John Corry

Broadcaster as Patriot

VTR Date: June 15, 1985

Guest: Corry, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Corry
Title: “Broadcaster as Patriot”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Let me read you the opening paragraph of The New York Times article of not so long ago. Its title, “Is TV Unpatriotic or Simply Unmindful?” “this is the charge that the television networks are left, liberal, unpatriotic or a sebaceous mixture of all three. CBS is the usual target, although ample censure is left over for NBC and ABC. Didn’t’ Ted Turner say that, ‘The greatest enemies America has ever had, posing a great threat to our way of life than Nazi German or Tojo’s Japan are the three television networks.’? Didn’t senator Jesse Helms speak about network people who, if they do not hate America first, certainly have a smug contempt for American ideals and principles? Censure grows, fervor rises, while the networks for the most part stand on their injured dignity. In fact, the argument is too serious o be left t partisans of either side.”

Well, I’m not a partisan of either side, and I really don’t think that my guest is, though some people may differ on both counts. John Corry has covered police, politics, and theater at The New York Times for about 20 years, has been a reporter, editor, and a columnist,, is not a television critic. And since it was Mr. Corry who asked the question, “Is TV unpatriotic or simply unmindful?” I’ll ask him to answer it for us, too. Mr. Corry?

Corry: Dick, no, it’s not unpatriotic. I think it’s, I become concerned with television with it’s apatriotic. And I think that’s what the story or that review was, that was what it was about. I was struck by this with the television coverage of Vietnam, and tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. And it was all over the networks. It was on the seven o/clock news, it was done in specials, it was on the morning news shows. And I had no sense, watching the coverage, that Vietnam was celebrating an American defeat. I had no sense that Vietnam was a totalitarian country. Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the networks are unpatriotic. I’m not suggesting, as some conservatives have, like Helms or sometimes Ted Turner I suppose, that there’s some hidden agenda, that the left is pulling all the strings in television. That’s nonsense. But it seems to me that there’s kind of mindlessness about television, that it’s there, the technology is there. We come in and we look at Vietnam and what we see are mud splattered oxen and happy peasants. I mean, I have no sense that, or had no sense that this country was militaristic.

Heffner: Well, you say that, meaning that Vietnam was militaristic.

Corry: And a totalitarian society.

Heffner: But you talk about mindlessness and television being apolitical. Do you want it to wave Fourth of July flags every night?

Corry: No. no. and sometimes it does wave Fourth of July flags every night. I’m not sure it has anything to do with the inauguration, Ronald Reagan’s inauguration was a wonderful piece of television. You had Dan Rather getting teary on television and the flags. And that was fun. Certainly super patriotic. I don’t know what it meant. No, I don’t want television to wave flags. But what I want television to do is to practice journalism. And I’m not sure that it always does that. It seems to me that journalism, journalism must be in the center of things. I believe this.

Heffner: In the center of things in terms of reflecting what the central these is of the nation itself?

Corry: No. now, this is a…all right, let’s back up a minute. I’m not asking to return to the days when Walter Cronkite narrated documentaries for the Pentagon. They all did that, by the way. You remember that.

Heffner: I do remember indeed.

Corry: No, they don’t have to do that. But central in the sense that it looks at an issue, it looks at Vietnam, or example. There’s a kind of evenhandedness that strikes me as not evenhandedness at all. I mean, one can go into Vietnam and show us the mud splattered oxen and the happy peasants and then there’d be a little bit of commentary saying, “On the other hand, this is a totalitarian state, and then o the other hand, people suffered and died in Vietnam, and that on the other hand, this is a poor country.” I get no picture of Vietnam,. I get no picture of a totalitarian state. And it seems to me that in the twentieth century my reading of history is, my feeling is that this totalitarianism or democracy – and democracy is one of the great issues; it may be the great issue, the great political issue.

Heffner: But then let’s turn to this question again, using the word you’ve used, “mindlessness.” I gather your feeling is that where there is this great issue and when there is this great issue at stake, television must be mindful, news people must be mindful and report accordingly. Is that the case?

Corry: News people must report, yes, conscientiously, responsibly. Listen, on, what was it, April 30 was the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Heffner: Right.

Corry: I watched the seven o’clock news that evening. And what I do is I flip from channel to channel. Now, it was either NBC or CBS watching the parade, reviewing the parade. And the correspondent said, “There is no evidenced, there is no sign, there is no hint, there is no suggestions of anti-American feeling on the part of the people or the officials.” An instant later I went to the next channel, and the correspondent said very clearly, same parade, same officials, same time, “There’s anti-American rhetoric all over. Every time I turn around they’re lambasting the United States.” Now, that was on two major networks going from channel to channel. One report was by Garret Utley, the other was by Liz Trotter. I do not remember which. The reporting is not very good. The journalism was not very good.

Heffner: Does that mean then that you’re simply saying that journalism is not that good, or that you’re saying that some journalists come from a point of view that is reflected in this way?

Corry: A lot of journalism is not very good. And on any given day…I believe in a free press with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength. And my own theory about the press is that on any given day you’re not going to get truth. But we’re not supposed to. But you get it over a period of time. So does that one day’s coverage of the Vietnam parade really mean anything in the long run? No,, it may not.

Heffner: But John, let me ask you whether you think, just taking your words now, whether you think that is true of American television today, that in the long run, not over years but over days, you do get something close to the truth? And if that is the case, what more really can you ask for from a free medium?

Corry: What I can ask for…I’m disturbed by the…all right, I think we live in a, I live in, you live, we all do, in a journalistic, political, literary culture where ideas come from the left. I don’t think that there is a center in American journalism, American politics, the American literary world. Now, when you say that ideas come from the left you’re almost making a prima facie case that you are a man of the right. I am not a man of the right.

Heffner: You’re an observer. I’m asking you what you observed.

Corry: All right. Well, what I have observed is that, I think in that story that you were quoting from I mention that it struck me that at the, in television’s coverage of the democratic and republican national conventions Jesse Helms and his people were always identified as right-wingers. Jesse Jackson was never identified as a left-winger. The feeling I get watching television or observing American journalism is that there is no real left wing; and that there’s a right wing, and that there’s a good deal of moral, a program attached to this right wing. That it’s racist, imperialistic, cruel, that it’s against the environment, that it’s against women, that it’s against minorities. And then there is all the rest of the political spectrum which is never identified or seldom identified as left or as liberal. And I think, I have no sense that the right, that the conservatives generate ideas. I don’t think there is a tradition. You’re a historian. You know a good deal more about this than I do. But my reading of history is that there has been no steady and consistent conservative thought in this country. I don’t’ think the right’s had an idea man since Alexander Hamilton. Supply side economics. I’m not sure that’s an idea. An economic theory perhaps. And the center, as I see things, the center does not generate ideas; it absorbs ideas. And so the ideas in the culture I live and work and observe, they come from the left. They are absorbed. They are absorbed by the rest of us.

Heffner: So you see it not as a conspiracy but as a dynamic?

Corry: Oh, good heavens, not a conspiracy. That’s a conspiracy in the sense…it is not a conspiracy in the sense that someone In Moscow or Peking is calling Dan Rather and saying, “Put this on the evening news.” For heaven’s sake, it’s nothing at all to do with that. It’s a kind of, sometimes I think it’s a kind of intellectual conspiracy.

Heffner: Tell me what you mean by that.

Corry: Well, if you gave me enough time I suppose I could think of some conservative intellectuals or artists who are thought of as being conservative or moderate. I’d be hard put. We have tom Stoppard in theater, Saul Bellow as a novelist…

Heffner: We have the neoconservative movement. Fair?

Corry: We have the neoconservative…that’s interesting. I’ve begun to think the neoconservatives are, they’re former Democrats. And it’s the first that we’ve had anything like this, I think. The neos’ value to the conservatives is that the neos are people who deal with words. They write, they speak, they talk.

Heffner: Well, that’s what you were talking about. You were talking about the…

Corry: Yeah, and I think it’s a fairly small segment of American thinking. Occasionally they have a conference. I’ve never been to one. I stay away from all conferences. And I suppose they get 20 people in a room. And they’re very valuable to the conservative movement because finally the conservatives have someone who can give voice to these impulses, these passions that conservatives had. And you see it in commentary. You see it in, oh, I suppose The American spectator, a few other publications. But it still strikes me as being a very small part of the journalistic, political, literary culture.

Heffner: Well, you say that then, but when I ask you whether you see, whether you would characterize television reporting or broadcast reporting or reporting generally in a political hue, you say basically no, that it is mindless. And I don’t understand that.

Corry: All right. There was a survey done…all right, my own experience as a reporter – and it’s been longer than 20 years; it’s been about 30 years – I’ve known a lot of reporters, a lot of editors. I’m not starting with The Times, other newspapers, other publications. My own experience has been that most reporters, most journalists vote for liberal Democratic candidates. And I think that’s just fine. A couple of years ago who was it, Rothman, Stanley Rothman and the man called Decter.

Heffner: Right.

Corry: And they surveyed the media elite. And these were the journalists in Washington, print and television journalists.

Heffner: And they voted Democratic.

Corry: And they voted overwhelmingly Democratic in all elections. I think that’s just fine too. What distresses me, one thing that distresses me is that when this is discussed at very serious journalistic meetings and conferences, journalism resents, I mean, they don’t’ like to be reminded of this. And they say, “You are accusing us of” – friends of mine too – “You’re accusing us. You’re impugning our integrity. You are saying you take the position…” well, no one’s saying that. But what I think it means when you have a, when you have journalists who are liberals, is that your eye falls on a story in a certain way. That you focus on some things. I think you may become more adversarial. I think that television journalism is adversarial. The medium itself is adversarial. When It covers Washington news, when it covers institutions, the coverage tends to be more critical, and indeed it should be. I’m not saying it should not be critical. Bu the coverage is shaped by your eye, by what you see, by what you think is important. And if you are a liberal you see, your eye does fall – you can still be a person of great integrity, responsibility, intelligence – but what is it that you see in politics? What is it that you see in society? Of course it makes a difference if the elite media or the members of the elite media are liberals. And it’s not reprehensible; it’s a fact of life.

Heffner: Okay. It is that dynamic, that fact of life. Then I guess the question has to come up, would you choose to do something to modify, to change that fact of life? Because that fact of life imposes itself upon the millions and millions and millions…

Corry: Yes.

Heffner: …of people who get their picture about the world around them from the media. What would you do?

Corry: What I’d do is what I do now. I write television reviews. And I don’t think of myself as being a critic. And I certainly don’t think of myself as being an ideologue. But I think of myself as being a journalist.

Heffner: Reporting on the medium?

Corry: Applying journalistic standards to the medium. That’s all that I can do. I mean, I have no authority beyond that. And you see, I suspect that journalism, or the culture has not recovered from the 1960s yet. And I am struck by the way both left and right, but the number of the left is much larger in this country than the right. I don’t know where the right is any longer. I tend to distrust both sides. And it seems to me that when the left – I don’t’ want to take this too far afield – when the left picks up on environmentalism, on the women’s movement, on nuclear energy; when the right picks up on communist subversion, on the right to pray in our schools, I have the feeling that both sides are using these almost as surrogate issues.

Heffner: To what? What’s down deep?

Corry: Two things, I suppose. One I tend to distrust, one reason I distrust ideologists and intellectuals; two in politics is that it seems we base so much of what they say and what seems to be based on some kind of inner need. And it’s not, it’s their ideas do not stand the test of experience. I do not trust people who give us ideas that are not subject to reality to experience. And you get on both sides of the political spectrum. I think we get more of it now on the left simply because the left is larger. I think that is one thing that they want. But the other thing they want to do, both sides, is to change the structure of society. They want to change American institutions. That is partly a legacy of the ‘60s. and I do not like that.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting that you talk about the left being larger. And perhaps this is not a time to explore that, but certainly the reelection of President Reagan would indicate that if the left is larger it didn’t get out and vote.

Corry: That’ what people keep telling me. But I think what that might also indicate is that there is a divorce, a split, a schism between the dominant culture and the people who vote in elections.

Heffner: Yah, but if the left is larger, then what the heck? That’s the way the country is. And shouldn’t the media be reflecting that largeness?

Corry: I’ve lost you.

Heffner: Well, you’ve said twice, “The left is larger.” And I’m saying that unless you’re saying the left is only larger in the media – and maybe you are saying that, only in the media – then what you’re concerned about seems to me to fit a democratic pattern. The left is larger, the media report from a point of eye view that seems to you to be on the left rather than to the right, or to result in that. And what’s the fuss about? That’s the way the country is.

Corry: Perhaps there is no fuss. Although I think ideas are important. You do too or you wouldn’t have this show.

Heffner: Okay, fair enough.

Corry: And I’m not talking about the, not just talking about the media. I’m talking about a culture. I’m talking about a culture the disseminates ideas.

Heffner: But you really mean that the left is larger? Or that the left plays a larger role because of its articulateness?

Corry: Both. Certainly it’s larger. As a practical matter, how many conservative thinkers and publications can you think of?

Heffner: Well, again you’re talking about the writers, the people who articulate. And I thought you mean the country at large.

Corry: No, I’m talking about the people who shape ideas.

Heffner: Okay. Would you then, by the way – and this, I think, a question of great importance – I asked you before, what would you do. And you replied, you’re a writer, you’re a scribbler, you’re a journalist…

Corry: I’m a journalist.

Heffner: …you’re commenting on these things. But as a citizen you would vote for those in political life who are in favor of a fairness doctrine. And it seems to me in everything that I’ve read that you’ve written over the years that the cry, not terribly loud because you write in muted prose in a sense because you don’t get on a soapbox, is for fairness and balance. Would you therefore support that group today that wants to do away with the concept of a fairness doctrine? Not necessarily the concept, but with the fairness doctrine. Where are you? Where do you come down on that?

Corry: I haven’t thought very much about it. I’m not even sure what the fairness doctrine means any longer. That’s where I have my problem. If people want to do away with the fairness doctrine.

Heffner: And you say, “What fairness doctrine.”

Corry: Yeah, and I have the impression some of them are pushing their own ideas, their own impulses, their own ideologies. I don’t know what it means, the fairness doctrine. That’s not an answer.

Heffner: Well, do you think, do you want there to be a command from on high, morally or governmentally?

Corry: No, heaven’s sake. I’d like to be a moral command, yes. I do not want it to…

Heffner: And that’s it?

Corry: I do not want it to be a governmental command. I think, yeah, I’m hopelessly idealistic about this, because I would like to see some kind of consensus in the rules. Though I’m not likely to get a consensus, a moral consensus in the rules or in the culture or in journalism. No, I don’t want anything handed down on high from government.

Heffner: Then you’re really not saying let’s do this or let’s do that.

Corry: No. heaven’s sake no.

Heffner: Where do you think we’re going to go then? What do you see as a trend? Because you watch and watch and watch what is happening in broadcasting. Which way are we going? Moving back, moving sideways, moving left,, right?

Corry: Remember now that we’re talking about the dominant culture.

Heffner: Right.

Corry: The culture that disseminates ideas.

Heffner: Right.

Corry: I have no sense at all that the conservative movement…Ronald Reagan may have won 59% of the vote. I have no sense at all that the conservatives have made any significant inroads into this dominant culture. Does that mean that Moscow or Peking will be in charge tomorrow? No, I’m not saying that at all.

Heffner: What does it mean, since you commented on the networks’ news coverage of the tenth anniversary of our withdrawal from Vietnam, in terms of the networks’ capacity to cover armed conflict or to cover our involvements, I always think of Lyndon Johnson’s, almost his farewell address, the day after he withdrew from the presidential race in ’68 he went up…

Corry: Yes.

Heffner: Chicago, spoke to the broadcasters, and reminded them…

Corry: Yes.

Heffner: …at the NAB, ask him the question, “Would it be possible for this country successfully to complete a war given the nature of today’s media?”

Corry: And isn’t that an interesting question? There was a discussion I reviewed, a television discussion that was done by Columbia Media and Society Seminars. And it went on for about an hour and it seemed to me that it didn’t really say very much until the very last minute. John Chancellor said, “I think what’s happened” – I’m paraphrasing – “I think what’s happening is that television technology has made it very difficult to fight a war.” And I think that’s, of course, that’s true. And I don’t what, I mean, do you keep television out? Of course you don’t keep them out of a war. The worst thing that this administration ever did to the press to our free traditions is to keep the pres out of Grenada. That was incorrect. It was wrongheaded. It was simply wrong. I can’t, I don’t know how to come to grips with it. I don’t think anyone has.

Heffner: Well, that’s future. Let’s talk about the past just in the few minute we have left. Recently conservatives groups have found the dollars to produce a series on Vietnam. Presumably a different interpretation from a long-range series that appeared on public broadcasting. Presumably they feel the need to do that, that that earlier series was imbalanced.

Corry: Yes.

Heffner: Did you think that it was?

Corry: No. I thought that early series was an absolutely first-rate piece of journalism. It was 13 hours. It was a wonderful piece of work. Now, what’s most interesting about this – and I’m glad this came up – that the, you referred to conservative groups. I think it’s Accuracy in Media. And they got a 30 or $35,000 grant from the national endowment. The original series got a million and a half from the national endowment. And I don’t’ know, another piece of change from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Now, I am absolutely in favor of having accuracy. I haven’t seen their documentary. I assume it will be a political tract. I am absolutely in favor of having a public broadcast show this. If CBS had had a comparable mechanism I don’t’ think they would have, I don’t’ think the nation, journalism would have been dragged through two years of rebuttal-counter rebuttal charge with General Westmoreland if there had been some kind of right to reply. I believe in the right to reply. Newspapers have it all the time in the op ed page and letters to the editor or wherever. But what becomes most interesting, what is most interesting about this documentary with Accuracy in Media is that the argument that is going on now was on the front page of The New York Times the other day, is the right, the propriety to show this on public broadcasting or a need to show it anyplace at all. Now, this suggest to me that this dominant culture doesn’t really want a thousand ideological flowers to bloom; that it wants one flower to bloom: its own. And I find this a little disturbing. I think that, I’m glad that PBS is showing this. I don’t’ know if it’ll be any good. I shouldn’t judge something in advance. I have an idea of what it will look like, an idea of what it will say. And I think it’ll make a case. I think it should have that right.

Heffner: Mr. Corry, in a sense we end right now just where we began. And I do appreciate your joining me today.

Corry: I appreciate it too. Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”