Reid Irvine at the Press

VTR Date: July 20, 1984

Guest: Irvine, Reid


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Reid Irvine
Title: “AIMing at the Press”
AIR: 8/1/84
VTR: 7/20/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. It’s not, I trust, just that I’m contrary that today I may, just may, surface as somewhat more of a defender of our press than I’ve seemed to be in recent years as my guests here on The Open Mind have themselves numbered some of the foremost and the best managers and practitioners of American journalism. It’s just that they could better take care of themselves with a little needling from their friends, and that point and counterpoint usually seem to serve so well to illumine situations quite as challenging and as needful of probing, honest, open-minded and measured examination as the state of America’s media, as the role they play in our national well-being, as their responsibility in serving our free society.

Now, part of that reliability to be sure, is measured by their accuracy. Accuracy both in the details they recount and in the broad strokes by which they nurture the idea of an informed public which ultimately looms so large in the defense of individual liberty, the touchstone of our nation. Accuracy in media, then, is a great concern to us all, and it is the name, foreshortened to AIM, of an organization headed by today’s guest, Reid Irvine, something of a mischievous gadfly to our media’s masters, often thought of by them in less neutral terms, who I am going to ask to help me avoid those titillating but so often fruitless “yes-you-did, no-I-didn’t” exchanges on future programs here on The Open Mind by referring in more general rather than more specific and personal terms to inaccuracy in the media.

Thank you for joining me here today, sir. I really do want to begin the program by asking what you mean by “inaccuracy in the media”.

Irvine: Well, inaccuracy of course can be simply the misstatement of facts. There are some cases that are fairly simple and straightforward where they get the names wrong or they get the other more complicated information wrong. But, it it goes beyond that I think. There’s also a question of completeness. Now, of course no story can be 100% complete, but when essential ingredients are omitted, this results in, very frequently, in inaccuracy. And, indeed the omission of entire stories is a problem for the media. Naturally, every story can’t be covered, but there are some very significant stories that ought to be covered, I think, In the minds of almost anyone, the frequently get ignored or downplayed to the point where it’s virtually the same as being ignored.

Heffner: Do you think that incompleteness and omission is a major theme in American journalism?

Irvine: It’s one of the more serious problems today. The, I think, when we talk – you’re very familiar, I guess, with Arnold Deboergrav’s book “The Spike”, and in which the argument is made, and it’s made I more serious works as well, that the problem, one of the most serious problems is spiking stories, killing stories that would interfere with someone’s agenda and plans. And I believe that this is one of the one of the great problems that we confront because it’s so easy, simply in confronting those scores of stories, hundreds of stories that a newspaper or a broadcaster has before him every day, to say, “Well, you know, I’m not going to carry that”, and then some gadfly comes along says “Why didn’t you carry it?” and he says, “News judgment”. Well, news judgment is a very subjective thing. I think I can document cases where it’s so, well, the news judgment that was exercised in this case is a little bit suspect. If it was really a case of simply your feeling that that wasn’t an interesting story, then you are going up against, I think, what would be the overwhelming judgment of professionals or perhaps of your readers.

Heffner: Now, this question of news judgment, you say it’s subjective. Could it be anything other than that?

Irvine: Well, I believe that a lot of people who go into the news business have something more than simply the idea of being the people who absorb, sweep up like garbage all the information that’s available and regurgitate it for the benefit of the readers. I believe that we have a, a, professionals in the business today who are college educated, very frequently have graduate degrees, and they’re not content simply o go and be a mirror to the world. Many of these people want to be movers and shakers. They want to influence the course of the human events, not simply report them. And this leads them then to be selective in ways that corresponded with their own plans for what they think is best for the world.

Heffner: Do you think that journalism would be complete without that effort to mirror reality but also to put that reality in the kind of perspective for most of us who aren’t right there where the major events of the world take place can figure them out?

Irvine: Well, I think it, it certainly spices things up to have the interpretation if that’s what you mean, but…

Heffner: I, I, I really didn’t mean spicing them up. I think I know what you mean by that. I mean setting them into some kind of meaningful perspective. Now, I know those are catchwords, but doesn’t it have to be done?

Irvine: Well, I think…Yeah. Well, I think, of course it has to be done. If you’re confronted, if you take a wire service output for a day and you have something like 400 stories that you’re confronted with, you, there are many things that are going to influence your decision: is it interesting? Is it something that’s going to grab the reader? Is it something that we can put in that will sell more papers because it’s going to have a grabby headline? But more importantly, beyond that is the issue of whether or not this is a story that is going to influence somebody to do something. Now we’ve just gone through the Democratic convention. We’ve just had, for example, Representative Ferraro has been nominated as the first woman candidate for the vice presidency. I’ve just written a column in which I point out that there are certain elements in Mrs. Ferraro’s background which I think the media have tended to go easy on. It is known now, for example, that she did not disclose on her financial disclosure form that she’s required to submit to the, each year to the House of Representatives, her husband’s assets, liability, income and transactions. She has relied upon the exemption that says that if the spouse, if all of these things are unknown to you and you don’t stand to benefit from them, then you may legitimately exclude them from your financial reporting form. And she said that that was her excuse for not doing this. But the odd thing is that she was the secretary treasurer of her husband’s real estate firm, and she is also a stockholder in that firm. And therefore that exclusion would not seem to apply. Now, I would ask you what decision then was it on the part of the newsmake…the people who manage the news, the gatekeepers, and we’ve had a convention in which she’s played a major role, in which the, there’s been, there have been three times as many reporters covering the story as there were delegates to the convention, searching eagerly for some story, for some news, how did this particular story elude all of these newshands, newshounds? Why wasn’t it included? Was it insignificant? I don’t’ think so. We just had another congressman, Representative George Hansen, a Republican from Idaho, who was convicted on the charge that he had failed to do that very thing on his financial disclosure form, and he was sentenced, given a sentence of, I think, 15 months in jail, and a $30,000 fine. So, in the eyes of the judge and the justice department, this was considered to be a very weighty matter in the case of Congressman Hansen. Why was it not considered to be a weighty enough matter in the case of Representative Ferraro that it didn’t get mentioned on television during this entire convention?

Heffner: All right. Now, you use this instance of an example of omission. Omission by design, I gather.

Irvine: Well, it was…

Heffner: That’s your suggestion…

Irvine: It was on the wires. Let me point this out.

Heffner: Okay.

Irvine: It was, somebody saw that story. They knew it was there, and they deliberately, obviously, didn’t think that it was something they ought to mention.

Heffner: All right. Now, the thing that occurs to me…I shouldn’t talk about today or yesterday because we tape the show perhaps long before it will appear on the air, but yesterday my colleagues and I on another weekly show I do called “From the Editor’s Desk” did a program with Phyllis Schlafly. And I asked her at a certain point, or the questions that I asked implied what I’m going to ask you: Is the criticism that you’re offering about the coverage of Mrs. Ferraro, and I asked her whether the criticism she was offering about Mrs. Ferraro, was that criticism partisan, would it have come about if you, yourself, in terms of your own political agenda, and I’m not being critical of it, on the other side of the fence, or do we have here simply one side again saying, “Yes you did”, and the other side saying, “No, I didn’t”?

Irvine: Well, I like to think of myself as someone who is able to say, you know, that this is something, no matter whether I thought highly of Mrs. Ferraro or not, that there is a double standard applying here. Now, I happen to know George Hansen personally. I like him. He comes from my part of the country out west. And, at the same time, when he was being prosecuted for this, I could not really rise to his defense and say, “I’m sorry, he’s a friend of mine. I go along with his contention that he’s not doing anything wrong and that this is a case of persecution.

Heffner: I , I really wasn’t thinking so much of defense as I was thinking of the criticism that is so often leveled at the American press, and I think frequently so justifiably, leveled at the press, that there is this constant picking, picking, picking. This constant criticism that some people think undermines our basic faith in American institutions.

Irvine: Well, Richard, my point is this: I’m not sure whether this financial disclosure is all that important or all that necessary that every detail and so on has to be disclosed, but the press has made it an important issue. They’ve made it an important issue not in only, not only in the case of Hansen, they also made it an important issue in the case of Edwin Meese III, the president’s counselor who was nominated to be the attorney general and who got into a lot of trouble because he had not put on his financial disclosure form one of the loans that I guess his wife had received, as I recall. Now, my point is this: that if the media are willing to make a big issue of this in the case of Meese and Hansen and others, then it seems to me they have an equal obligation to make an equal issue of it in the case of Mrs. Ferraro.

Heffner: Do you want the media to be even-handed?

Irvine: I would like to see them at least be even-handed, yes.

Heffner: May I ask the question then, and I, I don’t mean it to be a smarty question, which way would you see them, would you prefer to see them be even-handed? Would some greater concern for privacy and some greater concern for maintaining a more respectful view of our public servants and giving them some benefit of the doubt? Or do you want to go after them hammer and tongue?

Irvine: I, I happen to believe myself that there has been too much of the probing into people’s private lives. I am not one who is eager to get on and expose every intimate detail. I think that we have become a little too self-righteous in insisting on absolute purity and morality in public life. Now, I’m one who spent 26 years as a government official, and the agency that I was with, was an agency that was never touched by any taint of scandal. But I do know that there were things that went on, that go on, that if probed that could be embarrassing. There was no…and, we know that this goes on all the time. Human beings are not absolute angels. What happens, Richard, is that the media know this. They know. The people in Washington know this. They know that they can pick out at any time they want to zero in on some agency, some part of the government, and they can find something that they can make a scandal of. Now, we had another case just the other day with one one of the officials who has made a, front page, I guess, of The Washington Post, and over a redecoration of his office. He had spent $50,000 or something like that changing the walls around in his office and putting in new furniture. Now that sort of thing goes on in Washington all the time. It’s no big deal, but you can make it look like a big deal. And this is, I don’t know what you do about it.

Heffner: So that you’re saying perhaps hands off Mrs. Ferraro but hands off others too?

Irvine: Well, that’s what is the, you know, my sense of justice is offended when you’re sending one man to jail for doing exactly the same that is, you’re not even mentioning or publicizing in another case.

Heffner: But why do you think there is this reluctance to reveal as much as you would like to see revealed, not about the personal lives of candidates or officials, but why do you think there are these omissions and distortions as you see them in the American press?

Irvine: well, I think that there’s a lot to be said for the evidence that the major media in this country, the big media I like to call them, the national press, are dominated by people who have a liberal left point of view. We have the Lichter-Rothman survey which I presume you’re familiar with…

Heffner: Um hum.

Irvine: …which showed that 81 percent of the 240 media elite who were surveyed voted for George McGovern in 1972. And they have views on social and political issues that are somewhat at variance with the mainstream of the, of the electorate.

Heffner: How do you explain that?

Irvine: Well, I think it’s of the fact that we have come into an age when our journalists are largely the graduates of our liberal arts colleges. There was a day when you and I were young when people got into journalism I suppose by going in, many of them became copy boys and worked their way up, and a lot of them never went to college, didn’t finish college. Now they all seem to have to go through that particular mill, and the liberal arts colleges, by and large, take young people and mold them into people who are liberal. I went through that myself, incidentally, some 40 years ago, or a little over 40 years ago, and I know how it works. I know how it worked in my own case. The result is that the talent pool is, that the publishers and others have to draw on is overwhelmingly on that side. Now, Lichter Rathmann did a survey on the students at the Columbia School of Journalism in which they found that they tend to be even more liberal left in their viewpoints than do the what they termed the 240 media elite that they surveyed, that is the people that are already out there practicing, which I think tends to confirm my, my suspicion that it’s largely the result of the, of the university system.

Heffner: But from the liberal arts, presumably liberate one to come to a better, wiser, more mature understanding of the world around them. They liberate them by familiarizing them with the past, with language, with literature, et cetera. Now are you suggesting, and I find it hard to believe that you would be suggesting, keeping them away from these liberating arts? Liberal arts college doesn’t really mean a college that makes you a liberal as opposed to making you a conservative. After all, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, all of these are of the founding liberal arts colleges, and hardly produced in years gone past, anything other than very conservative people, so it’s not the liberal arts, is it?

Irvine: Well, I don’t know that I agree with you. There’s a popular saying, “Go to Harvard and turn left.” And this is something that is, you know, I, I think it would be rather difficult to argue that the major universities in this country that their faculties are not, do not tend to be totally dominated by people on the liberal left persuasion.

Heffner: But…

Irvine: goes on the liberal arts. Now we get into medicine and engineering and business, this is a different matter. But if in the, in the humanities I think it’s a different question.

Heffner: Are you then suggesting that familiarity with language and literature and history and political science lead people into a political liberalism?

Irvine: Not necessarily, but the way it’s being taught in universities and has been taught for some time, you know, there are surveys that show that as the young people go through the schools progressively they tend to become more liberal. By the time they…you can take somebody who goes in who is perhaps quite conservative if they have any views at all, and four years late they’ve been completely turned around. Now, we saw that, I think, in an extreme form back in the 1960s, early 1970s. the campuses were very radicalized and you were on a campus, I’m sure you must have seen it yourself.

Heffner: Um hum.

Irvine: I understand that the situation has moderated somewhat since then, but the last time I was on the campus at Columbia, I was invited to give a talk there, I looked around at the posters and signs on the walls and I thought I was back in the days of the (laughter SDS and the communes, you know?

Heffner: You mean that the, that education won’t liberate us but enchain us?

Irvine: Well, you know, the people who feel these, those realities are, believe that they are liberated. They talk about, talk about of national liberation which they support very vigorously around the world. This is the jargon of the times. This is liberation. And they are sincere. They’re idealists. I know. I was, because I was that way when I was, you know, the senior in college and graduate. But, the fact of the matter is that they are sympathetic, they tend to be sympathetic to a political system that does indeed enslave. Those words of national liberation that they talk about don’t’ liberate people, they enslave people. And we only have to look at the experience of Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos to see these young liberals were all for the liberation of south Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, and they ended up producing a horror of enslavement.

Heffner: I do think that is taking the word “liberal”, distorting it as you would say that it is distorted in those instances, but I would then have to ask you what you think the solution is to the problem as you see it of distortion in the media, and I feel you do see that.

Irvine: Well, you know, the media are really in a unique position in our society. They’re in the position of the critics, the investigators of every other institution in our society. And they’re, they’re performing an essential purpose in doing that. They, they are a brake on wrongdoing, shall we say, an exposer of wrongdoing. Now, unfortunately for, up until the time Accuracy in Media came along at least, which was some 15 years ago, there was no institution in our society which served the same purpose with respect to the media. nobody was watching the watchdogs, if the media were the watchdogs. And that’s why I, I felt the solution, we can’t do anything about this legally, the government can’t step in and I wouldn’t want the government to step in and say well they’re going to correct the errors and distortions in the media. So that’s why I organized Accuracy in Media as a private group which would in effect do nothing more than exercise moral suasion? By doing what the media do when they go out and expose wrongdoing in the government, for example, we expose wrongdoing in the media.

Heffner: Do you feel that you approach this problem from a less political vantage point, less from a political and perhaps in this instance a right leaning rather than a left leaning point of view than these people in the media whom you would

Irvine: Yes, I think I do. Now, I have always made it very clear that I have a political point of view. I am very much in favor of our free democratic system. I am very much in favor of our free enterprise system. I am very much opposed to those systems that would substitute dictatorship, excessive government control, totalitarianism for that. I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I am concerned about that because in my lifetime I’ve seen totalitarianism, both that under Hitler and that under the communist Russia and China, sweep vast parts of the world. And they are lapping, literally, they’ve established bases now in North America and are daily moving and advancing into other areas, and this is a matter of concern to me.

Heffner: I would suspect that most of the people of whom you would be critical would say very much the same thing, would say that they are in favor of free institutions. Would say that they are concerned about totalitarianism wherever it might exist. The question that I’m asking is whether in good old traditional liberal conservative radical reactionary American political thinking, do you find yourself lined up with a much more conservative point of view as they are lined up in your estimation with a much more politically liberal point of view?

Irvine: Well, I’m not trying to duck the question, but I think the terms have come, have come to lose a lot of their meaning. For example, because I believe in defending our system I believe in a strong national defense. Now there was a day when I was young and liberal when it was perfectly liberal, and it was a liberal idea to believe in a strong national defense. It was the conservatives, the isolationists that perhaps were not as enthusiastic in building up armaments as was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today we have a different satiation. We’ve just gone through the democratic national convention, and all the talk is about how we have to have defense to be sure, but we have to economize on it. We have to cut it down. Now, what is a liberal position in this respect? Is it to be for a strong defense or is it to be for a weaker defense?

Heffner: Well then suppose I, suppose I take back that dichotomization and ask you something like the question that, the answers to which you quoted a short while ago about the journalists in America having voted largely for McGovern? And the implication, I am sure, one carries further, and I know from the study, you find that by and large the journalists they surveyed were liberal in the sense of democratic rather than republican. If one were to ask you the same question, have you voted for more republican than democratic candidates let’s say on the presidential level?

Irvine: Well let me say, and I’m, I don’t usually talk about who I vote for or didn’t vote for…

Heffner: And it’s none of my damned business, but I think it’s…

Irvine: …but I don’t mind telling.

Heffner: …I think it’s appropriate.

Irvine: …you that I, I guess the last democratic presidential candidate I voted for Adlai Stevenson. But I think that what has tended to happen, I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that many people who were liberals back in the 1940s and 1950s have found it increasingly difficult. We don’t’ find it, they don’t find it possible doing, I wouldn’t find it possible to vote for a George McGovern because I just disagree so fundamentally…

Heffner: Because he…he hasn’t run every time since Adlai Stevenson first ran in 1952.

Irvine: No, no.

Heffner: So that the question I’m raising really has to do with whether a litmus test relating to the major party candidate you voted for was a democratic or she democratic or was he or she republican, but that sort of moves us away from the question. Well, I don’t mean to move us away from the question, but it does seem to me that so much of the concern that we all feel about a responsible press so frequently comes down to the question of domestic and international but traditional political stance, democratic or republican.

Irvine: Yeah, but I’m trying to get at here is that my major concern politically is with maintaining the freedom, maintaining our society, doing what is necessary to preserve that in terms of maintaining a strong national defense and making people aware of what the dangers are in the world. I’m not so much involved in a lot of the other issues, some of the issues that maybe some of your other guests that you’ve interviewed might be involved in. I don’t come out and take positions on Social Security, et cetera, et cetera, and some of the things that are considered the social issues, as I do on this issue of freedom versus totalitarianism.

Heffner: Okay.

Irvine: To me, that is overriding. And I can, I can go along…and indeed, you know, there are many issues in which, sure, I would disagree with people who perhaps are very strongly enthusiastic about accuracy in media in one way or another. I may not agree with everything they, they do and they wouldn’t agree with everything I do…

Heffner: We have about 20 seconds left. Let me just ask you whether you think you’ve made progress in the years since you created AIM?

Irvine: Oh, absolutely. I think that AIM, which started with $200 and a post office box and now is an organization of some nearly 40,000 members around the country, they put out a newsletter, The AIM Report, which is, and a weekly newspaper column, a daily video commentary, and quite frankly, Richard, I think we had something to do, and what we have done had something to do with the public reaction at the time of the Grenada invasion last year…

Heffner: Bottom line question: do you think there is more accuracy in media now?

Irvine: Well, I’m not…yes and no. I think there are some areas in which the press has indeed become more careful. But it’s a little bit like the stables; you can never solve it completely.

Heffner: We’ll have to solve that problem, not completely, but at greater length another time. Thank you so much for joining me today, Reid Irvine.

Irvine: My pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”