Walter Isaacson

From Journalism to “Informed Dialogue”, Part II

VTR Date: March 12, 2003

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Isaacson: Walter Isaacson
Title: From Journalism to “Informed Dialogue”, Part II
VTR: 3/12/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Walter Isaacson, former Managing Editor of Time Magazine and Editorial Director of Time, Incorporated, who most recently has been Chairman and CEO of CNN.

Now my guest takes up his new responsibilities as President and CEO of the distinguished Aspen Institute, there he’ll preside over its mission of seeking answers to society’s most vexing problems through informed dialogue and inquiry.
And let me ask him to begin now how much of a leap it is from one to the other, from journalism to “informed dialogue.”

Isaacson: Well that’s a loaded question. I hope journalism does include “informed dialogue”. But I felt it was time in my life to step back away from being a journalist and to do a little bit more thinking, writing, reflecting, discussing the issues of our time and perhaps being involved in some of the public policies of our time.

I find Aspen a great antidote to the hectic and sometimes more coarse discourse that you find in…journalism or the media today and it, it was a good time in my life to say, “Hey, let me try something different. Where I can be a little bit more thoughtful, if I still remember how to think.”

Heffner: Come on, come on, your, your new book on Benjamin Franklin is a pretty darn good indication that you …

Isaacson: Thank you.

Heffner: … know how to think and write. Walter …

Isaacson: You know Ben Franklin did that. Ben Franklin was a great publisher, great journalist. He created a media empire; a media empire that included a magazine “Poor Richard’s” … as well as “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and a newspaper. And then the U.S. Postal system to help distribute it all. That’s why he helped pull together the U.S. Postal system. But, at a certain point in his life, halfway through … sort of where I am in my life, he said, “Okay, I’m going to step out of the world of media,” and he forms the American Philosophical Society, and he becomes much more interested in public affairs…sort of thinking and discussion groups … that sort of thing … gets involved in public policy and gets involved in science more. And I think, you always love to emulate certain people … I’d love to try to emulate Ben Franklin.

Heffner: Well, you’re doing that.

Isaacson: MmmHmm. A little bit.

Heffner: You’re doing that.

Isaacson: I hope I’m a little bit better to my family, by the way than he was. He was not that good to his family.

Heffner: But he left us with a lot of jokes to tell … about how he was not.

Isaacson: That’s why he had a lot better sense of humor than either of us will ever have.

Heffner: [Laughter] Walter, you know, at the end of our last program, when we were talking about the coarseness …

Isaacson: Right.

Heffner: … of contemporary journalism, or the coarseness of contemporary American life and the question of whether modern journalism has contributed to that. I said, “Yea, verily”, I didn’t quite squeeze an answer out of you, and I don’t know that maybe until later on I will, I will try. But you talked about democracy, about choice …

Isaacson: MmmHmm.

Heffner: … and I remember a man I’d loved, adored, admired tremendously and worked for, Frank Stanton, when he was President of CBS, used to talk about cultural democracy … I’m sure he still does to this day. But democracy is a political doctrine, it has to do with the choice of our leaders. Cultural democracy, can be, if you stop to think about it, a contradiction in terms. And I wondered why you go off on this notion. For instance, when you go to Aspen.

My experience with Aspen, it’s the furthest place that you would think of as something related to democracy. And I don’t mean that in terms of not choosing one’s leaders, but it has to do with intellect, it has to do with aristocracy of intellect; it has to do with elitism; it has to do with those who, God bless them, can afford to remove themselves from the hectic nature of the contemporary world, and think. You’ve said that yourself. Isn’t this notion of cultural democracy a contradiction.

Isaacson: Let me answer the way Ben Franklin would. And it’s … cause it’s a very interesting question. Ben Franklin was the most democratic, with a small “d” of all of our Founders. And you contrast him with Jefferson, who really believed in the selection of an elite; that you took a natural aristocracy, not the old aristocracy that was born aristocratic, but you created a natural aristocracy, as he would at the University of Virginia and you train them and you pull them out to become part of an elite.

Benjamin Franklin was more democratic in the traditional sense. He felt that every aspiring trademan … leather apron, he called them … you know, shopkeeper, should be given the tools to flourish, however they wanted, to the best of their abilities and to have the choice of all sorts of cultural…advantages.

That’s why he started the first library, lending library in America. Not for the elite, not the way Jefferson would have started one at the University of Virginia … but for what he called “the middling people”, the tradesmen, the, the “leather aprons”, the shopkeepers so they each could have access to libraries. And he felt that if you could take all of the people and let each one…rise as much as he is, or she aspired to rise, culturally and in terms of literature, and in terms of democracy and politics, or whatever, this would create the best possible society. And he believed that the more choices you give people, why there’d be more newspapers, more books, more whatever … the more people would have elevated tastes and…and be more thoughtful.

Heffner: But you’re talking about providing opportunity, not monopolizing opportunity with the coarse materials that I think you and I agree make up the majority, the overwhelming majority of what’s… presented to the American people. You make choices when you’re helped to make choices by what those who have achieved things before you, set before you.

Isaacson: Well, I think one of the great, glorious things about America and its democracy is the wonderful choice you have. I go to Grand Central Station after this show … I can look around … there’s about 250 magazines … some of them very coarse, some of them Time magazine, or The Atlantic or Harpers or, you know, The New Yorker, with truly great essays. I can make my choice and all those magazines survive and thrive, including the very good, classy ones like Time magazine and The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

Likewise, on TV we can complain about the fact that you can flip around the dial and get “Joe Millionaire” and, you know, some pretty trashy shows. But you also can flip around the dial and find some really interesting stuff. I think as long as people have choice, as long you kind of believe…people tend to make good, informed choices and I’m not one of those who thinks the whole society’s gone to hell in a hand basket … I just tend to think that some of the media has gotten more coarse than in the past.

Heffner: Yet, in our last program when I asked you about the “dumbing down” I didn’t mean the “dumbing down” of certain cable systems; I meant the dumbing down of America and you seemed to feel, “Yes”, in pushed by my question you’d have to concede there has been some of that. You didn’t rush into it. You didn’t embrace …

Isaacson: Yah, I think there’s some “dumbing down” if you look at some of the really, you know, trashy shows, trashy magazines, trashy papers, right. But there’s also been a great, you know, explosion of really good writing, really good journalism, really good TV. And you have more choices now. So, yeah, there’s more diversity in what you can pick.

But it’s like a newsstand, you know, there can be, you know, a magazine that’s … and by the way, some of the trashiest stuff … let’s not get too elitist or pompous ourselves … I mean I love reading the tabloid newspapers. And by the way, I love People magazine. I think it’s actually a good magazine and fun to read. I don’t think you, you have to make apologies for those things that are very, very popular. But you can also, you know, find as I do every now and then, a really well written cover story in Time, a really great CNN Presents documentary, a really great thing on CBS, PBS, whatever it may be, and I, I think we should all kind of celebrate the fact that there are those choices.

Heffner: Thus far, you’ve mentioned …

Isaacson: MmmHmm.

Heffner: … the media, the organs of the media that you and I both admire …you’ve managed not to say a word that’s critical about your opponents, about your competitors or anything of the kind. And I’m not talking about what is there and that is available to people. You’re right. You can go to Grand Central today, when you leave here and have your choice … Walter Isaacson, Harvard graduate, Oxford University, Rhodes Scholar, you’ve had a opportunity to cultivate those tastes. And the question is whether much, perhaps even most of our media output today works in the opposite direction, makes it less possible …

Isaacson: Oh listen, first of all, because…just cause I went to a nice college or whatever, doesn’t mean I have any better taste advantage …

Heffner: Nice college? Come on.

Isaacson: Certainly … hey … I know … I mean trust me … if Benjamin Franklin did not get to go to Harvard. He thought he was going to get to go, his father couldn’t afford it. Benjamin Franklin ended up with a lot more refined, smarter tastes than all those people in his class, including Cotton Mather’s kids, who got to go to Harvard that year. And trust me, I’ve known people who’ve gone to good colleges and there’s not a strong correlation between that and great intellectual taste, necessarily. And that’s the thing that Ben Franklin taught us. Was that you give opportunities to anybody, don’t just try to give opportunities to the elite, don’t try to filter out a new elite from the society. But you give opportunities to anybody, you’re going to have a stronger country.

Heffner: Now what do you do with Tom Jefferson? Poor ole Tom Jefferson in this? You’re, you’re right, you, you chose …

Isaacson: He’s elitist. Yeah. Much more so than Ben Franklin.

Heffner: Right.

Isaacson: Ben Franklin was much more comfortable with democracy, much more comfortable with the taste of the common people, the middling people, whatever. Much more comfortable with basing an American culture on the choices made by the common people than Thomas Jefferson was and, obviously, from the fact that I chose to write a book about him, I’m sort of in Ben Franklin’s camp.

Heffner: It’s interesting because if you take the Founding Brothers …that whole …

Isaacson: Yeah. The Joe Ellis book. Yeah.

Heffner: … right … and I didn’t mean taking the book, I mean taking “the brothers” …

Isaacson: Yeah.

Heffner: Franklin stands aside. He’s different from all of the others, isn’t he.

Isaacson: One reason he’s different, is he’s a runaway apprentice printer. He is not born … high born … he’s not born part of the aristocracy … he’s not well born, he’s not rich … he’s … you know, he arrives in Philadelphia, famously, you know, with those three or four coins in his pocket, as a runaway, trying to get away from his brother’s print shop where he’d been apprenticed. And he is the rags to riches tale. Not only in terms of monetary success, but in electoral success … and in being, you know, important and shaping this nation.

Heffner: The rags to riches notion. How important in our lives today?

Isaacson: Well, Ben Franklin helped to define it. And it is one of the defining characteristics of America is that you can succeed based on diligence and industriousness and your talents and whatever you may do … this is the way Ben Franklin described it … unlike in most other societies back then and even now … where you tend to be more limited by how well you are born. Or something. Now, anybody in America can at least aspire to grow up to be President, that’s part of the American myth, but like most American myths, it’s got a lot of truth to it. And Ben Franklin was the person who helped define that.

Heffner: I’m still waiting for more, more, more of that book.

Isaacson: [Laughter] Well, the book comes out this summer, so … please, I hope, I hope you’ll have me back to talk about it.

Heffner: Absolutely. But first I want you to talk more about this notion of cultural democracy. I raise it. But I raise it because you talk about everyone’s right and ability to choose and to pick what he wants given all of these different media. What about the notion that “hell, it’s democracy, I can go home tonight and vote for this channel or that channel. I can vote for CNN or I can vote for its opposite numbers”. Do you find that sufficient unto the day?

Isaacson: I find it not only sufficient, I find it glorious. I find it the essence of what freedom is about. If people don’t like CNN, they can switch the channel. If people want to watch “Joe Millionaire” or Championship Wrestling instead of CNN, that’s fine. And somehow we’re a good enough country, and strong enough, despite despair that we sort of talked about and touched on earlier, about where the culture’s heading … that with all that choice …

Heffner: Yeah.

Isaacson: … with all these possibilities, you still have a very thriving good media, good journalism, as well as trashy media and trashy journalism at times. You still have all those choices, that good stuff as well as the trashy stuff still survives. And frankly sometimes we want some rather than the other. Sometimes we want to eat popcorn; sometimes we want to eat steak. Sometimes we probably even want to have some spinach. And I think that…there’s no better method than giving people all of the choices they want and somehow that method worked pretty darn well and it keeps working well.

Heffner: Well, you talk about steak. It was Dick Salant ..

Isaacson: Yeah.

Heffner: … former president, late president of CBS News who used to say, if you don’t give them steak or filet mignon and you only give them … essentially only give them hamburger, how do they ever develop the taste for steak, for filet mignon?

Isaacson: I think that with all due respect to Mr. Salant … reveals a contempt for the American people and it reveals a sense that people don’t know what’s good for them, or what they want. It, it reflects a discomfort with democracy in all of its forms. I mean that’s true … would be true in politics as well as in media, journalism and culture. And we have had, ever since the days of your Founding Brothers and stuff a great raucous media, with a lot of competition and a lot of press. And you look at how that’s helped our country develop compared to other nations where the press was more limited or the government or the elites got to determine what people could read or see or hear. And somehow it works better if you trust the people to make their own choices.

Heffner: Your fellow alumnus of Harvard, Walter Lippmann, didn’t really feel that way, did he? He was very much concerned about …

Isaacson: I hope I’m not…quite as much of an elitist as Walter Lippmann was …

Heffner: Well, you’re not, you’re not … what’s your criticism of Walter Lippmann?

Isaacson: I think that he did not appreciate the strength of American democracy and he was somewhat contemptuous of, of too much choice being given to the American people.

Heffner: What about those six wise men you wrote about? Same thing?

Isaacson: The Wise Men? Ahemm, I don’t think…that whether it be Henry Kissinger or the Wise Men who were in the early book that I worked on … I think one of the criticisms of those people, who were very good people, very smart in their own way, was they did not have the fingertip feel for the strength that comes from an American democracy. They felt it was better to do things behind the curtain, behind the close, door than to be open and forthright with Americans about it.

Heffner: Do you think they may have been done better that way?

Isaacson: No. I think what happens is, if you’re very secretive you get into Vietnam without explaining why we did it, so that the popular support goes away. You have back channel secret negotiations; you get out of Vietnam in a secretive way. You do all sort of things where you don’t have the support of the American people. And the strength of America’s foreign policy is not that clever people did it secretly, the strength of the American foreign policy … over the years … has been two fold.

It’s based on America’s values, which means, I think, being open with the American people. And it generally has the support of a democracy. Which is something else you can’t do if you’re conducted in secrecy.

Heffner: That was your criticism of Henry Kissinger, right?

Isaacson: MmmHmm.

Heffner: That he did not conduct things …

Isaacson: I think that was a valid criticism of Henry Kissinger .. that he was not as open or as forthright and everything, whether it be the… what became the secret bombing of Cambodia, or the secret discussions with Russia on nuclear arms control, which were very smart and well done, but done in such a secretive manner that there was a neo-conservative backlash that came out of it. The secret plans to end the war … a lot … it all led to Watergate, in some ways. Not Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, but that secretiveness and that obsession with secretiveness led in many ways to Watergate and many of the other problems we had.

See, I think that’s a valid criticism of the Nixon/Kissinger way of conducting foreign policy … was that it would have been stronger … in my opinion … had it been more open and more forthright and more public in the way it was conducted.

Heffner: And today? March 2003 … would you say the same thing about the present Administration?

Isaacson: No, I actually … I mean I think that the present Administration you can argue one way or the other about its patience or its willingness to build up an international coalition and however it handles, you know, the future of the Persian Gulf region. However, I think the Bush Administration has been quite forthcoming … you know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and they’re not doing any of this in secret. So, you know, I think secretiveness is not the biggest problem of this Administration.

Heffner: Benjamin Franklin…and secrets …

Isaacson: Ahaa …

Heffner: … he was a man who could keep secrets.

Isaacson: He was a man who could keep secrets, but he loved explaining, openly, the nature of public policy and American foreign policy. He wrote a whole lot, he explained a whole lot, he … you know … had some great essays about things. So he liked that open, raucous debate and even when he was doing this diplomatic masterpiece of getting France, poor France … beleaguered now, but France comes in on the side of America in the Revolution. He was able to deal with France, even if the people in the State Department today can’t deal with France, and he did it with a great display of public diplomacy. Of writing about why it was the moral thing to come in on the side of America.

Heffner: Walter, when you sit back in Aspen, or in The Aspen Institute’s various …

Isaacson: Yes.

Heffner: … offices, how will you relate what you do there to what you have been doing. Your writing I can understand. But what else?

Isaacson: Well, I think that, first of all, the core of what Aspen does it tries to help promote the notion of leadership based on values and the discussion of values. The clashing values that have come down to us over the centuries from great writers, great thinkers and stuff. To look at all of those … how those values affect the decisions we make, whether it be as corporate executives, or whether it be in running companies or, for that matter, running the country or running foreign policy.

And I think that it’s … there’s almost a hunger now to get back to basic values, whether it be after Enron and Worldcom in terms of business, or in terms of what America’s role is in this world to say, “Okay…the 90s are over and that sort of ‘fly by night’, you know, short cuts and, and, and trimming and, and, and ignoring of principles that we did sometimes during the 1990s that’s leaving a bad taste in our mouth.”

I think people want to get back to thinking about the fundamental values on how we conduct our lives, our politics, our democracy and our institutions, including business. That’s what Aspen’s all about. And I hope to re-invigorate that. I also hope to do more specific things. To be involved in discuss…and bringing people in to discuss ways to solve the Middle East problem or the, or the conflict between Islam and the West. Is that a conflict of fundamental values, or can we find shared ground, some common ground on those, those things. I think that’s going to be, you know, a great challenge for this new era is to figure out what do we do now that liberal democratic capitalism in American power is paramount …what happens when it clashes with something like the Islamic values, you know, that have come out through much of the Middle East.

Heffner: Market place values.

Isaacson: MmmHmm.

Heffner: How much have they been traditional American values? What part?

Isaacson: Once again I’m going to go back to Ben Franklin who grew up on Market Street and was a shopkeeper and he wrote, you know, both in “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and his “Weight of Virtue” and everything else, the marketplace values … frugality, honesty, diligence, industriousness …that sort of thing. All of the values that he put in his little notebook and every week tried to make sure he had abided by those values so as a tradesman he could rise in the world, as he said.

Those have been fundamental to what America’s all about. And those have been perverted I think in the 1990s, where you can take the values of major corporations or companies like Enron and Worldcom and, you know, many others … they were a total perversion of the “honesty is the best policy”, which sounds, you know, kind of sappy, but, you know, a Benjamin Franklin and people like that believed that if they were honest and industrious that was the best policy for getting a good business built. And that’s almost … I don’t know, it seems so sappy, as I said, to talk about those as being basic values. But those are the basic marketplace values that the country was built upon.

Heffner: There are many who would say those are not the marketplace values at all. That the marketplace values of the industrial giants, or the robber barons, whichever you want to call them, which made for the tremendous material strength of this country really didn’t have to do so much with Ben Franklin’s …

Isaacson: Well, you can argue that and you can look at Andrew Carnegie or Melvin and others who actually were disciples of Ben Franklin and built, you know, statues of him and oh, you know, his principles on the wall. Yes, there are times that big monopolies or conglomerates or major corporations were able to leverage their power and do things that were lacking in values. That was particularly true in the 90s, where there was a sort of “go-go” mentality, where any sort of values was considered soft and corporations didn’t want to go that route.

I think the sour taste left by the burst of the bubble of the nineties when people were deceptive, when corporations couldn’t be trusted … in fact when a lot of institutions couldn’t be trusted … people are…repulsed by that, repelled by it now and that’s why I think there’s a little bit more hungering for going back to certain basic values and a sense that using those values and believing in those values actually may be the best policy.

Heffner: You know I wondered during all of the past two years, with the continuing revelations of what we have been doing for things that don’t relate to the most ideal statement of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” …

Isaacson: MmmHmmm.

Heffner: … I wondered whether they weren’t more in the American tradition or just as much in the American tradition as what you call our “fundamental values”. And whether you’re not going to have to create …

Isaacson: MmmHmm.

Heffner: … something rather than just sit back and try and find in our past …

Isaacson: We’ve had a wonderful inter-relationship between business and politics, it sometimes seems tense or clashy, but whether be doing the progressive era, or now where you create certain regulations so that, you know, that try to regulate what a company can do in terms of the stock it issues and the honesty it has to do in its annual reports, or for that matter the meat it manufactures and butchers and whether or not that has to be safe or not.

And we’ve always tried to balance government interference in business with the problems that can come when business is totally untrammeled. But it’s because of the values that I think the Ben Franklin’s and others of, you know, throughout our history have done, that we’ve been able to keep that balance pretty good.

Whether it’s, you know, and we struggle around the margins a bit about whether auto emissions should be, you know, this or that … but we understand how to make government regulations and the freedom of business work together so that our meat is safe, our air is relatively … because actually it’s very clean, cleaner than it was 30 years ago … that sometimes really bad things happen, like people commit fraud in terms of stock or the Worldcom’s accounting or Arthur Anderson. But those are aberrations and when they happen, the government is there to try to crack down.

Heffner: I’m saying nothing about Pollyanna … nothing whatsoever …

Isaacson: [Laughter]

Heffner: … but I do think if you’re going to have these great discussions, I don’t think you can make the easy assumption that you make, with 30 seconds left, that we’ve had this nice balance. It seems to me the history of the past 150 years at least is the history of armed battle, and that the battle has been won by those who say, “deregulate, deregulate, deregulate.”

Isaacson: Yeah, well, that tension, that struggle is what makes Aspen so interesting to me cause those are the type of values you look at. And “yes”, there’s been some deregulation, but we still have pretty good clean air, we have safe products, safe meat and we have a few aberrations and a few scandals now and then, but as a society we’re pretty good at self-correcting and it comes back to the fact that I think democracy, free choice, whatever, it, it gives you the best way out.

Heffner: Well that’s the most optimistic note possible to end on. Thanks Walter Isaacson …

Isaacson: Thank you.

Heffner: … for joining me again. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.