The Press and the Presidency

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jody Powell
VTR: 5/12/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Surely it’s important that attention be paid when someone considered among the best press secretaries ever to serve a president of the United States concludes at the end of his four years in the White House that, “the relationship between the press and the presidency is seriously flawed. That it fails to provide the president with an adequate channel for communicating with, for moving, shaping and directing the popular will. Perhaps more important, it also fails to provide the nation with the quantity and quality or reasonably accurate information its citizens need to make the decisions necessary for self-government.” Well, that’s Jody Powell’s point of view in The Other Side of the Story, the William Morrow book just written by this intrepid press secretary to Jimmy Carter when Mr. Carter was governor of Georgia, and then when he was president of the United States.

Thank you for joining me today, Mr. Powell. I know that the book, The Other Side of the Story, seems to indicate, at least to me as one of its readers, that you may have the feeling that there is really n o way in which the institution of the press as its now developed, the dynamics of the press as it is, can really serve this country in terms of what it does with the communications of the president’s ideas. Is that a fair statement?

POWELL: I don’t think it does the job that it ought to do. In fact, I think it falls far short of that, and that the press occupies such a tremendously important role in our society and our system of government, and I think there are some things that could be done to make it work better. It’s not going to be perfect. We know none of our institutions are perfect. But it could be a damn sight better than it is now.

HEFFNER: Is there a reluctance to make it a damn sight better?

POWELL: Well, I think so. And I think there is quite often a reluctance among journalists to admit that there is any problem to speak of at all. At least any sort of problem that’s serious enough for anyone to be worried about. And that’s one of the things I’ve tried to do here is not just to make general statements about problems and theories, but to cite specific examples of stories, of behavior by the press that are considered to be wrong.

HEFFNER: Okay, you do go through chapter and verse in your chapters and verse about the less than desirable behavior in your estimation of a number of your new colleagues in the press. But I had the feeling too that you believe that the very dynamics of press coverage in this country may make it impossible to do anything better than that.

POWELL: Well, there are certainly pressures in the fourth estate as an institution that sometimes work against accurate, balanced, that quantity and quality of information that we were talking about before. That’s not so unusual. Every institution has those pressures, that tendency to work against the public good. The problem as I see it with the press is that there is an inadequate constraint on those selfish and those improper sorts of pressures. There is — not to put too fine a point on it – but there is a lack of fear about what will happen to you as a journalist if you do something that’s wrong, if you make a serious mistake, if you violate the standards of ethics and so forth.

HEFFNER: You mean you would like to see a little fear?

POWELL: I think I’m a great believer in individual conscience. But one of the things I believe about it is that it’s just usually not enough to make most of us do what’s right.

HEFFNER: Okay. You don’t expect them to believe they’re going to burn in hell.

POWELL: Well, what I believe is that the best way to get people – most people, including myself – to do what’s right is to introduce into their hearts and minds a healthy fear of what will happen to them if they do what’s wrong. And I think that is what is lacking in journalism, that healthy fear of what will happen to you if you do what’s wrong.

HEFFNER: Now look, I find it very difficult to believe that you as a journalist now really want the quotient of fear in those who present to the American public the story of what goes on around them in this world. No concern for the First Amendment?

POWELL: Or rather a great deal of concern for the First Amendment. In fact, I happen to believe that the most serious long-term threat to the First Amendment, at least the first Amendment as we know it today, is the growing distrust in the press on the part of the American public. And the best way to protect the first Amendment and the First Amendment rights as we know them today is for the press to get busy in cleaning up its own house and putting a short rein on journalists who discredit the institution, who violate reasonable standards of ethics.

HEFFNER: Who’s going to put this short rein on them?

POWELL: Well, you know, I don’t see why journalists shouldn’t apply something like the same standards of ethics to other journalists that they do to other powerful institutions in our society. If ABC blows its coverage of a major story and thereby misinforms tens of millions of people, why shouldn’t CBS consider it part of that new organization’s responsibility to answer the public’s legitimate questions about what went wrong, who was responsible, and what’s being done to see that it doesn’t happen again? The same thing can be said if The New York Times accuses someone of some grievous wrongdoing based on flimsy evidence and serious questions are raised about it, why shouldn’t The Washington Post and/or The Wall Street Journal and/or The Los Angeles Times look into those questions just as they would if a spokesman in government or a government official made a statement that was highly questionable and had a serious impact?

HEFFNER: Well, we both know that at this particular moment as we tape this show The Wall Street Journal is doing just that. But generally the press has not embraced that idea of a kind of fearful, almost coercive sense of responsibility. The National News Council has just gone under.

POWELL: That’s exactly right.

HEFFNER: But where then do you derive the notion that this can be done, if it has not been done?

POWELL: I don’t know if it can be done. There is some reason for encouragement, as you said. We have had a few cases, and I think a few more than normal over the past few years, in which one news organization was willing to take a serious look at something that was done by another news organization. We had the Janet Cooke case with The Post in which I think The Wall Street Journal probably did the best job of covering that. We’ve got cases going on not only with The Wall Street Journal but also with CBS involving allegations of abuse of power in a financial sense on the part of journalists. And there is, I think, a little more willingness to do that now than there has been in the past. It ought to be a heck of a lot more.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about the use of fear, and you talk about reining in irresponsible journalists. The people who have sat in the seat in which you sit now most frequently talk about the chilling effect of this activity or that activity on the part of government. And I wonder whether your present journalistic involvement doesn’t make you want to take the edge just a little bit off of that business of reining them in and the use of fear. Well, it depends on what you mean by “reining in,” who’s doing the reining. I am not in favor of government doing that. I will say parenthetically that I think the libel laws, particularly as they apply to libel against public figures, ought to be toughened up a bit. But beyond that, I don’t want government in there setting standards, introducing that fear. What I want is the same sort of fear that a person in, let’s say, the Department of Commerce might have. If that person makes a serious mistake or if that person is involved in some sort of improper behavior, one of the things that he has or she has to worry about is that some reporter is going to be looking over their shoulder, and that mistake or that unethical act is going to be held up to public censure and ridicule. Now that is the sort of fear I’m talking about. This is the sort of fear, that sort of concern that helps keep government and politics from being any worse than it is, and that is the sort of fear, the sort of constraint or restraint, that does not exist in journalism to any appreciable extent.

But most of us, when we say something ought to be, and “They ought to do this and by gosh, this ought to be done this way,” usually reserve a little bit of ourselves that will say, “If they don’t, if they don’t live up to this responsibility, then something will happen.” What do you want to have happen?

POWELL: Well, that’s where I would draw the line: the imposition of sanctions by some sort of outside group. Now, I think that if we could just get journalists worried about having their decision and their behavior questioned by other journalists, having someone looking over their shoulder, that would provide sufficient improvement. That it would be like night and day to compare it to what we’re dealing with now. I think anybody who has been involved with the press over a long period of time can cite the same sort of examples that I cite, and name many of the same names from Walter Cronkite to Evans and Novak to Joe Craft, Leslie Stahl or Sam Donaldson. You know, cases where injustice took place and was never set right.

HEFFNER: I guess when I read your book I was thinking back to the research that Jane Balway did, and she brought me this very interesting New York Times piece on Jody Powell. It appeared just at the end of the Carter administration. And there’s this wonderful part here where he says, “Nowhere has this been more evident (your own feelings) than in his occasional resentment of the press when he feels that many of its members have stood in the way of what he regards as the president’s right to speak directly to the public.” If I remember correctly, that has been the complaint of most presidents, or it certainly was the complaint of Richard Nixon. Certainly it has been the complaint, except that he’s overridden that complaint himself, of Ronald Reagan. Is this endemic to the people who sit in the White House?

POWELL: Well, to some extent it is. And the only point I would make – well, let me make two, one. Just because Richard Nixon said it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Richard Nixon was right about some things. He happened to have been right about…in some cases he was right about the press. And just because these are common complaints from press secretaries, from politicians, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Look at the examples. Look at what the press did. And then make your judgment about whether or not this is the sort of thing that ought to go on. And if it’s not, maybe we ought not to scout around for what we can do to cut down on it a little bit.

HEFFNER: Are you approving of the steps that have been taken in the Reagan administration to deal with this problem that you had to deal with in the Carter administration?

POWELL: I’m ambivalent about that. On the one hand, I can’t help but admire speaking with the old press secretary’s hat on. The degree to which this administration sort of called the bluff of the fourth estate, they have kept them at a distance. They have controlled, to a greater degree than I would have thought possible, the flow of information. And they’ve done very well with it. And I think future administrations of either party are going to learn a good deal from this sort of press strategy, and there’s going to be a tendency to copy it in one way or the other. On the other hand, in terms of an informed public and with my new special interests as a journalist myself, a columnist trying to find out what’s going on, what’s really happening, what it all really means. I actually, it cuts a little bit the other way. I’m not quite as happy with it.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this question from a different perspective. You’re no longer press secretary to the president of the United States. Forget for a moment your involvement in journalism. As a citizen, as a person concerned with the wellbeing of his country (and I know you are), do you think we are better off for the admirable way you’ve admired it in part that the Reagan administration has handled the flow of information?

POWELL: No, I don’t in the long term. I don’t. Because it’s hard to judge sort of what’s behind the screen, so you don’t know how much worse off we might be. But the fact is that we know less about what is going on inside that administration than we have in the administration in quite some time. And that makes me nervous as a citizen. Forget, as you say, a journalist.

HEFFNER: Would you have taken the same position in terms of Grenada as the present administration did?

POWELL: I certainly would have, at least on the initial question. And I think that’s a case where the press behaved not as sort of the representative of the public, but as a special interest pleading the special case.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “It behaved?” It had no opportunity to behave.

POWELL: Well, in terms of the reaction. I think the administration, from what I know about it, has been able to find out about it, was legitimate in their decision not to inform the press ahead of time. And indeed I think I would have to agree with their decision that when they were asked about it before it took place, the decision to deceive, even to lie to the press about it. I think government has that right when you’re talking about a military operation and lives can be at stake. Once you get past that point, and where I part company with the administration on Grenada, is their decision after the troops were on the island, after there was no question of a breach of security in terms of the surprise attack and all that, there’s no excuse on this earth for not letting the press into cover what was going on. And beyond that, for people at the Pentagon to stand up and for people at the White House indeed to stand up and say, “Well, this was a decision made at the Pentagon,” and the people at the Pentagon to say, “Well, the reason we did this is because we’re deeply concerned about the health and safety of the journalists.” Now everybody knows that’s a bunch of bunk.

HEFFNER: Nobody is.

POWELL: (Laughter) Well, except perhaps for the journalists themselves.

HEFFNER: Do you feel this way to some extent because you see a parallel to your own position at the time of the rescue mission at the end of the Carter administration?

POWELL: There’s no doubt that that has an impact. That was one of the few occasions on which I lied to the press. And I felt then and feel now that it was justified, and that to have done otherwise would have jeopardized lives and certainly the security of that mission. And although I regret that the situation developed, if I had to do it over again I would do it over again.

HEFFNER: At the time of Grenada, I too thought of your role at the time of the rescue mission. It seemed to me at the time, and perhaps you could challenge this, that you had much more justification on your side than the present administration did in Grenada. Do you really see such a close parallel?’

POWELL: I see enough of a parallel. And those sort of things are of such ultimate importance that you really can’t cut them too close. And at the very least I am willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on that initial decision. It may have been that the administration…Larry Speaks, could have taken the CBS reporter into his confidence, answered the question truthfully, gotten a pledge of secrecy, and maybe nothing else would have happened. I just think that was a risk that he should not have run, and had I been in his place I probably would not have run that sort of risk either.

HEFFNER: If you took out the crystal ball and looked to the future, what do you think will happen to this question of the relationship of the press to the government? What do you anticipate? Fear and reining in, or a continuation of the same?

POWELL: I wish I could say that I thought journalists would read this book, be convinced of the error of their ways, and decide to do something about it. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, at least not the first part of next week. I’ve been surprised at how many reporters in Washington have come to me privately after having read this and said, “I got to admit you got a point there. Stay at it.” And I hope that it will at the very least provoke some discussion, some fussing and fighting and scrambling around, because I think it’s a subject that needs to be aired. And I do think over the long term that the press is going to begin to cover the press and journalism more extensively than it has in the past. I think that’s almost inevitable, and almost entirely to the good.

HEFFNER: Of course it’s interesting that you call your book The Other Side of the Story, and you recognize that there is the other side too.

POWELL: Exactly.

HEFFNER: But you seem to believe that the other side from yours is the one that’s almost invariably presented to the public, and so you had to make this point, you had to come out with a refutation of what was said during the Carter administration.

POWELL: Well, in these particular cases, I mean, this is not a memoir of the Carter administration. It’s not even a defense of the Carter administration. It is basically a critique of the press. It doesn’t try to deal with all the things that the press does right. It doesn’t try to deal with all the stories that have been written over the past seven or eight years that were great stories. It doesn’t try to deal with all the things that the Carter administration may have done wrong. But the purpose of it is to say, “Look, I think there are these problems in the way the press operates. Here are some specific examples of what was done, some account, some real-life facts to back it up. And here’s what I think we might want to do about it.” So it’s not a balanced book in the sense of trying to deal with a whole administration or the Carter and the Reagan administration. It is a critique. It’s what I think is wrong with the business.

HEFFNER: I looked through The Other Side of the Story for some sense of “Here is the point.” It is a competitive situation. It is a business. And I don’t find you pointing particularly much to the economics of press coverage and finding in it perhaps the basis for your concern.

POWELL: Well, as a matter of fact I think at the outset I make the point that the most important fundamental, dangerous bias in the press is a bias not political or ideological, but economic in its basis.

HEFFNER: But then it’s gone. But then it’s gone.

POWELL: And that the thrust of it that what this means is that the push in the press is toward making things interesting and exciting and saleable. And I think if you go through most of the examples that I list there you’ll find that that is the basis for what went wrong, if you look at Jack Anderson making claims about an invasion of Iran, or if you look at Sam Donaldson…

HEFFNER: Your colleague.

POWELL: My colleague now, yes indeed. And making, sort of beating on a story about American troops going to the Middle East, or Leslie Stahl stealing a story from a colleague, or the Walter Cronkite show allowing a story to lead their evening news that even Cronkite now says was one of the worst pieces of journalism he’s ever been involved with…the basis for all of that was ambition and greed and the desire to sell, a desire to get ahead, which is fundamentally economic, although I suppose there are some psychological things there too, and that that sort of thing is, it exists with all of us, but it is less restrained in journalism than it is in most other institutions.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Powell, don’t you then have to come back to that central point, indeed if you do feel that it is the central point, and beat that for a while rather than engage in anecdotes – and the anecdotes are delightful, whatever side you might be on…it’s nice to read Jody Powell on The Other Side of the Story – but analysis, something really to be done beyond proclaiming that something out to be done? It’s not really there.

POWELL: Well, it seems to me that we may disagree about whether it will be done or whether it would work, but it seems to me that the best answer, and the one that I propose, is that journalists begin to cover other journalists, and that we have the press looking over the shoulder of the way the press operates in somewhat the same manner that the press looks over the shoulder of people in government or business or labor. And there are some specific things I would like to see. For example: journalists who cover the White House submit themselves to the same financial disclosure requirements as people who work in the White House. And I’d like to see journalists that cover the Congress or journalists that cover the federal agencies do the same sort of things. We just talked about two situations in which journalists basically betrayed their trust and violated the ethical standard of their profession out of pursuit of the almighty dollar. We don’t have any way of knowing whether or not at this point – and most news organizations have no way of knowing – whether the reporter they have covering energy policy has a financial conflict because of investment in companies that have an interest in the shape of that policy.

HEFFNER: Are you saying this because you think this plays a large role in what is wrong with the relationship between the White House and the press?

POWELL: I’m saying it for two reasons: One, basically we don’t know. I think there’s enough evidence for us to at least be suspicious about it. There is perhaps a somewhat less straightforward reason there, and that is that I think it would help journalists to walk a mile in the other fellow’s shoes. And I think for them to have to sit down and list their own financial entanglement s and realize what could be made of those if someone wanted to place the worst possible interpretation on every action might help them understand the predicament that people in other walks of life find themselves in on occasion.

HEFFNER: If what you’re asking for were in fact in place today, do you think that we would think the better of Ed Meese or would have thought the better of Burt Lance?

POWELL: I’m not sure about that, and I almost don’t care about that, about the Ed Meese or the Burt Lance situation. I would feel a lot more confident in what I get from, through the media if I know that somebody was looking out for that sort of thing. And I would feel better about it if I felt like journalists on the whole understood a little bit better the sort of standards that they were setting for everybody else.

HEFFNER: Do you want a little more of the adversarial procedure dumped on the journalists?

POWELL: I think the answer, the bottom line is more competition and a more intense competition. And the willingness for ABC to take on CBS in terms of their accuracy and so forth in the same way that a Walter Mondale will take on a Gary Hart or vice versa. I think that sort of competition in politics, where you stand up and if your opponent is not telling the truth or if you don’t think he’s telling the truth, you make the accusation. I think that’s healthy. I think that contributes in the political process, and I think we could darn sure use some of it in journalism too.

HEFFNER: Of course it is that competitive process that, in a sense, as you suggest, that leads to the very kinds of outrageous things that you’ve been talking about.

POWELL: Exactly. We’re getting all of the downside of competition and none of the good side. We have almost a conspiracy of silence in journalism. We will as journalists ruin someone’s reputation in order to sell newspapers or in order to attract viewers. But what we won’t do is criticize a fellow journalist even when we know that person is not and has not on a continuing basis lived up to the sort of standards of competence and ethics that we demand of other people. You make my point for me. We get the downside of it; we’re not getting the positive, the plus side of competition.

HEFFNER: We’re getting the cut sign and I have to stop. But I’d love so much to know about what you would do as an individual press man to blow the whistle yourself.

POWELL: I write two columns a week, and over the past years I’ve probably written at least a dozen in which I have gone specifically after news organizations and stories that I consider to be unfair or wrong.

HEFFNER: I should have brought a whistle with me. Thanks very much for joining me today, Mr. Powell.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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