Walter Goodman

Walter Goodman: Media Maven, Part I

VTR Date: April 28, 1993

Guest: Goodman, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Goodman
Title: “Walter Goodman: Media Maven’, Part I
VTR: 4/28/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

A decade ago, when I first introduced today’s guest to my viewers, I noted that the greatest reward of doing this program week after week is the privilege and pleasure I enjoy of choosing subjects and guests I delight in reading, reading about, meeting or otherwise becoming aware of in the course of rather miscellaneous and active life experiences in the world outside the television studio.

Then I referred to several particularly intriguing articles about people and ideas I had read recently in the Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times, introduced their author, and off we went for what I considered a rather intriguing and satisfying half-hour of good talk and intellectual exchange.

All of which may auger well for today’s efforts as Walter Goodman joins me once again … though now mostly from The New York Times Television and Arts & Leisure pages.

As at once perhaps the most prolific, and surely the most provocative and artful print commentator on broadcasting and the media generally, Walter Goodman remains a sheer pleasure to read … even though I can’t even get him to write about THE OPEN MIND. But I have a whole list of questions here to put to you, Walter.

And … in a sense I’m darned if I know where to begin, so being always the historian, I’ve gone back in time to, to a review you wrote in “Commentary”, nearly 30 years ago…1965 … it was a review of the private broadcaster and the public interest by Newton Minow, who had just resigned as Chairman of the FCC. And I wonder if you’ve changed your mind about some of the things you wrote then in the review. You quoted from him, when he said: “I believe in the people’s good sense and good taste. And I am not convinced that the people’s taste is as low as some of you assume”, and he was talking to broadcasters. Then you went on to say, ‘This deference to the democratic citizenry is pardonable in a public servant on public display, but it puts him in an awkward position, for now he must argue that the rating services are either cock-eyed or misused when the likelihood is that if they were more accurate, they would reveal the nation’s taste to be even more abysmal”.

And now that you’re in the media … mass media yourself, via your commentary about television and films, I wonder how you evaluate that evaluation of nearly 30 years ago?

Goodman: Reading that I would say, “that man is right”.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Goodman: Nothing has changed. In my view of people’s tastes on television.

Heffner: So that the broadcaster is not to blame for what appears in this…

Goodman: Oh, no, I wouldn’t take that leaf…

Heffner: Wouldn’t? What would you say?

Goodman: I think broadcasters have responsibility beyond ratings. And that’s fundamentally the problem with television. If their responsibility is only to make money for their stations, they’re doing a good job. Those of them that are making money. And to do that, like some politicians, you follow the polls. But lust as politicians have an extra job, of leading, of fulfilling their responsibility in another way … I think broadcasters have that, too. If only because they’re given a great bounty by the government for being able to be in this business.

Heffner: But suppose they are, like Walter Mondale some years back … quite 90 honest, quite so direct, and say ‘in my Administration we’ll raise taxes”, and are defeated, hands-down. Can broadcasters afford, and I don’t mean just in terms of dollars or cents, can they afford in terms of their, their appointed objectives to do lust that?

Goodman: That’s exactly the issue. Maybe they can’t afford it … that’s too bad. But for those of us looking at it outside and trying to assess what they’re doing to the society, that really isn’t the big issue. That’s a problem. But they have to go beyond it, or else the whole … they’re too powerful not to go beyond it.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Goodman: We, we can’t … the medium is too powerful now, and can’t let it go by money alone. If we do, we might as well give up on it altogether and give up on a lot of the society.

Heffner: But Walter, suppose you translate money and ratings into public attitudes, public opinion, public desire. Where … are we really all that ignorant that we don’t know what we want and what we demand from the broadcaster?

Goodman: No, I, I … I wouldn’t say that the publics … I find it hard to assess what the public wants a lot of the time. In entertainment, it’s not so difficult … you see the hit shows, get very big ratings, you know they like those shows. But people can tune into and like and find rewards in programs they didn’t know they would like before they were on. And one of the astonishing things about the last Presidential election were the ratings that Ross Perot got. Now Ross Perot’s, mind you, not a particularly engaging television figure, and he doesn’t do anything on television … he doesn’t do any stunts. He does stunts, but not the kinds of stunts one is accustomed to. Got enormous ratings by showing his charts he was showing. And making his little jokes. Well, that was astounding to me, and I think to everyone else. And no one could have predicted it. No programmer would have said, “Ah, we have a hit here, we have Ross Perot. He’ll be on ‘Saturday Night Live’ what a terrific idea”. No. Came on, paid his way, which is a dangerous thing, by the way. But paid his way, and got a big rating. So it indicates to me, and there are … you know, other examples, of people being attracted to things they don’t know they want until they receive them. The broadcasters have to respond to the things they’re not sure of. They have to take chances in order to get that kind of response.

Heffner: Well, the late Dick Salant used to say, how are you going to develop a taste for steak, for filet mignon, in the public if you just keep feeding them hamburger? And it sounds to me as though you’re saying that we don’t know ahead of time, and the broadcaster’s making an assumption that good stuff will not receive as large an audience as possible.

Goodman: I think their assumption is safe for them. I mean if I were a broadcaster who had to keep a job, I might make the same assumption. But I don’t care whether it’s safe or not. Those of us looking at it from outside can’t really be … go by that particular criteria.

Heffner: You reject the idea of cultural democracy then? The people vote, given what they vote for.

Goodman: Well, it’s a terrible idea, of course. Terrible idea. The whole reason for public broadcasting is a recognition, an acknowledgement that if people get what they vote for, you’re going to get what the … your networks give, which is a pretty poor assortment of stuff. Not all, not all by any means, but it’s nothing to be very proud and thump drums about. The only justification for putting public money into a system that doesn’t do that is that it doesn’t do that. That it can take chances. Who else would produce The Civil War? Which was a big hit in public television terms, and even in, you know, strangely enough in some sort of commercial terms … they make money, I think it did. Bill Moyers documentaries has managed, it’s making a little industry of it … makes money. Sesame Street, and the whole Children’s Television Workshop finally make money. But no, no commercial broadcaster would have started with those, or given them a chance. So some of them can succeed. But beyond that, even if they don’t succeed financially, they can be very important. Nobody is doing documentaries now, except public broadcasting. Nobody … really … I mean an occasional little network thing, but it’s nothing. Public broadcasting is doing a lot of documentaries and on quite a high level.

Heffner: But you’re, you’re, you’re then accepting, which is perfectly fine, I don’t mean to sound lust that patronizing, because what I mean is that’s why we created Channel 13 30 years ago … alternative television. But if you have an alternative, and that was one of the basic ideas thirty and forty years ago, when the first public television, or educational television stations began … having an alternative system and let the, the, the private stations reflect the public desires of those people who turn on their sets and vote with their fingers.

Goodman: Well, they’re doing it.

Heffner: Okay. But you don’t sound accepting of that.

Goodman: No, I’d like them to do more, of course. I mean I have the ‘do good” (laughter) point of view. And I think people in news particularly, which is mainly what I deal with and documentaries … the people in the news sections of these various networks, will want to more, or would like to do better … lust for their own professional satisfaction, and because they think news is important, and there’s some sort of important message that they should be giving to this enormous audience they have out there. And occasionally a “hit”, and there are good programs on, good regular programs … “Sixty Minutes”, with all its faults is good to have on the air, it’s useful … it gives information, it’s very successful. Some are not successful, but they’re good, you know, good to have on anyway … when one of the networks does a “Special” about Bosnia, so forth, as ABC did not so long ago. I don’t know what the ratings were there, I really didn’t check them, I can’t believe they were all that high. But it’s important that a network do it because they’ll get multi-times the audience that public broadcasting does lust because they happen to be there.

Heffner: Now you used the phrase “do good” … you’re a “do-gooder”, I don’t want you to be a “do-badder”, but what’s the role of the critic, what’s the function of the critic vis-a-vis this “I’m a “do-gooder” business?

Goodman: Well, as far as news goes … documentaries, it’s to maintain certain standards that one would apply to print as well. I don’t think television news has held up very high to those standards. Part of the reason is the nature of television itself, and the way news is constructed … it comes in half-hour segments … it’s too fast, you can’t get very much there … it’s interrupted … there are the sound bites that everyone complains about, but I don’t know how else they would do it. They do surveys and find that if you have the camera focused on me, now, for more than 3 minutes … people will go do something else.

Heffner: I don’t believe that for a minute. Do you?

Goodman: I’m sure of it. I’m sure of it. (Laughter) I have no doubt. Maybe not your listeners … your viewers.

Heffner: But, but then if you’re sure of that … isn’t that a … there an inner contradiction there … you’re sure of t that, you know, people don’t want this … they don’t have the kind of span of attention that you and I would like them to have.

Goodman: Many people … maybe most people. I think it’s important that even with public broadcasting that the commercial stations pay a little attention to another segment of their audience. The … part of the problem, I think, when you talk about the television audience … we’re not talking about the television audience … we’re talking about many audiences … they’re divided by region, by age, by intelligence, education, class … we do have class in America, no one will talk about it too much. By many things, and I think the problem with the reaching for all of them is not just the lowest common denominator, it’s not so much that really … I think no producer really wants the lowest common denominator, he wants a big audience. Big audience … maybe that … maybe that leads to the lowest common denominator. But maybe it’s just he wants to get people from all sections of the country, all educational strata and so forth. If you go just for the lowest common denominator, you lose a lot of people. And, and good buyers … rich people, so you don’t want to really do that. But it’s, it’s very hard, very hard to bring these many audiences into one audience. And think if you’re … talk about the real obstacle to commercial television doing more of what people like me would like to see, that may be it. Giving the best intentions now … they have the best of intentions, they still have to get big audiences to justify their, the expense of puffing on the shows … they have to try for an impossible thing, perhaps.

Heffner: And public television … you’ve been fairly critical at time … at times about public television, particularly in this question of fairness and balance. Although I think you forget about the balance, you talk about fairness … what are the obligations in your estimation of public broadcasting in the fairness area?

Goodman: It’s the obligations of a good paper … like The Times, if I may plug the paper. And I’m glad you said not balanced; because it’s impossible to ask a documentary to be balanced and still make it interesting and ‘punchy’ and provocative … that isn’t what you want. But if they’re attacking some cause, or some business, or whatever … it’s very important that they give a fair amount of time to the person being attacked, or the group being attacked

Heffner: Within…

Goodman: …or the idea being attacked…

Heffner: Within the same program?

Goodman: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, otherwise it makes no sense.

Heffner: Well, then you are talking about balance.

Goodman: No, no. I don’t mean .they have to give equal time to the person.

Heffner: No?

Goodman: But they have to recognize there’s another argument. If they’re attacking an individual, they have to recognize they’re … it’s a … they’re a very powerful instrument they have to give him some sort of defense. If you call that balance … okay … but balance to me means you have to give 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there .. that isn’t what I’m talking about at all. Make your case, make it as powerful as you can, but acknowledge that there are other arguments … if there are other arguments.

Heffner: Can you, can you make it as powerful… your argument as powerful as you can if you are going to be concerned about fairness?

Goodman: Of course not … of course not. That’s just … that’s the problem.

Heffner: That’s the limitation.

Goodman: Yeah, they’re out to punch of it, and they often go for that. And particularly they’re so virtuous, you know, you go on subjects like the environment or minorities, or many of the liberal causes … they’re so sure of their own virtue that they feel well, well there’s not even any reason to give a, a little acknowledgement that maybe there’s another argument.

Heffner: Well, you say “the liberal causes”, but politically you’re a Liberal, I would say.

Goodman: I will say that, but my mail doesn’t reflect it.

Heffner: Seriously?

Goodman: Oh, yes.

Heffner: Because you demand fairness’?

Goodman: I’m often criticized, well you know, you get criticism from both … if you write as much as one has to, you get criticism from everybody. But, yes, I’m often attacked from the Left, sure.

Heffner: Mostly because of your comments on public broadcasting?

Goodman: Partly that, but also on certain issues. If … the environment, for example, is a good one. It seems to me that that’s an issue that is not thought about seriously any more by people … even commercial stations deal with it. It’s become such an acknowledged thing that the environment is good … the earth has to be saved … we must stop bad things and do good things … that no one pauses to reflect on what they’re asking half the time. This leads to some injustices … but there was this, you know, famous case with the Alar in the apples … that “Sixty Minutes” got caught in. There’s not reason for journalists to get trapped in that … it’s because they came to it with, I believe, they came to it with an assumption that “ah, it’s another case of some toxic stuff being put into as nice a food as an app … ah, who cares whether alar really is dangerous or what” It applies to DDT, and …really, you know, these things all require a little more sophistication … in your analysis.

Heffner: You say “sophistication” … that’s a nice word. You … we sort of took balance out of the equation before … but isn’t it what the French call “measure”, or balance or a refusal to be orthodox, and that doesn’t … there doesn’t seem to be very much room in public or commercial television for the refusal to be orthodox.

Goodman: I agree with that. I must say that lately on public television there have been some surprising voices. Surprising because they come from the Right, which hasn’t been true with public broadcasting, usually … in, in documentaries. Other cases, maybe there are. But there have been some … I … they put on Black Conservatives who have quite a different view, I think it’s a minority view even among the Black community, but it’s interesting to hear. They put on Ben Wattenberg, who’s sort of a neo-Conservative

Heffner: Yeah, but now you’re getting back to the notion that I raised before, and you said “no, I don’t mean that”

Goodman: No, it’s … not the same…

Heffner: …balancing a schedule rather than a program…

Goodman: Well, first of all … I think both are important

Heffner: …That sounds fair…

Goodman: I think both are important. Yeah, I didn’t mean to dismiss it … we were talking about something else. I think both are important … they can’t have … if they want to have “punchy” shows, let them have a “punchy” show on the Right, and then acknowledge what the Left says, too. They could do that, that’s possible, there was a show very recently on which Kondracke and Barnes, two journalists who write for “The New Republic” and also are all over television, did something on crime and safety and so forth, and it was a very conservative point of view. They weren’t saying that we have to took to the roots of crime and deal with social issues and economic issues, they were saying “crack down on the criminals”. Now that’s, today in America, a conservative point of view. And it was put on public broadcasting, I was glad to see it there, not because I really share all of their ideas, I don’t, but it’s important to have that point of view which is a … quite a common point of view … expressed. I must say this show didn’t particularly acknowledge the other side, although it sort of made reference to it, but in the terms of general what public broadcasting does, it’s good to have.

Heffner: You know, Walter, when this program began, THE OPEN MIND began 37 years ago, there was … I think it was an appropriate title … “The Open Mind”, and people who came here and sat at this table, and it was generally a live program, I think were very open minded, I think they did not fully realize what the power of the medium was and increasingly would be. Over the years as people are aware of what a “bully pulpit” it is for whatever you want to say, I find minds much more closed, much more ready to manipulate the camera, to manipulate the viewer, to manipulate the situation. And wonder whether we’re going not going to find less and less of the fairness that you’re calling for, and that’s what THE OPEN MIND is about, I think, being fair … I don’t see how as the medium or the media grow in importance, and power that there’s a chance that the fairness you want is going to come about, not uninvited, but unrequired by the law.

Goodman: That raises a whole other issue about the law…

Heffner: The Fairness Doctrine…

Goodman: That, yes, it’s a big problem. I think it may come about for other reasons. First if enough people scold it continually … I mean I certainly plan to do it. And other critics do it, all the time, and pick on them. Also, I think after the last election particularly there was a recognition of ordinary viewers, just people watching, that something’s the matter …something’s wrong … the way we’re covering politics is peculiar. The advertisements were disgraceful … on both sides. Worse on the Republican side I suppose, but also the bias of the journalists, which I found to be mostly on the Democratic side this time around. And people begin to recognize that, so maybe we can hope that as the power increases … and I think you’re absolutely right about what’s happened with … in relation to the camera…everyone’s getting so sophisticated about it … although I don’t know how I could manipulate a camera in a format like this…

Heffner: You could straighten your tie or something like that…

Goodman: Distract from what you’re saying … (laughter) … but … I’ve lost track of what I was saying … the public, though, does recognize, probably because of the power, and because they’ve been told so much about the power of a camera, and you can see it yourself…that it’s there and they have to look at it, and they become a little more sophisticated as viewers.

Heffner: So now we anticipate Walter Goodman’s scold … is that the title … because you…

Goodman: Well, that’s always been…

Heffner: You’ve always been a scold.

Goodman: That’s part of the job, isn’t it? I don’t like scolds very much actually. I, I…

Heffner: You don’t like them on the air.

Goodman: Anywhere. (Laughter) I don’t like them anywhere. I don’t like when I do it, and I try to keep that tone out of…

Heffner: But you’re so good at that, you really are.

Goodman: Well, thank you, but I hope it doesn’t sound like scolding.

Heffner: Oh…

Goodman: Sometimes, I know.

Heffner: Criticism, but criticism on the, on, on the one end. Walter you say fairness is a … that’s a big subject. Would you be in favor of the Fairness Doctrine?

Goodman: I really have problems with that whole issue.

Heffner: Why?

Goodman: I don’t like government interference at all in anything of this sort, in any communication form. think there’s more justification for it in television than any place else, just because of the boon that’s been given to the, to the producers … how much … to the broadcasters .. how much money they make, for so little investment by and large, and it’s given to them by the state. If that’s a rationale, and I think it’s a fair … well, then the state is entitled to do some regulation. I think particularly for children because that’s an audience that troubles me greatly … they are vulnerable and you can’t leave them to the mercies of the market. As for adults, I believe by and large it’s better to leave them alone, but if you pressed me I would say…

Heffner: I’m pressing you.

Goodman: I say, “couldn’t hurt” (laughter) to have a little Fairness Doctrine … I don’t know what it would mean, I mean nobody’s ever known really what it would mean, and that’s why it hasn’t worked terribly well.

Heffner: But wait a minute … who has it, it hasn’t worked terribly well? Ronald Reagan’s FCC got rid of the Fairness Doctrine which had been around a long time despite broadcasters talking about the chilling effect.

Goodman: Yes.

Heffner: I never saw anyone chilled and I’ve been around this medium for a long, long time. No one chilled by the Fairness Doctrine.

Goodman: I don’t think so, either.

Heffner: Then, today?

Goodman: You see, but it was never very powerful, you know, it wasn’t a great force, I can’t remember it … I can’t remember great changes after Reagan, before Reagan. Do you really?

Heffner: No, but maybe that’s an indication of the power of the idea of fairness which you do now see being somewhat eroded in some of the programs that you have criticized. You’ve been talking about documentaries that are too frequently, for your taste

Goodman: Well, that’s untrue…

Heffner: …unfair.

Goodman: You know the … and the documentaries are largely on public broadcasting. Although I must say the documentaries on commercial stations also have very strong points of view, and usually a little more careful, I think to give the other side their due. Or at least to make a reference to it, and that maybe because they were trained with the Fairness Doctrine. You know, they’re accustomed to it, But you don’t need it. I mean … if you … they’re really journalists and there are very good journalists on all of the … on most public and commercial stations … it’s part of the job.

Heffner: Oh, come on.

Goodman: You’re not failing as a citizen; you’re failing as a reporter.

Heffner: Come on now, if you say … you talk about a lawyer, a doctor, you’re talking about professions that have ethical standards that are to some minor extent enforced. Journalism? Who enforces it? We killed off the National News Council … it’s no longer there

Goodman: Good.

Heffner: you think that was good, to kill it off?

Goodman: Sure. Yeah, sure. Who needs it? I think journalists ought to police themselves. I … you know … of course this is self-interest you know, and in the line of work.

Heffner: Suppose we…

Goodman: I, I don’t like … I mean the idea of having some, even a voluntary group, or even an informal group over, over journalists, over any form of communication, now it’s different from doctors who deal with peoples’ lives and so forth.

Heffner: Of important stuff, like dealing with peoples’ lives.

Goodman: (Laughter) No, no, it’s important in a different way. I mean people, the safety of people is understood to be a societal obligation. But I find it hard to make a … know you’re going to say and “what about the idea of it…”

Heffner: No, what I’m going to say is Waiter you have to sit where you are and stay where you are because the time we have today is over. Stay and we’ll do another program. Thanks, Walter Goodman for joining me today.

Goodman: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the 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 Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.