Henry Grunwald

As Time Goes By, Part II

VTR Date: April 25, 1987

Guest: Grunwald, Henry


VTR: 4/25/87

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As I noted last time, my guest, then and today, could never be considered ‘retiring’. In his whole creative half-life up to now he’s never been, nor will he ever be, ‘retiring’, in prose or in person. Yet, nearly 65, retirement does come now, as I suppose it must – in that wonderful patois, times – to all men in huge organizations, even to our guest, Henry Grunwald, formerly the managing editor of Time, and for some years now, editor-in-chief of all Time, Inc. publications: Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, People, Money, Discover, and Time-Life Books, among others. And because I have a sense of history, I’ve invited Mr. Grunwald to THE OPEN MIND, not to sing a swan-song – for he has so many more arias to come! – but rather to set in his always precise and reasoned and innovative perspective, an overview not of an American century, but of the American experience. So, thank you for staying with me, Mr. Grunwald, for the second program…

GRUNWALD: …Delighted.

HEFFNER: …but this time I want to go back to something we’ve debated before – the question of the press. So many of your essays in Time have had to do with the press and with efforts to censor the press. Since you were here, not for this previous program, but last time when we sat at this table, I’ve always been able to refer back to what I considered your notion – ‘Nobody in here but us chickens’, when I referred to the power, and therefore the responsibility, of press lords. And I’ve always had the feeling that your were saying, look, we don’t count for that much, so don’t make us toe the mark in any way whatsoever. Then in 1974, going back to the Watergate period, there was a piece that you had written and a little cartoon next to it called, ‘A Proverb: when in danger or in doubt, blame the press for finding out.’ And I wonder whether it’s all that simple – that Americans, angry with the press…perhaps not as great today as it was when you sat at this table last time…is really so much a matter of not really wanting to find out what our faults are?

GRUNWALD: Getting back for a moment to what you said about the power of the press and my occasional suggestions that we are not all that powerful, that of course becomes an argument about what you mean…what do I mean by all that powerful, what do mean about power, and so on. It would be ridiculous for me to deny that we have tremendous influence – we the press, in toto. But I don’t think we elect presidents, I don’t think we destroy presidents, and I don’t think that we alone can launch major currents of opinion or sentiment in this country. With these qualifications, of course, I admit that we have a lot of power, and I certainly believe and have preached that we must exercise this power with the utmost responsibility, and that we very often fail in that imperative.

HEFFNER: What do you do to public figures? Sharon, Westmoreland?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think I’ll leave Westmoreland to others. As far as Sharon is concerned, I certainly don’t want to, and I don’t think you want to, rehash the liable suit that he brought against us. But in my opinion, then as now, we did very little to him and even though an American jury found us negligent and found that we had defamed him, although not technically liable him, in spite of that, I would say that that very short to me, still, fairly insignificant paragraph that was at issue in the liable suite, said much less about him than his own country has said about him…that is, by his own country I mean the Hamm Commission Report, which was de-stating, and certainly a great many Israeli newspapers. I don’t think that we did very much to Sharon except, unfortunately, give him an opportunistic posture and play the martyr.

HEFFNER: How did Time come out of that? Forget about Sharon for a minute. How did Time magazine surface from all of this?

GRUNWALD: I don’t…I’m not perhaps the best judge of that. I think obviously, if an American jury says you’ve been negligible or negligent or some of your employees have been negligent, that’s certainly a scar that we will bare for some time to come, and I don’t mean to make light of it. But as far as I can tell from the reaction of our readers, which is not a very good way of measuring that, but as far as I can tell, it hasn’t really affected our readers very much.

HEFFNER: How negligent, in general, would you say the American press is? The weekly press, the daily press, periodicals, newspapers?

GRUNWALD: I think it’s very difficult to talk about all the American press in one generalization when you think that…on the one hand of the spectrum, of course, it includes television – and I assume you include that. It includes all kinds of periodicals, it includes dailies of varying sizes…

HEFFNER: …Suppose you take…

GRUNWALD: …It’s difficult to generalize, but I think on the whole I would say the American press, given the pressures that it is under, given the need to report very often, very quickly, to come to reach certain conclusions very quickly, to deal with millions of facts every year, I think the American press has a pretty darn good record.

HEFFNER: You know, there was something that you wrote…it was in ’83, after the Granada invasion…you said the administration…you were referring to the Reagan administration…believes that truth should be a controlled substance. Lovely phrase! Absolutely wonderful!

GRUNWALD: Glad you like it.

HEFFNER: But suppose one were to say, Mr. Grunwald, that what the administration, and many of the rest of us were talking about…and feeling…was that it was the press, not truth, that should be a controlled substance. Are they really interchangeable? Does the press have to be equated with truth?

GRUNWALD: I do not…I certainly do not equate the press with truth. I’m not saying that the press is always truthful, that it is the sole champion truth. What I’m saying is that the truth will emerge from an interaction, if you will, or a contest of powers. And I do say that if the government, or any other large and powerful organization in this society, were unchecked by an aggressive press, then I think truth would suffer. That’s the only claim I’ll make for the press.

HEFFNER: And keeping the press responsible…keeping, I guess, is a bad word because it implies that there is a government agency, perhaps, but how does one go from hoping that the press in its exercise of power maintains a profound concern for truth, rather than for news, for headlines?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think the press…I think pursuing news and truth are not mutually exclusive. If we just remember that news is a temporary thing, that what we think is news today, or what we think is a fact today, may be corrected later on by events. With that qualification, I think truth and news, very often I would hope, go together. How do you keep the press responsible? You keep the press responsible by yelling about it when it is…when it seems to be irresponsible, and that happens all the time. Everybody yells about the press and at the press – beginning with a groan and beginning with large and continuing with large corporations, individuals, and so on. There is a tremendous…there is a tremendous to-do about the press and ultimately, of course, the customers stop buying Time magazine or The New York Times or anybody else, if they are too put out or if they become convinced that we are irresponsible. See, I’m a little angry about this whole thing about the press. I make no absolute claims for the press. I don’t certainly say that we have anything resembling a monopoly on virtue. But if you look at this country…and I love this country’s people and I don’t like to mention bad things that happen… but I have to mention them professionally every week and I would mention a few of them now. When you see what’s been happening to, let’s face it, the management of American industry in the last few decades, and our resulting competitiveness, or lack of it, in the world, when you look at what’s been happening on Wall Street and the insider trading scandals, then you look at even to a hallowed institution like the American Marine Corps, and I’m not saying that all of the Marine Corps is to blame for a few things that happened, but still, it was a shock. When you see what happens every day, under the head of corruption, in city governments, and I hate to say, even the federal government, when you look at an incredible caper like the Iranscam thing, and when you, incidentally, also look what happens to the legal profession…in the legal profession and in the medical profession, at least journalists, when they make a mistake, don’t kill people. When you look at all that, I find it rather odd to go on and on about the evils or the wrong-doings of the press. The press, for one thing, is not corrupt. I mean, I challenge you to tell me of one incident where an American editor or reporter has been bought. Yes, maybe some go on junkets or whatever, but we are not…the American press is not corrupt. It has its flaws, it has its prejudices…I would agree with critics that by and large American…working journalists are liberal, have a kind of penchant toward liberalism, but I think we stand up pretty damned well, compared to some of the other institutions in this country.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting…you talk about the press not being corrupt, and I think it probably is very true that one cannot accuse the press of being bought. But I’ve heard it said that one can accuse the press of being sold. And that one of the problems with this power of the press is that frequently the press is sold on ideas that are not totally true and the press moves out in directions that are not totally supported by the truth, and that the press frequently, in its presentation of the news, gives expression to what it has been sold on. Is that a fair criticism?

GRUNWALD: Yes, I think it’s a fair criticism. I think the press becomes interested or becomes fascinated with a particular cause or a particular program and pays a lot of attention to it – sometimes prematurely, sometimes mistakenly. I could think of a few issues where the press had been wrong or has been shown to be wrong later on. But that is true of everybody else in our society and nobody should regard the press as, you know, infallible. It isn’t. It just does a job because they have to do it to keep people reasonably well informed. And they ought to come to us, as they indeed do, with a certain amount of skepticism. But by and large, week in and week out, day in and day out, I think we do…I repeat, I think we do a pretty damned good job.

HEFFNER: It’s puzzling to me…I find that hard to believe that you would be satisfied with the notion that – look at those crooks over there and those crooks over there and those liars and those thieves were not that bad, and anyway, even if we are, look how bad they are.

GRUNWALD: Well, I’m not saying that. I just couldn’t quite resist…it’s certainly not what I rest my case on, by any means. But I do think it was worth mentioning for the sake of perspective.

HEFFNER: Let me ask a very different question. Aside from the administration’s desire to keep the press out of Granada, aside from the notion that truth or news should be a controlled substance, did the press…has the press in recent years really done as much by way of digging up the Wall Street scandals, Irangate?

GRUNWALD: Absolutely not. I agree with you on that, and that is my…if…I have many criticisms of the press, believe me, and one of them would be that…not that it is prejudice, or it champions the wrong causes…but that it doesn’t dig out enough. Not that it digs too hard, as some people feel, but that it does not dig hard enough. It is rather humbling to think that for more than two years this Iranscam thing could go on without any reporter tumbling to it, and equally so that this insider trading went on, obviously for a long time, without any reporter knowing enough about it to make a story out of it.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that reporters, scribblers, did know about both Irangate and about Wall Street and that for some reason the stories weren’t written?

GRUNWALD: I really don’t know of anybody who knew, conclusively, about Irangate. There were a couple of straws in the wind, I think, but I don’t know anybody who had the story because if they had the story they would have printed it. I think the insider trading thing perhaps is more complicated because it is a rather illusive question of what constitutes insider trading. And even a reporter who might have known about Boeske, or something else, might not have been able to actually get this into print. But no, I don’t know of anybody who knew a great deal about it then failed to print it.

HEFFNER: Then how do you account for what you consider to be the disappointing achievements of the press in these various areas?

GRUNWALD: Because like everybody else, or like many other people, we become a little set in our ways, we become a little lazy, we follow the obvious stories and we don’t try hard enough, often enough, to uncover the unobvious ones. Also, frankly, and this is…again, I continue to be self-critical here of the press, very often the so-called investigative stories that we do are really leaked to us by interested parties inside an organization – the government or elsewhere. And if somebody in the government had wanted to derail this operation about Iran, they might have called the press. They didn’t, as it happens. So I…this is certainly one of the faults of the press – that we don’t try hard enough. But it is not the fault that we’re usually charged with.

HEFFNER: I know. You try too hard. You stalk all over everyone. Jump all over everyone, getting your stories. I’ve always wanted to ask you this question. What do you, as a journalist…how do you react to the off-the-record discussion on the part of public figures with gentlemen and ladies of the press? Do you accept that notion that this is not?

GRUNWALD: I accept the notion reluctantly and unhappily. I think there is much too much off-the-record and not retribution stuff going on. I think that we as editors and reporters should accept it less readily that we do. On the other hand, if we never accepted an off-the-record conversation or an off-the-record quote, I think we would cut down quite seriously on the amount of information and the amount of ideas, and so on, that we could get to the public.

HEFFNER: This criticism about the press not being bought but being sold. I presume it stems to a great extent from those off-the-record, now-let-me-give-you-some-information-just-don’t-mention-my-name, that must be the kind of beginning of being sold.

GRUNWALD: Well, there are many different ways…there are many different forms of inside…of this kind of inside information, off-the-record information. Watergate, of course, was one of the major examples. You can’t deny that the so-called whistle blowing phenomenon, the whistle blower inside the government or inside Time, Inc….you can’t deny that he or she plays…some can play a rather significant part. I wouldn’t want to cut that out. I wouldn’t prevent somebody in a large corporation going to the press when he discovers something really bad going on. That, I think is very legitimate and very useful. It becomes annoying and destructive, frankly, when somebody in the government calls up and leaks a memo, simply because he want s to undermine the fellow down the hall who is pushing the policy that the first fellow doesn’t like. In those situations, the press is being used, it is being used constantly in precisely this fashion, and I guess I don’t like it very much, except I have to say that it is very hard to tell when such a story is legitimate and really helpful and when it just becomes a kind of intramural game. We can’t always figure that out, we can’t always decide.

HEFFNER: You have so many profound convictions about journalism, about the press, about magazines, etc. What are you going to do when retirement is really here in just a few months?

GRUNWALD: Well, I know that sounds ridiculous since the retirement, or course, has been set for a very long time and I had been thinking about it on and off ever since I actually took my present job. But I still haven’t quite figured out what I will do, but I certainly think that whatever else I do, I’ll do some writing.

HEFFNER: Do you…a hell of a question, I know…do you approve this idea of mandatory retirement?

GRUNWALD: Well, curiously enough, I do.

HEFFNER: Explain yourself.

GRUNWALD: And I will explain myself. I can’t deny that these years as editor-in-chief have gone terribly quickly and that there are certainly a few things…I mean, in some ways I’ve only just gotten the hang of the job and certainly there are a few things that I would have liked to have been able to do before retiring. On the other hand, look at it this way – if we didn’t have the sixty-five year rule, my predecessor, Henry Donovan, who was a very vigorous sixty-five, might very well have stayed on a few more years and thereby keeping me waiting a few more years. So you have to look at it from both ends. And also, you don’t necessarily know yourself completely. I mean, I consider myself intellectually and physically very vigorous, but I’m not absolutely sure that I…that it is such a bad thing to have a new brain, and possibly even a new body in that job. I think it’s probably a good thing.

HEFFNER: Are you convinced that this American notion about new brains and new bodies is such a plus in the American experience?

GRUNWALD: I think it probably levels out to a plus. I think that…I’m quite sure that we lose some good talent that way, but when you remember, for instance…especially Germany was always a country where age is very respected and you didn’t get to be the president of a bank or corporation in Germany until you were damned near what we think of as retirement age. That’s changed a little bit, you see. Much younger people…I mean, they have a wonderful way of keeping the old people around in sort of honorary, almost teaching capacities, which we don’t do – and that’s alright too – but I think, on balance, I think Germany, for instance, has benefited from a move toward younger executives. And I think we have too.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute. What’s this business about,’…and that’s alright too.’?…not keeping old talent around?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think that has to do with the way Germans think about things and the way we think about things. We’re a little impatient, I think, with advice. In one sense, we make fools of ourselves, I think, by over-indulging consultants and consulting firms and all that, but we don’t have much patience with people in an executive capacity who just sit around and give advice. I myself probably wouldn’t have much patience with that. So I don’t think that the German example is necessarily applicable for us – it’s just interesting.

HEFFNER: And in government in this country? What about the elder wise men?

GRUNWALD: I think the elder wise men who informally advise a president or a cabinet, I think are quite useful.

HEFFNER: Do we do that very much?

GRUNWALD: I think we do it more than is apparent. I think we have…of course it depends on the particular administration. I think some administrations do it more than others, but I think there is a network of old boys who informally advise and suggest. They don’t necessarily get anywhere, but they are consulted.

HEFFNER: How much of a role has Nixon played in the Reagan administration?

GRUNWALD: Well, I’m not privy to that, but I think he has certainly been consulted quite often by Mr. Reagan. And I think he’s been reasonably influential.

HEFFNER: If we had a different American ethos, to use the word that you have used, wouldn’t we have more respect for it, and make more use of the accumulated wisdom?

GRUNWALD: I tell you, the thing that worries me more about America than whether we listen to experienced people or don’t listen to experienced people is that in general, and I perhaps have mentioned this to you before, we don’t have very much regard for history. We don’t spend enough time reading history or studying history, and especially our younger people have to discover everything all over again every generation, including the forces that lead to conflict, including economic forces, and so on. We have not enough of a kind of…we don’t have enough of a memory. You don’t need older people or retired people sitting around to remind you of these things. There are other ways in which we could acquire a sense of history. And I think we’re beginning to acquire one, but it’s a slow business.

HEFFNER: Again, why do you say we’re beginning to acquire it? There seems to be every indication that we as a people know less and less about more and more of our past.

GRUNWALD: Well, we as a people certainly are wretchedly educated. And I think one of the great problems in this country is to improve the educational system, and that has to be done not just spending money on it, but changing the values and the disciplines within the educational system. But I think we are learning a little bit in a larger sense because we’ve been kicked around by history, if you will, and in the last few decades more than before. We’ve been kicked around by Vietnam, and we are now being kicked around by certain economic forces and others that we don’t quite understand by that we can’t ignore. And I think perhaps we will develop a sense of history through that. I’m a great one for seeing both sides of an issue, as you may have noticed, and…

HEFFNER: …I noticed.

GRUNWALD: …and I have noticed…I must say that, in one sense, the American impatience with history, especially to somebody who was born in Europe, is kind of refreshing because it’s the flip side of what I’m saying – because Americans are so impatient with history, they don’t know their limitations. They are not raised like Europeans to believe that you can’t do that because it has never been done before. We’ve always kind of had a wonderful sense of not knowing what is impossible, therefore we try it. But I have to say that it’s becoming tougher and tougher to do the impossible.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s so interesting…it’s so clear that reason dominates everything that you say, and when I’ve raised questions, you’ve responded with…when I’ve said the equivalent of ‘where is it written’, you’ve responded with ‘it makes sense that so-and-so happens – there is a crisis, we must respond in this way’. And I’m not totally convinced that we are becoming, of necessity…out of necessity, more aware of our past.

GRUNWALD: I’m not totally convinced of it either. I’m just saying it’s possible.

Heffner: That’s a heck of a note!

GRUNWALD: Well, I don’t think that’s a heck of a note!

HEFFNER: You’re a prophet!

GRUNWALD: No, I’m not a prophet. You mention reason – I think that we all have our instrument for coping with life and the world, and my instrument, to a certain extent, is reason; which is not to suggest, however, that I believe that reason is the driving force in history. Quite the contrary. I think that there are deep, deep forces and passions which have nothing to do with reason, which incidentally also have nothing to do with economics, to drive people. All you have to do is look around the world at the…what somebody might call the fanatical, more or less religious, movements that are going on…killing thousands of people that we don’t even write about anymore. All of this is totally unreasonable, it is…it comes out of much deeper forces – faith, if you will, or whatever you are going to call fanaticism. But I still say that by and large, if you are going to try to cope with these things – survive, write about them, judge them – reason is the only instrument. In other words, I happen to believe that one can cope, to some extent, with unreason through reason.

HEFFNER: What a lovely way to end the program, and how different from the way we ended a few years ago when you said, ‘the trouble with Americans is that they don’t have enough appreciation of evil’. You have a profound appreciation of reason. Thank you, Henry Grunwald, for joining me again.

GRUNWALD: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And out of retirement, or into retirement, come back and join me again in a few years.

GRUNWALD: I’d be happy to.

HEFFNER: Okay. Thanks to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, the Richard Lounsbury Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, Pfizer Incorporated, and The New York Times Company Foundation.