READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
THE OPEN MIND
August 11, 1957
Can We Unlearn Prejudice?
Moderator: Richard Heffner
Guests: Gilbert Seldes, Forrest Seymour and Louis Lyons
Announcer: THE OPEN MIND — questioning, analyzing, seeking. Our subject today is the State of the Press. Your host is Richard D. Heffner, author, historian, and program manager of the Metropolitan Educational Television Association of New York, Mr. Heffner.
Mr. Heffner: Last week on the Open Mind, we discussed the question of “Do we here in the United States have a responsible press.” Mr. Wechsler, Editor of the N.Y. Post, and Mr. Fisher, Editor of Harper’s Magazine, were my guests. We raised a lot of questions (we didn’t go into any of them too far) questions that we should raise again today in any discussion of the Press and. of news gathering.
Today we are going to program for an hour, and. one of my guests, Mr. Gilbert Seldes, the distinguished critic and author – author of the Seven Lively Arts and the recently published Public Arts, will wait aside for about 25 minutes or a half hour and listen critically to what we have to say, and. join us later on.
Suppose I introduce now the guests who will begin with me on this discussion of the press. My first guest here is Mr. Forrest Seymour, the Editor of the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, and my second guest joining me right now is Mr. Louis Lyons, the Curator of the Neiman Fellowships at Harvard, and WGBH’s Commentator.
Gentlemen, suppose v1e begin in the way that I tried to begin the Open Mind last week, by commenting that quite frequently, discussing a subject like this, I am criticized because I don’t bring up the question of definitions. In asking last week whether we had a responsible press or in discussing the press this week, I suppose I ought to return by asking you first, Mr. Seymour, what your own personal description of a responsible press be.
Mr. Seymour: Well, I have never agreed with the critics of the press who think always in terms of editorial opinion when they talk about the responsibility of the Press. My own feeling is that the Press’ primary responsibility is to be an honest chronicle of the day’s events for the people who are its subscribers. I am talking about the daily newspaper now. This I would think would be a complete record of the affairs in their own community, in their own state, and ideally a complete record of events all over the world in that particular 24 hours. I know that in many of the smaller papers we don’t always get a complete record of all world events, but I think that the smaller the newspaper, the more its responsibility is to be an honest chronicle of its own community.
In my own judgment the editorial function is a secondary one. It comes after that. I don’t see how a newspaper could possibly be a responsible newspaper merely because its editorial page was sound in somebody’s eyes, if it was not doing a good job of recording the day’s news, day after day. Wouldn’t you agree with that, Louie?
Mr. Lyons: Yes, I would. It seems to me that’s an excellent definition.
I think of responsibility of a newspaper as having a sense of the reader as a client, and serving the reader through their commodity, which is news, information, seeing that their reader knows what is going on, that he can keep up with the score, and that the reader will feel that this newspaper is publishing for his information, and not for any other purpose. That’s what the job is. It seems to me, then, that the question becomes largely one of performance, of how good is the job done. And because a newspaper is so indispensable an institution, its performance is terribly important to everybody in the community.
Mr. Heffner: You say we then turn to the question of performance. How would you evaluate generally the performance of the American Press, in terms of the definition you gentlemen agree on?
Mr. Seymour: Well, I think some newspapers are responsible and some aren’t, and that we have a great many responsible newspapers. I think some of the essential elements to a responsible newspaper are, first, independence. Independence of control, and then independence of the attitude of the people who are providing the content. And then of course, you want capacity to get informed reporting. Those are certainly among the basic elements.
Mr. Lyons: Let me elaborate a little if I may. The question of responsibility in reporting the day’s news. It is true that there are pressures on the smaller newspapers particularly, not to publish certain events in the local community. I mean the smaller the town, the more nearly the editor and the operators of the newspaper are a part of the community and they are asked for favors, and they are pushed around here and there–or the attempt is made to push them around–to prevent a complete record of the events of the day.
My own judgment is that newspapers generally do a very good job of resisting this pressure. I think people, when they talk about the responsibility of the press, are always thinking in terms of the New York Times, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or something or other. But the fact is that there are 1500 afternoon daily newspapers in this country. Fifteen hundred. And 300 morning newspapers.
These newspapers that pub1tsh the mi11ions of newspapers every day are not 1n the biggest cities by any means; they are in all kinds of cities_ down to the very smallest. I read a good many of them, and I am talking about 1ittle daily newspapers now, five to ten thousand, perhaps. And yet I have the feeling that all things considered they do a pretty good job of telling the people in their community what’s going on in their city government, what’s going on in their schools, what’s going on in their county and their state governments.
Mr. Heffner: Well, what about this business of independence? Last week, when we were dealing with two men stationed in New York, and one the editor of a New York paper, there was more concern for editorial comment. If I remember correctly, Mr. Wechsler seemed to feel that it was important to judge the editorial attitude of a paper, and not only was he concerned with whether the newspapers generally covered the news, but what orientation, what policy, did they take. And if you are to be independent (Mr. Lyons uses this as a criterion) I don’t quite understand how you can be independent of a political point of view, or independent of some orientation. Can a single newspaper just divorce itself from an orientation towards politics, let’s say.
Mr. Lyons: I don’t know that it can, or should, divorce itself, Mr. Heffner. I think that point of view is inevitable wherever there is any mind at work. You wouldn’t want to eliminate it.
But I think that the element of objectivity, which is the discipline of journalism, and which newspapermen properly claim so much, should develop a sufficient independence of any outside political point of view, so that the reader can feel that what is published runs with the facts, and that the opinion is generated within the office by men who are concerned with the facts. As an institution the people see every day I think they are very well fixed to discount any point of view that they may not happen to agree with, just as you discount the point of view of your friends and neighbors, and yet accept the fact that these are honest points of view. I think that the point of view doesn’t necessarily prevent their being independent and a factual handling of the day’s affairs.
Mr. Seymour: Now, Mr. Lyons, aren’t you two talking about independence in political opinion, that is in evidence on the editorial page?
Mr. Lyons: That’s right.
Mr. Seymour: Now the thing that bothers me frequently about such criticism as I understand Mr. Wechsler made last week about the Press in general, is that they think in terms of the Republicanism of the newspaper, or the Democratic character of its editorial page, as influencing the whole newspaper. Now, this may be true in some cases, but in the great bulk of the American Press I believe the political character of the newspaper (that is, of its editorial opinions) does not importantly affect the objectivity of its daily news report. I don’t find this in the newspapers that I read around New England hers. It seems to me that the professional staff of daily newspapers these days understands these distinctions, and tries to do a completely objective job of reporting its news without being influenced by the politics of the situation.
Let’s take the City Hall reporter and people of that sort. So far as I know, they are not really greatly influenced by the newspaper’s partisan stand on its editorial page; they are doing a job every day telling the people how much money has been appropriated, and what’s going to happen to the tax rate, and where the new schools are going to build, and this sort of thing. And these things aren’t greatly influenced by politics.
Mr. Heffner: Do you think that maybe we are talking about the difference between newspapers in large cities and newspapers in small cities, small towns, where there may be just one paper or two papers? I had the definite feeling last week that Mr. Wechsler was saying, for instance, that in a large city with many papers you could, by reading several of them, no matter what their points of view, put them together and get some semblance of what was going on, but that each paper had more or less an obligation to crusade along its particular lines.
Where in a small town, with one newspaper or two newspapers, the obligation may be greater or heavier to present a more balanced point of view.
Mr. Seymour: I think that’s a misconception, and I think it’s doing an injustice to the American Press generally. I’m talking about the hundreds of newspapers that are being published. I just don’t believe that their news content is influenced by the politics of the publishers in the way that this implies. I just don’t believe this. I don’t think it’s a fact.
Mr. Lyons: Well, for one thing, it’s a misconception to think of only the small town as being limited to one newspaper. It’s only the few metropolitan centers that now have more than one newspaper, or one newspaper ownership. So that it’s only in very few places that an editor can enjoy the luxury that Mr. Wechsler claims, of crusading for one side, knowing that somebody else is going to take up the other side. You don’t find that very much.
But as to the coverage of City Hall, and the School Committee and so on that Mr. Seymour is talking about, insofar as this is done as effectively as he described it, it seems to me that that does indeed describe a responsible handling of public affairs.
I think that the reader has a right to set some standards to this, and that he doesn’t always get as complete performance as Mr. Seymour wants him to, and says he does in some places. It seems to me that when a civil rights bill is passed, or when a jury trial amendment is passed, that the leader has a right to know how his senator voted; and indeed how all the senators voted. It only takes about that much space, a few inches, to get the whole roll call. If a school aid bill fails, as one did a little while ago it seems to me the reader has a right to know how his congressman voted.
I was disturbed that I couldn’t find out, in the newspaper that most of my neighbors take, how my own congressman voted on that, and when I found out I was more disturbed, because of the way he voted. I think that that’s a function, and a very essential function, of a newspaper, and that people are entitled to know what went on in the School Committee last night – not just that there happened to be a fight; that was colorful and made a headline.
Now it seems to me that in some newspapers you do expect to find out what went on in the School Committee, what went on in City Hall, as you say – and in others you hardly expect to unless it’s a piquant situation} a fight or something spectacular, and that that is the difference between responsible and irresponsible handling of the news.
Mr. Seymour: Well, I couldn’t agree with Mr. Lyons more about the importance of reporting fully the Congressional news, for example, and so on, but so far as there being only one newspaper in most of the smaller towns in the United States is concerned, I went into the business a very competitive situation as a young man, where we had three afternoon newspapers, and I can testify that when the economic forces finally crowded two of them out and there became one afternoon newspaper instead of three, that it was a very much more responsible newspaper, both from the standpoint of its coverage of the news and its policies, than any one of the three had ever been when they were trying to cut each other’s throats in order to stay on the street every day.
So the responsibility actually was increased in many of these situations by first, the economic security of the newspaper when it became one, and second, just by the natural feeling on the part of the owners and publishers that after all they did have an enormous new responsibility they had never had before, to report all sides of every question.
Mr. Lyons: I am sure that is a real factor and that a good deal of that has happened. When you get a good newspaper management – certainly when they have it all to themselves – they can put the news in perspective and proportion to meet their own standards. They don’t have to worry about that yellow rag across the street.
Mr. Seymour: There may be exceptions to this, I can see.
Mr. Lyons: And I am sure that in such cities you do get, usually, the more important news displayed more prominently. As I say, you don’t have to worry about some competitor who may not have any standards, you feel, and will just yellow it up. It certainly is a new opportunity, as you say, for the newspaper to dispense with the sensationalism that comes, certainly, with over-competition.
Mr. Seymour: Now, can I say one thing more about responsibility? In many cases – let’s take the town that has one newspaper, and it’s a Republican newspaper, A great many people say this an irresponsible newspaper because its editorial page is Republican in character and stands for the Republican candidates and defends the Republican point of view about things in Congress and so on. I don’t feel that this is irresponsibility; I feel that this is responsibility. If the publisher of the newspaper wants to espouse the Republican point of view I think this is in the tradition of the American Press. He has a perfect right to if he wants to. But he ought to do it fairly. But he has a right to stand for what he considers principle.
Mr. Heffner: In its editorializing, is the paper responsible to its publisher, then?
Mr. Seymour: Whether you like this or not, the newspapers are owned, they are private institutions. And what is the alternative of this? The alternative would be a government press or something like that, which most of us would like even less than we like private enterprise where the owner of the property is in some sense a controller of what its political position is going to be.
Mr. Lyons: This is quite true; I am sure, Mr. Seymour. I am sure that a politically controlled press would have many more —
Mr. Heffner: Is that the alternative?
Mr. Seymour: Well, I don’t believe it is any more than Mr. Seymour thinks it’s an alternative, but he’s quite right, certainly, in saying that any newspaper publisher has a right to be a Republican, or Democrat, or what he likes.
It is, however, an unfortunate situation in a democratic society, if they all happen to turn up on one side, Then you don’t get a forum, do you? And you don’t get the great debate that Walt Lippman has talked about in some of his books. If they are all on one side, or if there is only one paper, one morning and one evening in the same shop, you don’t get the debate anyway, unless it’s induced, I think rather artificially; by running a row of columnists in your shop window who may take various points of view, which isn’t it seems to me, quite the same thing as a newspaper —
Mr. Seymour: My answer to that, Mr. Lyons, is that in the first place I doubt very much that the great bulk of the American people acquire their political positions from the editorial pages of newspapers. They acquire them from reading what the candidates have to say, and they acquire them from reading the record of the two parties in Congress and so on. Now, if the newspaper is doing an honest job of reporting daily what has transpired in Congress and in the State Legislature and so on, then in my judgment it has given them a fair opportunity to make their political affiliations without —
Mr. Lyons: I quite agree.
Mr. Heffner: You agree. But I ask this question: Do you feel that – Do I summarize correctly? You are saying that the newspaper is responsible if it prints as much news as it can, if it prints that news fairly, and it is then entitled to take an editorial position. This is a responsible newspaper.
Mr. Seymour: I think so.
Mr. Heffner: All right, then you agree. But the next question is: would this be a fair description of most of our Press?
Mr. Seymour: Well, I’m a partisan here, and obviously I am defending it. I didn1 t expect Mr. Lyons to turn out to be quite the antagonist that he is, but I will accept that. I think that in general the Press is doing a responsible job in the terms that I have defined here. In the first place, more and more newspapers everywhere now are printing, for instance, political columnists who disagree with each other. Sort of the old New York News Battle Page type of thing of 20 years ago, you know? They will deliberately select Washington commentators at the opposite political poles. Nearly all newspapers in the country nowadays have the letters-to-the-editor type of thing which Mr. Lyons has just characterized as being rather artificial, but nevertheless it gives a lot of —
Mr. Lyons: I was speaking of columnists, not of –
Mr. Seymour: Oh, I’m sorry. It gives a lot of vocal people in the community who disagree with the newspaper’s editorial points of view a chance to express themselves, and some of them do it rather effectively, I must say, and embarrassingly well at times.
Mr. Heffner: Well, within the context of your general answer would you make any changes. Would you like to see changes in the Press, or are you satisfied with the degree of responsibility?
Mr. Seymour: Certainly I would like to see some changes in the Press. I would like to see all editors and all newspaper reporters, and all publishers brilliant and well informed and so on, so that there would be no evidences of the picayune or the ill informed or anything else in the newspapers, but I think this is asking a good deal.
Mr. Heffner: But you’re generally happy about the situation?
Mr. Seymour: I’m generally quite happy about it.
Mr. Heffner: Mr. Lyons? How do you evaluate it?
Mr. Lyons: Some days I’m happy about it and some days I’m not. That of course is the way we feel about a good many institutions, and I wouldn’t want to single out the newspaper as an institution and subject it to sharper criticism than any other. But we feel this way about education, we feel this way about all sorts of things; the newspaper does have one problem that education and government don’t have, besides the problems of ignorance and political pressure. It has also commercial pressure; it’s a business institution and it depends on commerce, on its advertising, as the school system doesn’t do. That’s a factor that has to be dealt with; the publisher himself is a businessman, his associates are businessmen, and it seems to me that the real problem is not so much of one party or another so much as it is the dominance of downtown, the business community, and the difficulty of such an institution in representing the rest of us adequately – the farmer the teacher, labor, the people who are not the downtown corps of the business community.
It just happens that one party has traditionally in our time represented that community more than the other, and I think that accounts for what we hear so much about, the one-party Press. But I would agree with Mr. Seymour that in good newspapers, that does not affect the news columns. But of course there never are enough good newspapers or good anything. Now I trust Mr. Seymour has seen a little book published by one of our colleagues here in Boston, Ted Rouse, called Slanted News, which is an analysis of 35 of the biggest newspapers in the country and their performance in the clutch in the 1952 campaign. Now the clutch came in October – he picked two incidents, one of them was the disclosure of the Nixon Fund. The question is: How did they handle it? Well, some newspapers handled it as straight news. It was right on the front page right off. The reader got the full impact of that. Some other newspapers waited a couple of days, and obviously waiting to see how the cat was going to jump, or how the Republican party was going to handle the issue; you remember the question of how the President was going to handle Mr. Nixon. And then about the third day some of them same in when they had a prepared answer. Well you could, I think, distinguish between those two kinds of papers, the ones that took it straight, and let the chips fall where they may, and the ones that waited until they got the word from somewhere, certainly, and put it on page 23 the first day, and then two or three days later, when they had the Nixon answer, they really gave it the full treatment.
Well, that kind of thing, I think, Mr. Seymour is the kind of thing that people have a right to be aware of, that you hope readers will become sophisticated about and be discriminating in selecting their newspaper. Wouldn’t you say so?
Mr. Seymour: Well, I’m sure there have been such sins as you’re talking about, and probably will continue to be. I must say that I think you made my point right at the conclusion of those remarks, however, when you said that the people are getting so sophisticated that they detect these things. I don’t think that the American people are gravely mislead by most of these failures of the press; as a matter of fact, they are usually the first to point them out to the press itself, and I doubt very much whether the social nature of our nation is distorted in any way by some of these temporary failures on the part of the press.
Mr. Lyons: Well, I think I would agree with that, being optimistic by nature myself, and there is this to be said about it; the newspaper by its nature spreads all its sins of commission or omission before all its readers every morning and every afternoon. There they are; if you’re a discriminating enough reader at least you can check. Or at least if there’s another newspaper around to check against, or perhaps broadcasting, or some other check, that to be sure is good. These can’t be concealed, these omissions. On the other hand, Mr. Seymour, I think we have to deal with the fact that the newspaper is itself, and by its nature, a factor in its element, a critic of almost everything else. But nobody criticizes the newspaper. The old question, I think Mr. Lippman raises, who’s to police the policeman, who’s to criticize the critic? Well that would justify the sort of criticism that may be going on here or in a few other places, but not very much. I think that’s one of the real difficulties about the Press as an institution, that it’s awfully hard to get critical analysis of the Press, that’s available to most people, except in an occasional book, as I mentioned.
Mr. Heffner: You say “criticism that’s going on here today.” But as a matter of fact I’m under the distinct impression from talking to a good many newspapermen and having newspapermen on the air, that there is no institution that’s more sacred, not even mother or home, in the country, than the press, and I wonder why.
Mr. Seymour: Sacred to whom?
Mr. Heffner: Sacred to the men who come on the air and talk about the drawbacks on the press. Why the press more than any other institution, and no one seems to be very reluctant to attack television.
Mr. Seymour: Do you mean that the newspapermen themselves resent criticism of their institution.
Mr. Heffner: In public I have very seldom found this kind of criticism.
Mr. Lyons: Well, I hope I haven’t sounded that way today, because —
Mr. Seymour: As far as I’m concerned I am in favor of the maximum examination of the press and criticism of the press by everybody in general. We, I think, encourage it as a matter of fact in our own community, because we want this sort of help, and so on.
Mr. Heffner: Well one thing is certain, you newspapers encourage criticism of other media and I think we are talking about news coverage, we’re talking about the role of the press, and I think we want to get on today to the question, too, of another media –
Mr. Lyons: What I was saying, Mr. Heffner, and I tried to state it at the beginning is that it is because the newspaper in its function if so indispensable an institution. We need to be informed, we have to know the score, and so on, that it’s performance is properly subject to criticism and, as I was saying a minute ago, within the press itself you get criticism of all other institutions, but naturally enough not of itself. Now you mentioned television, I’d be the first to say that television is certainly far more susceptive to criticism at the present moment than the press, and I hope Mr. Seldes when he comes on will go into that. But from what I know as a broadcaster I get out of the newspapers or out of the news agencies that’s the only place you can get —
Mr. Heffner: Well, suppose we ask Mr. Seldes to join us now since we’ve brought up the question of television. Mr. Seldes, you’ve sat patiently by a little bit like waiting to begin the Greek chorus —
Mr. Seldes: I had a very good time; I don’t know why you disturbed me. It’s very interesting to listen to you, and I think I’d better start right where Mr. Lyons ended. He said the press is so indispensable.
I don’t know that it is so indispensable, whether we, by being here, are just putting more force behind the opposition to you. I’m not threatening the extinction of the press.
Mr. Lyons: It’s being extinguished in Boston right now. You’ll find out how indispensable it is if you can’t get —
Mr. Seldes: Yes, but look: you’ve been talking about the press professionally, and my profession deals with audiences, chiefly. And it seems to me that you don’t know at this time what I think we used to know 50 years ago why do people read papers? They read different papers for different reasons. Are they reading papers for the news? Are they reading them for the features? Are they reading them because the only way they can get the features is by taking the same paper that has a sensational headline at the top. And it also strikes me that we know this: that a great many people get all of their news from radio and television. But almost everybody gets some of the news from radio and television. And the latest figures that anyone is troubled about is: do they believe what they read as much as do they believe what they hear? And the answer is they don’t. They don’t believe what they read in the newspapers to the extent that they believe what they hear on the air. The assumption has always been that the air is impartial; in fact, we have often thought on the air that it’s too darn neutral to be any good. But after all, your newspaper, with its prejudices — not only political — you talked a great deal about the political prejudice; it may show through and as you know in some papers it does; it strikes me the most important thing is that newspapers are liable to represent the general social influence; that means the business you talked about, Mr. Lyons; but also the general morality of the community. And gradually your newspaper becomes as strong a force as broadcasting is for impressing conformity on people. Now where are you going to get real mavericks? Where are you going to get r al eccentrics in the press, or in the portion of the press that broadcasting has taken over? I think that that’s where my interest lies — in knowing what people are getting out of their newspapers and out of broadcasting. Why they listen and why they read. And then to discover whether there is any possibility that a press can be responsible in the sense of being genuinely independent; unless I’m being somewhat pessimistic about that.
Mr. Lyons: Well, would you carry your pessimism a little further, as to whether anybody in any institution can be genuinely independent, in that sense, as a schoolteacher, as a politician — I mean, he is always having to deal with other people and with how far they’ll go along with him and tolerate him and elect him or appoint him, aren’t they —
Mr. Seldes: Yes, but Mr. Lyons, you yourself said that the responsibilities are different, if not greater one from the other. No, a schoolteacher cannot be totally independent, but a certain amount of independence can be fought for. Now the press, I think has less obligation at the moment to independence of mind, not that it ever had, it just has less than certain other institutions. A college has an obligation to encourage a certain independence of mind. I don’t think that there1 s any influence on the press except a small number of readers that would say: You have not been independent enough; you haven’t shown enough courage; you haven’t shown enough thought, or anything of the sort. I think your readers are becoming indifferent to the press as a conveyer of news and as a conveyor of opinion.
Mr. Seymour: Well, this may be true. I don’t know for sure just what people are reading, but I must say that there are a million new newspaper readers every year, I mean for the last three or four years, the figure has gone from 55 million to 56 to 57 million, and so on. And I doubt very much if these people are just opening the paper in order to read comic strips or ta latest serial story o something of the sort. The headlines –
Mr. Seldes: The headlines they have to read. But it seems to me my impression is not a scientific survey — that you go into a subway in New York, or in a bus here in New England, and people are reading the sports pages. As I am totally indifferent to all sports coverage I find that a little bit shocking.
Mr. Seymour: That’s part of the news, of course.
Mr. Lyons: That isn’t one of the sins of the press or public — not to be interested in sports. I think a good deal could be said about sports, and the amount of space given to them. You might well say it was disproportionate to that given to public affairs; certainly the reporting on the sports pages, I would think, Mr. Seymour, is about the most effective reporting we have. You may say that people don’t trust what they read Mr. Seldes, but certainly they trust the score of the baseball game.
Mr. Seldes: They do trust that, yes.
Mr. Lyons: And they know enough about baseball and tennis. You can’t fool them very much. They’re devoted readers. I think there’s certainly no harm in a newspaper having certain continuity features, and I would say the sports page was one, you have to get the paper either to find out about the weather, or how the Red Sox came out, or what Lil Abner’s doing today; well all of those things have run together to make a habit of reading which it seems to me is the greatest asset our publishers have; it’s as much a habit as smoking a cigarette almost. It seems to me it gives the press a great opportunity, within this habit, to feed people what they ought to know and need to know about their own times.
Mr. Heffner: May I ask this question? You make the point about sports and comics; what about some of the other, what I would consider the less desirable aspects of the formation of that habit, that is sensationalism. Last week I think it was Mr. Fischer who said that when he entered the journalism field sensationalism was much more rampant that it is today.
Mr. Lyons: He certainly sa1d that the press abroad is more sensational than ours. We all concede that.
Mr. Heffner: Of course there are all sorts of definitions of sensationalism; it’s like trying to define responsibility. Mr. Seymour has pointed out that you get less and less competition; that is, more and more cities where there is only one newspaper, that the competitive element eliminates a lot of sensationalism; it can and as a consequence it doe to a considerable extent, and there’s another factor I meant to ask you about, Mr. Seymour, because you were out in Des Moines before you were in Worchester, and in that city, and I believe in many others, newspapers are largely home-delivered, and there the sensational headline isn’t at all the factor it is on a street sale, I take it.
Mr. Seymour: No, it’s very much to be avoided, as a matter of fact, pure sensationalism —
Mr. Heffner: So that in a large part of the country you must do without this –
Mr. Seymour: The great big bulk of the newspapers – the newspapers I’m talking about are home-delivered newspapers, they aren’t the ones that are sold on the subways in New York, anyway, and editors are looking toward a product that will be acceptable in the home, that will provide the homeowner and his family with what they want to know about local affairs primarily, and one that is not sensational. And on the other hand I think it’s a serious mistake to say that newspapers ought to eliminate crime because they cannot be an honest chronicle of what’s going on in the community unless they print the crime news, unless sometimes they shock the community.
Mr. Heffner: And also, what Jack Fisher meant when he started in by more sensationalism, that there was more crusading; then there’s another kind of sensationalism. Of course news almost by definition is a sensation it’s something new; there is a sensation about the new thing. That’s in the very nature of news, it seems to me, but in Jack Fisher’s day – well Jack isn’t as old as I am – but if you go back a generation; there was a lot more crusading; that is newspapers picking up an issue and going all out for it, wouldn’t you say, than –
Mr. Seymour: You could say, in a very distorted way.
Mr. Heffner: Well, maybe so; maybe not, depending on how responsible the newspaper was. But anyway, you could call that sensational, and it’s quite different from the sensationalism that’s just tripe, isn’t it? You want to get people excited about the telephone rates, or the state of City Hall gang; that you can say is sensationalism, if you spread it all over –
Mr. Seldes: Mr. Seymour was talking about delivering at home. There you come up against the opposition; it is the broadcasting news. It’s all delivered to the home. And one effect that you get is a great deal of innocuousness, a great deal of playing down; you do not get crime, and particularly sex crime news in broadcasting to the extent you do in newspapers – you don’t get it featured; you can’t have it featured because in the 5 minutes or 15 minutes of a news broadcast, you have, as someone has pointed out, nothing but headlines. But is this all an advantage?
Haven’t you got the point in broadcast news, in the first place, in television particularly, that you feature the thing on which you have newsreel clips ready; a very important event that has no clips a thing that’s happened only 20 minutes ago needed a great deal more attention, but is not likely to get it —
Mr. Heffner: You’ve described the delinquency of much broadcasting, but certainly not all – in five minutes or 10 or 20 you can’t give the crime story or the sex story. Well, of course you can’t give the details of any story.
Mr. Seymour: Well, I would say to Mr. Seldes that after all there is not less crime on radio relatively; the point is there is just less detail a;)out anything, including crime, and about all that radio does is whet people’s appetite for the —
Mr. Lyons: It’s not featured, Mr. Seymour. You’re not thinking about a comparative —
Mr. Seldes: No, I think if you take the run of a TV or news broadcast, the superheadline is very unlikely to he a sensational report of any kind of crime. Even locally coming from New York, I listen to the Boston stations all through the summer. Accidents, yes. But any attempt to excite the listener by long descriptions of crime are —
Mr. Heffner: Would you put this on the plus side?
Mr. Seldes: I’m a little worried about it. On the whole I’d put it on the plus side, because it could be in some closer proportion or balance and I think that is proper, but –
Mr. Lyons: Than in the press?
Mr. Seldes: Yes, in part of the Press. I think it has the defect of sort of making all of broadcast news pretty much all of a piece and dreadfully conformist and without any pressure behind it. I think that the newspaper Press, where it falls over on a few things, the sensational press, the yellow press of the old days, at least it did do something that needs to be done – namely, it emphasized something. It may have chosen the wrong thing to emphasize. But you get, I think in television and radio broadcasting, a lack of emphasis. It’s all very bland, it’s all very fine. And you certainly do not get any depth of commentary, nor do you get, except in the rarest instances, as on this station, you do get depth of commentary, and Mr. Lyons is responsible for it. He has to do it. But I don’t think you get very much of it except in the case of a few individuals, and televis1on broadcasting, I think is very thin as a result.
Mr. Seymour: I’d l1ke to quarrel with one point there, about the sensationalism. I have seen – I don’t know what stations – I have seen plenty of long half-hour, hour-long programs of some poor mentally disturbed person sitting on top of a building with television cameras on him from all directions, and a lot of sensationalism about something that we would not even consider worth playing up on the front page of the newspaper, because these things happen all the time, and we would give them the space that they deserved, and yet I’ve seen television stations following these things around by the hour.
Mr. Seldes: But that’s the pickup of news, not the reporting of news. The pickup of news, I don’t think you can possibly avoid it.
Mr. Heffner: But you distinguish between the two, and you’re adding a dimension here that I think Mr. Seymour tended to leave out, I think on purpose at the very beginning. You were talking more about covering what had gone on, a report of the news rather than editorial coverage or commentary, is this an area where you feel that both the press and the television industry have a larger responsibility than they’ve taken on?
Mr. Seldes: I think everybody has larger responsibilities than they’ve taken on. I think that the responsibility in broadcasting has been practically muted, except in the purely technical ay that if somebody is attacked they give them equal time to reply. Now the same thing is true of newspapers, but after all, it’s not the same thing. If you get the kind of newspaper which will print an editorial or, as sometimes will happen, a very highly partial and colored story on page one, and then will have a letter to the editor on page 15 a week later, I don’t think you’re getting any kind of a balance, and I think that kind of balance of reply to attack is also, it is technically possible and in radio, and radio, I think, is much better off than television. I think in television you get the worst of it – and I’m perfectly willing, if this is of interest to you – to mention a most conspicuous case. I think that the Ed Murrow attack on Senator McCarthy was such an abuse of power that it was incredible. Because Senator McCarthy couldn’t possibly answer to it. They said, well give him the time to answer. What good did the time do him? He hadn’t the skill; he hadn’t the money; and he hadn’t the prestige. I should add, of course, that I was thoroughly in favor of Mr. Murrow’s attack, and Mr. Murrow is not only a friend of mine, but once was a tenant of mine – you can’t get closer than that to a man. But —
Mr. Lyons: I would like just to raise an objection to your three pointss that McCarthy hadn’t either the skill or the money or the prestige at the time. He apparently had a great deal more prestige with a great part of the community, than anybody else —
Mr. Seldes: He didn’t have the prestige on th3t program. Ed Murrow had been on that program two years; everybody knew it and believed in Mr. Ed Murrow. McCarthy had been on the air, to be sure; but he didn’t have the prestige or the program, himself. Let’s suppose it hadn’t been McCarthy. Suppose someone else had been attacked; you cannot assume that the person will have the skill. Obviously, you have to admit this, the most fumbling reply ever made to a television attack was McCarthy’s reply. It was perfectly silly.
Mr. Heffner: I wonder, Mr. Seldes, are you more concerned. with the absence of such commentary, as Mr. Murrow made during his attack, or are you more concerned with the absence of a capacity on the part of people who are attacked to reply?
Mr. Seldes: The second. In the first place, I think that given an opportunity- for the victim to reply in the same style, to the same effect then that attack was absolutely ideal. My objection to television is that there’s too little of that.
Mr. Lyons: I would go further, and say that the inability of television with its format and small space for public affairs as you say, to have an equivalent of letter-to-the-editor column is really a deficiency. And it seems to me that if we’re going back to what’s responsible in a Press, Mr. Seymour, that you can measure responsibility a great deal by the attitude of a newspaper toward letters to the editor. If they welcome a critical letter and answer it with an editorial, it seems to me that’s a pretty good test of responsibility. And we know papers that do, and others that don’t. But as Mr. Seldes says, so far, it’s almost impossible, apparently, to get that on to television – to hear from the readers.
Mr. Selders: It’s a technical, technological reason, and we’re still in the middle of a revolution, I think, from print to electronics; we don’t quite know what to make about it, and it doesn’t surprise me that the ethics of broadcasting aren’t as formed as the ethics of newspapers are; but you know also, in the past 20 – in the past 50 years – probably, the ethics of the newspapers have been corrupted to a great extent, and you have a kind of newspaper ethic which is totally different. There are newspapers published which have no intention of giving both sides of any argument in which they have an interest of their own, and this cannot at this moment happen, because broadcasting is under the FCC. Government regulation —
Mr. Lyons: Do you think that’s a sufficient statement about it, Mr. Seldes? It seems to me that the ethics of the situation rather runs against television in respect to the news and public affairs, in that there’s an advertiser sponsoring almost all programs, including news: now the newspaper has its advertising, but you don’t have a sponsor of every piece of copy of every editorial. And the newspaper almost inevitably, even under the worst conditions, achieves more independence of the total format than is within the television format, so far apparently possible. You —
Mr. Selders: You put it a little bit earlier. You said the newspapers published for information and for no other purpose. This is almost an ideal situation. And —
Mr. Lyons: I didn’t mean to say that. We were talking about responsibility of the press, and I said it seemed to me that the definition of responsibility was to feel the relation of client to the reader, that you are informing him. I don’t mean that you won’t also entertain him.
Mr. Seldes: Broadcast news has one purpose, to attract people to other broadcasts, the following broadcasts, or else it has to be done independently, as most netwo2k stations do, they prepare the news and the sponsor is not permitted to interfere with the news itself. A station can interfere with the news that has been tried, and the FCC looks on it with a very dim eye. But surely there is a certain degree of independence in the big broadcasting station; there is not in certain small ones. I’ve known cases where people have been propagandists right straight through.
Mr. Seymour: What is this independence? How is it expressed?
Mr. Seldes: By impartiality; by complete impartiality.
Mr. Seymour: Yes, I was going to go back to this earlier. I was trying to discern how you felt newspapers could achieve this independence of mind that you said is to be found in the institutions of higher learning, and so on. How does it do that? The newspaper can discontinue its editorial page if it wants to, and become neutral, but how do you achieve independence of mind —
Mr. Seldes: I don’t propose to emasculate newspapers.
Mr. Seymour: No, how do you achieve independence of mind in what at least I was insisting earlier was the primary function of the newspaper, and that is presenting the news. I know you can achieve it on the editorial page, of course. But it seems to me that the profession itself frowns upon this hypothetical situation you mentioned a moment ago; in which there was a highly colored story on page one. The people that are in the business don’t approve of this coloration of stories, if they can avoid it. They’re human, and make some errors once in a while.
Mr. Seldes: I think that I’ve made the mistake which you began by discussing here; namely we’re talking about the big metropolitan press, with a few sensational papers, as opposed to the majority of the press in the United States, which is not that way at all.
Mr. Seymour: Well, I’m not so sure. But the point is that there are responsible metropolitan newspapers, too.
Mr. Seldes: Yes, there are.
Mr. Seymour: And there are irresponsible ones; no doubt there are the same variations throughout newspapers of all sizes throughout the country.
Mr. Lyons: Throughout human nature.
Mr. Seymour: But the thing to which I object are these large generalizations about the failure of the press, the irresponsibility of the press, when I think that on balance the institution probably measures up about as well as most of our institutions, which as Mr. Lyons said in the first place. We have good education and bad education around the country, and so on.
Mr. Heffner: Mr. Seymour, as a working newspaperman, does it measure up, does the Press measure up to the television coverage of the news?
Mr. Seymour: Well, in the first place I think they’re doing to different kinds of things; and I think Mr. Lyons was making the point, that the whole framework is different for television reporting. It has to be, it can’t have anything like such detail, and so on; I think that at the national level television probably does a much better job than any other medium that I know of; it probably does better than the average newspaper. It doesn’t do better than the New York Times, but then I’m talking about the typical newspaper around the country, throughout the country; television, I think, at the national level —
Mr. Seldes: It gives more space to it, more time I don’t think that it’s necessarily more penetrating than the Associated Press or United Press reports, which are, by the way an example of as close to neutrality as you can get. All that the major news services, all that they’re in favor of is the existing social system; and so are we all, except a few people that want to destroy the social system in order to have a different kind of Press. I’m not one of them.
Mr. Heffner: I don’t want to destroy the social system either, but I kn0w that we have a limited amount of time, and there’s one question that I raised last week, and I think it’s exceptionally important, and that’s the question of privacy and the press. Along with the charge of sensationalism goes the charge very frequently made that the newspapers have more and more invaded and violated our privacy. And I wonder how you gentlemen would deal with this question. If I remember correctly last week Mr. Wechsler and Mr. Fisher both tended to say that if anyone had his privacy violated by the press he probably asked for it, and that generally you were not played up in the press unless you want to be. And they said there were exceptions, but that this was generally their answer. And I wonder how you gentlemen react to that.
Mr. Seymour: I would just say that I don’t know whose privacy the press would be interested in violating except perhaps movie stars, politicians, people that are already public figures. And it just seems to me that anybody who assumes this status in our society has to expect to be looked at by a million eyes.
Insofar as those are the figures we’re talking about the issue doesn’t arise, the movie stars and such people’s out for publicity, it’s part of their stock and trade. And so with the politicians. It seems to me the issue of privacy is only properly raised when you are dealing with people who are not offering, who cannot exploit it in any way, who are innocent victims, or at least they are victims of circumstances. Now insofar as they are hauled into court for crimes or being investigated or something, there isn’t perhaps any reason for us to be concerned about them, but every once in a while, Mr. Seymour, it seems to me that somebody does become a victim of publicity through sheer accident, through being a relative of somebody else, that’s one of the sad cases sometimes; a relative of a suicide, or a relative of someone in a scandal, or just happens to be somewhere where something is going on and is suddenly in a picture and quizzed about something. It seems to me that there is a certain amount of what can be described as invasion of privacy, and that it’s one of the things that as responsible editors we ought to be concerned about and that I know responsible editors are concerned about it when it comes up.
Mr. Seymour: I can’t disagree with you, because you’ve defined the thing in pretty general terms. I suppose there are instances where newspapers are too pushy, they’re prying into people’s business where they don’t belong; yes…
Mr. Lyons: The eccentric type of person, for example. It seems to me that every once in a while such a person becomes newsworthy by reason of some newspaper man. It seems to me that that’s the real trouble, that’s getting pretty close to the border of —
Mr. Seldes: Well, I think the real trouble is that you invade the privacy of the accused not of the guilty. I think once a person is guilty then they – by definition – they cease to be private people. But the thing came out in connection with the old Kefauver investigations, where you train the cameras on people accused of crimes. As it turned out, almost all of them were guilty, as my recollection goes. It certainly was true recently in the Oregon cases. But suppose they’d not been, then privacy is invaded, isn’t it?
Mr. Heffner: You say the Oregon cases. But recently, certainly, there is one gentleman who was taken apart in the press and who was acquitted in the courtroom. And I think this has happened time and time again. Certainly I can speak only I guess for the sensational press, or maybe the not so sensational press, of New York City where a man and woman who are engaged in a divorce action have not asked for publicity, are not making use of it.
Mr. Lyons uses this as one standard, if they’re asking for it and making use of it, then maybe they’re fair game. But they’re not. There’s a story here because you can attract readers. But what right has the press, has television, has anyone to blast on the first) second third or fourth pages of any newspaper information that —
Mr. Lyons: Is it your impression that there’s a good deal of this?
Mr. Heffner: My impression is that there is a very great deal of this.
Mr. Lyons: I was hard put to it to think of an illustration when Mr. Seymour was speaking of this a minute ago. It seems to me that every once in a while you are hit in the eye by such a case and you shy away from it. But I wasn’t aware of its being very general.
Mr. Heffner: Well, certainly in New York. Maybe not in Boston.
Mr. Seymour: Why is this divorce story of such exceptional interest to people. I don’t understand this.
Mr. Heffner: You’re asking why is it of such exceptional interest? Why does the press publish it?
Mr. Seymour: But why is it of such exceptional interest —
Mr. Heffner: I would say because there is always a story where there is sex involved or where you can become interested in someone’s private life - granted this has an element of interest for all of us, where the press plays it up.
Mr. Seldes: Were the people rich, well know, socially prominent, or something of that order?
Mr. Heffner: I would say that for the most part they’re socially prominent or rich —
Mr. Seldes: Well then, they’ve lived in certain ways on publicity, haven’t they?
Mr. Heffner: I don’t think this is fair, Mr. Seldes. This is the answer I was given last week and I remember getting home and arguing this out with people in my own house who felt that this was not a fair way for the press to get off the hook–to say these people asked for it. And I think —
Mr. Seymour: No, I don’t think whether they ask for it has the slightest thing to do with it, myself. We don’t go around asking people who are in court, in the divorce court, or any other kind of court, whether they would like to have their names in the paper. After all, this is a matter that’s of general interest to people in the community. And the more prominent these people are, and the more scandalous their behavior their alleged behavior, has been in the divorce case, and so on, why of course the greater public interest there is in it. The alternative to this is to say, of course, that we won’t print anything about divorce cases because we might embarrass somebody or other. Is this the standard that the press ought to set up for itself? I don’t think so, myself.
Mr. Heffner: Well, would you gentlemen say that there is only one alternative or its opposite, that either we make fair game of everybody or we limit our news to those areas there no-one’s feelings are going to be hurt?
Mr. Lyons: You can’t do the second.
Mr. Heffner: Can you do the first and still maintain that you’re being responsible?
Mr. Seldes: I think so. You’re not going to publish the intimate and scandalous details of the lives of drab and unknown people. When I said people that asked for it I meant that they were people who lived on publicity to a certain extent.
Mr. Lyons: How do you find them out to begin with?
Mr. Heffner: Well, let me take back my answer to that and say that certainly, Mr. Seldes, you read the New York Press and you know there are many instances every day in which people who have not asked for it in any way by being unfortunately prominent, or by being unfortunately well born, or richly born, have not asked for this, but they get this treatment. What are we going to do about them?
Mr. Seymour: Well, in general, this is a generalization. In general people, even though they’re rich, and well born, and so on, conduct themselves with great discretion throughout their lives, the newspapers pay very little attention to them. It’s only when they come in to divorce courts in a very scandalous case that they do this sort of thing.
Mr. Lyons: And you also have the exploitation of grief the weeping mother whose child has been run over. Your only excuse for that is that that’s a human incident.
Mr. Seymour: I agree with that. It’s bad taste.
Mr. Seldes: I don’t even know if it’s bad taste, Mr. Seymour. The weeping mother, the grief-stricken mother, and so forth. I grant you that she has not asked for it, neither for the accident which has just occurred nor for the publicity.
Mr. Lyons: Or, say the weeping mother of the man who’s just been convicted.
Mr. Seymour: The point is that any member of the public who was there could see the mother weeping. The camera will take it, the newspaper also takes it because the cameraman was there as a representative of the public. This may not be an adequate excuse, but —
Mr. Heffner: I think of the story I heard. I think it was about Mr. Morris Ernst, who was taking the position that television cameras shouldn’t go into courtrooms, and a good many television people protested against this. And he said, well, now I know statistically such and such a percentage of you have been divorced. Would you have appreciated it if television cameras were in the courtrooms at the time your divorce case was up for judgment. And I think that each and every one of us ought to get a little bit away from the general statement that the press is free to do this and that and the other thing, if we put our own selves in these situations, we’d feel differently.
Mr. Lyons: I think Joe Welch had an interesting answer to the question of whether hearings and trials should be televised. He said: when the witness, the person who is brought in there against his will, perhaps, is as accustomed to television as he is now to the daily newspaper, it’ll be a different story, but right now it may be a shock to him and discomfiture, and whether he should be exposed to it —
Mr. Heffner: But in general you would accept the Press’ attitude toward this question, Mr. Lyons?
Mr. Lyons: No, I think it’s a question that needs to be examined and re-examined every day in the news. And I tried to illustrate some cases where I wouldn’t go along with this.
Mr. Seldes: We’re going through a revolution and we try to make the laws governing it properly after the revolution will be over.
Mr. Heffner: Well, then, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today, gentlemen, ending on this note. Thank you so much for joining me today. Next week The Open Mind will be back at 12:30 on Sunday, and our subject will be a very interesting one, the question of Can We Unlearn Prejudice? What are the techniques of unlearning prejudice, how successful are they? Next week, on The Open Mind. Thank you and goodbye.
Announcer: You have heard an inquiry into the state of the Press.
Your host was Richard D. Heffner.
Present on the panel were Louis M. Lyons, curator of the Nieman Fel1owships at Harvard; Forrest Seymour, editor of the Worcester Telegram Gazette; and Gilbert Seldes, author of The Seven Lively Arts and the Public Arts.