[This article originally appeared in the March 1964 issue of Nieman Reports.] The resident American press corps during my time in New Delhi (1961-1963) was comparatively small—the two wire services, the Times, Time, The (Baltimore) Sun, NBC, U.S. News & World Report and, toward the end of my tour, The Washington Post—and very good. Themembers, with scarcely an exception, liked India and worked hard to understand the country, its culture and its problems. All were by way of becoming experts; at least three, Henry Bradsher of AP, Paul Grimes of the Times and Selig Harrison of the Post, were first-rate scholars. At the same time, all the members took a detached view of official pretense and mendacity which, both in volume and self-righteousness, is roughly on a parity with Washington.
Relations with the Embassy were on a similar level. I met with the members who were in town for an hour each Wednesday and more frequently if something were stirring. I tried to be liberal with information that could be used; I am persuaded that, with rare exceptions, what must be said off-the-record had best not be said at all. The questions on State Department or mission policy, or what passed for it, were informed and sharp. The questioners were sufficiently resistant to evasion, rotund generalities or misinformation to protect me from temptation. The flow of information was in both directions. I relied on these meetings for knowledge of what Indian officials were saying in their press conferences, background briefings or press leaks; for the rumors that were making the rounds of the parliament and press gallery; and for knowledge of the stories that members of the press corps were going to play. Members also kept me advised on spot news.…
I don’t want to give the press a completely clean bill of health. From time to time high-level visits and especially the Chinese invasion brought to New Delhi the fire brigade that goes out with all great people or to all great events. It did much less well. Few were well informed on the country. Some rose above information to intuition. Not many put the event they were covering in proper perspective. All were, of course, relentless in their demand that I reform the public relations or security procedures of the Indian government and (in the case of the military correspondents) get them immediately to the front line or a few furlongs beyond. But my comment here is on the resident correspondents with whom my relations were personally most agreeable, valuable as a source of information and (I think) useful as an avenue of information on our public activities in India to the American people. It also provided a sharp illumination of the press problems of the State Department. In principle, the department supports a liberal policy toward the press; those professionally responsible work hard and intelligently to further it. In practice, a policy such as the one followed in New Delhi runs into strong headwinds.
The first difficulty is the surviving conviction that diplomacy is a privileged occupation into which the press and the public should not really be allowed to obtrude. This is a minority attitude but it exists, and it is not confined to career officers. Some of the New Frontier appointees have reached extremes in stuffiness and even outright constipation in their press relations, partly in the conviction that this is the way diplomats are meant to behave. Fear is also a factor and the feeling that the press, like the Congress, exists largely to louse up foreign policy. In American diplomatic practice, the current policy becomes to a remarkable degree an article of belief. We are not cynics. So if the policy is to present the Nhu family as the arch-paragons of democracy, or blame everything that goes wrong in Latin America on Castro, a differing view by a newsman seems not only wrong but willfully perverse. Better ignore the bastard.
But there is a more persistent if less visible source of restraint. Anything that comes in over the press wires is scrutinized by the score or more of people in Washington who are concerned in one capacity or other with that country. There is not much that can be said that will not strike someone as out of line even when the location of the line is known only to God. A bland comment on the advantages of peace or the need for better weather will be thought by someone to have hit the wrong note. This alert officer then tucks the clipping or tape in his pocket and, at the next meeting with his Assistant Secretary, say: “Did you see, sir, what came out of Pnom Penh yesterday? Going a little far, I think.…” In all organizations, the cultivation of executive vanity is a considerable industry. The State Department is up to average. Officials are rather easily persuaded that their prerogatives are being prejudiced. Out goes a telegram of warning. “We note with some concern.…”
The danger that any politically experienced person will say anything really damaging is slight. In the course of two and a half years, I found myself in hot water only once. (That was a careless and somewhat disputable endorsement of one part of Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir made at a press briefing in Washington which was relayed back to New Delhi at something greater than the speed of light. And like the rest of last year’s headlines it had no permanent residue.) I also found that an ambassador can stand off this nitpicking as, I am sure, many do. My formula was to ignore it except for an occasional very rude response. In the end, it stopped. But quite a few less securely situated people would have clammed up. As a result, they would have denied both themselves and the country valuable information. They would have a perfect record of no errors and no indiscretions at the price of a much reduced understanding at the post and at home.
The remedy is scarcely novel. It is to see the problem of press relations as one of maintaining a high score. The man who seeks to avoid all error, all misinterpretation, will say nothing and do the worst job. He will live, as do a surprising number of our officials, in a mentally crippling fear of his own tongue. The man who consistently puts his foot in his own mouth and that of the press should obviously be retired or loaned to Barry Goldwater. The man who maintains a steady flow of sound guidance and information should know that he is allowed an occasional error or mishap. Washington must, of course, also know this and restrain itself accordingly.
Former Ambassador to India, author of “The Affluent Society” and much else, J.K. Galbraith used to be a journalist himself (Fortune magazine). He is now back at his post as professor of economics at Harvard.