Alan Otten: The Journal's Man in Cambridge
On a remarkably sunny day earlier this week, the Washington Bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal sat slumped in a chair on the second floor of the Institute of Politics building and admitted that he may have picked the wrong time to take a sabbatical from stormy Washington.
"That shows you how good a prophet I am--that I didn't know Watergate would break open this year," Alan L. Otten said wryly.
Nonetheless, Institute Fellow Otten continues to write a column every week for the Journal, usually quoting Cambridge academics. On this particular Tuesday Otten's typewriter was broken and the 30-year-veteran reporter who has conducted thousands of interviews patiently submitted to one himself.
Otten resembles one's image of the middle-aged Sigmund Freud; he is given to slouching pensively and there are large bags below his usually down-cast eyes. His beard, which he said dates from before Cambridge, finishes off the portrait.
The New York-reared newspaperman began with the Journal in early 1946, after leaving the Air Force, and his loyalty is "kind of unusual in the newspaper business." Otten, now at the helm of the 25-member Washington staff, is professedly chauvinistic about the Journal and its readership.
The chief virtue of Otten's journal is the latitude it gives a reporter in producing an analytic piece, which is "not precisely an expose but a more meaningful journalism." These features usually begin on the front page, sandwiched by news of bread futures and averages, and allow a reporter "a tremendous amount of flexibility."
The writer may indulge in mythological and literary allusions or publish candid profiles of personalities. Otten noted that no other newspaper would call presidential advisor Charles Colson a "hatchet man" months before his reputation blossomed during the summer Senate hearings. He also mentioned a profile piece on a Congressman that called the representative a "hack."
"Our readers are mature individuals and are not paying good money for us not to do anything for them or to try not to tell them like it is," Otten said. "We have a literate audience and should assume a good amount of knowledge on the part of our readers."
Otten claimed that The Wall Street Journal's history of giving loose rein to its writers has anticipated a current push by other papers to include more in-depth reporting on newsprint.
"Newspapers have to go more to providing the real investigative reports that scratch the surface that television always gets," he said. "Again, this is something that the Journal has been more aware of; we've been a second newspaper for most people and have had to give our people something that they had not already read."
"More and more papers have to come to recognize that they are the second papers to television. People already know the who, what, where, when and how; now they want to know more of the why," he said.
Otten insisted that blanket rules tabooing injection of the first person in news analyses are too dogmatic. "The term 'perfect objectivity' is a snare and a delusion. Instead we must strive for fairness," he says.
But he cautioned that the kind of interpretive journalism he lauds is "tricky business," and that one can make "all sorts of errors and misinterpretations." Analysis might undermine the people's credence in newspaper accounts or plain backfire, he said.
Whenever Otten strayed in his definition of "readership" to include a more democratic population than the Journal's audience, he became somewhat patronizing and wary. Delivering one of his more earnest and sweeping statements of the conversation, he said, "These are highly emotional times. People don't want calm analysis; they want their prejudices confirmed. The university, the church, the press, all institutions are under challenge. It's the Greek custom of killing the messenger who brings the bad news."
Despite this detached and elitist broadside, Otten is dedicated to the public in a manner that one would like to attribute to all purveyors of news. He stressed that those concerned about a reporter's freedom to secrecy of sources and to immunity from subpoenas fail to see that reporters are agents of the public and that it is the people's right to know that is at stake.
"Focusing attention on the reporter diverts attention from the fact that the reporter represents the public that can't ask for itself," he said. "The basis of the First Amendment is not the reporter's right but that only a fully-informed citizenry can vote correctly."
Otten conceded that the vicious parochialism of most newspapers in competing for scoops goes against a concerted effort to disseminate the news to the public. And syndicated columnist Jack Anderson's burning desire to publish dope on Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton's (D-Mo.) use of drugs only led to a rash and premature account, Otten said.
Yet, the journalist seemed bitter or at least unimpressed by I.F. Stone's sudden emergence as the white knight of journalism. Otten allowed that Stone's distance from normal journalistic circuits preserved him from making concessions to sources or "getting tied up with sources."
"But that's an easy criticism to make by people who don't have to work at this day in and day out. Good reporters are constantly aware of this," he said. "The problem with Izzy Stone is that someone has to do this work. Izzy Stone could not sit back and write without The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Congressional Record," he said.
Returning to his own experience, Otten said, "I've covered almost every beat in Washington except the Department of Agriculture, thank God."
"The White House is sterile, there's limited access to sources and it drives good men to drink," he went on. "The best beat in town is Congress. Up on the Hill there's a three-ring circus--an open community--where there's always something going on and somebody willing to talk."
It is the pace of living in Cambridge that makes his sabbatical a real vacation, Otten said.
"Being here has forced me to meet people and teach myself subjects that I haven't been covering in Washington," he concluded. "I never learned to sleep late, but I have few other constraints here."