Michael J. O'Neill

American Journalism: Who Does What to Whom?

VTR Date: April 1, 1989

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael J. O’Neill
Title: “American Journalism: Who Does What To Whom?”
VTR: 4/1/89

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

The last time today’s guest joined me at this table, he took issue with one of my introductory descriptive: “Michael J. O’Neill, that crusty print journalist, former Editor of The New York Daily News and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors”. That’s the way I brought him on camera…and Mike found fault with “crusty”, which, of course, I immediately retracted.

But now others’ descriptive and reportorial liberties have come under fire – somewhat more serious and sustained liberties, to be sure – and I’ve invited back my now non-crusty friend to discuss them. For even from his perch at the very top of the editorial heap, Mike O’Neill never hesitated to criticize journalism (perhaps, to be sure, always with a few more stones cast at what he characterizes as “the beady red eye” of the television camera than at this fellow scribblers). But, when all has been said and done, my guest has been pretty darn even-handed, never hesitating to hold his profession to the highest standards.

Which brings us, of course, to The New Yorker’s brilliant writer, Janet Malcolm, who so vigorously stirred up the journalistic cauldrons in her recent articles on the extraordinary relationship – or maybe not so out-of-the-ordinary relationship, depending on whether you agree with Ms. Malcolm’s sweeping indictment of journalism generally – the relationship between a convicted murderer and the journalist who wrote a book about his crime.

Ms. Malcolm’s thesis can hardly escape our attention. Let me read the very first paragraph of her first article. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns – when the article of book appears – his hard lesson. “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’, the least talented talk about art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

At which point I suppose I ought to turn to my guest and plead: “Mike, say it isn’t so”.

O’Neill: It certainly isn’t so. I think it’s a lot of gibberish. I mean any relationship between Janet Malcolm and journalism, I think is purely coincidental. This thing reads like, more like a psychiatric tract in which she was analyzing her own relationship with her subject, with…between Joe McGinnis, the writer of the article and the murderer Dr. MacDonald. And I don’t know, I just found the whole article a long turgid piece of mess. I couldn’t find very much in it that would be valid or that I could support in any way, shape or form.

Heffner: Okay, now that you’ve said those nice things…

O’Neill: (Laughter)

Heffner: …let’s go on back a moment and ask whether there is any truth to the notion that journalists see their job as getting a story, not quite willy-nilly, but something like that in terms of the feelings and concerns of their subjects.

O’Neill: Well of course they are trying to get a story. They are interviewing their subjects, and the idea that the subjects are always these innocent victims of the tough interviewer is a lot of, a lot of nonsense. I remember a great old correspondent at the State Department when I first went there years ago to cover the State Department. His name was R.H. Shackford. He said, “Son, let me give you a little piece of advice. Assume that they’re lying to you one hundred percent of the time and you’ll be right ninety-five percent of the time”. My point is, is that the subject of an interview is usually playing a game. He is usually trying to see you; usually trying to hoodwink the reporter, if you will, just as much as the reporter is trying to wheedle out of the subject facts, information, or intimate details that the subject doesn’t want. So it’s a give and take kind of a situation in which I think it’s ridiculous to describe the journalists’ role here in this incredibly erroneous way, in my view.

Heffner: Mike, you use the word “wheedle”, in which the journalist is trying to “wheedle something out of the subject”.

O’Neill: Right.

Heffner: Now, Janet Malcolm, she doesn’t need any defense whatsoever, but she does say, “For of course at bottom no subject is naïve”, and she does say that.

O’Neill: Yeah, right.

Heffner: She indicates “every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway impelled by something stronger than his reason”. Mike, what is that “something stronger”? Why do we subject ourselves to the assaults, the “wheedling” to use your word?

O’Neill: Well, I’ll give you…almost every person I’ve ever interviewed, and that by the way has included a President or two, has wanted to convince me, and through me the public, through a reporter the public, of some particular line, some particular point, some particular perspective. They’re trying to sell something, and usually they’re trying to sell something that isn’t exactly right. It’s usually their own view which may or may not have any relationship to the facts. And I remember doing science writing. The idea that the scientists are sitting off there in some great ivory tower, above and beyond any kind of natural human interests in their own self-promotion, is a complete joke. I don‘t care who it is that I’ve ever interviewed, austere scientists up in the top level with the ivory tower or ordinary politicians here in the city of New York, they’re eager to tell their story. They’re convinced, always, that they can sell you a bill of goods, right whether the hill of goods is true or not, and they’re just…They bend over backwards to get on record with you or with the interviewer whether it’s television, print, or what-have-you. It’s human nature, I guess.

Heffner: Now, are you mellowing in the years since we first started to talk together, because I remember a speech that you gave…

O’Neill: Uh oh.

Heffner: …you say “oh”, you mean, would that my friend had written a speech and my friend had written a speech and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. This was when you were the head of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and it’s May 1982, and there are so darn many points that you made there that were critical, friendly, warmly and paternally critical of your profession. You raised the question: “Is it our duty to inform…is it our duty to inform so stern that we must exile ourselves from our own humanity”?

O’Neill: Yeah.

Heffner: And at that time, Mike, you were saying something not so far from what Ms. Malcolm was saying.

O’Neill: I mean it’s so far from what…no, I don’t…I disagree completely. First of all, I totally agree with that statement. I don’t necessarily agree now with everything I said then. I may have matured, as you say, a little bit…

Heffner: No, I said “got mellow”.

O’Neill: I’m talking…(laughter).

Heffner: I didn’t say anything about maturity, Mike, but go ahead.

O’Neill: Okay. Maybe it’s immature. No, but I think that…I was particularly addressing myself at the point where there was an adversarial attitude on the part of the reporter, of the editor, whoever in which they were literally trying to force an interview in a direction that would produce controversy, even if the controversy did not actually exist and which would…and might even in the process be very antithetical to the individual. In other words, very critical of the individual, and be…and ultimately produce a harsh picture of an individual, an official in the government. For example, a much harsher picture than was justified by the facts. That I agree with, and I think that if Joe McGinnis in this…taking the instance case here, if he was guilty of mistreating his coverage of MacDonald and his story of MacDonald was unfair to MacDonald in the substance of the book that he wrote, and he was harsher when he should not have been, he manipulated facts when he should not have manipulated them to make the picture look harsher than it was, then I would say that he would be guilty of the indictment that I was then returning against some of my colleagues, including in some cases, our own institutions. That isn’t what she is saying. What she is saying was that he had an agreement based upon his accepting the innocence of the subject and that ultimately he changed his view to feeling that the subject was guilty and that that betrayed the trust, the agreement, that he made with the individual at the beginning. That’s a separate issue. If he had an agreement with his source and in some way along the line he violated that agreement, a personal agreement, in effect a contract if you will, then that’s an ethical problem. That’s not what I’m addressing there and I don’t believe that in all of this gibberish that we have in this long, long two articles, that I don’t think that she comes to grips with that either. The only issue that she raises is did he betray a trust that existed as a personal agreement about a book that they were going to jointly produce, or did he now betray that trust?

Heffner: Yes, but you see my interest. If Janet Malcolm were here I could put the question to her. For instance, why were you so Aesopian in those…in the opening of the articles? Why brand all journalists this way? But you’re here, and I want to ask you, as a person who has been parallel in your sympathies for those who have been the victim of journalists, and therefore you raise that question: “Is our duty to inform so stern that we must exile ourselves from our own humanity”? In a way, in a parallel fashion you raise the same question. I wanted to ask you now, seven years after you wrote that, whether you feel that the question, it’s a critical question, whether you feel it’s a more important, valid, appropriate question today than when you raised the question?

O’Neill: I think it’s…I think there is some evidence now that the press is not as adversary as it was at the time that I was very concerned about this. But I think it’s just as valid today and let me try to explain it again. If you manipulate a subject in a news story, a victim of a crime or whatever, in a way that you use it, and you use that manipulation in order to produce a more sensational story and to produce bigger headlines and to sell more newspapers or to get higher ratings in television, then I would condemn that today just as harshly as I did then. If Joe McGinnis’ reporting of this trial and his depiction of this character, namely the accused murderer of this…the accused murderer in the story, and he grossly distorted the facts in order to produce a more sensational, fictionalized type of a result, then I would say I would condemn it. But the issue that she is really centering her attack on is whether or not he promised, in effect, to write a book about how this guy was innocent and then ultimately wrote a book in which he depicted the guy as not being innocent.

Heffner: Yeah, but you know, look, Mike O’Neill, editor is here, retired editor, retired President of the Society of Newspaper Editors is here. Would he give the same…maybe not the same kind…would he also warn, and this is, after all, a warning, to people who may in the future subject themselves to the relationship that arises between reporter and subject, would he warn the subject that “look, every reporter has an agenda”? You may have yours.

O’Neill: Right.

Heffner: You want to con the reporter into writing this the way you want it reported.

O’Neill: Well, as MacDonald had an agenda here…

Heffner: Sure.

O’Neill: To con the writer into writing a story that may have been false.

Heffner: Alright, so we’re all conning each other…

O’Neill: Exactly.

Heffner: …but I think those of us on the outside, Mike, are a little, a little less sophisticated, and a little less aware of the fact that what you have with reporters, and stop me if you think I’m exaggerating this, is not the phenomenon of a mirror. Here isn’t something…

O’Neill: I know.

Heffner: …a human mirror who is simply reflecting reality.

O’Neill: No, I agree with you. But I think one of the things you do when you think about these things longer and longer…you become less certain about everything. What is truth? I don’t know that we can ever find truth. We don’t know what the truth is in this case. That’s one of the things that Ms. Malcolm does finally conclude, that we do not know how to get at the truth. Milton had this crazy idea that you would put truth and falsehood in this ring and fight it out, and whoever won would…that would be the truth.

Heffner: In a…an open, a free and open encounter whoever knew truth…

O’Neill: Yeah.

Heffner: …put to the worst.

O’Neill: Right.

Heffner: But there has to be that free and open encounter, and what…

O’Neill: Well…

Heffner: …it seems to me she’s suggesting and it seems to me you suggested it too, that there are times when the encounter isn’t free and open.

O’Neill: Absolutely right. I would completely agree with you, but what also I’m absolutely impressed with is the fact that the free and open encounter does not necessarily produce truth. Let’s take…is the law…are the rules of evidence, the tort system, whatever you want to call it…is this really a form in which you can get a free and open exchange? I don’t think it is. In certain narrowly defined areas I think that the legal system can produce truth possibly. But it is an adversary system. Read this…so much depended on the personalities of the attorneys, so much depended on what evidence could be put in or not put in. So where do you…let’s take the election campaign in 1988. If the candidates are producing photo opportunities and making statements and putting advertising, TV ads on, actually creating their campaigns, their own personas, if you will, and ultimately delivering that “pseudo-event”, to use Burston’s phrase, to the public. Where is the truth? How do we find that?

Heffner: Wait a minute, Mike. Wait a minute. It takes two to tango. The candidate who attempts to create the basis for the pseudo environment doesn’t succeed until you, and the other media people pick it up and report it and show it and comment on it.

O’Neill: Well, I would argue that one of the really historic things that happened in the ’88 campaign…

Heffner: Yes.

O’Neill: Mondale, of course, earlier surrendered to television, the whole Presidential election campaign to television…he said that’s the way it is now and that’s going to decide whom we elect and whom we don’t elect. What happened in ’88, I think, was even something more significant. I think it was a case in which the media, that is, if you’re talking about journalistic organizations, and reporters and editors, I think lost a lot of control over the handling of the message as between the electorate and the candidates.

Heffner: How did they lose control?

O’Neill: I think because the candidates only did what they wanted to do in the way of photo opportunities, issuing statements. They didn’t hold press conferences unless they wanted to hold a press conference; they controlled the press conferences. They…we now have a system of financial support for campaigns which makes it possible for the incumbents to buy huge quantities of exposure on television to present their own message any way they want. This so-called harsh adversarial campaign that was run was largely being run on TV ads, which the media had absolutely nothing to do with except to turn on the switch and let the stuff run.

Heffner: So, again, it was the big media and the “little me”?

O’Neill: No, I think it was a case of the candidates now able to get hold of the medium itself, the actual communications, not wholly and not entirely, it’s true. But to a larger extent than ever before in our history, they were able to actually, personally get a handle on the communications between them and the voters, so they don’t need parties, they don’t need editorial writers, etc.

Heffner: But, Mike, they can buy this thing over here. And you usually turn around a little and say “the beady red eye of television”. They can buy that.

O’Neill: I haven’t changed my view, either.

Heffner: Okay, that’s true, but you in the print media, you’ve got to report it, or maybe you’re saying it’s enough to buy the television outlet, and you’re demeaning and diminishing the significance of print. I thought in the ’88 campaign what happened was that print abdicated, and print said, ”okay, they’re doing all this, we’re not going to do anything about it”. Is that an unfair…

O’Neill: Well, I don’t…I[m not sure I’ve studied it closely enough to make…to agree or disagree with your point there. I think that nothing is black and white here. I don’t mean to say that the influence of the media, per se, disappeared. But relative to previous campaigns I think it was diminished. In other words, I think that the campaign…media campaign chairman and the media hucksters, etc. that were working for the candidate were able to exercise a great deal more control over what was communicated, and how it was communicated, and to whom it was communicated than before.

Heffner: But don’t you think that was to a considerable extent because there was an abdication in the face of the purchase of incredible amounts of very expensive television time? In the face of that purchase, there was something of an abdication on the part of the print people.

O’Neill: Well, I’m not sure I would say “abdication”. As a matter of fact I thought, I shouldn’t pick any one network, but one comes immediately to mind. I thought, for example, that ABC did a pretty effective job of trying to grab hold of some of the statements and issues that were being, some of the things being put out by the candidates, and to analyze them and to say “this is wrong, and that’ right, and this is, etc., etc.”, and to penetrate…try to penetrate some of the phony, glitz…

Heffner: (garbled)

O’Neill: …glitzy stuff that was being dished out, and I think that was very admirable and I think that was terrific, but it still ended up, or the end result was I think that the candidates had far more control over the communications this time than ever before and that that was an historic change.

Heffner: Alright, Mike, we have just a few minutes left, and I want to get back to the wheedling…

O’Neill: Right.

Heffner: …that you talked about, and also this whole question of, you sort of look at it, I use the words…said “we were conning each other”, not you and I…

O’Neill: Of course not. (Laughter)

Heffner: But the subject and the reporter. Does this go on, in our estimation in Washington to such a great extent…

O’Neill: Oh, yeah.

Heffner: …that one can’t really depend upon what is printed and what is reported?

O’Neill: Well, I think that…I don’t think that you can…I think that that process goes on to a faretheewell in Washington, absolutely. But both parties know what the game is all about. Another word, by the way, which Janet uses in her article, the game that goes on between the interviewer and the interviewee, and the reporter’s constantly trying to find the holes in the position of the government official and vice versa. The government official is trying to use the reporter to get a particular policy line across or even to beat up on some rival in another agency.

Heffner: That’s quite a statement.

O’Neill: Well, that absolutely goes on all the time. That is the routine. That is the normal way things operate in Washington. But even there, I think that I’ll go back to my original statement and stick with it. When the reporter sets out to get some official and manipulates the facts in order to destroy that official, that is way outside the bounds of journalism, and it still does happen. Not often and not generally, but it still does happen.

Heffner: Do you think…

O’Neill: And that’s wrong.

Heffner: Do you think as Janet Malcolm suggests…well, she sort of does it with a sweeping “they all do it”.

O’Neill: Yeah.

Heffner: But do you think journalists, to any very great extent, do have a kind of assumption about what they want to do when they go it? They have a…

O’Neill: Sure, an agenda.

Heffner: An agenda that the subject isn’t going to be able to put aside.

O’Neill: Well I think that, no that’s absolutely correct. I’ve done it myself, not necessarily admirably. When the Moral Majority, to give you one example, when the Moral Majority first burst upon the scene, I immediately suspected that it was a bit of a rip-off, and I sent somebody down to prove that millions of dollars were being stolen. Well, we never proved it. (Laughter) But I had started off with that assumption, that’s right. And I think that is often the case, and I think we…the key thing for journalists is to first of all try to avoid that if you can. But number two, if you start off in one direction, with one assumption, because you can’t start, you don’t go after a story if you don’t even know there is a story, if you do go off in that direction and have those assumptions and some facts come along to suggest that you’re all wrong, then you have to quickly reverse, rather than to cling to them.

Heffner: It sounds…

O’Neill: the Westmoreland case, for example.

Heffner: It sounds to me that basically what you’re saying is good advice to the people who are watching, don’t ever say a word to a journalist. Say “Not in, not available, N/A”.

O’Neill: No, that’s not the advice I would give. Most…the real pros in the game of dealing with journalists are usually…sell as much as they…sell the journalist on as much of their own agenda…

Heffner: So you mean if you’re a good manipulator, do it.

O’Neill: Oh, yeah. Most journalists will admit that they’re manipulated quite a bit, and so it’s not a one way…it’s not a one way street. So I don’t think that journalists are out to rip-off an official unfairly, anymore than I think an official ought to misguide a journalist. That the…I guess that’s where I’d come off.

Heffner: I think we’ve reached the point…we’ve reached the end of our program. Maybe the best thing to do is simply say, No Comment.

O’Neill: (Laughter)

Heffner: My comment to you, Mike, is thank you very, very much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

O’Neill: No comment.

Heffner: (Laughter) Okay. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. And that is a comment. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.