President Truman holding a press conference on the lawn of the “Little White House,” his vacation residence at Key West, Florida, surrounded by reporters, photographers and staff members, 1950. Photo courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
[This article originally appeared in the January 1959 issue of Nieman Reports.] For literature, said Max Beerbohm, he felt reverence, but for journalism merely a kind regard. A natural remark to come from a man with his feet in both camps and his heart in one. Journalism has always had a hard time of it among the literary, particularly among those who had to grub in it in order to afford writing what they wanted to write, which society treated as a luxury when for them it was necessity. Literature, said Ezra Pound, is news that stays news. And dictionaries have, at least until lately, defined journalistic as a style “characterized by evidences of haste, superficiality of thought, inaccuracies of detail, colloquialisms, and sensationalisms.” Matthew Arnold thought journalism “literature in a hurry.” The difficulty lies, I think, in regarding journalism as a kind of failed literature, whereas it aspires to be literature only insofar as it would like to be well written, and aspires to be history only insofar as it seeks to be accurate. André Gide was severer, but closer, when he wrote, “I call journalism everything that will be less interesting tomorrow than today.” For the essence of journalism is its timeliness; it must be served hot.
Journalism is in fact history on the run. It is history written in time to be acted upon: thereby not only recording events but at times influencing them. This explains its temptation to passion and its besetting sin of partisanship. Journalism is also the recording of history while the facts are not all in. Yet any planner of battles knows the eternal conflict between needing to know enough to act, and needing to act in time: a problem in journalism as in diplomacy and warfare. Adolescents and second-rate poets who specialize in large misstatements often tell us that life is chaos, but if life were only that there would be no such thing as monotony; life includes both the world we know (which, if we do not fully understand or appreciate, we are at least not surprised by) and the unwinding of the unpredictable. It is the function of journalism—daily, in the case of a newspaper, weekly in a magazine— to add up the latest unpredictable events and relate them to the familiar. Not a judgment for history, for too many facts emerge later, but an estimate for now, from the known, and it is a function essential in a democracy. If journalism is sometimes inaccurate and often inadequate, ignorance would not be preferable. Journalism’s desire to reconstruct the world anew each day, to find a serviceable coherence and continuity in chaos, may be a losing game and is always an artificial one: It is circumscribed by the amount of information available, limited at times by the journalist’s lack of imagination and weakened at other times by his excess of it. Yet it has its own uses, even when set against history.
The historian is often thought to be less scandal-minded than the journalist, but with an intimate diary in hand that has later come to light, and with afreedom from libel that a journalist never has, he may often be blunter. A historian is also thought to be more impartial, but must guard against imposing upon the past a pattern of interpretations he is fond of, while a journalist must write to people in the knowing present, suspicious of his flights of interpretation which do not match their own awareness of the times. At the very least the historian must be conscious of the occupational vice of retroactive superiority: He is like a privileged spectator at a horse race in the past who alone knows which horse went on to win, and looking about him wonders why men of seeming intelligence are making such bad bets, or getting so worked up over what will not turn out as they expect. A reader of history must make the effort of imagination to realize that though he knows the outcome, the participants did not; what has become a finality (and may even have been, as a later era sees, inevitable) was not so regarded then, or if anticipated, may have been considered as still in doubt, and as something to be resisted, delayed or forestalled. Viewed forward, as decisions that had to be confronted, history can be as exciting as the best journalism; viewed backward, as mechanically determined, history becomes dull, and its actors mere marionettes who did not have the wisdom (really only the information) of the historian who sits in later judgment. These are some of the difficulties of history, to be set against its advantages of greater information, knowledge of “how it turned out,” and leisure to reflect. I do not intend to demean history to exalt journalism, or to make each of equal worth where they are not, but only to elbow a proper place for journalism as a trade not alone in its disabilities or in its values.
As long ago as my first course in journalism at college, my professor set as a theme for us to write whether we thought journalism to be a game, a racket or a profession. With that instinctive cunning which settles quickly on students at examination time, I could see that to defend journalism as a profession (which one part of me wanted to believe, and still does) was to invite mockery; of course it was not exclusively a racket, so I wrote of it as a game. But I would have been happy then, and content now, to describe it as a craft. A newspaper editor friend of mine once told me that he thought most people fell into their occupations by chance, but that men choose to join the circus, work on a railroad or enter newspapering. Fresh out of journalism school and full of exalted notions that I could see had to be unlearned, I liked his comparison for being down to earth.
Journalism may be as much in need of principles as medicine or law (I believe this to be true); but without anything comparable to bar associations or medical societies with effective power to censure or expel, its principles are not enforceable. The individual journalist may have the duty, but often does not have the opportunity, to tell the truth as he sees it. He is a hired man, and because he is, his is not a profession. Nor are publishers under any professional restraint. Newspapers enjoy postal subsidies on the assumption that the existence of newspapers is in the public interest, but publishers as a class do not consider themselves to be operating public utilities—and it is perhaps as well that they do not, for in this direction lie evils greater than the present haphazard irresponsibility. We are left then, if we would have trustworthy newspapers, with the conscience of the individual publisher, which can be a very wee, pea-sized thing; his fear that rival organs of communication will achieve greater credibility by their being seen to be fairer (an increasingly effective brake on him); or he may have to take into account the standards insisted upon by the journalists who work for him.
As a group, newspapermen are much better than their papers. They too are faced with temptations: the hope of advantage if they give the boss what hewants to hear, and the quite opposite temptation of wishing to indulge their own prejudices. There are hacks among them, as well as cynics and panderers, quite often in high places, but there is a community of undeceived newspapermen who know who among them is cheating on the facts, and they do not always award their good marks—as those who are scorned by them imply— only to those who hold similar political views.
A good journalist is a rewarding sight. He enters a trade where the pay is low—low at least for the qualities of intelligence, energy, experience, judgment and talent he must bring to it. He must have a zest for events, as accountants must love figures and carpenters, wood. He must have a dedication to facts and a scent for humbug. He is probably by temperament an observer not a doer, standing outside of events, often in distaste, and must beware becoming, like a baseball fan, a heckler of plays that he himself could not have equaled. He must cultivate skepticism while avoiding cynicism. He must learn to cover people, meetings and causes for which he can have sympathy but must not display loyalty: He must learn to feel but not engage. He must be incorruptible; the temptation to be otherwise comes not from bribery, which is rare, but from a reluctance to pursue that kind of news which will go against the grain of his paper’s views or his own convictions (it takes courage to give unpopular causes their due). He must be swift while also considered. He must go where he is not wanted and be resistant to those who are too welcoming. And for all of this, his hours will be long, his pay inadequate, and his standing in the community not particularly high. Newspapermen must warm themselves by their own fires.
Those newspapermen who have “crossed over” into publicity and advertising, where the pay is better, would like it understood that they are still in the “same game.” It is true that newspapermen often have to do menial and even venal jobs, such as furthering their paper’s promotional stunts, and it is true that public relations men are often newspapermen who can write stories that appear to be news and are run as such, but the end is different: The publicity man’s intent must always be to serve a master that is not the newspaperman’s. The appearance may be similar, but the difference is everything. Sometimes when we who remain journalists come across an advertising copy writer or a publicity man in a bar—confident and leisurely on a fat expense account—we have a hard time deciding whether the resentment we feel comes from scorn or envy. In the end we are what we are because there are satisfactions in our business that the others lack: a delight in craft, a stimulus in variety, an occasional compensation in wrongs righted, a somewhat adolescent urge to be where things are going on and “in the know.” That man is lucky who is content in his work, finds it stretches his powers and rewards his time: So many Americans seem to be working at jobs that do not gratify them, living only for their hours away from work. A good newspaperman may be displeased by his circumstances, but need not be ashamed of the calling he has chosen.
It is not all cakes and ale. Journalism is a fitful trade. Newspapermen like variety in their assignments, which is another way of saying that they may bedeficient in concentration. They pursue a subject only about as far as, and rarely much further than, the passing public interest. They are servants to a fickle public; they must seize its attention by novelty, hold it by new injections of interest, and then move on to something else. A newspaper can risk boring its public at its own peril. And so (newspapermen hate to admit this) journalism is in some respects not a serious business. Its role is at times similar to education, requiring simplicity of instruction without falsifying the subject matter, requiring diversions, distractions and recesses, though sometimes demanding concentration; adapting its material to the absorptive capacity of the audience, and even, alas, having to compete for attention with less worthy amusements. But it cannot compel compulsory attendance.
Newspapermen might not also like to acknowledge that for many readers the daily newspaper is simply an entertainment. Such readers may take a half-interested look at the headlines but they then hurry to the comics or the sport pages; they look to their newspaper for instruction, but in cooking more than in public affairs; they may seek information, but it is about television programs and not foreign events; they may want guidance, but about house-furnishings and fashions more than what is offered them on the editorial page. In this knowledge, the publishers are apt to be shrewder than their employees, paying fat prices for a syndicated comic strip or a canned gossip column, knowing that they can exploit their monopoly of either one, while slighting the news budget—for after all, they reason, everybody has access to the same news, and what reader really appreciates a consistent edge in news coverage? In this I think publishers wrong, but not as wrong as I wish they were: A newspaper’s coverage will be good only if its editor and publisher have a passion for making it so and find excellence its own reward. Increasingly as newspapers pass from the hands of those who founded them into the possession of their uninterested sons, their lawyers or their business managers, they become only vehicles for making money, and perhaps not as efficiently profitable as a garage or a hardware store. These merchants fill their paper with merchandise and ask only of their editors that they stay out of trouble, out of libel suits, and play it safe. The proportion of mediocrity in the American press thus far outweighs the good. A good newspaperman, though he need not be ashamed of his calling, can rightly be outraged at its practice.
Peter Finley Dunne thought it the duty of a newspaper “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” It is a rare newspaper today that feels any mission to afflict the comfortable. If reporters seem jaundiced, it is because they have to cover so many windy luncheons and solemnly record the pompous hypocrisy of the respectable. Sometimes they are included in the counsels of small groups where the others, feeling safe because they know the newspaper’s publisher is one of them, talk the cant of the well-to-do, forgetting that the reporter himself does not share the same economic stake in their prejudices. Newspapermen are apt to be against the successful and the affluent. In politics, they are usually Democrats— except when the Democrats, after too long in power, became too affluent themselves. No role satisfies the newspaperman more than that of redressor; the chance to be angry, to rout out the rotten; but newspapers being what they are, angers are grooved—confined principally to what can be found out, or if not found out, suspected to be wrong with government. Many, though not all, reporters willingly accepted this role against the Democrats, only to be disillusioned when publishers proved not such ardent pursuers of error in a Republican administration. But a captious, searching attitude toward any administration (Republican or Democratic) must be the demeanor of all journalists, for by an accident of historical growth the role as watchdog ofgovernment falls to the press in American society, replaces the question period which British ministers must undergo in the House of Commons.
Jack the Giant Killer is a pleasing assignment to a newspaperman—but less so when only some giants are marked for the kill. What if big businessmen were subject to the same careful inquiry as government: had to answer why this relative was in unmerited high position; why that expensive entertainment was allowed; whose head fell for that bad investment; had to say who consented to this scheming in black markets or that shoddy legalism to thwart a competitor; had to explain why they tolerated an inferiority in the product; had to justify this connivance with an unsavory politician or union racketeer, or that use of company funds to promote selfish ends? In theory, companies have their own machinery for checking such practices, but in reality so long as profits are high very little else is asked of a boss. A publisher, asked why he did not concern himself with this kind of investigation, would say that these things are the domain of private business. But are they not touched with public interest?
Unjustified waste in business, as much as a government’s taxation, grabs at the public’s pocketbook—but it is not generally considered fair game for newspapermen.
Business is a privileged sanctuary, even when its institutional ads are picturing it as just a collection of open-faced “folks” like you and me, interested in nothing but the American way, the improvement of product and the remembrance of millions of fond little shareholders. Public relations men who in government perform a useful enough service for lazy newspapermen by gathering up facts for them—while discouraging independent inquiry—are even more sleekly successful in business at putting out what they would like known about a company, and diverting newspapermen from what they do not want to know. It remains for an occasional outburst of grudge by a disappointed contender, a stockholder’s fight, or—long after the event—a congressional committee investigation, for anything adverse to be heard.
Executives, those unexamined pillars of the community, have such press immunity, and such scorn for the fumblers in public office (any fumbling of their own passing unrecorded), that when one of them is persuaded to go to Washington as a public duty, is subjected to brash reportorial questions, and is no longer safe behind an imposing walnut desk and the stillness of wall-to-wall carpeting, he often seems somewhat less spectacular. It then becomes harder and harder to recruit them for public service, these businessmen who at Board of Directors’ meetings like to say how uplifted they are by challenges.
A journalist too energetic in seeking out the malpractices of business risks condemnation as being against business itself, yet the same logic should apply that applies to government, that it operates best in the public interest when made to operate in a spotlight. But this is a radical thought, and lest any man think the press timid, there are angry writers to point to, whose splenetic outbursts are read by millions. Note, however, what they are mostly mad at: There is a good living to be made in a shrewd grooving of acceptable grievances.
“Truth always prevails in the end,” wrote Lord Acton, “but only when it has ceased to be in someone’s interest to prevent it from doing so.”
If a newspaperman finds his itch to investigate is encouraged only in some directions, if he finds himself asked to work within the known political prejudices of his publisher, purity of motive is not all to be found on one side. The development of reporters’ craft unions (particularly at the outset, when Communists played too big a role) suggested that they, if they had their way, would be as biased, as ready to favor their own, as publishers. The contest of wills between newspapermen and publisher, such as it is, is apt to be muted; in many places the publisher has such clear ascendancy that no struggle goes on. Many reporters are without pronounced political opinions; others get it established early that they wish to stay clear of the “dirty” stories; still others find no disharmony between their politics and the paper’s. For the rest, there are those who say “I only work here;” there are others who are inwardly restive, and those who find some rationalization, such as Ambrose Bierce’s: “If asked to justify my long service to journals with whose policies I was not in agreement and whose character I loathed…. O, well, I persuaded myselfthat I could do more good by addressing those who had the greatest need of me—the millions of readers for whom Mr. Hearst was a midleading light.”
Some of the sting went out of the struggle when reporters, in themselves reflecting the feelings of the country, passed from militant enthusiasm for the New Deal to at most a sentimental predisposition towards the later Democrats. This change of mood was matched by the rise of practical-minded publishers who had decided to make a necessity out of virtue. This new breed of publisher made it a policy to give no unnecessary offense to any powerful group within the community, even unions. They found themselves up against radio and television, whose dependence on government regulation made them early in the game decide to play the news fairly straight (for all the pseudo-philosophizing about the impossibility of being objective, I have never met a newspaperman who did not know how to follow the injunction to “play it straight”). So there has been a trend toward less flagrant outbursts of violent feeling on the editorial page, and less apparent partisanship in the news columns: On many papers the good deeds of the other side simply get small space, and lengthy treatment is accorded anybody whose views coincide with the publisher’s.… Tedium is a dangerous feeling to develop in readers. Sometimes one is tempted to sigh for the old days of honest wrong-headedness boldly proclaiming itself.
There are some who suggest that the way to make newspapers more responsible is to put their ownership into public trusts. But trusts can only preserve; they cannot create, and either the papers become the responsibility of dynamic managers (at which point all the old problems return) or they risk lapsing into staid sterility. Given our prejudice for an independent press, the only answer, if not a completely satisfactory one, is self-responsibility. There are some American newspapers—all too few, but to be honored all the more—whose publishers ignore the prejudices of their fellow businessmen and even defy the passions and whims of their public. A similar kind of dedication is felt by many newspapermen, even though this is to ask a great deal of low-paid men in a society which puts premium on other values; it requires an austerity of mind to accompany a vividness of imagination. But what is so heartening about journalism is how widely this notion of responsibility is felt. And it is ready to have more asked of it.
Reporters scrambling around (and, in one case, sprawling across) a table at the White House, evidently picking up press releases announcing the Japanese surrender, August 14, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
Copyright © 1959 by Thomas Griffith. His commentary on a trade that he took to naturally, this is from Thomas Griffith’s forthcoming book, “The Waist-High Culture,” to be published by Harper’s this winter. A Nieman Fellow in 1943, Mr. Griffith is a senior editor of Time.