The conflict between the men who make and the men who report the news is as old as time. News may be true, but it is not truth, and they never see it the same way. The first great event, or "Man in the News," was Adam, and the accounts of his creation have been the source of controversy ever since. In the old days, the reporters or couriers of bad news were often put to the gallows; now they are given the Pulitzer Prize, but the conflict goes on.
The reasons are plainly that we are changing the world faster than we can change ourselves, and are applying to the present the habits of the past. We are imposing on a transformed world the theories and assumptions that worked in another time at home, and nowhere does this clash of past and present, theory and reality, seem more dramatic than in the application of American constitutional theory to the conduct of American foreign policy.
That theory is that the people know best. The first constitutional principle is that the success of any group of people in dealing with their common problems rests on their knowledge and understanding of the problems to be solved, and on their intelligence, judgment and character in meeting those problems. The conclusion drawn from this is that the intelligence, judgment and character of a majority of the people, if well-informed, will probably produce more satisfactory solutions than any leader or small band of geniuses is likely to produce.
This is undoubtedly sound doctrine for sinking a sewer or building a bridge or a school in a local community, but is it a practical way to conduct foreign policy? Are the people getting adequate information to enable them to reach sound judgments on what to do about South Asia, or the Atlantic, or the balance of payments, or China, or outer space? Is there any such information and any such people? And would enough of them pay attention to sustain a commercial newspaper or radio or television station that concentrated on these fundamental questions? These questions raise the old problem of the people's right to be informed and the government's obligation to govern effectively, which sometimes means governing secretly.
Two contemporary situations illustrate the dilemma. Over 300,000 Americans, many of them conscripts, are now fighting a war in Viet Nam. Most of them do not know how it started, and even many officials are extremely vague about how we got so deeply involved. It cannot be said that the people were well informed before their commitment to the battle, or even that their representatives in the Congress really debated the decision to wage this kind of war. On the other hand, the President is now conducting that war as Commander-in-Chief with television cameras on the battlefield recording daily for vast television audiences the most brutal and agonizing scenes of the struggle.
In the first case, there was so little information and so much executive authority that the President could do about what he pleased; and in the second case, the people have so much information about the violent incidents of the war that it is questionable whether the President of a democratic country can really sustain his policy over a long period of time while the public is being invited to tune in on the eleven o'clock news and see Johnny killed. Something is obviously out of balance.
In analyzing the relationship between public opinion and public policy, it may be useful to try to understand the practical everyday conflict between reporters and officials and how it developed. General Washington went to his grave hating the press, and with good reason. Longfellow said, "This country is not priest-ridden, but press-ridden." I once had an argument about the press with a parson who referred me as penance to the first three verses of the19th Chapter of the Gospel according to Luke: "And Jesus entered, and passed through Jericho. And behold there was a man named Zacchaeus . . . and he sought to see Jesus . . . and could not for the press. . . ."
The United States had a press before it had a foreign policy. This is a large part of the trouble between its writers and its officials today. The American press was telling the country and the world where to get off before there was a State Department. The eighteenth-century American pamphleteers not only helped write the Constitution but thought-with considerable justification-that they created the union. They believed that government power was potentially if not inevitably wicked and had to be watched, especially when applied in secret and abroad, and they wrote the rules so that the press would be among the watchers. In their more amiable moods, they no doubt conceded that the press should serve the country, but they insisted that the best way to serve it was to criticize its every act and thought, and something of this pugnacious spirit has persisted until now.
The natural and historical differences between the American diplomat and the American reporter are still the main cause of their present trouble. The American diplomat before the Second World War was trained in the days of our isolation to be a silent observer of world affairs. He was as discreet as a priest; he was supposed to know everything and to tell nothing. Even in America, let alone Britain, your ideal State Department man was as handsome as Joseph Grew and as elegant as Dean Acheson, or vice versa. In contrast, the American reporter, circa 1930, was a very gabby and even rakish fellow who was usually trained in the police court, the county courthouse, or, as in my own case, the sports press-box (where, incidentally, you had the consolation of knowing who had won at the end of the day). He was not discreet, but skeptical and often even impertinent. His general view of public officials was that they were probably up to something bad which the Founding Fathers had somehow appointed him personally to expose.
The American reporter of my generation was brought up to believe in the cocky frontier tradition of "publish and be damned," but the American diplomat of the same age quickly came to believe that if he helped you to publish the facts, he was likely to be damned, and this was only one of the conflicts that soon developed between the government and the press.
The conduct of foreign policy is a process that never ends; the production of a newspaper or a television news program is a miracle that has to be accomplished somehow on the split second. The Secretary of State must think in generations and continents, but the reporter thinks in "stories," in "minutes" and often in "fragments." One profession is quiet, the other noisy; one slow, the other fast; one precise, the other imprecise. What makes their relationship even more difficult is that they are stuck with one another. They are married without the possibility of divorce, separation or even an occasional period of quiet. The government is always acting and the press is always blabbing and criticizing, and what makes this alliance even more galling is that it is unequal.
There are actually only a few hundred American reporters, editors and commentators dealing primarily with foreign-policy questions all over the world, and those reaching the largest audience are not the well-known commentators but the news agency reporters who serve most daily American newspapers and the radio and television stations as well.
Two points of history' and geography are important to an understanding of the American news agency as the primary source of most foreign-policy news. Unlike Reuters in Britain, Havas in France and Wolff in Germany, the original American news agency, the Associated Press, was created not for private profit or government convenience but as a non-profit coöperative association to serve the newspapers that shared the costs. This had some significance, for since it had to serve editors of wholly different and conflicting views on domestic and foreign policy, it had to be as impartial, non-partisan and unbiased as possible. The result was that mutual distrust among American newspapers created the most accurate and trustworthy source of world news the world has ever seen, and with the advent of a second American world-wide news agency, now called United Press International, competition increased both the flow and the accuracy of the news.
The geographical point is more interesting and less encouraging. The American news agencies have to serve a vast continental country covering four different time zones, with some parts facing on the Pacific and some on the Atlantic, some looking north and some south, some living in arctic and some in tropical climates. Accordingly, news had to be written so that a news story on international trade could be filed at length for maritime cities interested in international commerce and briefly for agricultural towns concerned primarily with the price of corn. And vice versa. The news agencies had to devise a technique of writing the news so that each story could be adapted to the diverse needs and interests of widely varied communities.
Accordingly, they invented the "headline" or "all-purpose" agency news story which could be published at length in the large city papers or cut in half for the middle towns or reduced to a paragraph for the very small papers. This solution to a technical problem had results nobody in the A. P. or U. P. I. intended and certainly nobody in the State Department wanted. It tended to sharpen and inflate the news. It created a tradition of putting the most dramatic fact in the story first and then following it with paragraphs of decreasing importance. Thus it encouraged, not a balanced, but a startling presentation of the news, based on what one of my irreverent colleagues calls the "Christ, how the wind blew!" lead. This was fine for the news of wrecks or murders, but was a limiting and distorting device as news of foreign policy became more and more complicated.
The conflict between journalists and diplomats is getting worse instead of better for a variety of reasons. The press corps in the major capitals is getting so large that it is often smothering the news rather than covering it. When I started covering the State Department for The New York Times in 1941, Secretary of State Hull saw the "regulars" every weekday in his office. He could explain his policies, often in the most vivid Tennessee mountain language, read from the diplomatic cables if he felt like it, and indicate, with full assurance that his confidence would be respected, what was on the record and what had to be off the record. A generation later, the Secretary of State has to meet the reporters in an auditorium where everybody is wired for sound.
The change in the nature of war has also complicated the problem of reconciling the traditions of press and government. The nation is engaged in an underground war, an economic war, an intelligence war, in every continent of the earth. This requires a vast American secret service operation in the armed services and the Central Intelligence Agency. What it costs and all that it does are not disclosed, and this is not only necessary, but it is something comparatively new in American life, at least on the present scale. The old tradition of the American press is that anything a government hides, except in open and declared war, is wrong and should be exposed, but a press demanding unlimited freedom for this principle could in some cases risk the nation's freedom. Yet the problem cannot be solved simply by saying that the operations of the intelligence services of the government are none of the public's business. I knew for over a year that the United States was flying high-altitude planes (the U- 2) over the Soviet Union from a base in Pakistan to photograph military and particularly missile activities and bases, but The New York Times did not publish this fact until one of the planes was shot down in 1960. Was this a correct judgment? I think it was, but in other circumstances, the press is criticized for not printing intelligence and even military information.
The press, radio and television help create the atmosphere in which the nation lives. It is not an atmosphere that encourages calm reflection or wide perspectives, and it makes little allowance for the limitations of human frailty. We have transferred into the capitals of the world the American police-blotter definition of the news-which is the news of violence and contention, of the unusual rather than the usual-given it the voice of the radio and the eyes of the television camera and added the insistent shouts of the advertiser and the singing commercial.
There are, of course, advantages. The American people are given more information about events that affect their lives than any other people in the world. More Americans now see their public officials and hear them discuss public questions on television than ever before in the history of any sovereign state, but there are disadvantages, too. Casual conversation about delicate diplomatic questions is necessarily imprecise, while the language of diplomacy is supposed above everything else to be precise. Officials find the television interview more dangerous but more alluring than the private interview, for though what is said on television must stand as spoken, they can reach millions by television in no more time than it takes to talk quietly and privately to a single newspaper reporter.
In times of high controversy over policy, this constant public thrust and counter-thrust of criticism and defense, while inevitable in a democracy, has a serious effect on public officials. The more their policies are criticized, the more time they spend on defending their policies, until the words become as important as the acts and the defense of the policy takes on more meaning than the policy itself.
The energy devoted by the President and the Secretaries of State and Defense to the public-relations aspects of foreign policy is almost beyond calculation. When they are being criticized, they seem all the more eager to argue their case in public. If we really knew the cost of all this physical and nervous strain on the principal officers of our government, we would probably be appalled. The pressure merely of being agreeable to critics in the press and the Congress must by itself be a trial, and it certainly leaves little time for reflection on anything except the particular crisis in the headlines at the moment.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from all this is that neither the press, nor the Congress, nor the Executive Branch has yet adjusted effectively to the new demands of the age. We are all following the procedures that were no doubt adequate when foreign policy was a secondary consideration. At the State Department, the men who are available to most reporters are not informed, and the men who are informed are usually too busy with the crisis to be available. On Capitol Hill, each committee is sovereign and assumes that Cabinet officers have nothing else to do but to repeat the same testimony three or four times to three or four different committees. And in the news-gathering agencies we go on doing more or less what we did a generation ago.
Personally, I do not believe that the constitutional assumption that "the people know best" is a very reliable guide to the conduct of American foreign policy today. Similarly even the modern techniques for reporting foreign news are not yet adequate to the subject or to the need, but we should be careful about reaching the conclusion that the remedy lies with a less assertive press. It is not the press that is extending its power to the detriment of a sound balance between public opinion and foreign policy, but the President, whose power in this field is greater than that of any head of government in the modern world.
The question we have to ask is not about the President's interests, but about the public interest. No doubt both President and press will abuse their power from time to time, but where is the greater danger to the public interest-in the present power of the press or in the present power of the President?
I believe the power of the Presidency has been increasing steadily since the Second World War, particularly since the introduction of nuclear weapons, and that the power of the press and even of the Congress to restrain him has declined proportionately during this same period.
The Presidential power in the foreign field is in direct proportion to the size of the issue. The press can still embarrass him by premature disclosure of his plans, and the Congress can still oppose and even defy him on peripheral issues, but on the great acts of foreign policy, especially those involving the risk or even the act of war, he is more powerful in this age than in any other, freer to follow his own bent than any other single political leader in the world-and the larger and more fateful the issue, the greater is his authority to follow his own will.
As the leader of a world-wide coalition of nations engaged in constant contention with hostile forces in scores of different theaters of action or man?uvre, he is virtually assured of support once he proclaims his intentions. The Congress, of course, retains its power to deny him the funds to carry out his plans, but it cannot do so without repudiating him in the face of the enemy and assuming responsibility for the crisis that would surely follow.
President Johnson's use of the so-called Congressional Resolution on Viet Nam illustrates this point. The Congress did not initiate that resolution. It was written in the State Department and sent to Congress for approval on the morning after Communist P.T. boats made an unsuccessful attack on U.S. destroyers patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was not limited to the specific attack or even to the specific country at war. It asked the Congress to give the President authority to use whatever power "he" deemed necessary, not only in the Gulf of Tonkin or in Viet Nam but anywhere in all of Southeast Asia against any Communist aggression.
Obviously, the Congress complied, with very little debate and with only two dissenting votes. It could scarcely have done otherwise. It followed the procedure initiated by President Eisenhower in the Formosan and Lebanon resolutions of the fifties, and in similar situations in the future it is hard to imagine any Congress-even one dominated by the opposition party- doing otherwise.
The gravity of the issues since the advent of the cold war and atomic weapons has clearly enhanced the power of the President. In fact, I cannot think of a single major foreign-policy move any President wanted to make since the Second World War that he was unable to carry through because of the opposition of the press or of Congress.
President Wilson died believing that the balance of political power in America had swung so far toward the Senate that no President would ever be able to pass another major treaty. Yet President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, scattered treaty commitments all over the Middle East and South Asia with scarcely a dissenting voice in the Congress or in the press. President Kennedy waged one proxy war against Cuba, and risked a nuclear war with Russia over that same island without even asking the Congress. President Johnson sent more than 300,000 men to war in Viet Nam despite some sharp criticism from many of the nation's leading newspapers and commentators.
I do not say this is wrong, but merely that it is a fact of the nuclear age. In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President Kennedy was free to blockade Cuba, or bomb Havana, or, for that matter, to do nothing, on the excuse that we had missiles in Turkey, so why not Soviet missiles in Cuba? Eisenhower was free to send his bombers to Dien Bien Phu in 1953 to relieve the French, or to refuse to do so, just as he was free to go to the help of Hungary when it was invaded by the Red Army, or to pass by on the other side. President Johnson was obviously free to bomb North Viet Nam or not to bomb it, to negotiate with Hanoi or to blow it up, to mine the harbor of Haiphong or to leave it alone. No sovereign in history ever had such power or responsibility.
The press may report the news but the President makes it. If Senators are dominating the front pages with their protests against his foreign policy, and editors and professors are creating newsworthy disturbances on the university campuses and on the editorial pages, the President has a convenient remedy. He can divert public attention to himself. He can arrange a conference on an island in the Pacific, for example. Within 72 hours, he can bring the leaders of the nations on his side to a meeting that will arrest the interest of the world. Reporters and photographers will converge from all the capitals and fill the front pages with accounts of the proceedings, thereby overwhelming the less dramatic Senatorial mutterings.
This gives the President quite an edge. The reporters and commentators on the scene may see all this as an elaborate camouflage of realities and write their waspish critiques of the proceedings at his conference, but unless the great man is incorrigibly clumsy, which with the help of an experienced civil service he usually is not, the big front-page headlines will have much more effect than the witty chatter on page 32.
The two Roosevelts were the Presidents who first understood the primacy of news over opinion. Teddy Roosevelt used to joke that he "discovered Monday." He recognized that editors had little news on Sunday night and that if he held back his Presidential announcements until then, he got a better display on the front pages on Monday morning, even with secondary news, than he got on Wednesday with really important news. Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected to the Presidency four times against the overwhelming opposition of the American newspapers, was even better at dominating the news. He concentrated on the reporters and the front pages and vilified or scorned the commentators and the editorial pages.
Every President since then has understood the point. Europe has a press that elevates opinion; America a press, radio and television that emphasize news. The Lippmanns, the Krocks, the Alsops, have their audiences, and the brilliant young American satirists, Russell Baker of The New York Times and Art Buchwald of the Herald Tribune, tickle the intellectuals and often come nearer to the truth than all the solemn scribblers, but news is more powerful than opinion, and this is the point the politicians have understood.
Thus the President almost always has the initiative over both press and Congress if he chooses to use the instruments of power now at his command. He is no equal partner with the Congress in the conduct of foreign affairs, if he ever was. He and he alone is in constant communication with almost every other leader in the world. He can reach his own countrymen from his television studio in the White House whenever great events justify a request for network time. When the Congress is squabbling in the wings over Rule 22 or the intricacies of repealing Section 14-b of the Taft-Hartley Act, the President is constantly proclaiming the brotherhood of man, progress, generosity toward the weak and the elevation of the poor and underdeveloped.
There is a theory, widely advertised at annual meetings of editors and publishers, that the modern Presidential press conference is a restraining influence on the Chief Executive. According to this notion, the reporters are representatives of the people, like members of the British House of Commons, who have the power to make the great man answer questions, usually about his shortcomings or failures. There is a shred of truth in this, but not much more.
President Johnson demonstrated his command of the press conference in a very simple way. He knew that the Washington press corps was full of specialists, some of whom had devoted most of their careers to the study of foreign affairs, or the federal judiciary, or science or military affairs, and therefore not only knew their subjects, but probably knew more about them than he did. If he announced his news conferences in advance, they would come running with their well-informed and awkward inquiries. So he simply did not announce his news conferences.
He called them when only the White House correspondents were around, and then usually on the weekends when only a few of them were on duty. He held them in his own executive office, where he was not on display before the cameras, but talking intimately with the reporters who travel with him all the time and are not only familiar to him but subject to his system of punishments and rewards, which can be embarrassing to a reporter on a highly competitive beat.
The point here is not that this is wicked, but merely that nobody need grieve too mournfully over the fiction of a poor, defenseless President badgered by a pack of insensitive and irresponsible barbarians. There is nothing in the Constitution that obliges him to conduct his office for the convenience of reporters. If he is experienced enough to get to the White House, he is usually nimble enough to handle the reporters who work there.
Every President develops his own defenses in this situation. Franklin Roosevelt scorned and ridiculed his questioners. He once pinned a Nazi Iron Cross on John O'Donnell of the New York News during the Second World War and ordered Robert Post of The New York Times to put on a dunce cap and stand in the corner. Asking President Truman a question was like pitching batting practice to the Yankees. He decapitated you and then grinned. President Eisenhower was amiably incomprehensible. President Kennedy, the real master of "the game," was a witty computer. He either overwhelmed you with decimal points, or disarmed you with a smile and a wisecrack. And President Johnson learned early to apply to the press conference the technique of the Senate filibuster.
President Johnson held only nine formal news conferences last year and has had only one this year. This, however, distorts the record and does not clarify his method. No President in the history of the Republic has ever devoted so much time to reporters, editors and commentators. But he thinks of reporters in subjective rather than in objective terms, as individuals rather than as instruments of a free press in a free society; he sees them individually and at such length that the reporters themselves are often embarrassed to intrude so much on his other duties. It was not unusual last year for the President to sit casually in his rocking chair talking steadily to a reporter for a couple of hours, and sometimes even much longer than that.
This, of course, can be very helpful to the reporter concerned, but conversations of this length somehow imply, even if the President does not intend them to do so, a confidential, personal relationship that actually ties the reporter up more than it frees him to do his job. It is very difficult to sit and listen to a President explaining his terrible problems and narrow options without becoming sympathetic to the man and subjective about his policies. It is all the harder to remain detached about the range of topics discussed when he asks you what you would do in his place.
The power of the President to use the free press against itself is very great. If, for example, an influential columnist or commentator criticizes him for landing 25,000 Marines in the Dominican Republic to put down a rebellion, it is very easy for him to call in several other carefully selected commentators and give them the detailed argument for landing the Marines. He has all the vivid facts of the situation, and if he wants to put them out, he does not have to announce them himself. Other reporters will be perfectly willing to accommodate him, even though they know they are being used to knock down the story of another colleague.
The function of criticism itself has changed in an odd way during President Johnson's Administration. In the past, there has been a reasonable expectation among people writing political criticism that if they identified a problem, checked it out thoroughly, and proposed a reasonable remedy, publication of these things would be read within the government in good faith and maybe even considered worthy of executive action.
This is still true today on questions of policy, but if the topic deals with individuals in the Administration, the chances are that the criticism will perpetuate the situation criticized. For example, if you write today that a particular Cabinet member has been exhausted by overwork, and should be liberated for his own and the nation's good, you can be fairly sure that you have condemned that man to stay at his grindstone until everybody has forgotten that you ever mentioned him.
Also, if you learn that the President is going to do something on Friday and print it on Tuesday, this is likely to be regarded as an impertinence and a presumption which the President will punish by changing his plans. I once saw the speech President Johnson was going to make at the twentieth anniversary celebration of the founding of the United Nations and printed his plans for ending the financial crisis that was going on in the U.N. at that time. He was furious. He called in the Secretary of State the very night of publication, ordered the speech rewritten to eliminate the reported plans and made a different speech.
This is fair enough, but behind it there is a philosophic idea that has some disturbing possibilities. Bill Moyers, the White House press secretary, explained the President's view in these terms: "It is very important for a President to maintain up until the moment of decision his options, and for someone to speculate days or weeks in advance that he's going to do thus and thus is to deny to the President the latitude he needs in order to make, in the light of existing circumstances, the best possible decision."
No doubt this is true in many circumstances, but not in all. Is absolutely nothing to be printed about clandestine plans by the President to mount an illegal invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba for fear of interfering with the President's option to humiliate the country? Are the people to be denied information about Presidential options that will involve them in a war they have to finance and fight? If all Presidential options are to be protected from speculation "until the very last minute," what redress will there be the next day after the President has opted to dispatch the Marines or bomb Hanoi, or publish a request to wage war as "he" deems necessary all over Southeast Asia?
These are hard questions, and the answers are not that the Commander-in- Chief must telegraph all his punches in advance. But at the same time, the doctrine of "no speculation" before action, even on non-military matters, is something new in the catalogue of Presidential privilege.
In such a world, no doubt he needs all the advantages and privileges he can get. He has to take responsibility for his actions and we do not. He is the principal actor on the stage, but he did not write the script and may not even like the role. Therefore, he tries constantly to use whatever devices he can to ease the agony. He manages the news, as the heads of all institutions do, by emphasizing his successes and minimizing his losses. He has his own photographers constantly taking his picture and releases those that convey the impression of strong leadership or compassion or whatever other mood he wants to convey at the moment. All this is understandable, but we should not be fooled: the trend of power is running with the President, the danger of excessive use of power lies not in the newspapers but in the White House, and even the most casual look at the influence of reporters and commentators today makes this fairly obvious.
Never have reporters and commentators reached so many people in America with their news and views as they do now, or had so little power to influence the direction of the nation's foreign policy. The television network "stars" reach as many as 26 million viewers a night. They bring in their vivid reports on video tape from all the major capitals and battlefields of the world and occasionally even bounce them off man-made stars in transoceanic broadcasts, but the reaction of the public is quite different in the foreign field than in the national field.
A fundamental change has occurred in the attitude of the American people toward the government's conduct of foreign policy. In the old days, the people tended to believe the government was wrong until war was actually declared; now, confronted with torrents of ambiguous and often contradictory information about questions that could lead to war, the tendency is to assume the government is right. I believe the American reporters were nearer to the truth than the published government reports during the critical periods that preceded the indirect American invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the large American intervention in South Viet Nam in 1965, but the people paid little attention to those reports and the government was free to use its own judgment, which was not brilliant.
What influence the press has on the conduct of foreign policy often comes indirectly, not through the mass of the people, but mainly through the Congress of the United States. The relations between well-informed reporters in Washington and influential Senators and Congressmen are quite different from the relations between reporters and officials of the Executive Branch of the government. Officials in the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department, though polite and often friendly, almost always regard the reporter with suspicion.
Congressmen are different. Unlike officials of the Executive, they live most of the time in the open. They think the good opinion of the press is important to their reëlection, which interests them, so they see us and some of them even read us. Also, they are always making speeches and, like reporters, looking for mistakes to correct or criticize, especially if they are in the opposition. So the reporter and the Congressman are often natural allies. They exchange information in a discreet way, and sometimes in ways that are not so discreet. When the Administration comes to the Congressmen for its money, it has to answer their questions and justify its programs and in the process it discloses a lot of information which interests the press a great deal. Also reporters gather a great deal of information in foreign embassies from some of the finest diplomats in the world, and when this appears in the press, Congressmen often want to question Cabinet members about it, and can do so much more easily than the reporters who published it in the first place.
This relationship between reporters and diplomats is not only widely misunderstood but under-rated. Even well-informed and sophisticated Americans are often irritated by the toplofty pronouncements of American commentators, who seem to pass judgment on the Buddhists and Catholics in Viet Nam one day, explain the mysteries of Southern Rhodesia, the Congo and South Africa the next, psychoanalyze Senator Fulbright and Secretary of State Rusk on the third, and so on triumphantly through the week, without ever a doubt or a day of rest. It seems an impossibility and a presumption for any one man to know so much about so many things, but that is not the way it is.
Most of us are merely reporters of other men's ideas. Diplomats and reporters have one job in common: they have to report what is going on, the first to his government, the second to his paper or station. All the influential people in Washington may be furious about France but they will be polite to the French Ambassador. They will tell a thoughtful reporter what they really think about President de Gaulle's policy but they will probably pull their punches with Charles Lucet. Knowing this, the French Ambassador will often talk to a well-informed reporter. He will exchange information, but on one condition, namely that the source of the information is not disclosed.
Therefore, if the reporter is passing on information gathered by the French in Saigon or by the Canadian member of the International Control Commission on Viet Nam, he cannot disclose where he got the information. He must pretend that somehow, in his infinite knowledge and wisdom, this is the way things are, for he is obliged to indulge in "compulsory plagiarism."
In the process a great deal of useful information and political analysis is gathered. The diplomats are the unpaid stringers for the reporters, the reporters the unpaid tipsters for the diplomats. Ideas that professional diplomats might hesitate to mention to the Secretary of State, and information and analysis which the reporter probably would not have gathered in any other way, thus get into the newspapers, hopefully without propaganda, and may sometimes even be read by the President-which may have been what the diplomat had in mind in the first place.
In such ways, reporters and commentators do no doubt have influence. They keep the debate on foreign affairs going. We can irritate the President, divert him from his tasks, stir up his enemies, excite the public and force him to calm things down, and sometimes even make a persuasive point which he may modify a policy to meet. But his power is at the center of action and we are at the edge, and my conclusion from this is fairly plain. We may be a nuisance but we are not a menace. And the way power is running to the President, it would be unwise, I think, to concentrate too much on weakening whatever influence we have left.
In the State Department, which is not unduly frivolous, the Foreign Service officers have a fable. The grasshopper, worried about getting through the winter, sought advice from the cockroach, who seemed to thrive on cold weather. The cockroach was sympathetic. On the night of the first frost, he said, find a warm spot back of a radiator in a bakery, turn yourself into a cockroach, and stay there happily until spring. "But how," asked the grasshopper, "do I make myself into a cockroach?" "Look," said the cockroach, "I'm merely giving you policy guidance."
Most critics of the press and government give much the same kind of policy guidance: change and be saved, they say. Transform yourselves into something quite different from what you are. Stop giving the customers just anything they want-any amusement, any violence, anything that sells beer or cosmetics-and give them instead information they need to know to be good citizens in a democracy. You were not protected by the First Amendment in order to be a cheerleader for the status quo or your own social or economic class but to serve the general interest.
We will only fool ourselves if we think we are going to compete effectively for the mass mind against the voice of the hawker, or bring about vast changes in the present ways of making, reporting and listening to the news, but some things might be done in some important places to reach and enlarge what Carlyle called the vital "remnant" of thoughtful citizens.
Newspapers are no longer the first messengers of the spot news, and television has deprived the newspaper of the great "picture" story. As a result, the modern newspaper is searching for a new role, or should be, and that role lies in the field of thoughtful explanation, which tends to make it more of an ally of the official than a competitor. We are no longer in the transmitting business, but in the education business. In fact, the mass communications of this country probably have more effect on the American mind than all the schools and universities combined, and the problem is that neither the officials who run the government, nor the officials who run the newspapers, nor the radio and television news programs, have adjusted to that fact.
We are in trouble on the news side for a very simple reason: we have not kept our definition of news up to date. We are pretty good at reporting "happenings," particularly if they are dramatic; we are fascinated by events but not by the things that cause the events. We will send 500 correspondents to Viet Nam after the war breaks out, and fill the front pages with their reports, meanwhile ignoring the rest of the world, but we will not send five reporters there when the danger of war is developing, and even if we do, their reports of the danger will be minimized, by editors and officials alike, as "speculation" and hidden back among the brassiere ads, if they are not hung on the spike.
I believe we in the news business are going to have to twist ourselves around and see these wider perspectives of the news, the causes as well as the effects, what is going to happen in addition to what governments do. It is not governments that are transforming the world today, but the fertility of people, the creativity of scientists, the techniques of engineers and economists and the discoveries of physicians. Almost all governments in the world today are merely rushing around trying to keep up with the consequences of what is happening outside their own official offices. What the Roman Catholic Church does about birth control, for example, is probably going to be bigger news than what the Indian government does about it. The movement toward the unification of Europe did not start with governments but with private citizens like Jean Monnet. And it is being carried on by European businessmen-who like the larger markets and the fluidity of labor across national frontiers-rather than by governments.
Ideas are news, and we are not covering the news of the mind as we should. This is where rebellion, revolution and war start, but we minimize the conflict of ideas and emphasize the conflict in the streets, without relating the second to the first. If the Secretary of Defense says, for the thousandth time, that the United States has enough hydrogen bombs on airplanes and submarines to wipe out both China and the Soviet Union, even after they have destroyed every major city in the United States, he is assured a big boxcar headline on the front page of every big city newspaper in America and a prominent place on the Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley shows. But if some thoughtful professor makes a speech demonstrating that the destruction of the human race can be avoided, he may easily be ignored even in his home town.
What few practical suggestions can we make that may have some chance of acceptance in a few places? First, we are not likely to get more serious correspondence in the daily newspaper until we stop making analytical articles compete for space with spot news. There is always more spot news, much of it trivial rubbish, than any paper can print. It should not be impossible, however, to get the publishers of the big city newspapers to set aside a few columns of space every day for articles on the big issues. They do not make the recipes or the comics compete for space with spot news. They print them daily "for another reason," for a certain group of their readers, and the same thing could be done for their most thoughtful subscribers.
Second, the networks could do much more than they are now doing if they would put aside an hour each weekend to review the important news of the week and put it into some historical perspective. Congressional hearings which aim not to legislate but to educate have immense possibilities. Let the responsible committees of Congress explore the problems of population, of the Atlantic Alliance, of the balance of payments, of education and poverty-say one great issue every month or so-and let the networks carry the principal parts of the testimony for an hour at the weekend.
Third, much more could be done in the field of adult education on foreign affairs if the right kind of case studies were prepared and made available to study groups in the churches, service clubs and other non-government organizations. Some of this goes on, but the method of study is vital to its success. The problem, I believe, is to present the great issues as a series of practical choices: to let the people look at the alternatives as the President has to look at them and try at the end to decide between the hard and dangerous courses. We need simple case-study outlines containing first a statement of the facts; second, a definition of one course of action, followed by arguments for and arguments against; and so on through definition of a second course, and a third and a fourth. The difficulty with the presentation of foreign-policy news to the people today is that it comes out a jumble of important and trivial things and personalities, so that the people cannot quite get the questions for decision clear, and end up either by giving up, or choosing up sides for or against the President. Even the Sunday newspapers might find room in their endless pages and sections for a syndicated case study of the issue of the month, but if not there, the foundations might take the project on.
Fourth, if I may engage in a little heresy, it may be that news and analysis of news in a democracy are too serious to be left to newspapermen. The United States has been involved in the world now for two generations. We have developed in the process a very large company of men and women in the universities, the foundations, international business, communications and the government, who are well-informed on world affairs-some of them better informed on many subjects than any other people in the world. Unfortunately, they are not sharing with their fellow-countrymen a great deal of what they know.
The great opportunity of the daily newspaper is that it reaches people when they are paying attention. Galbraith can write a learned, amusing and provocative book about his diplomatic mission in India, which would probably come out when everybody's mind was on the Congo or the sad decline of the New York Yankees, and if he was lucky, 50,000 people would read it, but if he took a day in the middle of the Indian-Pakistani war to analyze the conflict for the newspapers he could have an attentive audience of easily 20,000,000.
We need more open pages, preferably next to the editorial pages, where the best minds of the world could give their analysis of current developments; where the vivid passages out of the best speeches and periodical articles and editorials of the world could appear; where we could find the philosophers worrying not about the particular bill of the day but the issue of the decade. These could, if edited by thoughtful minds, be among the liveliest pages in the daily newspaper and bring some sense of balance and history to contemporary events. The "Letters to the Editor" columns of most newspapers-this is not true of New York-have been dominated by publicists and crackpots for years. We should be able to do better than that and make them into an exciting forum for the exchange of ideas and even for criticism of the papers themselves.
These modest suggestions for broadening and deepening the flow of serious news in America are not really beyond the capacity of the big papers and stations, and they are not, in my view, against their long-range commercial interest. Also, if we let our reporters use their minds as well as their legs on serious inquiries and then print their findings, we will undoubtedly attract and keep more sensitive and perceptive men and women. At the same time, we should attract more and more of the intelligent young readers who are pouring out of our universities in an ever larger stream and expecting from their newspapers a much more detailed and sophisticated account of world affairs.
On the official side, too, some improvements are desirable and even possible. The attitude of the President toward the reporters is vital. If he regards them primarily as a problem and therefore tries to manipulate them, they eventually convey their suspicion and even hostility to the people. If, on the other hand, he regards them as an opportunity and tries to explain his problems to them, they can be a valuable educational force. It is the President, however, who has the initiative and the capacity to define the rules and set the tone of public discussion. A revival of the calm philosophic talk or the quiet "conversation," as typified by Roosevelt's fireside chat, could help keep the public mind on the larger questions and minimize the capacity of others to divert attention onto narrow personal issues.
There has been a decline, too, in recent years in the relations between the experts in the State Department and the reporters. The reason for this is that the experts know the President likes to dominate public announcements and are afraid that they might disclose something that would detonate his temper. And since the most useful information comes, not from the top leaders, but from the men who brief the leaders, this chokes down a very valuable stream of information.
No government in history ever received such a torrent of information from abroad as the United States Government does at present. Washington is inundated every day with reports on every imaginable problem. A good deal of this information is interesting and unclassified and could help nourish the flow of knowledge into the newspapers and periodicals of the nation, but it is not made available mainly because nobody thinks of making it available or because the idea has grown up that all this "belongs" to the government.
It should be possible for officials and reporters to do much better than they have done in discussing these problems and opportunities together. There is a great deal of chatter about it with the White House Press Secretary on the presidential press plane flying between Washington and Texas, but all suggestions for more formal committees to analyze and correct obvious shortcomings, or alternatively for the press to establish some way of correcting itself, have usually ended in useless vapor.
"If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind," John Adams wrote in 1815, "philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it."
I am more hopeful. There is some reason to believe that the old conflict will diminish in time. Powerful forces are working for coexistence. In his own interest, the reporter is having to become an educator, and the more he concentrates upon explaining the news instead of being first with the news, the more the official will want to coöperate with him.