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For years on end two pleas have characterized the plaints of Washington reporters and the criticisms of them: freedom from partisan editors and publishers and freedom of information. Drew Pearson, writing anonymously back in the Thirties, called for a purge of "business and money-drawer domination" of the American press. Harry Truman used to tell White House reporters that he realized they couldn't help the slant which their editors made them put into their copy. Adlai Stevenson favored the term, "one-party press." And, to meet the other complaint, the press now has a Congressional subcommittee to hear its demands for greater liberalization of classification rules.
But, fundamental as these two problems may be, they are not novel. What is unusual is Douglass Cater's suggestion in his book, The Fourth Branch of Government, that something may be wrong with the machinery itself. His examination of Washington reporting as he has seen it in nine years as Washington editor of the Reporter suggests that the changes in Washington and in reporting in the last thirty years found the reporter unprepared and left him slightly dazed and greatly altered.
The new role of the capital press corps is that of the participant in government affairs and decisions rather than that of the sideline recorder. Even in such inevitable judgments as what part of a Senator's speech is "news" and what part isn't, the journalist moulds the shape of the headlines and moulds the mind of his reader. By covering one speech instead of another, by putting words in the President's mouth at press conferences, by taking one side of an inter-departmental fight from a "source" and not trying to get the other side, a reporter forms the content of the news his audience gets.
But this enormous creative power is often not sought or realized by reporters themselves. Even more often, the act of creation is performed not by the writer but by an agency or person who has learned how to use the reporter's limitations and rules. Here, Cater does a most impressive job of documenting the many ways in which the press of a free society can be manipulated for selfish ends. The late Senator McCarthy's use of deadlines and of the "unexpected" charge which could not immediately be proved false kept him in the headlines until "over-exposure" did him in. Herbert Brownell's attack on President Truman over the firing of Harry Dexter White was not released to the press until just before Brownell's speech. Then, after Truman had been forced to make a hasty denial in order to get onto the same front page with Brownell's charge, James Hagerty turned up (within hours) a six-year-old letter in which Truman had praised White. The episode, which Cater characterizes as "a distasteful case study in the misuse of publicity," ended by McCarthy's being given free radio and television time ostensibly to answer Truman, but in fact to attack Eisenhower.
On the more positive side, it is clear that the press can be used and can act to mobilize public opinion, or just to "sell" it for good causes. The best example, of course, is the promotion of the Marshall Plan. But there are issues--such as the discussion of "permissible levels" of Strontium 90--where reporters digging for the facts and not just for a story perform a considerable service, and there are even times when the President can use his press conference to great effect (though Cater argues that this American "Question Period" has fallen on very hard times.)
Cater stresses, however, that the news which is manufactured by a planned leak, by a timed press release, by a publicity-conscious Senator, by a harried President at press conference time, or by a Congressional investigation aimed at headline capturing is not necessarily the news which the public needs to know. Operating under the pressure to get a story which will sell papers, and under the realization that he lacks the sophistication to handle complicated scientific, diplomatic and economic decisions, the Washington reporter cannot fulfill, Cater maintains, his ideal role as public informant.
In highly readable, well documented and thoroughly logical words Cater makes a very impressive case against believing everything you read in the newspapers. Some of it is put there because a reporter needs a story. Some of it gets in because a Washington policy-maker is having a quarrel and needs public support (but the other side of the argument may not make the story.) A great deal of it gets in because of the constant competition for public attention in Washington.
Awareness of Power
The Fourth Branch of Government is a critique, not a cure. The author argues that the old rule of objectivity has long since become a dead letter and would not be viable even if it could be revived. Nor is the shibboleth of "equal time, equal space" for conflicting views an adequate yardstick. What Cater asks is greater awareness within the press corps of the enormous power it holds and of the manifold ways in which that power and its holders can be used. The mechanical pitfalls in the way of commuting the "truth" from Washington to the reader who moves his lips can only be met by conscious and conscientous reporters. There are, Carter says, too few of them and too many pitfalls.
On a more pedestrian note, the Alosp brothers concentrate nearly a third of their book, The Reporter's Trade, on an attack on bureaucratic secrecy regulations and devote the rest of their space to smug discussion of how they got around these regulations. Their opening chapters on what it is like to be an aristocrat and a reporter, how Washington reporting has changed, and the mortal penalty a society pays for not facing its big decisions in the open are only occasionally either penetrating of powerful. The selected columns which make up the body of the volume are neither effective records or the decay of the West nor convincing answers to its problems. On the whole, the volume reeks of self-congratulation of the most nauseating variety, and the style has a ponderous and soporific quality which makes it excellent bedtime reading.
A Little Flag
Frequently the authors hold up a little flag bearing the legend: "See, we can underestimate dangers and be optimistic, too." But recurrently they hark back to a theme which Douglass Cater recorded as part of a 1946 address by Joseph Alsop to the Signet Society. At that time, "the older member of the partnership" as he styles himself, compared the nations of the West to Leonidas' troops at Thermopylae and suggested that they "comb their golden hair in the sunlight and prepare to die bravely." A little bit of this sort of Everett Dirksen brand eloquence goes an awfully long way.
Only in one dispatch--reporting the evacuation of Halfway to Heaven, a small village on North Tachen Island--does Joseph Alsop's prose ring true. Elsewhere, even in such perfectly reasonable injunctions as "Great national problems which are not honestly presented to the nation-will either be badly solved; or they will simply be left unsolved until they grow rancid by over-keeping and make a public stink," the Alsopian manner renders Alsopian reason repulsive. The columnists' work is clearly that of dedicated and respectable, if unattractive vision of the truth. But the tone of the pursuers, the positive arrogance of Joseph Alsop (who once stormed out of an interview which he had requested with Lewis Strauss after slamming his walking stick down on Strauss' desk and declaring "Sir, you have just wasted a half hour of my time.") adds up to a totally ineffective method of communicating.
Alsop as Cassandra
No one would deny that the Alsops are fine reporters, in that they are thorough and determined. Nor can one fail to be impressed by their great faith in the ability of democratic processes to solve problems which are fully presented to the nation. But it is equally impossible to avoid a feeling of dislike, verging on distrust, for what they say and the way they say it. Of course, such was Cassandra's fate, as the Alsops are probably only too ready to tell you. But it is not just their message which makes them unpleasant to read; it is their manner which really makes them objectionable.
It is realiably reported that Joseph Alsop, even as a freshman at Harvard, used to hold sessions in which upperclassmen would come to hear him pontificate. He has been at it so long now that his message has grown stale from overuse and over-stylization. It is well-nigh impossible to give this prophet and his brother the respect which--despite their book--is certainly their due
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