Wicker: Press Needs Less Inhibition

Former Columnist Says Readers Shouldn't Expect the whole Truth From Papers

The press has a duty to "heighten the level of public discourse" but should not be held captive to it, according to former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker.

Speaking to a group of about 40 at the Institute of Politics, Wicker yesterday discussed the role of the press in society and politics.

"I don't think press reflects public opinion, and I don't think it should," Wicker said.

In a discussion titled " Is the Media Biased?" Wicker addressed problems the American press encounters.

Quoting from his book On Press, Wicker said "press in America needs less inhibition, not more restraint."


"The duty of press is to inform the public in an enlightened way, and question authority, but press shirks it because of the increased number of libel suits against it and the publicity and the money they would cost," he said.

Responding to an audience member's suggestion that a majority of American journalists were "radically out of line with the mainstream of Americans and elitist," Wicker said the press should "avoid raw opinions."

In fact, Wicker said, the public should not even expect the "whole truth" from the press "when you open the newspaper in the morning: the best you can hope for is that they will do an honest job," he said.

And although the idea has been "sold very successfully to the public," Wicker said the press does not have a liberal bias.

Wicker, who is a fellow this semester at the Kennedy School's Barone Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, said, "the ideas that the American press is one big instrument that is liberal is not true." He said there are more important problems facing journalists today, including gender and race bias and the trend towards sensationalism.

And Commenting on the "dirty little secret" of journalism, Wicker acknowledged that journalists can sometimes become too involved with their sources.

"I have the in-and-out principle: in enough to have access to information, but not so far in, as not to be able to cover it," he said.