David Broder

Behind the Front Page

VTR Date: April 4, 1987

Guest: Broder, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Broder
Title: “Behind The Front Page: The Washington Post
VTR: 4/4/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Whenever I don my academic hat as Professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers, first and foremost I ask my students to read Walter Lippmann’s prescient Public Opinion, his lastingly insightful study of the all-important role the press plays in leading us to think and then to act as a people.

How, then, Diogenes-like, could I possibly forebear inviting to THE OPEN MIND David Broder of The Washington Post, the widely syndicated, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has not only long been regarded both by politicians and by his peers as the most influential political reporter in this country, but who also quotes Lippmann to such good purpose in his new Simon and Schuster book Behind The Front Page: A Candid Look At How The News Is Made.

Besides, Mr. Broder so wisely turns his back on the now often-besieged journalists’ ploy of simply denying press power…beginning his book in this way: “Most of all,” he writes, “we resist admitting that as reporters, broadcasters, editors or producers, we do exercise great influence in this society, preferring to see ourselves as simple scribes, recording the words and actions of others. It is so much easier that way, but it is an act of self-deception and not our only one, either”. And so Mr. Broder, welcome to THE OPEN MIND on that note. I find it such an admirable note, too, because so many of your colleagues say, “there’s no one in here but us chickens…We don’t have power and perhaps, therefore, we don’t have responsibility”.

Broder: Well I’m glad to be with you, but we are very good in journalism at denying the obvious. Also, I would say at sometimes overlooking the obvious in what we’re covering.

Heffner: Why?

Broder: I think because it really is more comfortable to assume that we have the spectators’ role and that we are not participants in the process of government and politics that many of us are covering. And we do what’s comfortable rather than what causes us to raise questions about our performance.

Heffner: But that sort of self-deception must be so hard to come by, comfortable though it may be.

Broder: No, because it’s reinforced by one of the important norms or values of journalism which is that we see ourselves as impartial, not taking sides, not part of the combat that we’re covering.

Heffner: And you don’t think that’s true?

Broder: I think that detachment is a value that’s very much worth striving for as a journalist. But if you’re part of the mass communications system in a mass society where public opinion is ultimately the arbiter of public policy, you’re kidding yourself if you think that your role in that communications system doesn’t have some impact on the final policy decisions that are made in your society.

Heffner: In what way is the profession taught to try, at least, to make that the case, as much as possible?

Broder: To make the detachment the case?

Heffner: Yes.

Broder: And neutral? Well, what you’re taught as a journalist is first of all, verify the facts. Don’t assume that you know what is going on. Ask people. Second, we are taught and it’s a very important lesson, as Lippmann had written very well, that the tradition of objectivity, of holding our own sentiments and views in check, as far as is humanly possible, really is a very important discipline to maintain. So that the reader or the viewer has some sense that they are dealing with a professional observation, not just a polemic.

Heffner: But you know, if that feeling is to be maintained, of professional observation, how do you square it with the notion that the objectivity isn’t really possible? Or isn’t it a profession?

Broder: I think you…there is a real tension there and I think the beginning of wisdom for us as journalists is to acknowledge the tension, not to deny it. Once you’ve acknowledged it, then you can begin to figure out how to deal with it. But if you deny that there is a tension in your role, then you’re really not in any position to be aware enough to even cope with the problem.

Heffner: Of course, you noted that Behind The Front Page: A Candid Look At How The News Is Really Made really began based upon a speech that you made back in ’79 and I thought it was quite extraordinary. You took The New York Times slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print”; you didn’t knock it, but you sort of said, “It’s not possible” and if only we would each day indicate that it isn’t all the news that’s fit to print, we’d have our first step up on this problem.

Broder: That’s right. It’s not possible because in fact the task of selecting is so much at the heart of what we do as journalists. The most important decisions that we make about any story, the most important decisions that the editors make about what stories go on the front page or which stories make the twenty-two minutes of the evening news, those decisions all involve, “What do you leave out?”, not “What do you put in ?” Because you leave out much more than you’ll ever get into your account. And we make those decisions in terms of our own values. Some of those values are professional. We have an obligation, if there are two or three sides to a controversy, to reflect the two or three sides of the controversy. But we’d still select what seems to us to be the most cogent arguments, the most relevant, the most significant arguments and we omit the rest and we ought to acknowledge that those are value judgments.

Heffner: Would you say, according to your own values, you and your colleagues, there are those who say and Mike O’Neill sat at this table just where you’re sitting and I asked him about the beady red eye of the camera. And he seems to find that it is what has spoiled or despoiled news reporting. Saying that the commercial values that are much clearer, that are felt much more harshly in television news reporting have sort of worked their way over to print journalism. Do you think that’s true?

Broder: Well I don’t know of any newspaper that is not, itself, very conscious of its commercial values. I mean newspapers are private enterprises, profit-making businesses which happen to have a very important public function as well, namely, informing people about what’s going on in their community of their state or their nation. But they’re all commercial and none of us are of any doubt that we are working for profit-making companies.

Heffner: Yes, but you know, someone like Edward J. Epstein analyzes broadcasting, News From Nowhere, broadcasting news, seems to say that the dynamic of a mass commercial medium is all important there. Not the values of the individuals involved. I thought I heard you saying perhaps a little more positively, that the values of the individuals involved are more important in the print medium than the commercial considerations.

Broder: For an individual reporter in a paper like the one I work on now, we are happily immunized from any sense that we have advertisers looking over our shoulders or circulation people looking over our shoulders. That is a consideration, but it’s not part of our daily consciousness. We’re free to think about “What is this story that I’m covering really about?” and “How do I tell that story to the reader?” We’re allowed that freedom to think in those terms and to concentrate on those questions.

Heffner: Well you differentiate between commercial pressures or advertising pressures and circulation pressures. Do you think that the same distinction is made and observed with this beady red eye?

Broder: Well the little bit of work that I’ve done in television news, and it’s not extensive enough to permit any generalizations, I have the sense that entertainment values, holding the audience for that few minutes that you’re on the air, probably are more acutely in the consciousness of the producers of those shows than they are in the minds of editors like Ben Bradlee.

Heffner: Then what does the future hold for us as a nation that depends so much, and you make the point that we’re just junkies when it comes to news when the major source of news and information about the world around us comes from television?

Broder: Well, I’m not a pessimist on that subject because I think that television has become a very important additional channel. I don’t believe that television is likely to be the source of death or weakness for many more newspapers. There has been a shakeout in the newspaper industry over the last forty years. Some of it has to do with television. Some of it has to do with the changing demographics and geography of our metropolitan areas. It’s been particularly hard on afternoon papers to get the papers out to people in time for them to read them before the evening news comes on. But I don’t see that as the major challenge. I think what we have evolved in this society now is a very, very useful multi-channel information system, where everything from books to the hourly radio news broadcasts are available to people in almost every community so that they can satisfy their individual information needs. And I don’t feel that we are being crowded at this point…by television.

Heffner: Crowded perhaps not in the sense of more newspapers biting the dust, but what about the values relating to news gathering? Crowded in that way, do you think?

Broder: No, I don’t think so. Because the newspapers that have survived, for the most part have done so by tuning their efforts to the interests and the needs of those who want a little bit richer information and news diet than they can get from the nightly television news programs. We have survived by up-grading the product, I think not by down-grading the product.

Heffner: You know I, not only ask my students to read Lippmann’s Public Opinion and now will ask them to read your new book, but I ask them, too, to read the Spiro T. Agnew comments on network news gathering from, when was it…I guess ’69…just after…

Broder: Yes.

Heffner: …Nixon was inaugurated and Spiro T. Agnew was inaugurated. They attack upon network news the assumption that there is a kind of bias, political bias. Do you share that? I can’t quite tease that out of what you’ve written here, the degree to which you might find some value in what he has written, in what he said in that speech.

Broder: There was some value and I said this at the time that Agnew was making those speeches, in having tough criticism that forces us to look at our own performance. But Mr. Agnew, himself, came with a very flawed sense of values to that job as sort of volunteer critic of the medic. And second, the notion that he really propounded, that there is a sharp ideological bias, that we are somehow left-wing and, therefore, opposed to administrations like the one in which he was a part, is, in my view, mostly nonsense.

Heffner: But suppose you dismiss, for the moment, the baggage he brought to his speeches.

Broder: Yes.

Heffner: And suppose for a moment you say, let’s not talk about liberal and conservative, but let’s say anti-administration or anti-power, other than the power of the press, attitude on the part of the press both print and electronic, do you find some greater validity there?

Broder: There’s a historic tradition in our country of the press being the sort of the resident skeptic of any government. A good city hall reporter in my view is always skeptical about what the mayor and his people are propounding at any given moment. A good Washington reporter is always skeptical about what the politicians that reporter is dealing with are propounding at the moment. But skepticism is something different from a consistent ideological bias because our skepticism ought to apply, and I think for the most part, does apply, to whoever is in power at any given moment. We just bring that to our job.

Heffner: Okay, let’s then make that differentiation. But then let’s go back to skepticism and ask when it becomes cynicism and when skepticism/cynicism begins to show a downside in terms of the well-being of this nation.

Broder: I think cynicism creeps in when or if you really hope for failure, which I think very few reporters hope to see in their government. I think it creeps in when you believe that nobody ever does anything for unselfish or altruistic reasons. And that happens more often, I think, in reporters’ minds, and it’s a mistake. We make a mistake when we assume that there is always a hidden and selfish motive for whatever a political person is doing.

Heffner: Now, do you find…do I gather that you find this more and more in news reporting?

Broder: I don‘t know that it’s more and more. I think it’s been there at least in the thirty years I’ve been in the business. There’ve always been some reporters who basically had a fairly cynical view of what they were covering. I find it hard myself to understand why anybody would cover government and politics for a long period of time if that person really believed that he was dealing with a bunch of fools and frauds and crooks. That’s not my view of the people that I’m covering.

Heffner: Do you think there’s a possibility that journalism draws the kind of people who feel comfortable with that point of view?

Broder: No, I don’t think so because there is a great variety of people in journalism and I don’t think there’s anything particularly in the culture of journalism that tends to draw cynics or make us cynical.

Heffner: Honest, now.

Broder: Yes.

Heffner: That would be your considered opinion? That’s interesting because from the book, I almost gather the notion that you give warning signs about that. And I perhaps mis-read…

Broder: I think there’s a tendency which we need to be aware of and so far as possible, to resist, to oversimplify our explanations of what’s going on. And one of the most dangerous over-simplifications is to say, “It’s all a con game”. That is most often wrong.

Heffner: A sort of devil theory.

Broder: Yes.

Heffner: Writ small and then writ large.

Broder: It’s, it’s just too easy a cop-out as an explanation.

Heffner: Well, before the program we were comparing ages and I said I was so much older than you. But you’ve been around in news reporting for some years. Do you think that at this stage in our history, as we approach the end of this century, that perhaps we can less afford this traditional journalistic approach, the questioning approach?

Broder: No. On the contrary, what we have to do, I think, is to take that tradition and particularly apply it to the one part of our government where it has been least successfully applied, and that’s in the coverage of the president. The most important single official in our government who increasingly, and I don’t direct his purely at President Reagan because you can see…trace the evolution of this pattern in the Presidency. But the President and his staff have become the great manipulators of public opinion and have also become the great evaders of what every other politician in this country accepts as a responsibility of the job, namely, making themselves available regularly and frequently for questioning by the reporters that cover them. We need to build that kind of natural relationship which has at its root, skepticism on the part of the journalists, into our coverage of the White House much more systematically that we’ve done.

Heffner: That’s so interesting though, in terms of what it is that Agnew wrote. Just earlier by months, Lyndon Johnson had said that to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Broder: Well the Agnew example is a perfect one because Agnew took out after the broadcasters in the first instance because he was upset that there was commentary, as he called it, “instant analysis” after several of President Nixon’s speeches on the Vietnam War. Now here is an absolutely perfect case in point. President of the United States, alone among all the political players in our society, has the power to commandeer the most powerful instruments of public opinion management ever invented: These cameras, the broadcast microphones, the front pages of our newspapers, at a time of his choosing, on a subject of his choosing, in the format that he chooses. I would not in any way deny a President that power. It is part of the tool of leadership in our kind of mass communications society. But the notion that Agnew propounded, that a respectful silence should fall on the land after the President has finished his speech is just nonsense.

Heffner: Well now wait a minute…

Broder: The President is part of a dialogue with the people and with the other political players.

Heffner: But what Agnew also said was that the President had the right, indeed as President, having been elected, as you have not been and as your colleagues in the press have not been, to have a communication with the people of the United States without having it instantly, immediately pre-empted, co-opted by the “instant analysis” that followed. So isn’t there something to that to which you subscribe?

Broder: No. Because what the President’s…what presidents do when they make an address to the nation is to focus the mind of the nation on that topic that they have chosen. And the choice is theirs. But the dialogue can’t stop when the President utters his last syllable. That is the moment when the dialogue should really begin because that’s when people are thinking about that subject. And the press, television, others play a very useful role when they begin to raise the questions that are raised by the President’s speech.

Heffner: But again, fair is fair. And Agnew was not saying such questions should not be raised, he was talking about a question of timing. Now the fact that the Washington Post the next morning will present an analysis of what Richard Nixon had said or The New York Times or each and every newspaper, that really wasn’t what he was a much concerned about as the pre-emption. You’re right when you say, “Of course that the President of the United States has the authority, has the power to summon the electronic media and be carried by them. But they trump his ace, don’t they, by saying, “Now wait a minute, now you’re going to hear the real truth”, in effect saying that.

Broder: Well, I think what he objected to specifically, for example, was that after one of the Nixon speeches on Vietnam, one of the networks put on Averell Harriman, who had been a negotiator in the previous administration dealing with the issue of the war and piece in Vietnam. Now that doesn’t trump the President’s speech. What it does is let the person who has just heard the President speak, hear another viewpoint. And it seems to me that is exactly what the mass media ought to be doing.

Heffner: Of course, that really got his goat, the fact that Harriman was there.

Broder: Yes.

Heffner: But otherwise his concern had to do with the instant analysis by people of the media. He did characterize their politics and I think that was not a terribly astute analysis, but one that did seem to conform to what every other President has said. You mean that Nixon and Kennedy and Johnson and all the others have been so wrong in their feelings that the power really resides with you people?

Broder: I don’t know that all of them felt that, first of all. And second, there is a power and an influence that the press and the mass media have. But if you compare that power to the power of an incumbent President of the United States, we are, you know, the fly on the elephant’s trunk, or whatever the right cliché is for that. I mean presidents set agendas, presidents really have leverage. Our power compared to that is at any given moment, minimal. What enables us to play a role is that we endure. I mean The Washington Post, when it was under attack from Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson and others, the one surety we had was that after they were gone, The Washington Post would still be there and be in business as long as our readers wanted us to stay in business.

Heffner: And that you would help them go.

Broder: No, I don’t think we helped them go very much. I mean if you believe that the newspapers dictate the political course of this country, the evidence is strongly against it. In every election except 1964, the weight of the newspaper editorial endorsements has favored the Republican candidate. And obviously Republican candidates have not won most of those elections.

Heffner: I’m getting the signal, unfortunately, that our time is almost up. And I do want to ask you first about what you would want to see done in the journalistic profession to remedy those things that you do consider errors, false weaknesses.

Broder: The most important thing is for us to be less defensive when we are criticized and to be more open about what it is we are doing and why we make the decisions we do. We are large and powerful institutions in this society and we are unregulated, thank goodness, by government. We have a special constitutional protection, which we want to keep intact. That means that we ought to be very open with our customers. When we make a mistake we ought to say very clearly, “We blew it on this story, here is what we now understand to be the reality”. We’ve only lately come to that kind of practice. And not very many newspapers even now are doing that and the broadcast media even less than we are. We ought to be ready to enter into a serious dialogue with our readers and listeners and viewers because there are things they can tell us that will help us do our jobs better.

Heffner: And a news council?

Broder: I’m not so sure that a news council is terribly useful because, in fact, we are an institutional anarchy where every news organization has to set its standards for itself. I think it’s much more useful to have a designated hair shirt on the staff of a newspaper as we and other papers have with our ombudsman, somebody who is right there in our own newsroom writing memos to us and to our editors saying, “This story does not make sense. I have a call from a reader who says that such and such was the case, please straighten it out”.

Heffner: Were you in favor of the National News Council when it was in existence?

Broder: Yes. I thought it was a useful effort, but as I’ve reflected on it, it seems to me that since there is no such thing really as the “national” press, a national news council is probably not the most useful level of intervention. I think an ombudsman on an individual newspaper, network, broadcast station is probably more useful.

Heffner: You say no “national” press. But you, as a syndicated person, and the other people who are syndicated, don’t they really make up a “national” press?

Broder: In the sense of distribution, yes. But there is no single channel that controls or manipulates public opinion in this country. We’re not like Britain (???) which has, really, national newspapers. Most of the readers, most of the viewers, have multiple sources of information, not a single source.

Heffner: Would you say that to any extent, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and perhaps a couple of others, so set the agenda for the American press that there is almost an equivalency to a national press?

Broder: If you add the wire services to that and add the network television programs. But already you’re up to six or seven different agenda setting organizations and I think in that sense there is certainly some influence that goes beyond the borders of a particular city or state.

Heffner: If one could do a content analysis of those six or seven or dozen inputs do you think you’d find that essentially they were almost one?

Broder: In terms of content on a day by day basis?

Heffner: In terms of point of view and content.

Broder: Well, in terms of point of view. I think there is a good deal of range of editorial viewpoints, obviously in those news organizations. There tends to be a parallelism in the front pages and in the line-ups of the network evening news programs simply because there are sort of commonly imbued news values which all of us share.

Heffner: David Broder, you’ve got to promise me to come back and talk more about Behind the Front Page. Meantime, we can all read it. Thanks so much for joining me.

Broder: Thank you. I enjoyed being with you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an 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 Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.