Guest: Greider, William
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: William Greider
Title: “The Education of David Stockman”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. This program is a continuation of one we did most recently. Let me introduce it the same way I did the last one, by saying that few newspaper or magazine articles have ever attracted as much attention or caused such an upheaval, both in American politics and in American journalism, as the Atlantic’s December 1981 cover story entitled “The Education of David Stockman”. Written by then Washington Post Editor William Greider, it made public in brilliant detail what perhaps shouldn’t have been, but nevertheless was the stunningly surprising intellectual odyssey of Ronald Reagan’s budget director, with telling insight into David Stockman’s doubts and qualms about his own and his administration’s economic game plan. It revealed a disparity between public utterances and private belief at the very pinnacle of our public life that gave all who believe in government based upon the consent of a well-informed electorate something to think and perhaps to grieve about. And just as it called into question many naïve assumptions about the nature of public life and those who lead it, the shock value in “The Education of David Stockman” meant that American journalism might do some soul searching also. Now its author, William Greider, is Washington Editor of Rolling Stone, contributes a regular column to the magazine, has written a new Dutton book that expands and expounds upon his now famous article. And he’s here with us today on The Open Mind.
Thanks for staying in that seat, Mr. Greider, and letting us continue our discussion about government and about the press. When we were talking about the impact of the Stockman piece and about some of the niceties of the relationship between a reporter such as yourself and an insider such as Stockman, you commented perhaps it would be well perhaps to keep a distance, that your own experience demonstrated that it might be well to keep a distance between the reporter and insider. Do you still feel that way?
Greider: Well, every reporter covering a beat, or covering any subject, I suppose, will try to get as deep as he or she can, as close to the source, etcetera. And I don’t mean that that should somehow change. It’s immutable for reporters.
Heffner: Well, what do you have to give up when you do?
Greider: Well, that’s…when I say “distance” I really mean, you know, intellectual distance from the source of the information, which is what I tried to maintain in that piece. And the best reporters do maintain it. And I think that gets to the sort of permanent symbiosis between the press and politicians, particularly in Washington, but it functions to some extent in every city hall and courthouse. Well, there is a mutual dependency there, and I don’t think you can rely on the politicians not to manipulate that relationship. Of course they will. It’s in their interest. So, therefore, it’s up to the press to, even as it tries to go deeper to get the information, it’s able to pull back and say, “I am not writing this story for the benefit of Mayor X or Congressman Y, I am trying to explain, as a sort of surrogate observer, for all of those people out there who don’t understand this stuff, what’s really going on”. That’s what i mean by “maintaining your distance”.
Heffner: Well, I was amused that you had noted here what your wife had said, when you were trying to figure out what all the fuss was about when the article appeared. “Come on,” she says “it was two naughty little boys breaking the rules to see if they could get away with it”. You say she was right. And you say, “By talking honestly, Stockman contradicted the rhetorical claims and slogans which his own colleagues were offering for their program. By recounting stockman’s genuine thoughts in a comprehensive manner, I was effectively refuting the simple and shallow version of reality that the news created in its daily slices”. Now, you were undermining your colleagues by making what was going on in Washington at the time more profoundly intelligible. How do we explain when a free and open and a responsible press is quite so shallow?
Greider: Well, I think it begins with the definitions of what most newspaper editors and reporters think they are doing. I mean, it begins really in the history of modern newspapers. And television, of course, emulates the values of newspapers. And that really is what’s startling, what’s news. How do you define that? What I’m arguing for is a slightly broader definition of what’s news. I believe – and all of the public response that I hear, both in this episode and in earlier episodes – is that one of the things that the public craves is understanding, a broader context, and so forth. That doesn’t fit very neatly into the daily news values of competitive news gathering. And occasionally it gets a bow and a nod, but it’s not at the A-level of what you’re about to serve your readers. That’s where I think they’re wrong. And I think the reaction to the David Stockman business – and you could go back earlier to Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s revelations on the Supreme Court – there wasn’t any news in that book, and yet it was startling in a sense. And, in very similar terms, it revealed what a certain elite knew all along. And, in fact, if you talk to legal experts on the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the reaction was frequently, “Oh, we knew all that. There’s nothing there that surprises us”. That’s where I think I violated the rules. And I think, you know, and obviously don’t feel contrite about that.
Heffner: It’s interesting you use the phrase “competitive”, the word “competitive”, and “competitive journalism”. Is that the key to an understanding of why or how you did violence to the rules; that the rules mean you’re competitive, and that means you’re fairly simpleminded, rather than as thoughtful and as profound as you were in your presentation of Stockman?
Greider: Well, I think that’s one of the values. And that begins with Hurst and Pulitzer and a bunch of other people who literally invented modern newspapers. Along with that is another value which is harder to define but essentially it creates a mindset which looks very narrowly at today, what happened yesterday in New York City that the people in New York city that the people in New York City want to know about tomorrow morning and will startle and interest them and inform them about their lives. Then, alongside that, is another question: What’s going to happen three months from now, or six months from now, or a year, which is going to be startling and interesting and informative? And it seems to me you can look at the front page of even the best newspapers in this country and see an overwhelming emphasis on those two questions, with ignoring a more fundamental question for human understanding – which is not so difficult to answer if you go out to try to answer it – which is not so difficult to answer if you go out to try to answer it – which is, what really happened, not yesterday, but last week or the months before or six months before, or even three years ago? And if you look at the great news controversies that have been stirred over the last 15 years, from Mei Lai exposed by Seymour Hirsh, to Watergate, to the CIA revelations, to what – I’m leaving a couple of them out – they were all about old stories. They were all stories in which reporters said “I don’t care what happened today or yesterday. I’m going to go back and tell people what really happened in their government some time ago. And those revelations are going to shock them because they’re going to be so different from what they learned from the daily news”. Now, I don’t have all the answers to that, but somewhere in there is a real profound weakness, I think.
Heffner: Yes, but you seem to be saying that the reporter, the journalist, the contemporary journalist, needs to be an historian about current events. He needs to have the perspective of the historian, the interest, the concern in, and the concern for interpretation and scene-setting of the historian and still be competitive.
Greider: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to sound silly about it, but yes I think the best practitioners, whatever the field, need to ask some of the same questions that a historian would ask. And I grant, up front, all of the limitations of doing that in a newspaper as opposed to taking your life to do it and writing long books and so forth. Yes, of course. Of course it’s limited. So what? That’s not a reason for not trying.
Heffner: Yes, but in the terms of an analysis of contemporary newspaper practices you seem to be coming down on the side of “Do to the newspaper what I did in the Atlantic”. You didn’t do it in the Washington Post, after all. You did do it for a periodical. There must be some good reason for that.
Greider: Well, I’m not sure versions – albeit less dramatic, perhaps – of what was going on in the Atlantic piece, couldn’t be done in a newspaper. They would lack the shock value of some of the things David Stockman said, but structurally there’s no reason why you couldn’t. I’ll give you a good example, currently. All through 1981 there was a storm of debate about what kind of deficit was the government creating for fiscal year 1982. And that’s partly what the Stockman story was about. It’s what all of this congressional to-ing and fro-ing about and the president goes on TV and makes this assertion and so forth and so on. How much ink and air time has been devoted to that question? Now, last week or the week before, fiscal 1982 ended. We now know what the deficit was for 1982. Question: have you read that in your newspaper?
Heffner: Tell me why not.
Greider: Well, it’s because, I think, of this focus that pushes all questions forward in a way that doesn’t help comprehension in the audience. And I’m not suggesting you abandon that entirely, because all politicians have a little bit of prophet in them, and they will always be making predictions. Economists will make predictions, and so forth. And those are news. But it seems to me that would have been a good opportunity to say, last week, “Now we’re going to tell you what really happened to the federal budget in 1982”. And to take it all apart, very much the same way I did in that piece. You don’t have to know any secrets to do that.
Heffner: What really did happen?
Greider: I forget the precise number. I think it came out at – what? – 108, 110 billion dollar deficit. The biggest deficit in the history of the republic. Nothing like it. And I think you could go back and reconstruct the elements, starting with where really Stockman ended his first year. He was, at that point, saying, “We’ve got probably a deficit of 60 billion”. As the recession got worse, all of the sort of hemorrhaging that he was worried about grew worse. And so his figure now look slow. But essentially he had the right reasons.
Heffner: You know, I asked you this last time, and in between our sessions I came back to it again. I asked it in the form of a statement. I said, I thought, as I read you too, through your words, you and Stockman, that we were dealing here with an optimist, and with a pessimist. That we were dealing in Stockman, someone who looked into the mouth of this awful machine, Washington – not just Washington, but contemporary society – and was appalled – if not overwhelmed, was appalled – by the impossibility of making sense of it. And that’s why he seems to have said quite so many times that Swerell is in the saddle. And you, on the other hand, there you are laboring away trying to make sense of it all.
Heffner: What an interesting combination of the two men.
Greider: Well, I’m not sure that’s the right contrast. I think fundamentally we are, despite differences in broad perspective on a lot of subjects, are fundamentally, we’re both optimists. He began with an optimism which I question about the politics of what Reagan was going to propose. And, in a sense, his optimism was borne out there. He got much further in the legislative victories than I would have predicted.
Heffner: Oh, but that’s optimism about whether you can …
Greider: All right. Okay. But I think fundamentally he would say today, knowing all of the anarchy of government and all the uncontrollable, things have got out of hand. He would still labor in the vineyard to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And, in a sense, I would look at things the same way. And you can dismiss that as naïve if you wish, but I think…one of the reviewers of the book concluded on exactly this point, and said that – the review was Harold Evans, formerly of the London Times – and he said my optimism was distinctly American. And I like that. I think it is.
Heffner: Yeah, but now, with Stockman – and you say you feel that you share with him some optimism – you know him, I don’t. I’ve never laid eyes on the man, personally. I know him through what you’ve written about him and the way you’ve quoted him. And you say here, you quote him, “’I’m beginning to believe that history is a lot shakier than I ever thought it was,’ he said in a reflective moment ‘In other words, I think there are more random elements, less determinism, and more discretion in the course of history than I ever believed before, because I can see it.’” And that, even though discretion gives him, presumably, some control over it, the message seemed to b e it was just chaos. And there wasn’t really very much that could be done. I don’t mean to press that too hard.
Greider: No, I think I would have said at that point – I didn’t, but I would have said – “Yes, that’s right.” And at that point he would have said, and did say, “But I’ve got six new objectives here. And if I can pull them off – a couple of them are long shots, and I probably won’t win, but I’m going to try them anyway – we could come out of this all right six months from now. Or at least we’ll repair the damage, or whatever “. That’s what I mean by optimism. A kind of a permanent sense that however many signals you get from the rational world that these things are to anarchy, you would still try to organize them and still try to push toward some kind of resolution. In that sense, he’s certainly optimistic.
Heffner: My concern is never really to try to push someone from self-characterization as an optimist into that of a pessimist, but rather to assume if we don’t have the right kind of handle on our situation, if we don’t evaluate it, estimate it correctly, then we have no opportunity whatsoever to pull ourselves out of an unpleasant situation. And it seemed to me that you were…well, for instance, you indicate very clearly that you have a lot of criticisms of the way the press works. And you say, “It just couldn’t have been. There couldn’t have been so much shock and surprise on the part of the public” at what you revealed because you weren’t revealing it for the first time. It was generally known to reporters and had seeped through, but not sufficiently. Reporters and press hadn’t done a good enough job reporting it. If that’s the case, I wonder then about the efficacy of democracy if we presumably base our system on the consent of the governed – and the governed presumably are well informed – and we are not well informed, what does that say about the possibility of seeing through to t he next century intact in a democratic way?
Greider: Well, I could write a script for the next 25 years that would be rather gloomy. It wouldn’t have much to do with what we’ve been talking about, but in terms of mass communications and, sort of, particularization of citizens that will come from the new video technologies. I choose again to be an optimist. I think it has an opposite potential as well. And I think you have to keep in mind that, at any given point, America is blessed by, among other things, being a great, big, complicated, and diverse country with pools of people at any given time who care very strongly about one thing and not at all about other things, or who are rising in their own sense of education and understanding, who are plunging in and out of politics, and so forth and so on. And I think if you take the big, broad formulation of, we have to get all the people well schooled in the complexities of these issues, then yes, I concede that it looks like a rather long hill to climb. But that isn’t the way politics works. You get, at any given time – and I suspect if you went out right at this moment in history and asked the whole populous how they felt about how the press was communicating to them in a real comprehension of what’s going on in government – you would get such wildly diverse answers from different groups of people, some of whom would agree with my formulation – maybe most of them will not; they would have other criticism of the press. But it seems to me there’s always one group in this society or maybe 20 groups that aren’t getting enough from the media and are ready to get more. And their sophistication is really greater, and then that’s what makes change in politics or anything else. They don’t wait for the whole population to get on board.
Heffner: Yes, but of course the key words there are now, “Ready to get more”. Now, your colleagues, most of them, who are in a position to make judgments about what appears in the papers or what appears on television, are making the judgment, I would presume, that the public is not ready to get more.
Greider: Some of them would agree with me and some argue that, yes, that’s their vulnerability in their performance. I think others would say you are hopelessly naive, the public is probably already over-inundated with complicated information, and you surely can’t take them up a rung. I don’t think that’s right.
Heffner: Don’t you think we get that – I was going to say “what we want” – don’t you think we get what we deserve?
Greider: Oh, sure. In a democracy, on one level or another, you…always get what you deserve. The trouble with that formulation is that, particularly in the modern age, there are great, big, complicated organizations which deliver information back and forth. Not just news media, but political institutions, governmental institutions, corporate institutions. And Citizen A doesn’t have any control over those organizations. All right? So the citizens…I think it’s a little too cheap to dump it on the citizens and say, “Well, if they wanted to be smarter, they would be smarter”. They don’t make the decisions in the newsroom or in the boardroom or in a lot of other arenas,, that control – that have some influence at least, over – what they are able to understand.
Heffner: but presumably those decisions are being made by people in a competitive situation, and therefore they’re saying, “We follow this route. We follow this routine because this is the routine that will please more of the people more of the time”.
Greider: But the answer to that is not as self-evident as you’re suggesting. If you look at the history of newspapers in the last, say, 25 years, I think you could make a pretty good case that the newspapers which have grown, have prospered, and been enormously successful, even while newspapers generally were going the other way, have been the ones that emphasize quality. I think the Washington Post is an obvious example of that. And you can find others around the country. It doesn’t save you from the red ink if you’ve got a shrinking market and all the rest. But I think the general formulation has been that quality sells. Simultaneously – and not necessarily in contradiction – you get a new newspaper or a national newspaper like USA Today which I think – not to be too harsh on it – takes quite different premise of what it is people want to read. I mean, I hope it succeeds, just because I think that the more voices, the better we all are. But some of my colleagues denounce it as “Popcorn journalism”. That it’s too simple, too short. It kind of flips lightly over everything and doesn’t go deep enough, etcetera, etcetera. Compare that newspaper with, say, its rival for a national audience. The Wall Street Journal, which goes quite deep and is very thorough and sets a very different pace from most daily newspapers about what subjects it’s going to go into depth. And we see which one of those comes out on top.
Heffner: Isn’t this a function, as some people have said, of the reason for the survival, the profitability of a few in-depth journal sis that television has replaced the others as the competition?
Greider: Well, I think television has, in the last ten years, improved enormously. Not generally credited for it, but really has raised the level of its content dramatically. And I think it will continue to do that. It will get better and better in its news information content. As that happens, I think , you’ll see newspapers more and more threatened, and they better raise the level of their game or a lot of them are going to be out of business.
Heffner: You know, in reading the news book, I couldn’t help but think that you were taking – not deliberately, but in terms of your experiences – taking many a page from Walter Lipman’s “Public Opinion” and that you almost had gotten to his suggestion for organized intelligence as the means of interpreting the complexity of contemporary life to the American people. And in a sense, Stockman does well represent, and the Bureau of the Budget does well represent the organized intelligence for us. And it seemed to have fallen on its face.
Greider: Well, you know, there’s a lot, quite apart from newspapers and television, that could be done and has been done in the last few years to improve the quality of understanding in, say, realms like economics. And I’m talking about institutions that can reliably describe, in a nonpartisan way, what’s happening to our economy, so that we’re not batting around a bunch of phony claims, but ordinary people can read it and get their own sense of what’s true.
Heffner: You know I really deeply appreciate your willingness to sit for these two programs. I can’t sell copies of The Atlantic and your piece on “The Education of David Stockman”, but it was so apparent that it was a piece too on the education of William Greider. And I do appreciate your coming here again today on The Open Mind.
Greider: Thanks. I enjoyed it a lot.
Heffner: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you, too will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”