Osborn Elliott

A Journalist Critiques Journalism

VTR Date: June 12, 1981

Guest: Elliott, Osborn


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Osborne Elliot
Title: “A Journalist Critiques Journalism”
VTR: 6/12/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I realize that I’ve been pushing books of late, inviting a lot of guests to THE OPEN MIND who’ve just authored some volume I’ve found personally exciting, and whose ideas I’ve wanted to share with you. Well, today’s guest published a most intriguing memoir a year ago, subtitled An Inside Report on Big-Time Journalism. And it becomes particularly important again today, not only because Osborne Elliot, author of The World of Oz was the chief of Newsweek magazine in such crucial days of our times, but also because he is now dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and as such presides over the administration of the highly valued Pulitzer Prizes which have recently occasioned such great excitement and dismay in the world of journalism.

Dean Elliot, I appreciate your joining me here today on THE OPEN MIND.

ELLIOT: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

HEFFNER: I was particularly delighted, or course in reading this wonderful little volume of yours, The World of Oz, that in your first communication to the Journalism School’s class of 1980, in enumerating some of the qualities that should be found in any journalist of the late twentieth century, you listed first “an open mind”. And…

ELLIOT: And that’s how I got on this show, right? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Not quite. But I just wanted to find whether you’re going to practice what you preach, and if you’d level with me if I ask you, perhaps, some of the things about the downside of contemporary journalism. People in the press are always talking about the upside and pushing the rest of us to respect First Amendment rights, which they consider to be, and as you say, are not their rights, but the public rights. What are the downsides of contemporary journalism?

ELLIOT: I think that, particularly since Watergate, there has been a kind of an automatic knee-jerk negativism that one finds in too many journalists. I think that there is an unfortunate suspicion of all persons who are in power of any sort, be it in business or government or academic life or any other pursuit. There is some kind of built-in suspicion on the part of too may journalists that those person in power are in it simply for their own good, their own self-aggrandizement, or even for ripping-off the public in some way or other. Now, I think there’s a very healthy something called skepticism that reporters and journalists should bring to their jobs. But when they move from skepticism into outright cynicism, then I think we’re all in trouble. And I guess what I’m saying is that I think that, of late, there has been too much cynicism rather than the healthy skepticism that every journalist ought to have.

HEFFNER: Does it pay?

ELLIOT: Does what pay?

HEFFNER: Does that cynicism pay off? Is that why it’s continued and been fostered and grown rather than retreating back to the old traditions of front page perhaps?

ELLIOT: I think that it has been a vogue. And after all, we’ve got to remember that we’ve been through 15 years of real trauma in this country, whether it’s a Vietnam War, during which the government lied to the people; whether it’s a Watergate, during which the government lied and stonewalled the people; whether it’s a vice president who is on the take for all of his public life and was finally expelled from office; whether it is the recent Abscam inquiries; whether it’s corporate payoffs abroad; assassinations. We’ve been through terrible times over the last 15 years, and I think it’s quite expectable that journalists, who tend to have lived closer to these events than other people, have developed this show of cynicism. I think it’s too bad. I think it’s not surprising. And I hope the pendulum will start swinging the other way one of these days.

HEFFNER: Do you think that those terrible 15 years, that the trauma that we’ve all experienced, that they’ve been, this period has been worsened by what you seem to feel is the almost inevitable growth of cynicism? Have we, has the situation been worsened by the fact that the very people who form our public opinion are so cynical at this point?

ELLIOT: I think it tends to feed on itself, yes.

HEFFNER: And by what right, other than the natural antithesis…?

ELLIOT: Well, because this is human nature. And it may be that now that the new age of opulence has dawned upon us, at least the new opulence that surrounds the White House – I’m saying this with tongue in cheek, of course –

HEFFNER: Cynically?

ELLIOT: Not cynically. With tongue in cheek.

It may be that President Reagan, who has a somewhat magical power in projecting a kind of a goodness to the people, it may be that this will help reduce that level of cynicism.

HEFFNER: Do you know, I’ve heard people say that it was the magical power, first of Franklin Roosevelt, and then in later years, perhaps, of John Kennedy, certain charismatic leaders, that led us up that slippery slope down which we’ve slipped so badly, and that it was that very capacity of FDR and JFK to make us feel that we had that man, that wonderful man…

ELLIOT: The imperial presidency between them.

HEFFNER: That’s right. That the contrast between the image of an all-powerful, all-accomplishing president and really what was done was what lead in part to the cynicism you describe now.

ELLIOT: I think that’s probably true. But I think that that was only a part. And I, without reciting all over again that litany earlier, I do believe that in those years when the government was prevaricating – a fancy word for lying – to the American people, that was more important.

HEFFNER: Was it the matter of having been taken in? Was it that matter that the press was aware of how long and how hard it had been taken in by the prevarications?

ELLIOT: I think in part. You know, when you think about the Pentagon Papers, for instance, well, the Pentagon Papers, an issue that was fought over in the courts by The New York Times and by the Washington Post….The government tried to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers because they were embarrassing to the government. And the government claimed it was a matter of national security, which of course it was not. It was just a simple embarrassment. I happen to think, incidentally, that the decision that was reached or the playing out of the Pentagon Papers case really marked a defeat for the press and the First Amendment rights of the people. Ultimately, of course, the Supreme Court ruled that The Times and the Washington Post had the right to print the Pentagon Papers. But in the meantime, the press in the United States, in particular the Post and The Times, had been restrained from printing. For the first time in history there was an exercise of prior restraint. And my belief is that that constituted a real erosion of what we call our First Amendment rights.

HEFFNER: Has it worked itself out that way, as an erosion?

ELLIOT: I think it has resulted in more and more judges around the country being tempted to issue restraining orders, orders of prior restraint. A more recent example had to do with The Progressive magazine and its H-Bomb case. I happen to think it was a terrible idea for The Progressive to assemble a story on how to build an H-Bomb, and then to go ahead and print it. But I think it was a worse mistake for a judge to have restrained The Progressive from printing that story. Ultimately, of course, that too was thrown out.

HEFFNER: In this conflict between what judges and others consider to be the public interest and what journalists consider to be the public interest in terms of their own total, absolute freedom, I’ve gathered from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard of you, and from some of the things you’ve just said, that you don’t stand as total absolutist in this question.

ELLIOT: I certainly don’t. I believe that there are inevitable conflicts that will take place between the First Amendment rights guaranteeing a free press, for example, and the Sixth Amendment, that stipulates that a fair trial must be delivered to the accused. And I think there are occasions when one amendment has to bend in favor of the other. And sometimes that amendment that must be bent is the first, and sometimes is the sixth or some other.

HEFFNER: What are they going to say to you when you get back to the campus today, or whenever they do watch, and…

ELLIOT: Well, fortunately, they’re now off the campus and won’t be back until September, you see. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, what do they say when you get back and you’ve said, “In this conflict between First and Sixth, sometimes one and sometimes the other must give?”

ELLIOT: Well, some of them, some of my faculty will disagree with me. Some of the students will disagree with me. And it’s a free country. That’s okay. I think most of them realize that a journalist really must be a citizen first, a human being first, a journalist second. That’s all I’m saying.

HEFFNER: You say, “Most of them”. Let me ask you about this pendulum. You said a moment ago that you felt that in terms of the cynicism that perhaps has come to characterize some substantial part of the press, as it covers our governmental leaders, you felt that perhaps there would be a swing of the pendulum. What do you do to push the pendulum in thither direction? Or are you just sitting back and waiting for gravity to…

ELLIOT: What I personally do, and what I hope my faculty at Columbia does, is to tell the young people coming into journalism that they must realize that this business of journalism is a calling that is of a higher order than most others, that it carries with it greater responsibilities than most others, that there must be, along with the passion for finding out the facts and delivering them to the people, that must be accompanied by compassion that realizes that the people whom the journalists are covering are human beings that have feelings and I think that it is a combination of passion and compassion that we’re trying to instill in our students. You might argue that we can’t instill that. And, in fact, every year at the beginning of the academic year I make a little speech, and I deliver myself of these homilies that I’m now delivering to you. And I say to the students, “If you arrive here without the fire in the belly that tells you that you’ve got to be a journalist, without that passion, if you arrive here without that compassion for people, if you arrive here without that instinct for the truth and that respect for the truth and the integrity that must be central to the practice of journalism, then I say if you don‘t arrive here with those qualities, go out and sell shoes”.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you say you tell them to go out and sell shoes. I asked you at the very beginning of this program, when you were describing some of the downside, I said, “Does it pay? Does it pay off?” And the reason I asked that is because at the time of that – not so long ago – that Pulitzer Prize business up at the School of Journalism…

ELLIOT: Down at the Washington Post, you mean. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, it wasn’t the Washington Post that awarded the Pulitzer Prize. You and your associates…

ELLIOT: We can get into that at whatever length you would like.

HEFFNER: Okay. But in commenting on what at least one newspaper headlined as “The Lessons of the Pulitzer Fraud”, Ed Diamond indicated that, and thought that perhaps one of the reasons this developed, happened, was that, what he called, “There are five secrets that need airing”, about certain things that are dominating journalism today. The big score psychology. That the rewards of ambition and success in journalism are not just confined to the Pulitzer Prize but that that brings big dollars and kudos, which brings with it a fast-track life and an image of oneself and respect, or at least adulation of others. Is it too big a business now?

ELLIOT: I think that the celebrity quotient has become much too large in the practice of journalism. And this really stems from the Washington Post’s very successful and extraordinary job in the Watergate instance. So what happens? Suddenly Ben Bradley becomes Jason Robards on the screen, and Bob Woodward becomes Redford, and Carl Bernstein becomes Dustin Hoffman. Bradley has said to myself, to me himself that sitting there watching this televised version of him and his colleagues at the Washington Post was an extraordinary thing to live through. And Robards really caught Bradley. I mean, I know Bradley very well. He and I were colleagues at Newsweek for many years. And Robards just caught the essence of Ben Bradley in every gesture, and his voice, and the way he expressed himself. But all of that was sort of fun and games, but I think that there ahs been a kind of an escalation of the celebrity quotient to a very unhealthy degree. And I think Ben Bradley would be the first to concede that.

HEFFNER: All right, how do we move back from that? Or do we?

ELLIOT: Well, Bradley will retire in a few years. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, this is not a devil theory…

ELLIOT: Well, I don’t know. There is, actually, you know, we’re talking now more than we should be about print journalism. And the real dilemma, or so it is perceived by the people, tends to be in the broadcast medium rather in the print. It happens that the Washington Post did a spectacular job, so that ws a blip on the screen. But the glamour-pusses really are the Dan Rathers, the Walter Cronkites, recently retired, the Jack Chancelors, the Morley Safers, the Mike Wallaces, etcetera. And it’s more in that area that I get concerned about the quality that journalism is attracting. I’m not in any way detracting from those individuals that I have named, because they’re all very skilled, professional journalists. But what concerns me is the kind of young people who, perceiving this to be a very glamorous life, are lured into television without really knowing much about the actual practice of basic journalism.

HEFFNER: So this swing of the pendulum…It becomes sort of a nice phrase and a wishful thought. But there’s nothing to indicate that that impact upon print and other journalism is going to be diminished, the power, the money, the glory.

ELLIOT: I think that, so far, it is a wishful phrase, a bit of wishful thinking. But I really believe that the events surrounding the Pulitzer Prizes this year have had very deep-seated effects on practicing journalists.

HEFFNER: Like what?

ELLIOT: I think every editor in the land is telling himself, “That could have happened to me”. What are we going to do about the unsourced story? What do we do about the remnants of the new journalism that flourished in the 1960s, where how a reporter reacted to a story became more important than what the story actually was all about? Where impression, it was kind of an impressionistic practice of journalism. And quotes were made up. Anecdotes were, if not fabricated, at least joined together in a kind of concoction. Scenes were set that did not necessarily exist the way they were set. And this whole business of impressionism seized too much of the media, and the print media in particular. I think the only good that has come out of that is that the quality of writing has tended to be, to improve over the years, but I think that the sloppiness of the fact has been much more important in a damaging way than whatever gains there were from better writing. So I think that the effects of the recent Pulitzer fraud will be that every editor will be looking much more closely at his processes, his procedures, his willingness to run unsourced stories. Certainly every editor will now, including those in the Washington Post, will demand to know from reporters what their sources were, which has not been uniformly the case. And I think, in a way, that whole event surrounding the Janet Cook story and the Washington Post and the Pulitzer may have a very salutary effect on journalism, because I think it may push the pendulum in the direction I’d like to see it go.

HEFFNER: You mean we’re going to end up cheering the Pulitzer fraud, that change of that story from one category to another so that it could be a winner?

ELLIOT: Well, I happen to serve on the Pulitzer board. Happily, I do not have a vote on the Pulitzer board. I think it’s entirely defensible that the Pulitzer board, which is the only group in the whole process of the Pulitzer Prizes that has an overview of all 12 categories that are submitted for journalistic prized, I think it’s perfectly within their prevue, and it should be, to take a submission from category X, and if they think that category X has, let us say, two or three extremely strong submissions, what’s wrong with moving one of them out into category Y to give it a second chance? I don’t see anything wrong with that at all. The juries that judge these submissions don’t know what’s going on in the other categories. They have no overview of the whole process. And they can’t, logistically. I mean, there are 1,200 submissions that come out every year for judging. And each jury, whether it’s in features or local reporting or national reporting or editorial writing, whatever, looks at its own chunk of submission. And they’re all operating at the same time. And they work for two or three days in March, and they all end their work at about the same time, on the third day that they’re working. And they submit their charge to submit three finalists in each category to the Pulitzer board. They are not charged with picking the winners; they’re charged with selecting three finalists. In fact, they are urged not to indicate their preference among those three finalists in each category. So the Pulitzer board then meets, looks at the three finalists in each category. And so we are looking at perhaps 30 or 40 submissions in all, culled from 1,200. As it happened this year, one of the finalists in local reporting was the Janet cook piece, which looked very good to most people on that board, as it did to the jury that made it a finalist. And so did a submission by the Longview Washington Daily News on its coverage of Mount St. Helens; a small paper with very limited resources had done a spectacular job covering that story over many weeks. The board thought, well, the prize for local reporting ought to go to the Longview paper. Well, at the same time, somebody said “That Janet Cook piece is really a terrific piece”. And somebody else suggested, “Well, why don‘t we take a look at that half an hour from now when we come to judging the features category, and move it into the features and make four finalists in the features and see how that stacks up against the other three?” That’s what was done. The board chose Janet Cook, in the belief, in the sure knowledge that the Washington Post had submitted the Janet Cook piece in good faith. After all, the Post wrote its letter of recommendation saying, “This story was as follows: It was factual, it was terrific, and this is why we’re…” You can’t challenge 1,200 submissions by newspapers around the country.

HEFFNER: Now, how well do you feel, and how fairly do you feel that story that you have just told was covered in the American press?

ELLIOT: Well, I think that, ironically, it was best covered by the Washington Post, and that’s as it should be. They turned over page after page recapping their sins and their ills and their shortcomings and so forth.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but that’s the new, new journalism, isn’t it? Covering all the sins and omissions and the crimes and the frauds?

ELLIOT: Well, as long as they don’t submit that story for a Pulitzer Prize next year, that’ll be okay.

HEFFNER: They may.

ELLIOT: I think that the best first story on this whole thing that I read was in The Wall Street Journal. And The Wall Street Journal used a team of reporters. They did an extraordinarily capable job of rounding up all of the information, all the angles of the story. They probably had half a dozen or more people working on it. And then they got somebody to take this pile of research and put it together into a cohesive whole. And it ran three long, four long columns in The Wall Street Journal. A wonderful job, I think.

HEFFNER: I guess what I really meant was whether the cynicism that you talked about before surfaced as journalism was covering journalism.

ELLIOT: Well, I think that there’s a lot of sour grapes around. I think that people have tended to look at the Pulitzer Prize process as a kind of a secret working of some inner Sanhedrin or something like that. And over the last few years the Pulitzer Prize board – I’ve only been on it for three years – but shortly before I arrived, reforms were put into effect to remove some of the secrecy and some of the suspicion that seemed to have surrounded it. But I think that there is still a view out there that there’s a kind of clubbiness at work and that it’s a certain group of eastern establishment types who decide to give prizes to eastern establishment papers, which is not in fact true, but I think that image…Now, I think that there are certain processes that probably ought to be changed. I think for instance the Pulitzer board has tended to be a little cavalier in its treatment of juries. And I think that when the decision was made to move the Janet Cook piece from category A to Category C, somebody should have called up the head of the juries of both A and C and said, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. We want to keep you informed”. Somebody has suggested that the chairman of the juries should attend the deliberations of the Pulitzer board. I think that’s a pretty good idea. So that they’re there while the board is meeting, reviewing the work of the juries.

HEFFNER: You know, let me ask you this question. We have just two minutes left. You’re the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. A funny, strange, weird question.

ELLIOT: I thought you were going to say it’s a funny, strange, weird job, but go ahead. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, it may be. You have to be the one to comment on that.

Are journalists made or born?

ELLIOT: I think mostly born. And one can certainly teach certain techniques and certain tricks of the craft, but if you don’t have that inner fire, that fire in the belly that I referred to earlier, if you don’t have that insatiable curiosity, if you don’t have that desire to get thoughts out of people’s minds and onto the printed page, and off the printed page into other people’s minds, you can’t be taught all those things.

HEFFNER: Okay, now, now Pollyanna qualities about this. Do you feel – and we’ll just keep it between us – is it going up or is it going down?

ELLIOT: What? Journalism?

HEFFNER: The quality of…

ELLIOT: Oh, I think the…

HEFFNER: Will it go up? Will it go down?

ELLIOT: I think over the years that I’ve been in journalism – which I regret to say number about 31 now – there’s no question that the quality of journalism has improved in this country. And I’m talking about print and broadcast alike.

HEFFNER: And the future of that combination of fire in the belly and responsibility? What about that combination in the future?

ELLIOT: Judging from the students that I see coming into the school now, those qualities are still very much there.

HEFFNER: Well, I think that’s a very positive and a very good point at which we end this program. Thanks very much for joining me today, Dean Osborne Elliot. I’m glad for your frank talk about eh Pulitzer concerns, being called a fraud. I’m interested to know that you’re optimistic about your own profession.

ELLIOT: And concerned. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you very much for joining me today.

ELLIOT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.