Responsibility of Contemporary Journalists

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Rosenblatt
Title: “Responsibility of Contemporary Journalists”
VTR: 1/12/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I would comment once again on what an enormous luxury it is to be able comfortably to sit with a colleague or new-found friend, debate with him on topics that at least seem to loom large in our times, and then to invite him here so that we can share our differences somewhat more publicly.

A senior writer at Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt has graced it with dozens of essays that are themselves the epitome of grace and style as well as content. Well, recently we talked here on THE OPEN MIND about this brilliant journalist/essayist’s profoundly touching new book on The Children of War. And then later we came upon our debate about the right stuff and the wrong stuff in contemporary journalism. Mostly because its practitioners loom so large in the molding of our public attitudes, our public opinion, and I at least, think, in the process too often go astray by ignoring their responsibility to act like historians, albeit of the present rather than the past.

Now, Roger, the fact of the matter is you were raking me over the coals for my assumption in that discussion that journalists have the responsibilities of the historians. Why? Do you still think so? Did I convince you otherwise?

ROSENBLATT: No. I think of historians as doing something different from what journalists do. A journalist – you talked about historians of the moment, and that seems to me a contradiction – a journalist takes a look at what is happening, tries to be honest and if it works, stylish in his representation of what is happening. But he looks at a Monday and a Tuesday and a Wednesday discreetly, and he can change his mind according to the facts any of those days. Historians have the advantage and therefore the obligation, the advantage of looking at the sequence of events from a different perspective, from a higher perspective. And what they then do with those events in sequence is to try to understand them in terms of patterns that might have started long before that particular sequence of events and anticipate our consequences that will follow along after. These aren’t the burdens of the journalist, and I don’t think they’re the proper purview or responsibility of the journalist. Journalism wants to tell you what’s happening now as well, as clearly, as truthfully as possible.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting, you say these aren’t the burdens of the journalist; they are the burdens of the historian. Which the historian can carry well or ill, depending upon his resources, depending upon his time, depending upon the ability that he has to dig into the real records of the past. Why aren’t the standards the same though with the journalist somewhat less able to carry them out?

ROSENBLATT: Well, for one thing, there’s the element of practicality. A journalist, speaking as a weekily journalist on one of the news weeklies, the daily journalist on a newspaper finds himself in the position of catching up with surprises most of the time. No different from a reader or a viewer on television. Something happens in Angola, it’s an explosion, something happens in Argentina, it’s a sudden event, an eruption in Brazil or an eruption in Great Britain. And then you catch up and you find out what happened. Well, that takes a certain amount of work there. What really happened there. Not what you guess had happened or what you think ought to have happened or might have happened as a result of past history. To avoid that guesswork seems to me actually to entail a virtue. You’re not saying, “Ah, well, this ought to have happened”, or “This was a likely consequence because I know so much about the region”. You ask definitely and clearly what did happen at two o’clock on that Thursday. It takes a while to know that. First of all, as you know, because the systems of reporting are various and often panicky. Once you know that and present it clearly, in my judgment, you’ve fulfilled your obligation. Now, you may go back after a month and write in a magazine article that looks at things in perspective, after five years take a look, and then you’re coming closer to what at least I regard as the role of the historian. But not at the moment you’re doing your job.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Roger, isn’t it true that at the moment, in terms not just of weeklies, but of dailies, journalists do take upon themselves the same mantle of perspective? Now, you’re saying, “Let’s be practical. The daily journalist, the weekly journalist can only do this, this, or this”. But when one reads the weeklies, Time, Newsweek, others, and the dailies, one seems to be reading those who are saying they are more than momentary scribbles.

ROSENBLATT: I think you’re right. I think the trouble is that you’re dealing in not just the way the journalist understands events, but the way the public understands events as well. After all, they’re not that far apart. One is providing some sort of communication for the other. And one is the only source of news for the other. Journalists are not in high repute now. But that is as much folklore and habit of mind in the country, and maybe habit of mind all over, as it is fact. The fact is, where else are you going to get your news? You’re going to get your news from journalists. Therefore, like doctors or lawyers, you may dislike them as a profession, but you still find a necessary niche for them in society. But how is a citizen supposed to make a judgment of a candidate in a presidential election? How is a citizen supposed to make a full, perspicacious judgment there? How is the citizen supposed to make a judgment of the likelihood of a war, of the likelihood of a peace, or the rightness of a report? So the journalist can provide what has happened, and he can provide some perspective – not a great deal – some perspective as a result of having looked at a situation, providing he’s had that particular advantage in a particular situation. But beyond that, in a sense, they go together towards the understanding of the event. And the honest journalist would change his mind or change his view as the facts demand.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you almost seem to be describing, seem to me at any rate, to be describing the historian. Not the historian of the ancient past, but the historian of the recent past, in what you say the public looks for in its daily newspaper, certainly in its weekly newspaper. The molding of opinion, of the changing perception, the setting of the scene. Remember, in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, which I always thought was the best of all books, it was so clear that the momentary scribbling was setting the scene for us, was helping establish the pictures in our head by which we came to understand the world around us. Now, why shouldn’t we impose upon those scribblers?

ROSENBLATT: Well, you would be the first to admit that from Walter Lippmann you did not get any sense of the danger of Nazi Germany. Now the reason…

HEFFNER: What kind of comment is that? Seriously.

ROSENBLATT: Well, it’s a, I try to make it a clear comment, the reason for which being he had personal feelings and attitudes and fears about the situation of the Jews in Germany that impeded his judgment as a, fill in the blank, as a journalist, as a commentator, as a historian. If you were looking to Walter Lippmann, as you now suggest you did, for the accurate history of that particular period, you would find that wanting in the extreme, and that he would have let you down on his own standards.

HEFFNER: Absolutely. But what I was looking to Lippmann for in this instance, not his expertise on foreign affairs or on Nazi Germany, but for the position of the journalist. Now, you are talking about him as a journalist, and you seem to be demonstrating that it’s the quality of the journalist and the capacity to apply the standards that I think most historians do apply to their writings. And you’re saying that Lippmann didn’t. And I think you’re absolutely correct when it comes to his picture of the Germans.

ROSENBLATT: Well, I don’t, I don’t want to get a too inflated view of historians either. And when we talk about historians we’re talking about people who also interpret the past, and we don’t know if we’re getting the truth in greater doses from historians than we do from journalists. I’m talking bout the purposes of the profession, or at least the purposeful designs of the profession. I think a journalist is wise, at any rate, is level-headed to keep history in small doses. The historian has another set of obligations, and then has to look to his own conscience as to whether he’s interpreting history or the long scale of events properly. But I do think the figures are quite different, and I think the responsibilities are quite different. I think journalists get into trouble if they think of themselves as historians.

HEFFNER: And I guess my feeling, when we had that discussion, is that journalists get themselves and all the rest of us in trouble when they don’t assume responsibility to whatever extent they can of the historian.

ROSENBLATT: You seem to be saying that the responsibility of the historian is equal to a sense of responsibility in journalism. And I don’t say that. And there we started to come, if our roads started to come closer we wouldn’t disagree. Journalists have their responsibilities. In my mind, they’re not just the academic or intellectual responsibilities of historians. They’re the responsibilities of the journalist. To try to tell the truth, to make sure people know what happened as much as they can, and to give a fair representation of most sides, all the sides they can see, so that people are capable of reaching judgments on their own. In a way, a journalist comes closer to a writer of fiction – I don’t mean this in the sense of the absence of truth – but a good writer of fiction than to the historian in that we would ask of that writer of fiction not to draw too many conclusions, not to spell out exactly what happened, but just to who said what when, what was he wearing, what did he look like, what was the tone like. Now, here I’m talking about reporters. If you’re talking about journalistic opinion, that’s another matter.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting that you make that, draw that parallel between the journalist, the news-gathering new reporter and the fiction writer. But I was reading through Time magazine, turning back to Independence Day, July 4, 1983. And there an essay by Roger Rosenblatt: “For a hundred years rural reporters have provided a basic service apart from increasing the profits of their employers: cynicism.” Quote, “If it is a solitary profession, it is also a kind of loving involvement with history”, as you quoted the author of “Buying the Night Flight”. Now, what did you mean by that, if you didn’t mean what I mean by the correspondents’, the reporters’, the journalists’ responsibilities?

ROSENBLATT: A journalist is taking a walk, a purposeful, alert walk through a book. He doesn’t know where the book started, he doesn’t know where the book’s going to end. He doesn’t know the full dimensions of the book, he doesn’t know the full style of the book or the size. He doesn’t know if the book is singular or a part of a multi-volume set. He takes a walk and he points to this, this and this. Ergo, his involvement with history. But it’s not history. He’s not creating history, and he’s not the historian in charge of the book or the multi-volume set. That’s the distinction I wanted to make.

HEFFNER: You know, I was thinking when you said that about the late Lester Markel, back at The New York Times. I remember doing an OPEN MIND program with Lester, oh, at a time when I think I was as many years old as he had been the editor of the Sunday New York Times and he made that point to me quite clearly. And he was one always for talking about the importance of the journalist sitting in perspective and always saying and doing what the historian does or should do. But I want to ask you whether you feel, from your perspective, from your understanding of whatever the journalist’s obligations are, strengths, weaknesses, whether you feel satisfied as you look at the journalistic world about you today in this country, how satisfied you feel, how dissatisfied.

ROSENBLATT: Let me start with the satisfying, perhaps because it’s more easily dismissed. And you remember and it would be obvious that I’m speaking from the point of view of the beleaguered and over privileged journalist. I think journalism does a very good job generally now in what it’s supposed to do. I think it does a better job than it used to do. I think there are things that have made that so. We had not too long ago in this country a series of papers where you’d find editorials that said the most irresponsible things, required no forms of proof, didn’t have, didn’t feel any obligation to be fair, because they wanted Smith to win this race for alderman, or they wanted Jones out. Now, if you point to a weakness that maybe you have too much on the one hand, on the other hand, but you do have a felt obligation on the part of editorialists specifically to be fair, to be balanced in their views, and you find far fewer cases that seem to be shaking fists or wielding bats and saying vote this way or oppose this war, or worse, start up this war.

What you may find in the opposition to the press is a dissatisfaction with this new homogenization of the news. Maybe the press looks too much alike now. Now here we go with some dissatisfactions. And maybe we’re all trying the same thing. This observation was made in what seemed to me to be a really fine article on the press by my colleague Bill Henry in, it’s a cover story in Time…and as soon as I read it it rang true. Maybe we’d like a little bit. Maybe we’d like to choose among the various sides and get into a literary or journalistic gang war in terms of what side we’d be on. Here is the conservative paper, here’s the radical paper, etcetera. But I think those things are dangerous in the extreme. And I think this in the extreme is at worst boring…what I talked about before, that is the balancing on the one side or the other side. I would rather have boredom than a conflagration. But what I suppose is what I, that at best in journalism seems to be doing well enough now. We don’t get either of those things; we get a fair opinion, a fairly stated opinion. So I think, in short, I think the profession as a wielder of opinion is in good shape, much better shape than it’s given credit for.

HEFFNER: Well, if I remember, and I’m just digging through to find that Time cover story, but I remember it well. And I remember its reporting what you a moment ago, a few moments ago, called “the current myth”, reporting the basic dissatisfaction of the part of a great many people in this country about the nature of the American press. And it hardly had to do with boredom. It certainly had much more to do not just with sameness, but with attack, attack, attack, a kind of hostility on the part of the press toward everyone else. Isn’t that a…

ROSENBLATT: I think it’s a fair complaint. I don’t, I’m not sure that the number of attacks is a great number. But the virulence of attacks is wrong and unpleasant to see. And it also smacks of cheapness and amateurism and the idea of making yourself important by attacking somebody, which is a pitfall of the young journalist now in particular, but older ones as well.

HEFFNER: You’re a gentleman of great good taste. And it’s interesting to me that you focus on that. What about the concern for what happens to an under-educated public because of a hostile press? Isn’t that a major concern of yours, what happens to those of us whose opinions have to be formed on the basis of what we read in the papers, what we see and hear on television and radio?

ROSENBLATT: Well, yes. But I guess I could come down and say that I don’t think in the main that the public is under-educated. And that in the main again, this profession does a good job in telling the public what really is at issue and important things. There are the exceptions, and the exceptions, as in most professions, tend to stick out. When they stick out they become the enemies of the public. But I don’t think that the relationship between the press and the public is one of hostility essentially. I think it’s one of friction and one of tension; but I don’t think it’s one of content. And I think if you take a cool look at most publications they’ll bear me out.

HEFFNER: You know, I realized I touched a sore nerve before when I talked about Lippmann. One of my, the book being one of my, Public Opinion being one of the heroic books for me, of our times. I realized I touched that nerve. But if we were to go to the book and its emphasis upon the formulation of public opinion, are you as much concerned as he was and as I am about the phenomenon of the development and the creation of public opinion through the scribblings and the mouthings of journalists?

ROSENBLATT: Yes. And I must say you touched no sore nerve in the terms of my admiration for him. And what I mean to say, if I wasn’t clear, was that because of that, I think Lippmann did the work as well as it has ever been done, maybe as well as it will ever be done, the formulation of public opinion. But what I thought you were saying was, here was a man speaking for the role of the journalist as historian. And so I, mean-spirited as ever, picked out a fact of his life that delimited…

HEFFNER: His role as a historian.

ROSENBLATT: That’s right. Delimited his role as a historian. And therefore the contention that the journalist is not a historian seemed to me to hold. What he says in general about the journalist forming, helping to form public opinion is fine. But I think also a journalist trusts the public and its opinion.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

ROSENBLATT: Well, it gives enough of the facts each day, and enough of the ideas each day, so that the public will, just as one would in a family, arrive at its own opinions and not rely on journalism for those opinions but on the information on which those opinions are based.

HEFFNER: Well, Roger, he makes the point so clearly, so forcefully, that even the formers, the formulators of our laws, the people who pass legislation, and the people who execute them, are so far removed from the events of the world. And that was, what, 1921, ’21. How far must we in the public be removed from the events of the world now so that we depend so much more upon you journalists?

ROSENBLATT: Why do you think you depend – not you – why do you think that, for what does the public depend on journalists?

HEFFNER: Where do I get my information about what the world is like except from you, from people on television?

ROSENBLATT: Granted. And having done so, what do you do with that information?

HEFFNER: I presume I filter it through an awful lot of prejudices of my own…

ROSENBLATT: And your own education.

HEFFNER: And my own education.

ROSENBLATT: And your own instincts and your own good taste and your own good judgment. And you arrive at a decision that may or may not corroborate with mine.

HEFFNER: Yes, but that education and that taste, good, bad or indifferent, that understanding, all of that is formulated by this time in very large part by what I read in newspapers and by what I see and hear in the media.

ROSENBLATT: But you’re not suggesting that people’s education depends entirely on journalists. You’d have a hell of a world if that was so.

HEFFNER: Well, tell me, what are the other major elements these days?

ROSENBLATT: They go to school.

HEFFNER: School is rather much delimited, and Marshall McLuhan said, “Every school child knows that his education is interrupted by going to class”. He gets that education from what he sees on t4elevision and what he reads in the paper.

ROSENBLATT: McLuhan notwithstanding, they read books in school, they go to college and read books in college, they talk among themselves, they argue. They have feelings which they elaborate into some process of intellection so they know how they think. These are the normal processes of how a mind develops. Journalism is only one contributor to that mind. It’s not the main contributor by any means. It deals in what is happening now, and therefore it lays on the table the news of the day. But what one makes of the news of the day is drawn from things that are so mysterious that, they are no less mysterious, in fact, in the citizen who reads than in the journalist who writes.

HEFFNER: Of course journalism writ large now. I remember Richard Salant, seated at this table where you are now, former president of CBS News, talking with some concern about docudrama, talking about fiction in fact and fact in fiction and the mixture of the two. And journalism writ larger than Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, writ larger than that. The people who present to us what it’s like to be a human being in the 1980s, aren’t they the ones who really formulate our thinking? It’s not our doctor, you know, the family doctor, the family physician, the family lawyer. We find them on television.

ROSENBLATT: I would hate to ascribe, to assign to journalists the total weight of forming the thinking of the nation or of the world.

HEFFNER: Why would you hate to?

ROSENBLATT: Because I don’t think it’s a fair responsibility to give to people who are catching up with their own thinking, and I don’t think it’s a fair dismissal of the obligations of the citizen to arrive at the thinking himself. I think this is a cooperative venture that when one or the other, that is the reader of the journalists, or the viewer of the journalist gets on one another’s nerves, then one calls one’s attention to it. But I would not like to give to journalists so great an assignment that they would form the opinions and the minds that shape the, what it comes down to is shaping the characters of the people they address. Their relationship is as much to the news as it is to the people. And they can control their relationship to the news; they can’t control their relationship to the people. It’s up to the people to do that kind of shaping. And I would be content if the profession maintained that balance.

HEFFNER: But I’m so interested that you switch this around as If I were saying let’s make an assignment to the journalist. I’m not saying that. I’m asking whether in our own times life hasn’t – and I don’t pun – haven’t made that assignment. There’s nothing evil about it. There’s nothing self-seeking. But whether in our own times – Will Rogers said, what, a half century ago, “All I know is what I read in the paper” – doesn’t it seem true today?

ROSENBLATT: Will Rogers said it, but it was for the opening of a comic routine.

HEFFNER: You think it’s still a joke?

ROSENBLATT: Well, I don’t think it’s a joke in that sense. Besides, you’d have to have the wit of Will Rogers to pull it off. I would say as much public opinion is in the hands of the poet or the novelist, the musicians, the historians, to go back to our earlier point of reference, as much public opinion is in the hands of the public itself capable of apprehending reality and making judgments and assortments. And if I flinch at the idea of the journalists assuming this kind of responsibility, I do so because I don’t think it’s within the purview of the capabilities of journalists to do so.

HEFFNER: Well, don’t misunderstand me. I flinch and flinch and flinch. I think I’m simply describing what has happened. Which leads me to a question: When you were back in the academic halls, when you were getting your doctorate, when you were teaching at Harvard, how did you feel then about the comparative role of the media and the other muses?

ROSENBLATT: I hated journalists when I was teaching. I thought that they were snoops. I didn’t like the gesture of the microphone in the face. I still don’t. I never thought they understood what was happening. If I, particularly if I h ad some view of what was happening, I thought that my view was right. I remember thinking this particularly in 1969 at Harvard during the riots, because then Harvard became news, and I could see the reporting, I could see the event, and I could read about it in the paper the next day, and would remark how they got everything wrong, and grumble how the journalist didn’t understand anything, and couldn’t they comprehend the depth of the situation, and didn’t they know the history of the situation, and why couldn’t they see the natural consequences of such actions and so forth. In fact, what I was doing was acting as another journalist. I was acting as a journalist with my own opinions, if only I had been in control of the paper. Give me, as Liebling said, “If you want a free press, own one”. Put me in charge of that document and I’ll tell you what the truth was. But I think part of my antipathy towards journalists was envy. Because I knew then how privileged and how lucky and how powerful a place it was. And I must say that, with no intention of self-aggrandizement at all, or that of my colleagues, I think it is a great place to be. I think it is a wonderful privilege. I think the abusers of that privilege are few. And the ones who use the privilege to reach the ends on which we both would agree, these people are plentiful and they’re the ones on which the profession, on which the public, on whom the public depends I’m glad for.

HEFFNER: And what happens to that older academic point of view?

ROSENBLATT: That point of view, generically, is no different. When I was an academic, if I had been a lawyer in the street or a businessman who had just read an article about his company, or that, or any other profession taking particular line and picked out a particular look at something that I think I understand better than somebody who has breezed in and out and seen it, it may be true. But it’s not true that that person who has breezed in and out has not reported, in most cases, accurately what he has seen, and eventually may reach an understanding far superior to mine because I have tunnel vision on the subject.

HEFFNER: I think that’s a wonderful way to end our program. And I do appreciate your joining me today for this discussion, Roger Rosenblatt. Thanks a lot.

ROSENBLATT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us here once again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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