Views on the News: Richard S. Salant

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Salant
Title: “Views on the News: Richard S. Salant”
VTR: 5/27/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Perhaps now more than ever before, thoughtful Americans are concerned about the power of the press, convinced that it must be exercised fairly and responsibly, for we recognize now that in so many ways our very sense of ourselves, or ideas about and knowledge of the world around us derive from the press. After all, “All we know”, as Will Rogers used to say, “is what we read in the papers”, and today what we hear on radio and see on television as well. There are the great gatekeepers between us and the real events of the real world. If they are fair and responsible and free, our chances of becoming a people informed and educated sufficiently to survive the incredible challenges of our times may become acceptable. But if the media are not fair and responsible and free, if these gatekeepers are not straight and balanced and measured in their presentation of what little we can know of the world outside, if in presenting and interpreting the news, the press, print and electronic, is not honest as well as unbridled, accurate as well as probing, then indeed we are in jeopardy. Some years ago the National News Council was created precisely to help keep us out of that jeopardy. And my guest today is its new president and chief executive officer, Richard S. Salant, a corporate executive at CBS who went honest a generation ago, becoming the extraordinarily dedicated and widely acclaimed longtime president of CVS News.

Dick Salant, thanks for joining me today. I went through my files last night, believe it or not, and found the transcript of a program we did together when we were both young, 25 years ago. And I noted that at that time as a good broadcast corporate executive you were rather negative about the critics of television. And you said, “They wan television to reflect their tastes. And they fail to realize what they really want is the public to reflect, the public itself to reflect their special tastes”. And you said, “It reminds me of what George Bernard Shaw said: ‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Their tastes might be different’”. Then, if you bear with me a moment, in 1977 when you gave the Edward R. Murrow address at Washington State University, you said something very different. You said that indeed something that makes it look as though you’ve become rather much of an elitist yourself. You said, “Journalism turns the ethos of American enterprise topsy-turvy”. You said, “The new turns the American business ethos on its head. To over simplify it a little, if a seller is to survive economically, it is his function, whether he makes and sells goods or services, to give the people what they want to satisfy their wants. Not so with us in journalism. Our job is that difficult and elusive responsibility of deciding what the people ought to know, even if they don’t want to know it, as often they don’t”. Now, what accounts for that switch?

SALANT: Well, I don’t think it was a switch. In the first case when we were young or middle-aged 25 years ago we were talking about something entirely different. We were talking about entertainment. In the Murrow address I was talking about journalism. And in the Murrow address I drew that distinction, that in entertainment by and large it is a broadcaster’s or anybody else that’s engaged in entertainment’s job to please most of the people most of the time. And this is one of the reasons why in broadcast journalism we have to be so careful because we turn everything that surrounds us in broadcasting on its head. In journalism our job is not to please most of the people most of the time or give them what they want or to take public opinion surveys to find what kind of news they want given in what form. It is an editor’s job to pick out what is important and to tell that as fairly and accurately as possible, irrespective of what people think they want. You can’t run journalism by the numbers.

HEFFNER: Now do you say that because of your sense of the power of journalism?

SALANT: No, no. I say that from an examination of the history of journalism. Journalism has never been successful if the editors wet their fingers and try to see which way the popular winds are blowing. It always reminds me of what one of the great American senators of contemporary life used to say. Senator Mike Mansfield. He was once asked, “What do you do about all that mail you receive from your constituents?” And his answer was, “Well, I read ‘em, I count ‘em, and then I vote the way I think is right”. And that’s the way we have to run journalism.

HEFFNER: Who elects you to take that position? I know that many people in a small state elected Mike Mansfield. Who elected Richard Salant?

SALANT: Nobody elects us except our bosses who choose us, and then the public which decides whether to turn our news on or off.

HEFFNER: So you get back to the people, they shall choose?

SALANT: The people choose. But that doesn’t mean that to survive we have to bow to their whims. That’s why you have the First Amendment in the first place. It is why good editors’ presses have been burned and their homes have been stoned. You can’t go with the popular wind and do your job.

HEFFNER: But you know, you mentioned success. You said, “In order to be successful at journalism”. Is that the only reason? I had the feeling you were talking about something more than success. Something…a higher law than success. Something that you saw that journalists had to bring to their work.

SALANT: Well, my test has always been whether at the end of the day after whatever broadcasts and news or documentaries I’m responsible for, I can sleep peacefully with my conscience. And in the last analysis, I don’t believe there is anything more than that. If circulation comes with that, great. If circulation doesn’t come with that, you can’t survive. You have to go down with your flags flying. You do have to get circulation. The raffish word for that in television is “ratings”. But they’re the same things; ratings, circulation. It always reminds me of what a little feisty newspaper and weekly in Aspen, Colorado, The Aspen Flyer had up where The New York Times puts, “All the news that’s fit to print”. This paper had a little slogan that said, “As independent as revenues permit”. In this country we’ve done something very odd and very bold and very courageous and very paradoxical. We’ve made the press free and a part of free competitive enterprise. But we have, we do have obligations over and above the bottom line of making money and over and above getting the largest possible circulation.

HEFFNER: Okay. We’ve established that. Now, when you go home to sleep tonight, as President of the National News Council, and you look over the press in this country, print and electronic, how well do you sleep in terms of its having fulfilled those functions you’ve outlined?

SALANT: Well, I’m going to have to duck that by saying that if how well I sleep depends on how other people do, whether it’s our governors or business or newspapers or anybody else, I don’t think I’d ever sleep at night because nobody is doing a terribly good job, or very few people are. When I say it depends on how well I sleep, I’m depending on how well deep down in my heart and my conscience I think that whatever I’m responsible for has come off.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I know that you didn’t take this position as head of the National News Council, or I’ll make my bet that you didn’t because you feel quite so removed from what the state of American journalism is.

SALANT: You’re quite right. I feel very deeply that as you said in your introduction, the whole system of government that we’ve chosen depends on a free and a responsible press. There’s no other way that democracy can work, because that’s the definition of democracy. The people, the voting citizens, or those that should vote, are the ones who really are the leaders. They choose their leaders and they guide them, or they should guide them. And unless they can do that on the basis of full and fair information, they can’t perform that function on which a democracy depends completely.

HEFFNER: Okay, full and fair. And you say free and full and fair, and they sort of go together. I’m puzzled by the number of very distinguished journalists who, when you come to the question of fairness, will maintain that fairness is a very important ingredient, perhaps more than anything else, but don’t touch them in regard to what they do or do not do that is fair.

SALANT: This is one of the great problems I think with some elements of today’s press, print and electronic. “Don’t touch me. Nobody”, they say, “can look over our shoulder”. I think they’re wrong. I think everybody, everybody can look over the shoulders of the press people. Everybody but the government. That’s the price we pay for getting the First Amendment, the free press guarantee. We’re the only free private enterprise in the United States that gets a special constitutional protection. There’s no other business that that happens to. In return, I think we are obligated as best we can to be fair, to be accurate, to be responsible, and to be accountable to the public in terms of explaining what we do, being willing to admit we’re wrong when we’re wrong. And since we’re fallible human beings we are wrong, with often we can’t admit, much oftener than we would hope to be. I think we ought to be open to criticism, we ought to consider criticism, and think about it and mend our ways when we really are wrong.

HEFFNER: You were there at the birth of the National News Council. You were one of the committee that established it. Has it met your expectations?

SALANT: No. No, it has not. It was established in response to a recommendation of a task force that was set up by the Twentieth Century Fund in 1972, started in 1973. We are now completing our tenth year. What we expected it to be it hasn’t quite achieved for a great number of reasons. One is that important elements of the press refuse to recognize us. They won’t respond when complaints are filed against them with the council. We ask for their responses and we meet with silence. When we issue decisions, they won’t print any kind of decision in their paper. There are other elements of the press thought that have come along. The Louisville Courier Journal is one. CBS News is another. CBS has committed itself publicly, and it’s always fulfilled its commitment, that it will cooperate in responding to the council, and if the council makes findings adverse to anything CBS News did, CBS News will report that fact in the same broadcast series in which the error occurred. Now I just wish that were contagious, because we need that kind of cooperation. We have no other sanction except publicity.

HEFFNER: You say you, “Wish that were contagious”. And I will have to make an admission that you may want to disavow. You were my boss many years ago, and I never…

SALANT: I’m proud of it.

HEFFNER: Okay, good. I never met a guy who was more realistic than you. Realistically, how do you evaluate the chance that this council will now grow in the way you want it to grow, realistically? Over a period of ten years you say it has not done sufficiently well in terms of getting the press in. Why will it or would it or can it in the next five years, let’s say?

SALANT: Because I think that – I’m an optimist on this, and this is what I’m devoting all my time to and if I thought that it was hopeless I wouldn’t want to devote all that time to it – I think there are still glimmers of hope. I think that when one looks at individual elements of the press one finds that they are becoming more worried about some of the disasters that have happened the last few years, some of the attacks on their credibility because of great errors they made. I think they’re becoming more self-analytical. I think you can see more and more willingness to make corrections and to admit error.

HEFFNER: I gather, Dick, that in the field of broadcasting, when it comes to the matter of the fairness doctrine, in which you do have a government regulation that simply really asks broadcasters to be fair, that there you become a little bit uneasy. Is that fair?

SALANT: Indeed I do. I think that fairness, accuracy, responsibility can’t be imposed by the government consistent with the First Amendment. Most of the major fairness cases that I’ve ever been involved in at CBS News were cases involving things that we did in respect to the government. So you have the government being both the judge and the accuser. That’s all wrong. It’s been said over and over again that you can have a free press and you can have an imposed fair press, but you can’t have both.

HEFFNER: You make the first Amendment sound as though it were written on one of these tablets handed down a long, long time ago. And after all, it was not. It responded to the needs that this country felt at a certain time in our history, at its beginnings. There had been those who said that if the press does not voluntarily accept the notion of fairness and act upon it, that the First Amendment may not be considered as holy and sacrosanct as you would have it be.

SALANT: I think the First Amendment stays the same. I don’t think at the moment that there’s a great movement to repeal it, because it’s a principle so embedded that everybody’s thinking people will automatically say, “Oh, yes, of course, I’m in favor of a free press”. The problem is that they measure how good the press is and whether it’s entitled to freedom by whether their side of any issue has been treated better than the other side, and that’s very dangerous. There’ve been surveys that have tried to test out the public commitment to free press in terms of what the public would actually allow. And it usually comes out that they’re really not that much in favor of a free press. But what was behind the free press guarantee what that the press had to be free to make mistakes and to be irresponsible. If all the press were responsible by somebody’s tests (and I don’t know those tests it would be), you wouldn’t need a First Amendment. That’s what the landmark case of Near against Minnesota was all about. It was about the fact that the disagreeable, the really outrageous was also protected. Because who is to judge on what is disagreeable and what is unpardonable?

HEFFNER: Well, neither one of us can predict with accuracy what’s going to happen tomorrow. But the fairness doctrine, for instance, has been upheld as consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution.

SALANT: Yes. I’m not arguing whether at the moment the fairness doctrine is constitutional. I accept Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court says that it’s constitutional, although Justice Black and Justice Douglas later said that was wrong, and a number of other distinguished judges have since questioned whether the fairness doctrine is constitutional. I think that since the fairness doctrine is a statutory thing, by law and by regulation, what one has to hope for is that ultimately it will be modified or repealed. But it is constitutional, I’m sorry to say. I think that’s wrong, but I have to accept it.

HEFFNER: The concept of a fairness doctrine for the printed press has similarly been ruled out. Or I shouldn’t say, “Similarly”. Has, on the other hand…

SALANT: Exactly. Exactly. And yet there was a study that was made by Yankelovich a couple of years ago and that study found that a majority of the public would also like to impose a fairness doctrine by law on the print media.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, Dick, I remember doing a program here with Yankelovich on the public agendas study. And after all, what they really did find out is that the public is not made up of quite as many yahoos and know-nothings and people who are not concerned at all with the freedom of the press as some broadcasters and some journalists maintain. What they were more concerned about however was fairness.

SALANT: That’s quite right, and I don’t suggest that the public are yahoos about this. What I suggest though is that the public – this is one of the dilemmas we’re in – the public, especially the thoughtful ones, care deeply about issues. And so their judgment of fairness may be different from a neutral observer’s. And our job in the press is to be a neutral, objective observer and try as best we can to put aside our won biases and to present both sides, or if there’s more than two, the three or four significant sides. And that gets people mad. If they feel strongly about anything, they don’t want to see anything of the other side. I often say the way I describe it is it’s human nature. And in my non-journalistic role, my role as an individual, I just love vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce on it, and a pint isn’t enough for me. And I hate eggplant, and half a forkful is too much for me. And that’s the way somebody who feels strongly about an issue approaches how the press handles it. The other side gets too much; my side doesn’t get enough. I don’t get it, but that’s what they’re there for.

HEFFNER: But in your evaluation not of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce or whatever the things you don’t like are, in your evaluation I gather you are not as satisfied with the state of the press in this country today as you would like to be.

SALANT: That’s absolutely true. In all fairness I should say that I am not satisfied. I think that there are many problems. But if you look at the history of the American press, we’re better today than we were when the First Amendment was adopted. We’re better than we were all through the nineteenth century when you had the penny press and the yellow journalism and all right through to the fourth or fifth decade of the twentieth century when we really did have a one-party press.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m sure that you’re absolutely correct in what you’re saying. Yet the need for a fair press is probably so much greater in our complicated, dangerous times…

SALANT: Absolutely. Absolutely. But we’re better than we used to be. The need to be even better than we are now is greater than it’s ever been before because today many of the issues are either survival of civilization or the individual’s survival.

HEFFNER: That’s what puzzles me when you and I have compared notes on individuals, and we’re not going to talk about individuals here, whom we both respect. And yet when it comes to this matter of your National News Council or a national news council there is a very uneasy feeling on their part.

SALANT: That’s right. It’s part of the tradition of the old fashioned, if you will, journalism that what the editor and the reporter does is nobody’s business but their own. And as I say, it is everybody’s business but the government. And we must be accountable. I think that Op-Ed pages and more space allowed to letter to the editor and ombudsmen with columns examining what the newspaper for whom the ombudsman works has done responding to readers’ complaints, those are all good signs, so that there are some signs of coming along now. One should add into that mix of accountability, I think, the National News Council, because the National News Council provides something that isn’t provided anywhere. If you think that the press, a newspaper or a broadcast, has been unfair or inaccurate, now without the News Council, the only place you can go is the very organization that you’re complaining about. And too many of them have that lordly dismissal, “We stand by our story”. That’s very unsatisfactory. What the News Council does is provide a second look, a second impartial look. It gives the citizen who thinks that there’s been an inaccurate and unfair story a place to go to look impartially and see whether he was right or she was right or the newspaper of the news broadcast was right. And that’s good therapy, not only for the relationships between the press and the public, but it should be good for the news organization. If they’re conscientious, of course they’ll say that’s wrong, this adverse decision. But after 24 hours they’ll start thinking about it and then say, “Well, maybe – maybe – we were wrong”. They’ll start analyzing what went wrong and correct it. Now that’s all we can do, and I hope that’s what happens.

HEFFNER: You know, in just the few minutes remaining I’d like to go back to where I began, quoting you 25 years ago. Isn’t it true, too, or to what degree is it true too, that today entertainment provides points of view, attitudes, almost news, that’s just as important, or begins to approximate the importance of news broadcasts?

SALANT: I think it works both ways. What has happened is that entertainment has tended to get more and more into presenting points of view, and indeed sometimes likes to look like news as in docudramas.

HEFFNER: Right.

SALANT: But we in news can’t complain too much about that because too many news broadcasts have begun to look more and more like entertainment.

HEFFNER: Well now, wait a minute. You say you can’t complain about that. But you do mean to complain about that because you don’t like what the news people have done, too.

SALANT: That’s right. But what I’m saying is that we haven’t got clean hands. We in news broadcasting don’t have very clean hands about complaining that the entertainment people are getting into our province when so many of us have gone too far in getting into the entertainment province.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but I don’t want our viewers to sit at home and say, “Well, the two of them, they’re going to be nice to each other because the entertainment people and the news people, because each one thinks the other is doing what they shouldn’t be doing”.

SALANT: No. The answer is for us to fight their incursions while we clean up our own house.

HEFFNER: Now, what are you doing, what can be done in terms of the incursions that entertainment makes as well as the incursions that news makes into entertainment?

SALANT: Well, I think there’s been a lot of discussion in broadcasting, where the docudrama is a particular problem, or the non-fictional incursions of the entertainment people. I think all you can do there is go public with it and fight it internally and make them more conscious of what the dangers are of our mixing entertainment and news.

HEFFNER: Has there been a trend backwards again? Is there something positive to report? You don’t have to be positive, do you?

SALANT: No. I don’t know that we’re positive about anything. No, I think that problem of the intermixture on both sides is very much with us.

HEFFNER: No sign of any movement away from the entertainment approach to news?

SALANT: No. There have been one or two stations, very good stations around the country that have gone for a while into trying to be entertainment and responding to public surveys and what the people want, who have switched back to hard, responsible news and have done very well. I’m encouraged by that.

HEFFNER: Thirty seconds. When we worked together many years ago we did in the area of editorializing. Are you convinced today that that was a good push for broadcasters to get into the editorializing business?

SALANT: Yes, I do, so long as you keep within your news organization, the station – Now, I’m only talking about stations; I think networks should not editorialize because they can’t speak for 200 stations that they don’t own – so long as you keep the editorial department separate from your news department, the way any good newspaper does, and you never allow one to slop over into the other.

HEFFNER: Dick Salant, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

SALANT: It’s a pleasure, Dick.

HEFFNER: Twenty-five years from now, come back again. Before, perhaps.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Don’t wait 25 years. Meanwhile, as an old friend of my guest and of me today used to say “Good night, and good luck”.

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