Henry Grunwald

Journalism and Diplomacy … Both Sides Now

VTR Date: November 11, 1990

Guest: Grunwald, Henry


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Henry Anatole Grunwald
Title: “Journalism and Diplomacy…Both Sides Now”
VTR: 11/11/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of two programs with my guest today.

Though he is most properly known as “Mr. Ambassador”, having recently served in Vienna as this nation’s “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary”, I’ll always think of Henry Anatole Grunwald in his long-time role as Editor-in-Chief of Time, Incorporated…when, editorially, intellectually, he presided over one of the world’s most influential communications empires.

Diplomat, journalist, whatever…Henry Grunwald recently reminded a group of his former fourth estate colleagues of an aphorism attributed top a 17th century poet and diplomat to the effect that: “An Ambassador is an honest man who goes abroad to lie for his country”, …pointing out that it is less well known that that poet and diplomat added: “A journalist is a dishonest man who stays at home to lie for himself”.

Well, my guest may now diplomatically dismiss this as the obligatory humorous opening gambit of every speech given throughout recorded history…but, I wonder…and, if the Ambassador permits, I’m going to ask journalist Grunwald to help me with something of an exegesis of his recent speech, particularly those sections devoted to the press. After all, in a Time magazine essay n early a generation ago, he wrote: “Don’t love the press, but understand it”.

So, indeed, I’ll begin by asking him his own question: “How does the press look to a journalist from the other side of the great divide?” How does it look?

Grunwald: Well, one remark at the outset if I many about this matter of the title “Mr. Ambassador”. I’m very proud to have served as an Ambassador, but I don’t know these titles should be, really, in place for life, and I’m more than happy to be called Mr. Grunwald, or even better, Henry, but, with that little, with that little preface. How does the press look from the other side? Well, very interestingly. I think one of the things that I should also warn you about is that my feelings about the press will be ambiguous. I, I will not be able to give you very clear-cut, passionate views for or against the press. If anything, more for than against because I am, I am a journalist as I said in the same speech that you mentioned I really…nothing that I’ve learned about the press from the other side has diminished my pride in having been or in being a journalist. But, of course, if, if you’re an Ambassador abroad you have a job to do as you have a job to do anywhere else in government, and in the execution of that job, the press can get pretty troublesome. It is not its business to help you. It is its business to enlighten the public, and so sometimes you get kind of annoyed at some of the things the press does. Especially revealing things that…especially as a government employee you would like to keep secret for a while longer. That was one difficulty I had with my former colleagues. Another thing, of course, that annoyed me, and that is nothing new, that is something I knew long ago, is that simple, plain inaccuracy is perhaps the single, the single worse fault that the press exhibits. It isn’t, contrary to the poet and diplomat whom you mentioned, a matter of dishonesty. I know very, very few journalists, at least American journalists who are dishonest…at least consciously dishonest. But inaccuracy can be, can be quite widespread. Especially, I might say, in Europe where facts are less respected than they are here.

Heffner: Now, inaccuracy…not limited to the European press, though.

Grunwald: No, no, not limited to the European press. I simply make a distinction which I think is important to remember between the American press, and to some extent the British press, which by and large has higher standards than many of the, of the press…the kind of press we find in European countries. Not all, but in some. It’s a question of, partly a matter of the notion that European journalists consider themselves much more than ours, to be intellectuals. And as intellectuals they’re more interested in opinion, in expressing their views, in perhaps in acting like philosophers or commentators, than as working journalists who are trying to track down a story.

Heffner: Now, let’s take the matter of points of view. Do you feel, and your journalistic career goes back over a good many years, do you feel that there is more, less, the same amount of injection, insertion of opinion in news coverage?

Grunwald: I think there is probably less. I think that the American press over the last few decades, in my opinion, has become more rather than less, responsible. I think what used to be known a long time ago, going back to the days of Hearst, and Pulitzer as “yellow journalism” really has, has declined and has…is perhaps isolated in certain areas. I think the mainstream American journalism has become more responsible. What, of course, has never been true, and I think will never be true is that journalism is truly objective. I think the claims to objectivity by journalists are, are generally quite false. Nobody is really objective. You can take an account of this interview that we’re now conducting, and by simply emphasizing certain of your questions and not others, emphasizing some of my answers and not others, you can get a totally different picture. The question then really is, what…what is the …the principle of selection that the journalist goes by? And very often that principle of selection has perhaps something to do with his, with his personal political inclinations. I would agree that the American press, by and large, has a…something of a liberal bias. Very often it is simply a matter of not having enough time to cover everything, and there’s…so distortions very often happen I might, might almost say carelessly or innocently.

Heffner: Well, now you, you…speaking very quickly, and you go very rapidly over this question…

Grunwald: It’s a fault of mine. I speak too quickly.

Heffner: No, no, no, no. I think that you’re trying to get a lot of information in here and a lot of accurate information, and you mention that you think that the press…I, I can’t even report what you just said, Mr. Ambassador…

Grunwald: (Laughter)

Heffner: …but what you did say had something to do with the liberal complexion of American journalists. Now, do you want to elaborate on that so it’s in your words rather than in my interpretation of your question?

Grunwald: I, I…over the many years in which I have known journalists, worked with them, liked them, suffered with them, succeeded with them, I have found generally speaking that they are, that their inclinations…their intellectual and political inclinations tend to the liberal side of the spectrum. I have not known, at least not until a few years ago, a great many really conservative journalists. However, I’ve also found that the best of them, or the better ones among them, do not really let their liberal bias interfere with their work, at least not very often. I find that while one might get annoyed occasionally at the emphasis of this or that story, I certainly have, many times felt that this story was too “pro” this, or “anti” that. If you read fairly carefully, and if you are willing to make a certain effort, you can usually get the facts our most of our, most of our better newspapers and magazines.

Heffner: Yes, but of course most people don’t read very carefully or extensively.

Grunwald: Well…

Heffner: So that it is…

Grunwald: …then I’m afraid that’s their lookout.

Heffner: Now, wait a minute, what do you mean “it’s their lookout”?

Grunwald: I think it’s their…I think they have an obligation to read at least a little attentively and a little carefully. Otherwise they really have no right to complain about the press.

Heffner: Do you mean that seriously?

Grunwald: Yes, I mean that seriously. I think it is part of the obligation of a citizen in a great democracy, or even in a not-so-great democracy, to spend a certain amount of effort at understanding what goes on and what he has a right to object to, or to uphold, or what he has a right to vote about.

Heffner: And if John Q. Public doesn’t do that, then what, what happens to our nation?

Grunwald: Well, if, I think John Q. Public hasn’t really…I mean it’s hard to know whether people pay more attention today than they did fifty years ago. I happen to think they pay more attention now. Obviously, theoretically speaking, if you have a, a public that simply pays no attention whatsoever to the serious, serious issues, at the most will watch some local television news show, which is about as low as you can get in most cases. I think our democracy would be in some peril. I don‘t happen to think that that is, that is really going on.

Heffner: Yes, but you do happen to seem to me to be saying “let the reader beware”. If he doesn’t want to read carefully and attentively and widely, yes he may well be misinformed.

Grunwald: I…I…yes, I agree with that. That’s what I’m saying, yes.

Heffner: And you’re satisfied to let it go at that?

Grunwald: Well, I’m not, I’m not totally…you know I don’t want to let it go at that. I don’t mean to…by saying this, I don’t mean to exonerate the press from its responsibility at being as careful and as fair as possible, and for doing, you know, a better job than…most of the time I say “we” because I still think of me as a journalist. But most of the time we manage to do under, under pressure and other difficulties. I don’t mean to say it’s all up to the reader and the press can print anything it wants. Not…certainly not, I don’t say that. All I’m saying is that it has to be, just as there has to be a cooperation, a collaboration between our political leaders and our voters, there has to be a certain cooperation between the press and the reader, or the viewer, and the viewers’ and the readers’ duty is to pay some attention and to make some effort. Even grim attention. I mean if you, if you read something or see something that you, that really gets you indignant, and that you feel is wrong, well I think you ought to find ways of yelling.

Heffner: Well, “ought” yes. Most people don’t. Perhaps “ought”. But, you know, you began by saying one, we’ll find your point of view about the press now somewhat ambiguous. Now, when I read the speech that you gave to your former colleagues, and it wasn’t all that long ago, it was a month or so ago, after talking with, writing with some real humor about the diplomatic end of this exchange. You said, “Now, what about the press, how does the press look to a journalist from the other side of the great divide?” Which is where I got my opening question. You said, “Despite all my years in the trade, I was constantly annoyed by inaccuracy. Just plain…”, and you say that now…

Grunwald: I say that now.

Heffner: …”just plain factual inaccuracy. I’d literally never read a story about myself of United States policies”, because you were talking largely at that point about European papers, “that did not contain some errors or misrepresentations. Though personally I was treated very well”. The last sentence of that paragraph, “But I cannot exonerate the US press completely, either”…Now is that ambiguous? Is that ambiguity?

Grunwald: That particular statement is certainly not ambiguous. When I said that my views are somewhat ambiguous, I talked…I was referring to my views as a whole. And in that speech, for instance, you will see that I, that I also criticized the government quite severely, not merely the press, and I was also, of course, from this…in this particular speech, talking from the point of view of a…as I said earlier, of an Ambassador, a diplomat who’s trying to do a job. You know, we have in this country a division of power which is not strictly one that is confined to the Constitution. We have other power centers or other institutions which play their different and separate roles, and I think the press plays one role, the government plays another. And I think it’s really one of the, one of the glories of this country that they are not in each other’s pockets. So that when sometimes I got annoyed at something that…let’s say the American press wrote about foreign policy of the State Department, I had to remind myself, “Well, that’s the way, that’s the way the system works”. The press has its function, very often critical. The government has its, has its own function. And I’m not saying this is an ideal situation, that it always words out for the best, but on the whole it is not a bad system.

Heffner: But I know you expect me to say, and I’m going to say, “But there were a group of gentlemen in Philadelphia who got together and established a document that gave to the government its power”. Now what is the source? A divine source of the power of the press?

Grunwald: I think the power of the press may not have been written into the Constitution until, at least…the First Amendment which came a little later, but if you look at the, at the surrounding atmosphere in which the Constitution was written, certainly the press was regarded as a very important, and very annoying and often irresponsible institution. As I said, the First Amendment later on directly as well as indirectly institutionalized that function, and I think it isn’t…has nothing to do with, with divine ordinance. It simply is perfectly obvious, perfectly evident that in a democracy where people are supposed to use their individual judgment of their brains to vote and to, to guide their own destinies, how they are informed is very important.

Heffner: Yes, but…I mean we make that assumption. That’s why you…

Grunwald: Even, even I, I believe that even Madonna has a video out saying that freedom, freedom of speech is better than sex. I mean that’s, that may not be a divine ordinance, but it can’t be ignored.

Heffner: Do you agree with that?

Grunwald: No.

Heffner: Okay. Alright I just, I just wanted…

Grunwald: Not on that particular point.

Heffner: Alright, I just wanted to put that on the record. But, in the past, when we have been together on a program, one or the other, and whenever there is a, a press leader at this table, and I ask about the power of the press. It’s always…there’s, there’s a look around the room as if “no one in here but us chickens, we don’t have power, that’s all assumed by the outside world”. Now there is a balance of powers in our government. Don’t you have some feeling that there has become an imbalance of power with the rise of the press, electronic as well as print, in our own time?

Grunwald: I don’t know that I would necessarily characterize it as an “imbalance of power”. I do think especially the electronic press has tremendous influence to shape people’s minds, consciously or unconsciously. Certainly every election we’ve been through in the last few years or decades has proven that. And that is something that one should certainly be aware of and possibly even worry about. On the other hand, I suggest to you that government too, has, has tremendous powers, has increased its powers, I think, over the decades tremendously, has become much bigger, much, much, much more energetic in pressing its own view. It…one doesn’t use this word in America, but it has its own propaganda machine so that I think that the notion of the government being sort of the weak party and the press being Goliath, is really not correct.

Heffner: But if there were…if one were to describe movement in that relationship, would it be inaccurate to say, the movement has been toward the power of the press? It’s influence in our lives?

Grunwald: I’m…it’s really very difficult, very difficult to say. I wish we had a professional historian, which I’m not, to help us answer that. I do think that if the press has become more powerful, it is partly because it is taken more seriously than it used to be. I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to the, to the good old friendly phrase “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. There was a certain healthy skepticism about the press which I, for one, don’t mind at all. And now we take the press, if anything, more seriously, partly because it has become, to a certain extent, more responsible. Television I agree with you, is a, is a, is a different, is a different situation because it has so many ways of influencing you almost, as I said, unconsciously.

Heffner: But you’re not concerned about this…an imbalance…

Grunwald: I am…yes, I’m certainly concerned about the responsibility of the press. I am not concerned so much about the imbalance of power, and I must tell you that I am, if we talk about American institutions, I am much more concerned about others than the press. If you look at what’s been happening in our schools, if you, if you look at what’s been happening in certain parts of our industry, for instance, Detroit. If you look at what’s been happening even in government, and perhaps particularly in government, I really cannot pretend that the press is the number one villain.

Heffner: But, of course, today at this table I do not have a…industrial giant here…

Grunwald: Fair enough. Fair enough…that was a digression.

Heffner: Okay. Accepted as such. Here…going back to your own comments…you talk about spending a lot of time trying to correct mistakes and you say, “And here I ran into a paradox. While nobody quite believes what they read in the papers, nobody quite believes the corrections, either”. And then you went on to say, “Another fault of the press that I found particularly troubling is cliché thinking”. Now this is from the other side of the great divide, “the herd mentality of so many journalists”. That doesn’t sound ambiguous to me.

Grunwald: Again, when I said that my, my…my views were ambiguous, I’m talking about my views as a whole. However, to address this particular, this particular point…yes. That is a fault of the press. It was a fault that troubled me very often when I was an editor and I…continued to trouble me in this, in this other job of mine. The press very often discovers, or things it discovers one phenomenon. For instance, when I was in Europe Gorbachev and his seemingly magic powers…more or less at the same time Mr. Bush’s lack of initiative or ideas, and that became rightly or wrongly, almost accepted truth, without really too much thought about what was behind it. Certainly no thought that, that Gorbachev, while brilliant and brave, was also acting out of desperation. So one, one reporter after another, one paper after another would write the same story, until perhaps events overtook it. More recently I happened to see something by, by Mr. Samuelson in one of, one of…Earl Samuelson in one of the papers in which he talked about the fact that currently there is a kind of wave of stories about white collar unemployment. And he cited one cover story in Newsweek repeated by The New York Times and rather lately as a matter of fact and by three or four other major press institutions on the same subject. Now you can say, “Well, naturally they all do it because it’s in the air”. Nonetheless one would wish that perhaps occasionally they would be a little less in lock-step, intellectual lock-step, and kind of do some more…strike out on their own.

Heffner: You’re right. There’s nothing ambiguous about that. “I also found all over again that many journalists lack a sufficient sense of history and cover the word as if it were created anew every day or at least every year”. And then another point, but really the same one…the press is constantly surprised by events. This is, I’m not going to use the word indictment…this says something about what you felt about the knowledge, the knowledgeability, the people who scribble.

Grunwald: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: You see any shift in that from…let’s say from when you became the managing editor of Time magazine?

Grunwald: Despite this particular grumble which I think is a, is a justified grumble, I think that the average journalist is far better educated today then he used to be. He is far better educated in, in economics, certainly…economic coverage even 20 or 25 years ago was, was quite inferior. And I think by and large he is better educated in general. History happens to be a pet complaint of mine. I do wish that journalists had time and inclination to study a bit more history before they, before they are let loose in a newsroom.

Heffner: Let loose? Not, again, ambiguous! Six…

Grunwald: That was, that was a friendly crack.

Heffner: Six…”One of the most annoying traits of the press is the claim to objectivity”. You then go on to say, “The most lethal and least objective quotes…”, talking about, I think, of Janet Malcolm here, “are, of course, the unattributed ones, the anonymous judgments of anonymous sources which often merely speak for the reporter, like ventriloquist’s dummies”. You become less and less ambiguous as your speech goes on.

Grunwald: (Laughter)

Heffner: “Yes, we all have used unattibuted quotes. We will go on doing so, but there should be limits”. Now where are these limits going to come from?

Grunwald: First of all, about objectivity, I said that myself earlier. I do think that the press very rarely is truly objective and I think everybody ought to understand that. I think it is possible, quite possible for the press to be fair. That is to be, to give, when it presents one point of view, to at leas indicate what the other point of view or the other set of facts are. Where does this balance, where does this fairness come from? I think it can only come from the editors, from the publishers, from the conscience, if you will, of the news, the newsmen and newswomen themselves. It cannot come, certainly from, from the government. And in my opinion it cannot come from any other institution. I think ultimately it should, like so many other things, come from the marketplace, which is a kind of large, imperfect, but quite important way of objecting if a paper or a magazine or a television broadcast becomes too, too partisan in the view of a great many readers. I think there are…there are signals that can be sent.

Heffner: Why do you say, “The marketplace”, an idea that relates essentially to goods much more than ideas? Where, why have we derived this notion of the marketplace of ideas?

Grunwald: I’m not talking about the marketplace of ideas. I’m really talking quite literally about the marketplace.

Heffner: You mean if you do it “right”, you’re going to be read?

Grunwald: Because…if you do it right, you’re going to be read. If you do it bad, ultimately you will not be read. I, I think this is very important because…

Heffner: Do you believe that?

Grunwald: Yeah. I mean I think it sometimes takes a long time, and it is, perhaps the feedback is not, no, not perfect and not quick, but I think ultimately the marketplace is important, and the only reason…one of the reasons, the big reason it is important is that a free press has to make money. Very often the press is attacked for saying, “Oh, they just print that because they want to sell papers”. Well the press has to sell papers, because if the press doesn’t sell papers it either has to be supported by the government or it has to be supported by private charity or private, private philanthropy. Both are very undesirable alternatives. Now, when I say this, I don’t mean that you, that you can do anything in the press to make money including print scandals and print lies and print pornography. Yes, there have to be limits. But basically I am, no I’m not ashamed of the fact that the press operates in the market. I am pleased with that because it insures freedom.

Heffner: You say “it insures freedom”. Has it insured the kind of press that you’re satisfied with?

Grunwald: I am never satisfied with the press and, of course, there are abuses. If you are, if you’re very rich you can probably buy yourself a newspaper and print, print a lot of nonsense. And you sometimes are at the mercy of advertisers which is, which is not exactly the freedom that everybody would want. However, compared to…you have to always ask yourself “compared to what?” and I…I’m convinced that our press in this country is, by and large, the freest, and with some glaring exceptions, the best. Mark Twain once said that it was the duty of the press to make people love their country. I don’t buy that unless we can agree that love includes criticism. I love this county and I love the press and I criticize both.

Heffner: The things you’ve said before…and we just have three-quarters of a minute left…you talked about England as an exception. You seem to think highly of the British press.

Grunwald: I do think highly, very highly, of the British press. It’s, it’s serious press. It’s good press, it’s respectable press. It’s possibly better than ours, certainly in the quality of writing. Its tabloid press is far worse than ours.

Heffner: And yet it has a Press Council. Now, you’re opposed to the idea of a press council, a national press council, I gather.

Grunwald: I am opposed to that because I think I think it creates the pretense that there is some, some tribunal there that can keep this vast, unruly American press in, in line. I think that’s, that would be an illusion. I don’t think, frankly, the Press Council has done much for the British press, whether the tabloid or the serious press, either.

Heffner: Right. I’m not going to sign off now by referring to you as Mr. Ambassador…

Grunwald: (Laughter)

Heffner: …just Your Excellency…

Grunwald: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thank you for joining me today, very much, Henry Grunwald.

Grunwald: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, 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, today’s intriguing guest and his beliefs, 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 Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation: and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.