Guest: Corry, John
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Corry
Title: ‘Adventures in the News Trade, Part I’
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And since we live in such an age of mistrust and suspicion of each other’s motives, perhaps even our own, before I even begin to note how much I admire and how much affection I feel for my guest today, perhaps I ought to point out that during the long, long years he reported, edited, and wrote such stunning copy in The New York Times, John Corry was most generous in his comments about this humble program, and about yours truly.
So with both conflict and community of interest considerations duly noted, I can now get about the business of telling you quite how evocative and pleasing I believe you’ll find Mr. Corry’s new Grossett Putnam book, My
Times: Adventures in the News Trade.
Obviously, since John Corry started as a kid and plied his journalist trade there for more than 30 years, with only a few years off at Harper’s Magazine under Willie Morris, his times means THE Times. And this enormously readable and entertaining odyssey becomes a most compelling and important critique of changing journalistic morays and morals in our times.
Which leads me to start our program simply by asking John Corry:
CORRY: Everything. Television for one, obviously. What’s changed is that we don’t have a press any longer. We have something called media.” We don’t even use the word “press” any longer. But when we did have a press, it was certainly a lot more… Well, how has it changed? In the first place, it was a lot more fun being a member of the press, being a journalist. It is not as much fun anymore. And just the, well, The New York Times itself. I go back there occasionally for lunch, see a couple of old friends. There’s still a few there. And when I walk into the newsroom, or walk through the newsroom, I can hardly wait to get out because it’s so quiet. If it were a country, I suppose, it would be Finland. Sort of dour and quiet and terribly proper. And a lot of terribly nice people and very able, competent people, but they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much. And that’s one way that it’s changed.
Another way that it’s changed, the business itself, is the sense of what makes news. What is news?
HEFFNER: What do you mean? How can that change?
CORRY: All right, Jet’s talk about The New York Times one more time. And that the philosophy of The Times, since time immemorial, was that the front page of The Times would show you what had happened, or to the best… What had happened in the world in the last 24 hours. And if you looked at the first paragraph in any story, most of them would say, would have the word “yesterday” or last night.” “This is what happened yesterday.” “This is what happened last night.” And so in theory we had this snapshot of the world in the last 24 hours. Now, it’s not at all uncommon, or at least I’ve seen it happen where you could look at an entire front page of The New York Times today, and it will never say “last night,” it will never say “yesterday.” It will be what we once called a “thumbsucker.”
CORRY: A thumbsucker. What a reporter thinks is going to happen or might happen or could conceivably happen. And this is what the reporter thinks about it.
HEFFNER: Why, John? Why? Why the thumbsuckers now? Why no sense of front page? Because what you really talked about was the front-page syndrome before.
CORRY: Oh, I think it springs from several things. One thing it comes from is some misbegotten notion that you see at newspapers all over that they somehow must compete with television, that they’ve got to explain things. And I suppose that idea has some merit. However, it seems to me they just run rampant. And we have to forget about it now.
But the other reasons, it’s something that really began in the 1960s. And I hate to indict the Sixties for everything and just — although I frequently do in my own mind — but we have this terrible, terrible doctrine in journalism, the new journalism, advocacy journalism, where a reporter would not tell you what happened, he would tell you what he thought about what happened. So reporters of 20, 25 years ago were free to express their opinions. And when I left… I left The Times in 1968, went to Harpers Magazine for three years, and I had been lured by that siren song of new journalism, where I would write my, it would be a literary man. I would not be a reporter. 1 would be a writer. Well, I had a wonderful time at Harpers Magazine, three lovely, lovely years, but I’m not sure I carried the cause of good journalism an awful lot further.
HEFFNER: You mean you wrote; you didn’t report.
CORRY: I wrote. No. I did report, but I was a writer. And, of course, I reported. Look, what I’m… I would prefer that journalists went back, that reporters went back to telling us exactly what happened, to the best of their ability.
Now, the old idea of objectivity has been thrown out the window. And I’ll grant that a reporter cannot be perfectly objective. But I think it’s a standard that we should still look for.
HEFENER: But, you know, John, I came across a, believe it or not, a reel-to-reel audio tape the other day of the very first program I did on Channel Thirteen when we started it in the early Sixties. And Lester Markel was my guest. And aside from the fact that his daughter then called me after the program, which was live, and apologized for how mean her father had been to me, and my wife berated me for being so mean to Lester Markel, I remember so well, this is, what September 1962, October 1962. Lester’s point was that the Sunday magazine was necessary to put in perspective the news. And I hear you saying that in a sense the front page of today’s major journals set in perspective rather than simply report the news. As Jack Webb used to say, you know, “Just the facts, lady. Just give us the facts? Wasn’t there some real need at that time, weren’t we getting unset in their perspective facts? Wasn’t there some real need for the change of this from our side?
CORRY: Oh, of course. But when The Times, or many other great newspapers and news organizations, decided to put things in perspective, it would say, “This is what we are doing.” And on that story on page one that was putting things in perspective, there would be a little box in the middle of the story, and it would say, “News Analysis,’ or “Commentary.”
HEFFNER: Yeah, I do remember that.
CORRY: Well, these have disappeared. And the analysis and the commentary is now into what should be a news story itself. And one thing that I think has happened to journalism in the last 20 years, or media if you… Is that it’s lost its credibility. One reason that it has lost its credibility is that it’s no longer to be entirely, it’s no longer to be believed. My sense of The Times and of journalism, the media in general, is that it’s not that it doesn’t think enough; it’s that it thinks too much. It’s like the television commentators, the anchormen. And if you do attend a conference of academics and journalists, and indeed you will, the theme that will be run, that will run through it is that with, the intellectual standards in journalism are not high enough. The reporters or commentators are not analyzing, they are not telling us what things mean. Well, that’s utter, I think, in my, it’s nonsense. They spend so much time trying to enlighten us, and so much time trying to tell us what things mean, rather than telling us what happened.
HEFFNER: John, wouldn’t it be fair to say instead that we need both, and that at one point in our history we had one, and now again we’re coming to a paint in time when we have one, but they are the different ones? One, earlier it was the news, now it is interpretation and analysis? Aren’t you asking for a balance rather than…
CORRY: Yeah, I’m asking for a…
HEFFNER: …going back?
CORRY: I’m not sure. I think I may be asking for going back. (Laughter) Of course, it would be nice to have a balance, but I don’t see any sign that we are going to get it. I don’t think that the news becomes… The news itself has become suspect. I mean, all these folks out in America, if you look at any of the polls or you, Los Angeles Times in their polls, I mean, “How do you feel about the media? How do you feel about the press?” And reporters, commentators, rank somewhere near used-car dealers.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but, John, wait a minute. You know that these days the question, “How do you feel about anything, anybody?” brings forth a response that is colored by the cynicism that we, that characterizes this nation. But granted that there is a lot to what it is that you’re saying, these people aren’t damned fools. Why has the nature of news reporting changed so, so that in your estimation it is not news reporting any longer? There has to be some fundamental underlying reason.
CORRY: All right. There’s probably half a dozen fundamental underlying reasons. The notion of objectivity became… Objectivity itself has been under attack for a long time, It was under attack in the 1 920s certainly. Even Walter Lippmann wrote columns about that. There is a legitimate grounds for attacking the notion that reporters should be objective. It was also under attack from the left for a long while for very objective, and correctly so, that if a reporter simply quotes official sources, and government lies, and a good deal of truth to that. So objectivity had always, for years it had been a, the standard itself had been under attack. It seems to me that in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was replaced by something else. Objectivity was replaced by what you’re talking about, interpretation, analysis, the reporter telling us what he thinks something means. That’s just one thing that happened.
The other thing that happened in big media, big news organizations, is the, a corporate mentality crept into our big news organizations. The New York Times, to an extent… I have an enormous, enormous respect for The New York Times. People work there. Demographics, studies, pleasing the readers became of enormous importance. And I think it’s all backfired on The New York Times and a number of other publications. You know, one can look at The Times now and see story after story about, that’s directed at a particular part of the audience, the youth cu and so on and so forth. It simply doesn’t work. That’s something else that has happened at The New York Times and other big news organizations.
A third thing that has happened is – God help us all – the collapse of the universities. The general lowering of academic standards in the United States. The legitimatizing or the legitimatizing of subjects that were never legitimate academic subjects before. Subjects like, I mean, you can have a perfectly proper black studies department, a perfectly proper women’s studies department, but not when it’s set up as a political response.
HEFFNER: But how…
CORRY: So that you’ve had art of these things coming together now in the Nineties, plus television, of course.
HEFFNER: Ah, always that beady red eye of the camera over there. And I don’t say that because I disagree with you. But I’m always amused, because I think of Mike O’Neill coming here and sitting where you’re sitting and pointing to the camera over my shoulder and referring to the “beady red eye.” But you know, you said something before about the changing philosophy of The Times. And I know you meant The New York Times. But we’re talking now realty about the changing philosophy of our times.
HEFFNER: And I gather you’re saying that the press, the printed press, has a responsibility beyond that of what you call the demographics and the corporate involvement in what it is they believe the people want because again they’re not damned fools. They know that people are or, or not going to buy their product. How sympathetic are you? Can’t you be more sympathetic? Can you find it in your heart to be a bit more sympathetic to that notion: this is a business? And if it’s a business we’re selling something. And if we’re selling something, we want to sell that which will be bought most.
CORRY: Just for the sake of being perverse and provocative now, let me point out to you that, although I had looked for some time for the circulation figures on The New York Times in the metropolitan area, I could never find it. And The Times consistently has said, “We are selling more and more papers.” I suppose that’s true. But just in the last few months, I saw the figures saying that the circulation of The New York Times in New York City was declining. Now, I was reasonably certain of that, that the circulation had declined, and I was, although I’d simply had anecdotal evidence about that, I knew half a dozen people who had either stopped reading The Times or had cancelled their subscription. And I always buy my New York Times at the newsstand at Broadway and 90th Street in Manhattan. And the dealer there told me that a year and a half ago he sold 425 copies of The Times every day, and now he sells 350.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but, John…
CORRY: So, now, the point…
HEFFNER: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
CORRY: …I’m making is that, of course, I want them to make money and I think that they should all thrive. But in this rush to making money, in the reliance on demographics and reader surveys, it doesn’t always work.
HEFFNER: Yeah, it’s nice to say it doesn’t always work. Who’s going to disagree with you on the statement of, “It doesn’t always work?” Question you, I would think you’d have to deal with is whether those circulation figures would look one heck of a lot worse if The Times were not as reader friendly as people believe it has become.
CORRY: Oh, I don’t know. All right. All right. That may be true, and so what? I don’t want to worry…
HEFFNER: Okay, it’s the “So what?” that I’m asking you to deal with.
HEFFNER: You say you don’t want to worry about it. But are you suggesting then that journalism should be in the public service? Journalism should be a nonprofit enterprise? A nonprofit enterprise? Yes, lust that.
CORRY: I think journalism should be in the public service, and I think it has every right to make a profit. However…
CORRY: . ..why in the heavens, I mean, it owes something, it does have a public, it is responsible to the public, it is responsible to something called “news,” it is supposed to follow higher standards than insurance companies.
HEFFNER: Ah ha! Now, when we spoke a decade ago, I think, here, we were talking about the fairness doctrine. And…
HEFFNER: John, I’m not going to let you off the hook.
CORRY: I know it. I know you’re not.
HEFFNER: You are philosophically, economically, I think you’d say…
HEFFNER: …you’re conservative in your approach, in the usual tradition.
CORRY: Unquestionably so.
HEFFNER: Okay? What are you doing now with this idea of the obligation or responsibility? Are we going to nationalize the press? Are we going to say, “Hey, you fellows, never mind the buck.” Are you going to pay lip service to its being The Times, or the Chicago Tribune, or The Los Angeles Times, what have you? You’re a private enterprise. Yes, of course, you’re going to make a buck. But, you’re supposed to serve in the public interest as you and I, John Corry and Dick Heffner, recognize it. How do you do that without bringing other considerations in that you would be horrified by in another area? What do you do about that? Why not let businessmen be businessmen?
CORRY: Oh, Dick, I think we have to let businessmen be businessmen. What I find so disturbing is we’re moving into this… I have no idea what this information superhighway is supposed to be…
CORRY: …and I’m not sure that Al Gore has much of an idea what it’s about either. But I do know that we are now told that what 20 years ago I was getting seven or eight channels on my television set, now I’m getting 40 or 50, and by the end of the century I will get 500.
HEFFNER: Aren’t you lucky?
CORRY: And beside, there is some monster around called Virtual reality. Which, I’m not sure I want to live in a world with virtual reality. I find it too much to contemplate. Now, what does that 500-channel television set going to be? I don’t know. We can barely fill the 40 now, and most of its junk, or infomercials or whatever. Virtual reality…. don’t want government to get a hold of virtual reality. I’m, with this… I’ve had to rethink my way through the fairness doctrine now. On the one hand, there’s far less of a need for it if you have 500 channels, if you have all these new, if you have telephone companies in the business of giving us information, if we have all this new media around, what do you need a fairness doctrine for? Because no one station, no one channel is going to control anything. We have this great multiplicity of voices.
On the other hand, I look at something like virtual reality, and it scares the hell out of me.
HEFFNER: John, you know, I’ve been reading you for a great many years, a great many years. And in reading My Times, which ,you know, it’s really such, you’ll forgive me for using the entertainment notion of what a good read it is, but it is. When I read it, I think I know you, and I believe that you must be enormously troubled, as you express it, with the uses that are made of what we’ll call “media,” and you must feel something has got to be done. And you express that. But what and what has got to be done and who is going to do it if you don’t leave these things to the marketplace? Leaving them to the marketplace leads us to the situation that you describe.
CORRY: Yeah. Yes.
HEFFNER: So, where do you come out, John?
CORRY: And I can’t answer… Well, where I come out is trying to light a candle in the darkness…
CORRY: …and just working my own little corner of the room. I confess, Dick, that I had read The New York Times every day faithfully for years and years and years and years, I now go days without reading it. And that’s, I get depressed looking at page one. Yeah, light a candle in the darkness.
HEFFNER: Well, it is better to light a candle than just to curse the darkness. Question is: What about those many people who say, “It’s getting darker and darker, and the candle isn’t doing that much good, so one has to look to extraordinary steps. You have to enforce our ancient notion that there is more here than a business. There is more here than simply plumbing the demographics, because that’s what businessmen do.”
CORRY: And there are any number of reporters around who agree with you, who think, yes, it is more than a business, who think, yes, we must do our very, very best. And I guess you encourage those reporters, where the free market may be of great use here is, I suspect, take The New York Times again, that when the metropolitan local, when the circulation declines, The Times moves. It does something about it. And I think that’s happening now.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but if it happens, if we accept that idea – and again, you’re wedded to the free-market idea, you are, philosophically –
HEFFNER: .. .are you suggesting that if one were accurately plugged in to the public wants – not needs — but the public wants, to public wants, that you would not see the kind of degradation of the democratic dogma via journalism that you refer to?
CORRY: No. No. I’d like to be able to suggest that, but I can’t.
HEFFNER: But you can’t
CORRY: No. And I’m reasonably sure that if CBS replaced Dan Rather with Michael Jackson, the ratings would go up enormously. We may have an insoluble problem.
HEFFNER: Now, Claire Sterling was just sifting there a few moments ago doing a program with me, and we sort of started off with the notion that one of our problems is that we think that there is a solution to every problem, an answer to every question. Maybe we’re come to a kind of dead end. But then doesn’t that mean you’re too much of an optimist to accept it? Doesn’t mean you may have to re-rethink some of your basic ideas about what freedom of the press means, and about whether you want to have free enterprise in journalism?
CORRY: No. It’s not going to make me rethink my basic ideas. Look, I do a monthly column now.
HEFFNER: For The Spectator, The American Spectator.
CORRY: For The American Spectator. It’s a publishing phenomenon. Two years ago that magazine… I had, had a circulation of something like 35,000. And the circulation now is about 300,000. Ifs extraordinary. It a genuine phenomenon in media. Now, I suspect that one reason that the circulation has gone from 35,000 to 300,000 in two years, aside from the fact that Rush Limbaugh has gotten up and waived it around in his television program, is that it is meeting some kind of need. What one hears about The American Spectator is David Brock and Anita Hill, but there are other things in the magazine as well. George Gilda, John Corry, Fred Barnes. All kinds of things that I think are meeting a need that’s a libertarian conservative viewpoint. And it’s a free-market success story. I suspect that if Ron Dohns or Jesse Jackson became our next president, the circulation would grow, it would grow even more, and if Jesse Helms or someone became the next president, you would see The Nation go up to a million copies.
HEFFNER: All right. If you’ll sit lust where you are, we’ll end this program, because our time is up, and we’ll continue with these ideas in just a moment. Are you willing to?
HEFFNER: Thank you very much, John Corry, for joining me today on The Open Mind. Stay there.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. You stay there too. And I hope you join us again next time. If you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”