Adventures In the News Trade, Part II
VTR Date: June 16, 1994
Guest: Corry, John
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Corry
Title: ‘Adventures in the News Trade, Part II’
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. This is the second of two programs with today’s guest. And since we live in such an age of mistrust and suspicion of each other motives, perhaps even our own, before I even begin to note how much I admire and how much affection I feel for him, 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 that 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 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, of course, to pick up where we left off last time, in trying to figure out just what has happened to the press, both print and electronic.
Now, John, I don’t think you like the idea of saying, “The press, both print and electronic.” You really think of the press as print, right? And the rest of it as ‘media?’
CORRY: I’m afraid so. And I can’t help it. It’s genetic. its in my bloodstream or something.
HEFFNER: Along with that type, along with the print?
CORRY: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
HEFFNER: There’s no combination that you can make between the two.
CORRY: Oh, of course I can. And as a matter of fact, 1 do get, I confess, I get a great deal of news from television. So there. I’ve made my confession.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
CORRY: I mean I watch it.
HEFFNER: You mean the news that you say is really no longer being printed in the daily press? You said at the beginning of the other program, “Yesterday, last night, the day before yesterday,” that doesn’t appear in the daily press so much.
CORRY: CNN has a headline news, for example. And I will drop in on that half a dozen times in a day. And I will watch the first ten or 15 minutes. And its great virtue is that it’s forced to be very concise. And headline news will, they’ll give you five or six stories in the first eight or nine minutes. And they don’t have time to embroider it. They don’t have time to tell us what they think about it. They just have time to tell us what it is. So I watch that. Obviously, I watch C-Span. There are a lot of news shows that I drop in to. And in a way, in a way, when you are getting a very concise version of what the front page of The New York Times was, say, ten years ago, 15 years ago.
HEFFNER: But, you know, you used the word “embroider.” And you use it in a negative way. You say, “You get what’s happened without the embroidery? Let me go back to the question that I pointed out Lester Markel always used to raise: If you don’t get the embroidery, if you don’t get the setting, if you aren’t helped to understand what fact one or fact ten or fact 100 means, what good does it do anyway? What good does it do someone who leads a very busy life and for whom the events of yesterday, they don’t stack up to mean terribly much? Don’t you need the embroidery? Isn’t it just that you don’t like the kind of embroidery that’s been given?
CORRY: Oh, of course. And part of… Of course, of course, of course. I mean, it’s hardly a secret that I am conservative politically, psychologically, socially, emotionally, artistically. So much of my complaining comes from a conservative, libertarian viewpoint, I suppose. But there’s something else here too, in that one of the things that’s happened to the press, to media, I mean, it’s simply determined to, it wants to save our souls. It wants to…
HEFFNER: What’s the matter with that, John? Mine needs saving.
CORRY: But not by some reporter or some anchorman who you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with for a cup of coffee. And journalism, it seems to me, the media has an exalted sense of its own mission. And that’s fine to have an exalted sense of your trade, but it’s become a mission. Now, it may be that we are getting less of this now. I see some hopeful signs, believe it or not.
But let me be specific. Let me be as specific as I can. And let’s talk about something in The New York Times, is that there’s been a trend in the last five, six, eight years, that you may report the simplest police story, a homicide, and the story will be reported in terms of the victim. If the victim is a woman, then clearly it’s sexist. If the victim is white, and the perp, the perpetrator, is black, as quite often – now, I’ve seen this on more than one occasion — it becomes, on the follow-up the story of a disadvantaged youth, of a deprived youth. It becomes a racial story.
Now, we’re getting into ideology here. And ideology, in my view, should not play much of a role in straight news reporting. And what happens, I believe, is that The Times, or the media in general, become suspect. I mean, the reader, the listener, has some sense that there’s something improper here. He may not know quite what it is, but he has lust read his 437th story that month or that year, heard that story, about the social implications of what ought to have been covered as a murder, as a homicide.
HEFFNER: But, John, isn’t that a function of our coming to understand increasingly, more and more, the very real power of reportage, that repeated stories give us a sense of what it means to be a human being we don’t get any other place? Isn’t this really a response on the part of the press to the general recognition of the power it really has? Not just the press wants to play this role, as you suggest, but it’s beginning to recognize what power it does have willy-nilly?
CORRY: I’m not sure I follow that, Dick. What…
HEFFNER: Well, if you don’t set a story, whether it is a rape or whether it is a robbery or whatever it is, in some sort of perspective or take the edge off, aren’t you, in a sense, participating in a strengthening of stereotypes that dominate our thinking? If you just give all the news, no interpretation, no background, no sense of what led a person to commit this crime? So that in the question of race you would have, in a New York City paper, black crime, black crime, black crime. Doesn’t this feed upon itself and create a social setting that we really find unacceptable?
CORRY: Yeah, all right. Well, you’re right, of course. However, it seems to me that what has happened is that we are trivializing the social implications that you’re talking about.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, “trivializing?”
CORRY: When there is a constant barrage, when virtually all of the stories, virtually all, are written against that kind of a perspective…
CORRY: …we’re losing something. And we’re trivializing the product, we’re… I mean, you simply cannot have all crimes committed against that kind of social background that you’re talking about. I mean, it simply doesn’t work. And as obvious proof of that, I would suggest if you took The New York Times, some of the editorials, or some of the implications that we’re talking about, up to a crime-ridden area, and put that story in front of someone who wouldn’t ordinarily read The Times or perhaps wouldn’t pay much attention to the news, and say, ‘What do you think of that?” And they’d look at you and say, “Oh, my goodness, what kind of nonsense is this?”
HEFFNER: You mean the explanation, the setting.
CORRY: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And the implied explanation.
HEFFNER: Yeah, all right, then where are we, John? We have the damned media with their power. And you’re not going to deny that power.
CORRY: No, no, no.
HEFFNER: How do we know what it means to be a human being? We read about it in the press, we listen to what television and radio inform us about. The great socializing instrument is Corry in The Times in the past, and The Times now, and the beady red eye of this television camera.
CORRY: Lately I’ve been reading an awful lot of history, Greek and Roman history. And I went back last week, I’ve restarted The had. I think The Iliad was a socialized influence for several thousand years, long before television. And I’m not sure that we need the media to socialize it. In fact, I’m damned sure I don’t want the media, to be dependent on the media to socialize us.
HEFFNER: But that’s what they do. Willy-nilly again.
CORRY: That is what they do. But you’re not going to defend it. And…
HEFFNER: I’m going to recognize it, John.
CORRY: All right.
HEFFNER: And recognize the power there, and then wonder: Don’t we have some obligation to, if you would forgive the expression, harness that power?
CORRY: You’re going to get right back to the fairness doctrine.
HEFFNER: Well, okay. Why not?
CORRY: But I think your argument now, it’s… I’m less sure of the fairness doctrine than I was ten years ago. But I’ve got… There is this paradox now. We’re talking about the information superhighway and the 500 channels that we’ll all get, God help us, at the end of the century. So, in a way, there’s a good deal… It seems to me that this negates, to a large extent, the need for fairness doctrine. I mean, if you’re going to have Benito Moussolini on five channels and Joseph Stalin on five channels, that they’ll sort of wash one another out, so perhaps you do not need a fairness doctrine.
HEFFNER: But, John, the fact of the matter is that at this moment anyone who is watching us, the three people who are watching us, are watching us and us only. So that if we don’t feel that there is incumbent upon us the need to be fair and balanced, those three people are not getting a fair and balanced picture. And to say, “Well, they could have been watching something else instead,” nonsense. They’re watching us, God help them.
CORRY: And they have the choice to turn us off.
HEFFNER: But don’t we have an obligation, since we look fairly respectable, these two, one younger middle-aged man, one older middle-aged man sitting around talking, we look as though we know what we’re talking about, I hope. The information that we’re providing, to the degree that we do, don’t we have an obligation to be fair and balanced?
CORRY: Yes. We have an… There’s a professional standard of kind that we should observe. Obviously. There’s some fidelity to the truth that we…
HEFFNER: And when we don’t?
CORRY: Then we haven’t done our job.
HEFFNER: You’re right, we haven’t done our job. But what about the viewer?
CORRY: Then we’ve shortchanged the viewer.
HEFFNER: Right. For shame. For shame. We’ve shortchanged the viewer. But what about the wellbeing of the viewer?
CORRY: But, Dick, do we want government to be sitting over our shoulder’?
HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s the question I got around to asking you last time, and I wonder whether we don’t have government, whether we mustn’t have professional organizations, the National News Council certainly tried that to some extent on a voluntary basis back a couple of decades ago.
CORRY: Yeah. The New York Times wanted nothing to do with it.
HEFFNER: Right. And essentially killed it. Because without The Times, no Times, no council, really.
Would you like to see a new National News Council? Would you like to see that sense of responsibility fostered by such a voluntary non-governmental agency?
CORRY: Yes, but I… Well, I don’t have any objection to a National News Council. I wonder how effective it would be. And I’m not quite sure, I don’t know what it would do.
HEFFNER: Well, doctors organize…
CORRY: There’s an American Society of Newspaper Editors.
CORRY: And not long ago they had a meeting. And 800 editors come in. They all sit around and applaud one another and listen to speeches. And I read all the… I did not attend the meeting. I read a number of accounts. I spoke to some people who were there. I’m not sure I know what happened at the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I did read some of the speeches. Some of them struck me as — oh, God help me — can I use the word “fatuous?”
HEFFNER: It’s probably quite an appropriate word for any organization.
CORRY: And these were big-time newspaper editors. And had no great sense of professional standards there. I heard a little bleating, and I heard a lot of, “Oh, we must do a better job, and we must be kind, and we’ve got to do this, that, and the other thing.’ But I don’t think I heard very many specific suggestions or any ways that they were going to improve their product and they were going to do these great things.
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you a different kind of question. This, I think, in a sense, is a tough one. I don’t know how to answer it if someone were to put it to me.
You look back at your 30 years or more at The Times, your other professional…
HEFFNER: .. .press involvement, your writing of this wonderful book, My Times. To what degree do you think your personal orientation, your political orientation, your set of views, who this fellow John Corry is…
HEFFNER: how those things have impacted upon the choices you’ve made and called them journalistic choices, called them professional choices?
CORRY: Oh, that’s not a difficult question at all.
HEFFNER: No? What’s the answer then?
CORRY: Obviously, it had a great impact, it had a great influence. However…
CORRY: while I was at The Times, from January 7, 1957– remember that date — until 1968 when I went to Harpers. I went back to The Times in 1971, and left there in 1988. But it was only the last six years at The Times when I was a critic. I was a television critic, and I had a certain amount of authority, and I had leeway. I had a hunting license, in effect, to express my views. I had a hunting license to say, “Dan Rather is doing these terrible things.” I would not have done it as a reporter. At least I tried not to do it as a reporter. Now, did my viewpoints creep in? Of course it did, even as a reporter. But in my choice of stories, in my choice of stories.
HEFFNER: As a critic, or as a reporter?
CORRY: Oh, as a reporter it would creep in my choice of stories, but there would be some, there’d be these professional standards. I cannot define professional standards. I’ve been in a hundred meetings where people defined professional standards. And I’d hate to have to do it myself. It’s a gut feeling that one has. It comes out of habit, it comes out of knowing what a news story is supposed to be. So you keep, I would try to keep, I truly would try to keep my opinion, my conservative instincts, out of that news story as a reporter. As a critic, as a columnist, I was supposed to express my opinion. And of course, it just came out all over the place. And I suppose I was the, not the token neo-conservative at The Times, but I must have been pretty close to it.
HEFFNER: Well, Safire and Corry.
HEFFNER: That did it.
Did leaving The Times, as I suspect, have to do with your conservatism?
CORRY: In part. And not in any really nasty way. I was not fighting with Max Frank or any of the new crew. The number of people, I think, were quite happy to see me leave. It never became personally unpleasant. But when Max Frank, or the new executive editor, came in and replaced Dave Rosenthal, and Max was facing this horrendous job, and you step in, you’re executive editor of this great paper. And I’m sure I was about number 137 on his list of priorities. But every time I would cross Max’s desk, or every time he’d hear about it, it would generally be, someone would be complaining about me. Whether it was Tony Lewis or, I don’t know, the president of some foundation or something. And it seemed to me that there was a new vision coming into the newsroom. And it wasn’t the old vision. And I was right about that, of course. The New York Times had changed enormously in the last six or eight years. And I was a part of an old team. I was a part of an older vision. And there were some very personal reasons here too. Was that I had known too many sour, old journalists. I mean, fellows who get to be, they’re in their sixties and they’re taking orders from a 25-year-old editor, and it seemed to me that that upset the natural order, and I never wanted to be a part of that. And so it was time for me to leave. And I left there happily. I’d had a very good time there. I wasn’t fighting with anyone. But it was time to go.
HEFFNER: I understand that feeling, particularly now. You suggested, get a bad report, some would be fighting with a foundation executive. Of course, that reminds me of the fact that you did a pretty good job of getting after public broadcasting in many of its areas. How do you feel about what public broadcasting does now in terms of the counterparts of the things you used to take after?
CORRY: I’m not… Well, all right, listen. I watch…
HEFFNER: Sure. Be frank.
CORRY: Okay, let me be frank. Public broadcasting should have a lot more friends than it has. Public broadcasting, it seems to me, spent a number of years trying its best to commit suicide.
HEFENER: Politically speaking?
CORRY: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Politically speaking. And came! I think, fairly close to doing it. Now, I’ve not paid much attention to the CPB budgets recently. I don’t know what is going to happen, I don’t know what the currents are in Congress now. But it does seem to me that this institution should be thriving in a way that it is not. And the competition it faces now from Arts and Entertainment, from The Discovery Channel, from C-Span, from a bunch of other things, it’s just enormous, simply enormous. And, yes, I watch Arts and Entertainment, I watch The Discovery Channel probably more than I watch public broadcasting. Public broadcasting should not be in this fix. It really should not. It should have more friends.
HEFFNER: What should it do to gain friends and influence people?
CORRY: I don’t know. I honestly think it may be too late to ever put public broadcasting where it should be. And I suppose what, the only choice it has left now is to start fussing around with its logistics.
HEFFNER: Well, as a newsman, do you find this friendlessness a function of its, of a political orientation?
CORRY: Oh, of course. Oh, there’s simply no question about that. And the, I mean, here you’d have… All right, you could have Nova, and you could have McNeill/Lehrer. And that will go on year after year after year after year, and everyone perfectly happy with the left, right, and center of political life. But every time a public broadcast – not every time, but most of the time — public broadcasting decided to express some kind of opinion, one way or another, whether it’s on Frontline or Point of View or whatever, that opinion is almost virtually always expressed on one side of the political spectrum. Well, there’s something wrong about that. If you go through the entire 1980s, or late ‘70s and ‘80s, with Frontline, which has some wonderful shows, fine shows, but you have, as a critic you have reviewed your 15th show in a row about Nicaragua or El Salvador, and there is the 25th show, and you’re still waiting for something, a hint that the Russians have just invaded Afghanistan ten years ago and are still there, well, now come on. There’s something missing there. And it should not have been that way.
HEFFNER: John, honest to God, if the orientation, as you see it, were in the other direction, would you be just as concerned?
CORRY: Yes. And I’ve asked myself that question. Would I have gotten as concerned as quickly? No. I’m subject to all the…
HEFFNER: You’re human too.
CORRY .. .the polls and everyone else. But, of course, of course I would. Of course, I certainly hope I would. And, by the way, I have seen some perfectly wretched shows that have come from the other direction too. Not necessarily on public broadcasting, but…
HEFFNER: We have a minute or so left. What do you see as the future of – I won’t say “the media” — the press. If you had to make a bet – in a little less than a minute – what bet?
CORRY: Technology. We’re going in that direction. There’ll always be a small part of the press or the media that will be responsible, that will be provocative, that will be interesting, and it’ll give us information. But by and large, the much larger part will be driven by technology and by declining journalistic standards. And I have arrived at that conclusion regretfully. But I think I really do believe that things are going to get worse. But there will be this small segment where the rest of us can look upon it…
HEFFNER: Well, since I’m a natural-born pessimist anyway, that’s the point at which I’ thank you for joining me again today, John Corry.
CORRY: Thank you, Dick.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience, I hope you’re more optimistic. I do hope you join us again next time. And that 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.”