John Fischer, James Wechsler

Do We Have A Responsible Press

VTR Date: August 4, 1957


Sunday, August 4, 1957
“Do We Have a Responsible Press?”

MODERATOR: Richard D. Heffner
GUESTS: James Wechsler, John Fisher

Announcer: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today: “Do we have a responsible press?” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, author and historian.

Mr. Heffner: Just about anyone who is interested. in and concerned with the history of the United States knows that a free press has played an enormous role in the beginnings and in the development of our tradition, but with all the talk about a free press, and recently there has been a good deal of it, particularly in terms of sending newspaper men to China, in terms of the press and security, with all of this talk there’s comparatively little talk about a responsible press. Possibly the two terms can be intertwined, can be considered synonymous. At any rate our program today is about a free press but primarily about a responsible press.
Now let me turn to my two expert guests. My first guest today is Mr. James Wechsler, who is the Editor of the New York Post. My second guest is Mr. John Fisher the Editor of Harpers Magazine. Well I think that I have quite frequently been criticized for asking a question without definitions, or having a program title without bothering about definitions, so today suppose I ask you, Mr. Wechsler, for a brief and a personal definition of what a responsible press would be before we get to the question of whether we have one.

Mr. Wechsler: It is a hard question and many of us would answer it differently. I remember Sir Wilmot Lewis I think initiating the immortal line about the function of the press being to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, and I must say that on the Post I occasionally wish that we were always faithful to that view.
I think that first of all the responsibility of the press is to keep the public informed as to what’s going on. What each newspaper does depends a little on what city it is publish d in, what its competitors are, what the reader can get in different newspapers. But my broad concern in terms of the question you’ve raised is whether the press is responsible, let us say, to the business interests, which own in my view some 85 to 90 percent of the press, namely conservative Republicans, or whether it has a sense of responsibility to what we in politics call the public interests, whether its first concern is telling the truth about great issues regardless of what political party may be offended; and perhaps we could get into this best by talking about one issue which I think was badly muffed by most of the press. During the last campaign Adlai Stevenson talked about the need for the cessation of atomic tests. In most newspapers it seems to me he was treated as if he were either a fool or a subversive. The campaign ended and now the issue is very much alive, and as I understand it even the President of the United States sees some merit in this proposal. I don’t think the press was very responsible in most places in dealing with this issue in brushing off the proposal and in preventing in a sense a great national debate.
But you can see from my rather long answer that this was a tough question and that the word is a difficult one to deal with.

Mr. Heffner: How would you pick it up, Mr. Fisher?

Mr. Fisher: I think it might be useful to look at, somewhat simpler definition, that the job of a responsible press is to cover the news, And I think it would be fair to say that the American press is probably more responsible in this sense than the press of any other country I know of, but not nearly as responsible as it ought to be for the kind of world we live in. I think that the news coverage in most cities throughout the United States now is pretty bad.

Mr. Heffner: When you say covering the news, Mr. Wechsler, I am under the impression that you are talking about not just covering the news but going deeper and possibly offering editorial opinion. Am I correct in this?

Mr. Wechsler: Well I would say that I think there ought to be a maximum diversity of the press. We ought to have newspapers like the Times which spend the time largely printing the public record.

Mr. Heffner: The news that Mr. Fisher is talking about.

Mr. Wechsler: The news that Mr. Fisher is talking about. But I think there ought to be much more room in America for what I call crusading newspapers that dig in and get into fights, try to expose the stories that aren’t in the handouts. I think that there are some of those papers; I think too many of them happen to be Republican crusaders and that the balance isn’t too equal, but I think all I’m trying to say is that in a free society I think diversity is the most important prerequisite and that is what we missing in terms of viewpoint in the American press.

Mr. Fisher: Mr. Wechsler, Would you agree that we have much less diverse press now than we did fifteen or twenty years and much less a crusading press?

Mr. Wechsler: I think we do and of course, Mr. Fisher, as you know, the story of merger and monopoly is one of the big stories of the American press. There are too many places where there’s only one newspaper in a city.

Mr. Fisher: And where the newspaper also controls the television station and the radio station.

Mr. Heffner: Yes. I’m interested, though, when you say there are too many places where there is only one newspaper, and you add where it also controls the other media, before we went on the air you gentlemen said something about where there is one newspaper this newspaper can be freer to print the news as it sees it, to crusade possibly. Certainly it can be freer not to indulge in sensationalism designed to capture part of the audience away from its competitors.

Mr. Wechsler: Well I think that happens in certain cities, too few of them. I think the trouble is in most of the one-newspaper cities the owner happens to be a conservative Republican who agrees very strongly with his own opinions and that this isn’t reflected in his paper, therefore I tend to think that in the long run the competitive system is the best because other­ wise you’re at the mercy of this one guy.

Mr. Fisher: And in a great many cities, particularly in the Middle West and Far West, the newer parts of the country, you tend to get Chamber of Commerce newspapers that don’t cover the news, never say anything critical about any local situation because it would be bad for the business or reflect on the community. I know in my own home town in Texas, a city of about 75,000, there are two newspapers, a television station and a radio station under common ownership. You will never find in that town anything really penetrating, a penetrating discussion of a local political situation, anything critical that would offend the community sense, that might be bad for business, it might keep new businesses from coming in. I think this is a great pity.

Mr. Heffner: Well this raises the question again of to whom should the press be responsible? Shouldn’t it be responsible to the community and to the community interests?

Mr. Fisher: But not just to one segment of the .community. If it represents only the business community, the advertisers and the proprietor of the paper, who usually is himself a substantial businessman, then a great many people in the community have no voice, no representation at all.

Mr. Wechsler: Mr. Fisher, I think it goes even deeper than that in terms of the situation you’re describing. We’re using the word responsible. I must say that I think perhaps the greatest disease in the American press is the tendency to play it safe, the tendency to avoid issues which will create debate and controversy.
How many newspapers in America, for example, have had any serious discussion of our Far Eastern policy and of all the explosive dangers involved in the present policy of muddling through? I think there are only a handful. I think the issue is regarded as beyond the pale of discussion because somebody may be called a Communist if he suggests that there ought to be any revision.

Mr. Heffner: What do you mean by discussion? You mean presenting the newspaper’s point of view?

Mr. Wechsler: On this point I would say even bringing the issue out into the open, on the editorial page. And when we talk about responsibility I think the primary responsibility is the readiness to debate, to discuss any issue.

Mr. Heffner: But suppose newspapers generally, and the ownership of the newspapers feels that there is an answer to the question of the Far East and this answer is accepted and there• need for further discussion? Isn’t this in a sense doing what you suggest just by —

Mr. Wechsler: Anybody who thinks that everything is settled in the Far East I think is —

Mr. Heffner: This may be but isn’t it true -­

Mr. Fisher: Anybody that believes all the answers are settled in any field probably ought to get out of the newspaper business.

Mr. Heffner: Then possibly you’re suggesting that a goodly percentage of the people who are in the newspaper field should be out?

Mr. Fisher: I think so, yes. I think the quality of people in the newspaper business has gone down markedly.

Mr. Heffner: Why?

Mr. Fisher: In the last lifetime of people here.

Mr. Heffner: Why do you think this is so?

Mr. Fisher: Two reasons I think. One is the newspaper business doesn’t pay enough any longer to get really first class men in the volume it needs. In New York City and some of the other big cities each paper can have its choice of editorial talent but this isn’t true in most of the smaller towns where they’re paying way below scale that other industries pay for comparable talent.
The public relations industry pays three times what the newspaper industry does. Another difficulty I think is that editorial policy of a great many papers is now controlled by the business office instead of the other way round as it you don’t get a very lively editorial mind if it has to be always subordinate to a business operation.

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Wechsler, go ahead.

Mr. Wechsler: Well I was simply going to add to this that I think that the conventional ruts into which journalism has fallen in so many places tend to discourage the kind of young men of independence and vigor who might normally have gone into the newspaper business. There just are not many newspapers now it seepi13 to me where a young man can go to work and feel that he will be more than a routine operative, and I think that this is not conducive to getting the best talent. I think that it’s a sad factor of our life that the alternative for so many seems to be public relations where I’m not sure there’s the maximum margin for initiative, but I think it’s a fact of life.

Mr. Heffner: Well if we pass by this question of what has caused what you gentlemen seem to see, a decline in the quality of the conduct of newspapers, go back again to this question of responsibility to whom. Would you say, Mr. Wechsler, that a news- paper has an obligation to present all sides of a story in its presentation?

Mr. Wechsler: Oh I think a newspaper has a basic obligation to give its readers a sense of what the argument is about. I think again depending upon where you publish you will do things differently. I would say that — speaking subjectively — that New York City where you do have the New York Times which is a pretty complete record in the morning, the responsibility of an editor, particularly of one whose competition is largely Republican, varies from that which would obtain in a different city where you might be only one or two newspapers, et cetera.
I think the basic law of life is that an editor must never permit what he knows to be a falsehood to appear in his news – paper for partisan or any other reasons. I think that he must try to recognize also his own fallibility even when he feels pretty strongly that he’s right.
But you can’t, let’s say, in a tabloid-size newspaper, attempt to print the speeches of all the candidates as you can in an eight-column newspaper; so that on a technical level your question raises many problems.
Again speaking subjectively I find that it’s certainly true that the columnists whom we print tend to be of what I would call a liberal viewpoint. I would defend that on the ground that in New York City readers who want to get the Republican side have plenty of choices and plenty of alternatives; but that would not be my view, as I said, in a city where I was the only newspaper. There I would certainly feel obliged to run what would be almost a battle page every day; and let me say, Mr. Heffner, that that’s I think one of our troubles. There are too many cities where that battle page consists of Republicans arguing with each other.

Mr. Heffner: Do you have a battle page?

Mr. Wechsler: No; I say I don’t believe in New York City where the reader can find in any number of newspapers view­ points ranging from David Lawrence to George Sokolsky that with the limited newsprint we’ve got that I have a moral obligation to do that. I would feel if I were in a one or two newspaper town —

Mr. Heffner: I’m just a little bit confused by this point because I wonder whether you can assume that people who read your newspaper are also going to read newspapers that present the other point of view?

Mr. Wechsler: Let me say I think I can assume that in the present condition of journalism in New York that most people buy more than one newspaper and if they buy more than one the odds are overwhelming that they will be exposed to the Republican viewpoint.

Mr. Heffner: All right, that’s a fair enough statement of the point of view on that. I would like to come back to a question that has plagued me a great deal in thinking about this program. That’s the question of sensationalism and the press. Mr. Fisher, do you feel that the charges that have been made about an overabundance of sensationalism in the American Press, that these are well-founded?

Mr. Fisher: No. I’m a little puzzled why it more sensational than it is. As compared with the British for example, we have a very conservative one in this country, or as compared to what it was when I went into the newspaper business a good many years ago. I thought at that time, rather sadly, newspapermen did, that sensationalism was the way to that the kind of sensational story that dominated the Hearst press and a good many other ones would drive out the more sober, responsible kind of reporting. It seems to me that that has not happened, that in many places the papers that give a more conservative treatment of the news regardless of their political position, but their technically conservative treatment, have been the papers that have thrived. I’m not just talking about the New York Times but the Kansas City Star, Baltimore Sun, Washington Star, St. Louis Post- Dispatch, Daily News in Chicago, quite a long list of them. I know Mr. Wechsler doesn’t agree with me on this. I think it’s a fine thing that we have such diversity as there is and I think that a Mirror or a Post or a Daily News are very useful things to have in a city like New York.

Mr. Wechsler: I’m not sure my competitors would welcome the analogy.

Mr. Heffner: Do you?

Mr. Wechsler: Well I’d like to just talk for a minute on what Mr. Fisher said, and I’m certainly not going to give any rip-roaring defense of the News and the Mirror; but on the general word sensationalism I have some reservations about the view when you take the position that this is by definition deplorable. We live in an age in which I think perhaps the most memorable book will prove to be the Kinsey Report. I would argue that the so-called tabloid newspaper may give perhaps a closer approximation of what the truth about American life was in the year 1957 than does the New York Times, which essentially takes the view that sex and crime may go on but should not be matters of extensive record. I think that the deeper point is that most people live rather gray, drab lives, that newspapers have not only a function to inform but they have a function to entertain. This is not to me a bad word; it seems to me to be part of what our business is about. I don’t view it with alarm. So that when we get to the word sensationalism I really want to know much more of what we’re talking about. I think that there is in New York City, for example, at the present time a good deal of concern about teen-age violence. There have been three kids killed in the past week. I don’t want to exaggerate the dimensions of this problem but I think that when the Times puts that story, as it did just the other day, on the shipping page, that this isn’t a very accurate mirror of the problems of life in New York. I’m glad to see I think the story moved up to page one yesterday; but is that sensationalism? Well maybe it is but it’s also perhaps a crucial fact of life in the summer of ’57 in New York.

Mr. Heffner: But if you were to look at the week-end Post how good a reflection of world and national life is the headline today? Which doesn’t have to do with world affairs but has to do with another shooting; and I suppose this could be multiplied, repeated again and again. This isn’t by way of criticism. It’s by way of just asking; if one were to follow your editorials, for instance, Mr. Wechsler, in the Post — and I do, and I think they’re great — I get the sense that you urge quite frequently a rising or raising in or of public standards, standards of morality and understanding.
Does the Post, does any paper have a responsibility other than on its editorial page to help raise those standards, and does an emphasis upon sensationalism contribute to this?

Mr. Wechsler: Well you’re talking about a headline which described the latest murder in New York.

Mr. Heffner: Right.

Mr. Wechsler: I would raise the question as to whether that story was not of greatest interest to multitudes of people this weekend than the rather paucity of foreign/national news that existed at the moment; and again I would say that I don’t think these are competitive ideas. I don’t think you have to say that, a newspaper is not serving its function if it happens to be concerned on its page one with a story that people in many neighbor-, hoods are talking about most at this moment.
I don’t think we would substantially raise the standards of the community or reduce the amount of crime if we had a page one headline this weekend about some complicated international conference.

Mr. Heffner: There are psychologists and psychiatrists who disagree with that, certainly, who feel that playing up violence has led to further acts of violence.

Mr. Wechsler: Well I know that there are those who feel that writing about sex encourages it, but I think that’s an arguable proposition. I think it was here before the page one headlines on it. Mr. Fisher, I’ve been talking too much.

Mr. Fisher: No; I sometimes wish that New York newspapers would be sensational about a wider range of subject matter than simply crime or sex. I think there are a great many stories of comparable interest to most of the people in New York that hardly get touched. One of them is the sad plight of the commuter railroads in New York City, both the New Haven and the New York Central which serve millions of people going in and out of New York every day, are going downhill steadily and are apparently getting more and more dangerous. One time we had four wrecks in a week on the New York Central. Fortunately nobody was killed, but it’s only a matter of time I assume until somebody does get killed if the maintenance continues to go downhill. The New York press has raised very little attention to what seems to me a basic problem of community services.

Mr. Wechsler: Mr. Fisher, I think that’s arguable. I’m not arguing that we have cured the disease, as anyone who rides those railroads knows, but indeed I do feel as an editor a sense of frustration about it. I think as an editor we keep repeating the same story.

Mr. Fisher: Has anybody gone out and tried to find out how much money the New York Central has cut down on its maintenance costs since Robert R. Young took the road over?

Mr. Heffner: Do you really think we ought to — I don’t care — if you feel this is quite pertinent to our issue.

Mr. Fisher: It probably isn’t. I’m just mentioning this as one kind of story that I think doesn’t get covered.

Mr. Wechsler: Well if you’re right then we were at fault, but I don’t see that there’s a fundamental conflict between covering that story and covering the slums of New York, the crime of New York, and the emotional disturbance.

Mr. Fisher: Crime is easier because there is a given pattern there. You have established beats. Reporters go to police courts and hospitals every day. This comes off the belt line in a well-established routine. Some stories that are out of the given pattern of the newspaper story.

Mr. Wechsler: Well if you’re saying there are stories we don’t get that we should you couldn’t be more right.

Mr. Heffner: I just wonder though about this answer to the question about the railroad. You say you feel frustrated sometimes, it’s like repeating the same story over and over again. But aren’t you repeating the same story over and over again with the crime stories and the scandals?

Mr. Wechsler: Well there is at least something new every day as distinct from a tieup which does follow a certain set pattern. But I was being almost facetious about that. I just mean that we have not been able to get to the bottom of this story and we write editorials saying it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad but the truth of the matter is that we apparently don’t know enough about running railroads to get the story.

Mr. Heffner: Well let me go into another question that’s very much in my mind that has to do with privacy. Someday I’d like to do a whole series of programs on the press in politics and the press in our courts and the press in privacy. What about the intrusions on privacy of the press? Is it the responsibility of the press looking for news — and you make this your prime definition — to delve so into the lives of individuals that their privacy is violated, looking for news? What do you think, Mr. Wechsler?

Mr. Wechsler: Well I think that we start on the assumption that most of the people we write about employ large numbers of press agents in order to get their names in the papers. of getting their names in the paper is that the coverage ought to be a little more two dimensional than the press agents would like. But I do think that it’s perfectly clear that anyone who is willing to endure the hazards of politics or Hollywood is accepting the notion that they’re going to be big public figures and they’re going to be written about, and I think the problem is to write about them with intelligence and perception. I can’t regard them as private figures. Let me add that I do not think this means that one ought to try to be vindictive or vulgar about it, but these are people to whom publicity of the press is a major fact of their own lives and I think the alternative is presenting them as very simple, heroic characters or trying to write about them in more than one-dimension.

Mr. Heffner: Well I wonder as a magazine editor, Mr. Fisher — and I admit getting just a little bit off, far afield there, going to the periodicals, how do you feel about this question of privacy?

Mr. Fisher: I think that very few people who want their privacy protected have much difficulty protecting it. Most published material is about public characters who as Mr. Wechsler says are inviting public observation and scrutiny. Now and then something terrible happens, a murder that upsets a whole family and brings in public scrutiny to a very uncomfortable extent; but this doesn’t happen very often.
I think that occasionally innocent people are damaged; youngsters are hurt in a nasty divorce suit, for example. But most of the people who complain about their violation of privacy are simply complaining they don’t get the kind of publicity they like.

Mr. Heffner: Both of you gentlemen would stand on that. You’re not much concerned—

Mr. Wechsler: Well I don’t mean there haven’t been sins committed. I’m saying only that the basic point is that these are people who have invited public scrutiny in large measure and that when the tragedy occurs I think it’s almost inevitable that that would be part of the story.

Mr. Fisher: And we have a series of decisions in American common law that give a very considerable degree of protection to anyone who feels his privacy has been violated. The courts have been extending the protection given to privacy against the press pretty sharply in the last five or ten years.

Mr. Heffner: What about the courts? One of the interesting issues at large in New York City some months ago was the question of the New York Post’s concern for getting records of a certain trial, certain judge’s charge to a jury I believe. What about the whole charge that’s been made very frequently that we try our cases in the press now, and this is the responsibility one would assume then of not just the prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys but of the newspaper men and the editors who publish the material.

Mr. Wechsler: I think this is a very tough problem. I think it boils down to the question of whether more innocent people are helped by the fact that newspapers scrutinize the courts than are damaged by the fact of newspaper publicity. I have some real reservations in parts of this area. I am very troubled by newspaper attempts, for example, to find out how jurors voted. This has been done; I trust that we have not been very guilty of it. But this would be one point of it.

On the other hand I recognize that the more secrecy you apply to the general operation of the courts it seems to me the greater hazard is involved in terms of an innocent man being pushed around. I think this is a very long and complicated area.

Mr. Fisher: The British, as you know, go to the other extreme. They make it almost impossible to report a case that is under adjudication. I think it would be very hard to prove that British life is any better for this kind of veil drawn over the operations of the court.

Mr. Heffner: It’s interesting to note that the British press, which I think you indicated before in talking about the European press, is so more highly sensationalistic than our press is, and they still are required to a considerable extent to stay away from the reporting of trials in progress. But you think, Mr. Wechsler, that the balance is on the side of doing more good than harm generally?
Mr. Wechsler: I come from a family of lawyers so I say this with some hesitancy because I think most of them feel that the press is a source of total evil in this field, but I think it 1 s. at least arguable that part of the business of newspaper publicity­ on pending cases may give an innocent man a chance to get a break, that he mightn’t have gotten otherwise.
We certainly have had a lot of experience with so-called wrong men cases in New York in the last few months where the district attorneys would have liked nothing better than to have the case kept very secret and I think we did succeed in being some help in those cases; but I recognize the risks on the other side and particularly of the pressures on juries. I’m very concerned about what the press has done in terms of invasion of the privacy of the jury room.

Mr. Heffner: You say pressure on juries. You mean after the trial or during and before?

Mr. Wechsler: Yes, I think that a juror sitting in a jury room should not feel that two days after he has cast his vote his identity will be revealed in the newspaper. I think that disrupts the jury system.

Mr. Heffner: Well this identity can be revealed another juror and that’s why he hasn’t got full control over himself. But what about the pressure on the jury before the case goes to trial or during the time that the case is being argued by the presses continually playing up aspects one or another of case?

Mr. Wechsler: I think that’s a problem; but there I’m only saying that it may work both ways. In other words, it may even up in the end.

Mr. Fisher: Isn’t the court just a special case of a much more general problem, which is reporting of public affairs? The court is just one public institution. It seems to me that our public institutions tend to be healthiest when they are subject to the most careful, constant, pitiless scrutiny by all branches of the press, and once the press gets to be too discreet you’re going to have corruption, maladministration, carelessness, sloppy administration, and I think one of the great dangers in American life is that too many areas of public administration are not adequately reported. Too many things are — school board minutes, for example are kept away from the press.

Mr. Heffner: Do you think there is too much danger that the press will be too discreet?

Mr. Fisher: Yes. I think frequently in one newspaper towns when there’s a close community of interest between the publisher, the businessman, and the local politicians you get very little examination of what’s going on in the public business.

Mr. Heffner: I think that’s just about all the time we have today. Thank you, Mr. Wechsler and Mr. Fisher.