dislike them, did not deserve obloquy, and were no justification for hounding him. Yet the press, and the Post especially, hounded him almost to his death.

In one front-page story, two of the paper's most distinguished reporters described (from public documents; nothing was being hidden) the "empire" that Hays had built in Congress. It was very commonplace stuff: exactly how one would expect a legislative body like Congress to be organized, and its organization to be used by its more powerful members. Yet it was presented by the Post's reporters as if they were describing the court of Nero. But the sexual inclinations of Hays always were there to be raked over—always with the self-righteous justification that the concern of the press was not with sexual morals but with the misuse of public funds—and it took none other than George McGovern, in a letter to the Post, to speak with knowledge and discrimination, with charity and good manners, of Hays's personal affection for his wife and his children.

McGovern's letter was humbling to read, but is the Post or the rest of the press humbled? Not to judge by their continuing behavior. We had the ludicrous, if it was not disgraceful, spectacle of Jack Anderson writing a column in which he accused a senator of seducing one of his constituents (as if it is unknown for an editor to seduce one of his reporters, or even one of his reporters to seduce the editor); of the executive editor, Ben Bradlee, refusing to publish the column, on the grounds of lack of evidence, and explaining his decision in an unusual apologia that was given the greatest possible prominence; and of Jack Anderson then being allowed to defend his column. In this way, while Bradlee and Anderson and the Post all could present themselves as morally righteous, they managed to tell the story of the alleged seduction twice, and make it titillating and controversial.

That "exposure" was no sooner over than the Post burst into print, across the top of its front page, with the revelation that a congressman had had children by his mistress, for whom he had maintained a home, while still maintaining one for his family, putting himself into debt in the process. There was no evidence that the congressman had misused public funds, although there were hints (those hints at which the press has recently become so adept) of some involvement with those apparently ubiquitous South Koreans; but basically the story, as it stood, was one of a man who had behaved with unusual honor in maintaining his mistress and her and his children, but that was not how it was presented.

The examples could be multiplied, but one must be satisfied here to point in illustration to the work of one reporter on the Post, usually given prominence on the front page, whose sole activity appears to be to comb through the accounts of senators or congressmen in order to show that they are misappropriating $300 here, $1000 there, from either their public emoluments or political funds. For the life of me, I cannot see what is wrong in a politician using his surplus campaign funds to sustain his continuing political activity, whether it is to maintain an apartment in his constituency or send flowers to the funerals of constituents. But on and on the "exposures" go by this reporter who seems hardly to be the kind of man with whom one would leave one's correspondence open on the table in the living room while one goes into the kitchen to get him a drink. There is something almost sleazy in the way in which he goes through the accounts of public men, which now, by law, have to be disclosed for his benefit.

 

There is also something fundamentally unserious about it—another of the causes of the lack of authority with which the press speaks today—for this is not where the real corruption in a political process is to be found, nor even the beginnings of the real corruption. I personally am not impressed by the American tradition of "muckraking" journalism, which now is witlessly called "investigative reporting." The main achievements of this tradition have over the years been little more than to get rid of, say, one mayor of Newark who had his hand in the till, so that he may be replaced by another mayor who has his hand in the till. Lincoln Steffens himself made this criticism, even though he was the greatest muckraker of them all, but then Steffens had a strongly held personal point of view. The early muckrakers were a part of the progressive movement, and it is worth quoting what Walter Lippmann said of Steffens:

...he left us with the feeling that not men but the conditions that make them were the sources of wrong. "In my hunt through the cities, states and the nation," he said, "I have found that men are sound, willing to be good, eager to do right." . . . His muckraking is done without a feeling of superiority. He does not pretend to be a better man than the people he exposes. He is not in the business of hauling bad people over the coals. He has muckraked himself.

Of what journalist can that be said today?

Without some such posture as that of Steffens, who found in himself "pretty much the same kind of stuff that makes crooks," the whole effort at "muckraking" and now "investigative reporting" becomes little more than "hauling bad people over the coals," leaving the conditions and the system that give them their opportunity untouched and unchanged.

A few years ago I attended one of those pompous week-long seminars at the Aspen Institute to discuss investigative reporting with a number of celebrated American editors and newspapermen. I made my point that there was an economic system that needed inquiry, and at last burst out against the imperviousness of my American colleagues by saying that I would write without payment for them a series of articles to be entitled, "I Have an Enemy at Chase Manhattan." But there were no takers; and Walter Ridder, the owner of Ridder newspapers, made a very funny speech on the final morning of the seminar, saying that he had tossed and turned all night "wondering why we don't do what Henry asks, and attack the capitalists," and that as dawn had broken across the Rockies he had found the answer: "Because I am one of them."

It has to be recognized that the ownership of newspapers has, like the three television networks before them, become deeply enmeshed in the whole corporate structure of the United States. There is a sense in which Kay Graham, since she converted the Post into a public company, is hardly a free agent any longer, is herself subject to the faceless managers who run the corporate system. And this is true also, of course, of the proprietorship of the Times. It is the main reason why the editorial floor has in a lifetime been surrendered to the managerial floor.

This is why I have tried to avoid nitpicking at the press, and especially at individual stories, unless they seem (like the relentless pursuit of public figures for small pecadillos) to have an accumulated venom in them, symptoms of a deeper disorder. The fault lies, as it always lies in any enfeebled enterprise, at the top; and it lies especially in the fact that, as with the television networks, "the top" is now part of the corporate structure of the country, so that newspapers are even beginning to diversify their activities, like any other conglomerates.

The press, and in this case that means in particular the New York Times, has done a poor, shoddy and, I would add, even dishonest job in reporting the troubles of New York City. Jack Newfield and Paul Dubrul have done a hurricane of a job in their new book (to be published in May), The Abuse of Power: The Permanent Government and the fall of New York. They place much of the blame—the ultimate blame—where it justly belongs: on the great banks, on the utility companies, on the corporations. It is they who have said to New York: Drop Dead! But why confine one's attention to New York. The Los Angeles Times will join in the hounding of Wayne Hays, but in its own city it is part of the corporate establishment, and last summer, when I was there, was conducting a relentless campaign against the introduction of a decent rapid transit system. In every city one now finds the same. In Washington, for example, the Post is very speedy in pulling down a city official; it has yet to give five articles of investigative reporting to Riggs National Bank.

The private sector by and large gets away scot free from all the accusations of wrongdoing with which the press now fulfills its ennobled mission. The Postallowed me a few months ago to point out that the expense accounts of private businessmen, including newspaper executives, are at least as extravagant and even fraudulent as those of public officials and legislators, and that they are written into the cost of the product which the consumer must pay. But I suspect that it allowed me to say it because the subject would not be followed up, would instead disappear into that vast sea of print to which we contribute, on which oblivion falls each day. It is nevertheless here that the fault lies. In the debate about national health insurance, for example, and the fear of the taxation that will be needed to support it: Will the press point out, and regularly sustain the point, that Blue Cross and Blue Shield operate by Draconian taxes on the public?

It is not healthy, for a newspaper, that aspires to the authority that the Post seeks, to have "won" its battle with a union, as it "won" its battle against the pressmen. Everyone knows that the pressmen tragically ruined their case by wrecking the Post's presses. But the pressmen's strike was crushed with methods and with a severity that are not usually accepted in the third quarter of the 20th century, and that the press in general or the Post in particular would not be likely to regard as acceptable from the owners of steel mills. Yet because it was a newspaper management that broke the strike—by methods as startling as crossing the picket lines by helicopter—the Post could take up its entire "Outlook" section one Sunday with its own account of the story—and no other newspaper has touched it properly, or even whimpered a protest. If those helicopters had been used by any other employer photographs would have been in every newspaper in the land.

It is not healthy also because, by crushing the pressmen and the other unions that came out in support, the Post weakened the Newspaper Guild. Again it has to be said, otherwise there is no point in writing these pieces at all, that the editorial staff of the Post is running scared: more scared than I have known the editorial staff of any newspaper with which I have been associated in 25 years. Unlike the freelancer, who can throw his belongings over his back and travel to new pastures, the editorial staff member of a newspaper is weak without a strong union. The voice of the Newspaper Guild has been drastically weakened by the Post's "victory"—what a victory of which to boast on one's gravestone!—and with it there has been weakened the voice of the journalist protecting the standards of his profession against the management.

The root of almost every weakness of the American press just now will be found to lie not with individual journalists, although some of them seem to have become careless of the standards of their profession, but with a management whose concern with profit has become no different from that of any other corporation. The press's coverage of foreign affairs is in acknowledged disgrace, but in recent years it has reached a new nadir of faddishness, which may be summarized in the proposition that every war is a Vietnam, and every scandal a Watergate. This is partly the fault of the judgments of individual journalists, but behind that collapse of judgement there lie the values of a management that has abandoned the effort to "see life steady and see it whole" in its eager watchfulness for the trends and the fads that will make a newspaper as flavorless but as profitable as a Big Mac. 

Henry Fairlie was a British political journalist and social critic. He was a contributor to The New RepublicThe AtlanticThe SpectatorThe Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other papers and magazines. He is the author of, most recently, Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations.

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