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THE OPEN MIND
March 8, 1959
Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Douglass Cater, Roger Tubby, Arthur T. Hadley
ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today: “Government by Publicity.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher and author of “A Documentary History of the Unites States.”
HEFFNER: I’d like to begin today’s program by first welcoming to the fold station WQED in Pittsburgh. As you probably know, we’ve been joined before by WGBH in Boston and today WRCA-TV and the National Broadcasting Company extends the courtesy to this other educational channel. I want to thank WRCA-TV and NBC for this privilege of reaching people in Pittsburgh as well as in Boston and New York. Now, today’s program, “Government by Publicity” was really suggested by an article in the Reporter Magazine that will be out on the stands, Thursday, March the 12th. The article as you can see, “Government by Publicity” was written by Douglass Cater, and I think it probably would be well to begin the program, before I even introduce my guests by reading two paragraphs from the article. The first one:
“The American politician has always been something of a dramatist in search of an audience, more flamboyant, a greater individualist that his European counterpart. Recently, however, there has begun to emerge a new type of politician conditioned to the age of mass media and more keenly aware of the used of publicity.”
So much for the politician. What about the reporter? Well, Mr. Cater says, “The reporter is the recorder of government, but he is also a participant. He operates in a system in which power is divided. He, as much as anyone and more than a great many, helps to shape the course of government. He is the indispensable broker and middleman among the sub–governments of Washington. He can choose from among the myriad of events that seethe beneath the surface of government, which to describe, which to ignore. He can illumine policy and notably assist in giving it sharpness and clarity. Just as easily he can prematurely expose policy and as with undeveloped film, cause its destruction.”
Well the phrases “Government by Publicity” and “government by secrecy” have been used very frequently in recent months and recent years. Now let’s turn to our expert guests to discuss the matter. My first guest is the author of the article that will appear this week in the Reporter Magazine, Mr. Douglass Cater, Washington editor of the Reporter Magazine, author of a book that will be out in a few months, “The Fourth Branch of Government” published by Houghton Mifflin. And my second guest is Mr. Roger Tubby, former press secretary to President Harry S. Truman, now editor of the Adirondack Enterprise in Saranac Lake, New York.
And my third guest is Mr. Arthur T. Hadley, former White House correspondent and associate editor of Newsweek Magazine, now assistant to the executive editor of the New York Herald Tribune and the author, published by Viking, of a book called, “The Joy Wagon”.
Well, gentlemen, I think I’ll begin this program today by asking Mr. Cater, you seem to pose a problem. You talk about government by publicity, it seems in your estimation not to be a good thing. What precisely is the problem? How would you define it?
CATER: No, I didn’t mean to suggest that it is not a good thing. I think it’s a problem that needs to be examined in order to bring increased sense of responsibility to the participants in it. What I attempted to describe in this article is that uniquely in the American system, the publicizing of government in which the press as an independent body has an active part is a very important factor. Things get done or not done depending on the degree to which they are publicized. Therefore, I think and what I’m attempting to suggest is that the press plays a role as almost a quasi-official fourth branch of government. The president’s press conference for example, is uniquely an institution of government, which doesn’t exist in any other capital of the world. So, what I have attempted to do is point out this phenomenon, which seems to me very important and to point out some of the weaknesses that are attendant on it, also to describe the sense of responsibility that should belong to both politicians and press as they participate in our government.
HEFFNER: Well, you seem to object to the notion that I expressed that possibly you are offering this as a criticism rather than an appraisal and I would ask our other guests, Mr. Hadley, how you react to this notion?
HADLEY: Well, I think that to me the fascinating thing about government by publicity, agreeing with Doug Cater, is that it was absolutely unforeseen by the founding fathers. Now the other three branches of government, the legislative, the executive and the judiciary were put in check and balance with each other in the Constitution, but the founding fathers never saw this fourth branch growing up. So it’s grown up like some great giant of sprouting parts here and there and now the question is, how are we going to control it?
HEFFNER: You seem to concede the existence of this fourth branch. Mr. Tubby, you’ve been in the first branch, or the second or the third, whichever you want to call it and you’re in the so called fourth one now, do you think there really can be or should be a fourth branch of government and that the press?
TUBBY: Well, I think there can be and should be and there is. I think the difficulty that we face, that any president faces, is whether or not the fourth branch operates in a responsible manner. And I think there is a great hazard as Doug Cater points out in his article, great hazard in the press conferences as now conducted. The hazards of questions being asked for which the President is not properly briefed, he may be irritated, he may say something off the cuff that is embarrassing and even extremely dangerous to the welfare of the nation, and so I do feel that there is a great responsibility on the press as well as on the President to come to those press conferences very carefully and well prepared.
HEFFNER: I suppose I shouldn’t have expected in a group of three newspaper men that someone would have said that this is a bad thing and something that not only was not foreseen by the founding fathers but something that is antithetical to our democratic notions, a fourth branch of government, the press. It seems like a rather peculiar concept.
HADLEY: Well, isn’t the thing to do really to say with that wonderful closing line of Steve Benet’s in “John Brown’s Body”, not that it is blessed or cursed but merely it is here. I don’t really think that giving value judgments to something that is obviously as here as the press is, accomplishes very much. I think that we would all be in agreement that it is here and the thing to do is to examine it and then see what specific method can be done to regulate this. For instance, one thing that’s been suggested, Roger, is this idea of having reporters in something as important as the presidential press conference submits their questions in advance. Now how do you feel about that as a method for example?
TUBBY: Well, that has been suggested as you know, Art, it’s been suggested for a great many years and there’s been a good deal of opposition to doing this because it’s been felt that if all the press conferences were controlled by questions submitted in advance that the President or his advisers would edit out embarrassing questions. I think there’s some value to having some questions on major topics made in advance so the President can consider those questions very carefully. I think that Doug in his article suggested that perhaps certain questions could be answered by the President after the press conference is over, if they are matters of great concern to the public welfare and that could not be answered in a haphazard or off the cuff manner.
HEFFNER: May I ask this question please, we’re talking about the press conference now and some techniques for controlling what happens as if this is an example of government by publicity and I wonder if you’d care, Mr. Cater, to indicate how this is an example of government by publicity.
CATER: Yes, and I agree with Arthur Hadley about the fact that this is something that is and therefore to bring a moral judgment is rather difficult. In modern government as it’s worked out in Washington today, you’ve got this curious reversal of the role that was envisaged by our founding fathers. They set up these separate and coordinate branches of government and you had an executive branch with the President, who was supposed to execute, and you had the legislative branch, which was primarily to legislate.
Today the President is and should be the great legislative agent. He prepares the budget and submits a budget which is a unified whole. He drafts the initial legislation, or at least his office of the President does. Congress on the other hand, has in the nature of things, attempted to turn itself through its various committees and its investigations into the great body of review and veto over the administration of the government. And so you’ve got the two roles in some ways reversed. In carrying out the functions of both these two branches, they have to appeal continuously to public opinion. The President has to continuously put his program and explain it in such a way that by the very nature of his logic, the public sustains him in this new concept of the Presidency, of this developed concept. Congress on the other hand, in its investigations, has to, by the logic of its investigations move into this what is somewhat a dubious constitutional area of vetoing the administration of the government, which primarily we consider to be the President’s role. So both of them are carrying on what, in my opinion, is continuous publicity shows. And the President’s press conference is one of his major instruments of publicity. There was a time when, just before he came into office, when it was widely rumored that President Eisenhower was going to cut out the President’s press conference. He didn’t like the press conference. Well he quickly revised that idea and in my opinion he did it because he saw that it was an invaluable instrument for informal communication with the public. It permitted him ways of talking to the public without appearing to preach to it. He could talk in an informal manner without having to issue formal proclamations, which would have a different nuance and shading. The President’s press conference is, I think, a major instrument of publicity for the President as the contractor in this great drama, which is government in the United States.
HADLEY: I think the President can use it most effectively when he has a positive program, I mean, we remember FDR during the depression days and his fireside chats. He used the press conference over and over again to promote effectively his programs to defeat the depression. And Harry Truman on Point four, on the Marshall Plan, on NATO, on the Berlin Airlift, Aid to Greece and Turkey, and the Korean War, also had positive programs to promote and it was much easier for him to do it. Dean Acheson, as Secretary of State, likewise used the press conference this way although I think not as effectively as the President did. But where a President is on the defensive as now, when we have the serious missile gap with the Russians, I think it becomes rather awkward for him and its apparent that it’s awkward and he’s lost the initiative.
TUBBY: If I could pursue this thing, because I think this point about the reversal of the roles leads to one of the problems of government by publicity that we are talking about and that is it is always much easier for the person that is criticizing to make news, because nothing makes news like a real good harem-scarem-rootin-tooting investigation. Whereas the quiet necessary steps of policy which often have to be taken in their initial stages in some secrecy don’t make news so that in the battle of government by publicity, the congress is in the dickey bird seat and particularly those members of congress who are not concerned with legislation and getting things done but are concerned with making headlines. Now this can take some fairly vicious forms. I’m sure the three of us here know senators whose foibles are never reported because they make a practice of leaking things from certain committees to certain favored reporters so in this structure that’s grown up of government by publicity with the press, the Congress seems to have the upper hand and this in one of the serious aspects.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you make the members of the press sound like a group of vultures just hanging around waiting for someone to make either a slip or to leak something…
TUBBY: Oh, they don’t hang around they run the party.
HEFFNER: But you’re saying — and I say this just as a layman but you seem to say this exists, you’ve got these newspaper men all ready to jump. They re going to jump at the leaks, they’re going to jump at the criticism, now we have to find some way in which we make the press conference of the President something strong enough to get the newspaper men to write it up and to write the President and his program up as consistently. This is quite a burden to take off the press’s shoulders and put on the President’s it seems to me
HADLEY: Oh, I think the burden is on both their shoulders. I think no President can do his role, can be a good president unless he takes continuous steps to explain his policies interestingly in a way that does make interesting news and also responsibility and doesn’t use what you’d call publicity gimmicks in order to make policies appear to be what they really are not. On the other hand, the press has a responsibility to treat the president in a different way in it a concept of news than it treats a murder on Third Avenue. I have in mind specifically the famous event which occurred I believe just before you moved into the White House, Roger, when the President at the time the Chinese Communists entered the way in Korea and at the President’s press conference reporters asked him if he was considering the use of atomic bombs. And President Truman said that the use of atomic bombs was always under consideration Well, somehow in the hardening of the news concept that always got left out and the bulletins went out from that press conference that President Truman considers use of atomic bombs in Korean War.
HEFFNER: That’s a very polite way of putting it, in the hardening of the news concept. I would say that there was some responsibility on the part of the reporters there to report this accurately on the part of the men who determine what shall be printed to quote him accurately too.
HADLEY: Yes, it was a major instance in which, as you know, news tends to simplify things, you’ve got to find fewer words in order to make headlines.
TUBBY: This is, yes, as Art says, you are in a highly competitive business with the wire services competing, the Herald Tribune, the Times, all competing and all anxious to burst out of there with the top news, the most — if possible the most sensational news, and I agree with you that perhaps we’re over emphasizing this seemingly irresponsibility of the press. I think we should not lose sight of the fact, however, that there are in Washington and my conferences here are certainly among the top, many highly responsible journalists who not only are covering the President’s press conferences but who day in and day out, year in and year out, search out the background, they do a lot of digging. Paul Ward of the Baltimore Sun is one, Scotty Reston of the New York Times is another, who go to the sources, they go to the assistant secretaries to the division chiefs, to search out the facts and find out the policy and this is good. This is responsible journalism.
HADLEY: I would agree with this. In fact I think that what you are asking about the press is part of a far more basic malaise of society. After all the press exists in the economic milieu and it exists to sell newspapers in addition to inform the public. And if the public wishes sensational news, if the public is continually asking for this kind of journalism, the public has a tendency to get what they want. As William Allen White in that remark you quote, the “public always gets the truth but sometimes it gets it when it’s like a cold potato and it doesn’t do them much good. And this I think is part of the problem. Take the Pentagon, spending 40 billion. The Pentagon is covered by about one tenth as many correspondents as the State Department because traditionally people don1 t cover the Defense Department, defense isn’t news except during war. So you have a lot of traditions on what news should be and a lot of traditions that a reporter should never editorialize so that it’s hard for a newspaper to judge between an irresponsible statement by an irresponsible senator and a responsible statement by a responsible senator because they may be doing it on the basis of what sells newspapers and to put some other sort of judgment on that is apt to be thought of as editorializing. So that the hardening of the news is a good phrase because the news is hardened as all things are hardened by tradition.
TUBBY: Well, here we are, I think, at one of the most critical periods in our nation’s history, at a time when the people of the nation ought to be made aware of the difference between Russia’s production of military weapons and our own. This is a job that many in the press have been working at. Of course, Joe Alsop is outstanding, in that. But, on the other hand, I feel many –much of the complacency around the country is due not to failures of the press but to failures of the president to get across to the people effectively the seriousness. He’s not doing, it seems to me, and this isn’t a political judgment at all, but he’s not doing what Winston Churchill did so magnificently in the late thirties in Britain. We need to know, we want to know, we’re not basically a lazy and complacent people. We will make the sacrifices if we’re asked to make them by the President of the United States and this, I think, is his job not the reporter’s job. He’s got to tell the story, make it clear, tell us what we need to do.
HEFFNER: And yet, as I read Mr. Cater’s article, I am disturbed, as you gentlemen, who are professional newspapermen aren’t, by this very notion that there exists this massive instrument, this mass media, mass communication, the newspaper, there are politicians who know how to use the techniques. You seem to say then that the other politicians must use the techniques too.
HADLEY: I don’t think we said we weren1 t disturbed, we just didn’t want to say it was right or wrong. I think that every thoughtful newspaperman that I know is deeply disturbed.
CATER: I think the experience of McCarthy in Washington was a tremendous shock to the press of the nation. They realized that in a way that they were involved in McCarthyism, many times unwittingly, in some cases in the beginning, wittingly. But they built this publicity monster and then they didn’t know what to do about it. So there has been a new sense of concern and signs of a new sense of responsibility. There are some underlying dilemmas in the press, which, as you say, the press, is not, was not .set up in the Constitution to be an instrument of government and so its primary job is to report news as it considers news to be and to sell newspapers or, if you’re network, to make a program that the public will watch. And they produce contradictions. But in a democratic society there are these basic contradictions that pull us in one way toward forms of demagoguery and in almost every field and in the other way our highest sense, higher purposes, try to lift us up toward acting responsibility and this is what the reporter has to do and what the public official has to do.
TUBBY: I was wondering if this doesn’t make it all the more important that the President, and I think this is what the President and his predecessors have tried to do, but in each press conference select out the things that he thinks are most important to tell to the American people and get those said early in the press conference. And perhaps have them prepared for release early in the press conference so that there can be no ambiguity.
HEFFNER: Let me ask Mr. Tubby whether he thinks that Mr. Truman used the press conference as well and as effectively as Franklin D. Roosevelt did?
TUBBY: Well, that’s a hard one. Because I wasn’t with Franklin Roosevelt. I have a tremendous affection and respect for Harry S. Truman. I think though, perhaps there were times when he didn’t use it as effectively though that’s hard to say because when you look back on it, there’s a whole series of things that he was asking us to do as a people and that we did do and that I think that he — I remember once Winston Churchill said to him that you and you alone, sir, did more since the end of the war, the last war, to save Western civilization and he listed all the things that came up, that Harry Truman did. And I think sometimes — I think the working press and Doug, you and Art know held him in very high regard because of his directness, his bluntness but I can’t really pass judgment.
HADLEY: I’m reminded of that wonderful answer that the man gave running for sheriff in Oklahoma. When asked if he was in favor of drinking he said he had friends that did drink and friends that didn’t drink and he always agreed with his friends.
HEFFNER: Is that what you are doing?
HADLEY: That’s what Roger was doing.
TUBBY: That’s what I was trying to do.
HEFFNER: Mr. Cater?
CATER: Truman had a method of approaching the press conference, which did him, damage, I feel. He carried his bluntness to a point that was not typical of the man in his private conversation. He had the bad habit of picking up the words of the questioner and sometimes he had phrases put in his own mouth.
TUBBY: Red herring.
CATER: Yes, red herring for example. Something that caused him great trouble in Washington, was one time a reporter wandered into the President’s press conference, and I say wandered in because no one seemed to know who this reporter was and whether he ever showed up again, but he said “Mr. President, do you think the current investigations in Congress are a red herring designed to distract from your program?” And the president, instead of saying — using his own language, said, “yes, they are a red herring.” Well, this became the battle cry of his opponents on the hill and for years that phrase red herring was thrown back at Truman to his political disadvantage.
HADLEY: I must admit that this is one specific thing that bothers me about the Presidential press conference is that access to the President in these very difficult and perilous times is sort of…
HADLEY: A man can get in there from Tass. A man does get in there from Tass. But he doesn’t ask questions, of course.
HEFFNER: Let me ask this question, on the other side do you think there may be too much use of government by publicity. You’ve been talking about the Presidents frequent lack of discernment or discrimination.
TUBBY: I think, sometimes, unfortunate phrases like bigger bang for a buck and natural retaliation and liberating the satellites and we don’t really mean these things.
HEFFNER: Well I’m thinking about when government officials do mean these things and they know exactly what you gentlemen are saying that if you treat the press in the right way and you release the right kind of story, it will make the kind of headlines that will bolster up governmental policy rather than permit an examination of it.
CATER: Well, my point is this, that we have divided government in Washington. The President alone does not have the power or the responsibility to carry through. He is involved in this intricate relationship with his own government, with his massive bureaucracy spread out beneath him and with Congress. Unless he is continually explaining and selling, Truman once said that the job of the President is to kiss the politicians on both cheeks and try to make them do what they ought to have sense enough to do anyway. And this is– the President’s job is primarily a salesman’s job.
HADLEY: And often there are people within his own bureaucracy it is not just between Congress and the president but there may be a whole department in some vast bureaucracy bent on doing something completely different from what he wants and they will generate their own publicity too, in order to try.
HEFFNER: But I gather your concerns are generally focused on not the use but the lack of clever use of government by publicity.
HADLEY: No, we’re really, I think, concerned about the fact that there is no intelligent regulation. It’s the way our cities have grown today, I mean, everybody agrees that the cities are getting too big and throws up their hands and nobody does anything about it.
HEFFNER: Regulation of the press?
HADLEY: No, not regulation but some sort of intelligent ground rules such as they have in the major leagues.
TUBBY: Well, Doug suggested in his article with perhaps it would be good if the President had one or two of his assistants present and able if the answer seemed to be getting off the track to participate and set the President straight — I think that might be a good idea in some ways but you cannot argue policy or facts in front of a press conference. That seemed to me to be the danger of that.
HEFFNER: And I think at that point that our time is up. But thanks so much for joining me today, Mr. Cater, Mr. Tubby and Mr. Hadley. We’ll be back on The Open Mind for another discussion next week when our subject will be the role of the child in American life. See you then on The Open Mind.
ANNOUNCER: WRCA has just presented the Open Mind. Your host on the Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner. Dr. Heffner’s guests today were Douglass Cater, Roger Tubby and Arthur D. Hadley. If you have any comments or questions on today’s program or if you have any suggestions for future programs, please send them to The Open Mind, WRCA, New York 20, N. Y.