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The Washington Monthly

The Fourth Estate

By James K. Glassman

IF THIS COUNTRY is falling apart, no one feels more guilty about it then the liberal journalist. He feels guilty for the entire year 1968--the assassinations, the riots, the rise of Wallace, the blood in Chicago. Saying that liberals feel guilty about things is somewhat a cliché (that is, after all, how we normally discount what they say). But look at what it means to feel guilty.

First, guilt implies a sense of responsibility for events. Few normal people feel guilty about what happened in Chicago. They may feel outraged or happy about it, but to feel guilt is the prerogative of those who feel responsible. The liberal journalists who feel this way are saying that somehow they could have prevented what happened in Chicago or that they could have refrained from causing what happened. But how?

What liberal journalists believe they have is power. This is what leads them to feel so responsible. Few of them really understand the substance of the power that they wield, but all of them have a heady feeling designated as power that comes with knowing about things before anyone else knows about them, the felling of bestowing events on the public. It is first a feeling of omniscience (standing there listening to the AP machine talking to you first), and second a feeling of creation, the idea of making an event itself.

The guilt that flows from this feeling of power is not simply guilt over the events the journalist writes about. Rather, it is guilt over his role as a journalist. Like any good American, he is fearful of his own supposed power, so he justifies it by saying that he is channeling it into responsibility, to the community, that is, the whole country.

As a result, the journalist feels paternalistic about his country. He believes then, that he should not shake anything up. The stake in American institutions that he has is rooted in a justification of his own power. But this stake in institutions, this responsibility for America, is merely a responsibility to the American system as it stands. The liberal journalist is simply unable to perform as a critic with this guilt and this responsibility in his mind.

ONE OF THE most striking displays of this problem comes from James Reston, executive editor and columnist for the New York Times. Last Sunday, in a column entitled. "The New Pessimism: Is It Justified?" he argued that things in America aren't so bad after all, despite all the things his reporters have been writing in his very newspaper.

Reston writes, "There is a whiff of anarchy on some university campuses, but in general there has actually been less violence in the universities this school year than last." (An apology for the story on Wisconsin on the front page.) "The rich may be getting richer but the poor are certainly not getting poorer." (An apology for the series on hunger in America on the front page.) "The main thing in America is not the political activities but the nonpolitical majority that just goes on acting, and the quality of hope in them is too deep to be lost in a generation." (An apology for the whole front page.)

It was Reston himself who suppressed the Bay of Pigs invasion story eight years ago "in the national interest." But, in the end, was the suppression in the national interest? Because of journalists' guilt over the assassination of Robert Kennedy (they felt they had sensationalized their coverage of him) and over the Chicago Convention riots (Mayor Daley was right, the nation said), because of their guilt about actually affecting the our come of a presidential election, these journalists chose to lay off Nixon and Humphrey during the presidential campaign of the fall. As a result, Nixon was allowed to run a public relations show that left him virtually untouched by anyone. This was one of the few campaigns in history where the candidates were not faced with crises created by the campaign itself. Americans elected a president whom they were unable to judge under fire, to find out how he would react under pressure. Here, again, the press will find that the country may be paying dearly for guilt and a responsibility to stability. A final example is how journalists completely ignored the last-ditch chicaneries of Lyndon Johnson (oil deals, airline deals, judgeships to pals) after he announced his abdication on March 31. It was an abdication that many members of the press believed they had forced, and they felt deeply guilty over it.

AN EXTREME case of this sense of responsibility stemming from guilty is Joseph Kraft. In a column written after Chicago, Kraft said that the journalist does not reflect the views of Middle America (Nixon's "silent Americans," Reston's "nonpolitical majority"), and he questions whether the reporter can then claim to be the "agent of the sovereign public."

But here Kraft makes the same assumption that all liberal journalists make, an assumption that is the basis of the guilt problem. The journalist is not the "agent of the sovereign public" at all. He is the agent of his won newspaper, which cannot pretend to represent everyone in the nation. And as a columnist, he is an agent of himself. These are his views on paper, his very own. He does not need any more of a justification for his writing than that. His feeling of responsibility to the entire country makes him less of a writer. It makes him less effective and less honest, and it is at the root of the guilt that is ruining journalism in this country.

* * * *

THIS IS only to say that liberal journalism is beyond all hope. The men who were vaguely upset by Chicago and the rest of 1968, not knowing quite way, have been searching for new forms. Many of them will tell you that more "in-depth analysis" in needed, and perhaps new publications to get the word out. One of these new publications--and there will be more--is The Washington Monthly. The magazine is edited by Charles Peters, formerly a Peace Corps official, and run by a crew you have hard of before: Richard Rovere of the New Yorker, Russell Baker of the Times, Murray Kempton of the New Republic and the New York Post, Hugh Sidey of Time-Life, and so on. It is a magazine "to help you understand our system of politics and government, where it breaks down, why it breaks down, and what can be done to make it work."

We are presented from the start with the image of a machine that did not function so well in 1968 but just needs a little oiling, a few minor repairs, and, above all, an understanding of how the parts all work to get it rolling again this year. This magazine is based on a commitment to the machine--again, a responsibility to the whole country. "How do we make 1969 The Year Democracy Starts its Comeback?" an ad asks. "Not with fists and four-letter words, but with reasoned appraisals of our system--its institutions, its men, its hangups." It sounds like the Peace Corps, where we teach other countries how to build their own wonderful machines.

Volume One, Number One, Cost One Dollar of The Washington Monthly includes; Sidey interviewing Bill Moyers of LBJ and Newsday on "The White House Staff vs. The Cabinet"; a piece by Kempton on the Teacher Corps; a story about how Congress favors building SST's and not smogless cars (i.e., your basic air-pollution priority story); a short unfunny piece on what happens after marijuana is legalized in 1989 by Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker; something about Republicans by Stephen Hess, Moynihan's assistant; a piece on statistics; a story called "The Culture of Bureaucracy: The Special Assistant" by Baker and Peters themselves; a piece on how legislators never do any legislating by James Boyd, the administrative assistant who did in Tom Dodd; and a long piece on the press by David Broder of the Washington Post.

IT IS HEARD to see how this king of content is going to save us from assassinations and floods, but I will give Peters the benefit of the doubt. The theme of "Hey, what are these assistant doing with all this power!" in the Moyers interview and the Baker-Peters piece is especially significant. These journalists cannot see beyond their own forms--there is surprise here that people may be doing something that they are not perhaps supposed to do in their role definitions, and the conclusion is that this is good, and sometimes bad.

The remarkably unedited Boyd piece makes essentially the same point, something you learn in high school civics--the congressman has so many obligations to answer his constituents' letters, give speeches back home, help get voters jobs, etc., that he does not have time to "legislate," i.e., vote on bills. There is no discussion of the value of doing these other things against the value of legislating. Legislating (in that narrow definition) is the legislator's job, Boyd implies; it is his roiled in keeping the machine running.

The Broder piece on political reporting is another example of the liberal guilt-responsibility phenomenon. Broder makes virtually no point at all in 13 pages of rambling, except that political reporters have a lot of power and they do not use it very responsibly--they are careless and make mistakes. Broder is writing in response to a "credibility gap"--"the open skepticism and even derision with which they are viewed by their customers." His justification of the gap is that reporters simply have a great deal of power and sometimes they hurt people with it.

He cannot see the problem that the public imagines the press as an instruction, that it is all the same. If there were a competing partisan press in this country, with contending points of view, then the public would not mistrust the press (certain elements, yes), but the press would not exist as a whole institution. Broder is also very conscious of causing dissension and division within his "lodge" by talking too much about the press. He does, not name names of journalists who "misuse" their power, and his restraint is evident throughout the piece, the same kind of restraint that is found in his political writing. Broder is tied down by his own responsibility, just as Peters is, just as the whole idea of the magazine is.

The Washington Monthly has no ads and no pictures, just 80 pages of raw, ugly type. The variety is in the typography; some pieces are set two columns to a page of very small type, some are set one column of very large type, one has unjustified (uneven) lines of very large type. The type, someone said, looks like it comes from the Lord and Taylor catalogue, long and thin and soul-less.

THERE IS NO urgency in this magazine (the cover is an off-color American flag) and no excitement. There is no precision and no depth. And worst of all, there is nothing new. These same liberal journalists, who feel such horror over 1968 and so much desire to do something, do not have the slightest chance of doing anything, chained to the institutions they write about by their own guilt.

The first thing for them to do is to admit they have very little power to stop assassinations and riots, or even to elect presidents--for this is the case, even if they do learn about the news first. That admission will free them from their guilt, make them work harder at finding solutions that may even divide (which is the solution of pluralism anyway).

This freedom from guilt and from responsibility is so necessary to a journalist. Today, he is simply publicizing someone else's nightmare. When the day comes, he will write: "Gestapo officials estimated today that 346 detainees were exterminated by the state because of crimes . . . " He will sit down and write it, because he has no values. He is afraid to have them because he is afraid of a power that he does not have.

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