Some Old and Some New Views on the News, Part I
VTR Date: December 9, 1994
Guest: Frankel, Max
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Max Frankel
Title: Max Frankel; Some Old and Some New Views on the News
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the conclusion of a two-part series on the news with Max Frankel, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with The New York Times, who retired recently as the paper’s distinguished executive editor, and now writes a weekly column in The Sunday Times Sunday Magazine.
Well, last time, Max Frankel looked from a new perspective at cameras in the courts. Let’s turn now to still other aspects of “All the news that’s fit to print,” indeed, let me ask my guest whether there’s anything he thinks of as not fit to print.
FRANKEL: Every day. Either because it’s boring or untrue or tawdry or insufficiently developed.
HEFFNER: Tawdry. Let’s parse that one.
FRANKEL: Jennifer Flowers holding forth at a press conference. We weren’t interested.
HEFFNER: Now, nothing in The Times?
FRANKEL: I think we carried two or three paragraphs saying that the event had occurred. Nothing that she said hadn’t been said in the famous incident during the campaign. Now she was making a spectacle of herself, adding no new knowledge. So the event itself was not worthy of coverage. We could have taken what we considered the cheap way out, and then done a story about the story. You could …
HEFFNER: You have done that at times, right?
FRANKEL: We have been forced to do it. When, for instance, another young lady, Paula Jones, similarly … Anybody can sue anybody in this country, so the mere fact that I’m suing you for $100 million, and somebody else comes along and says, “I’ll get a bigger headline; I’ll sue you for $500 million,” we’re learning, we’re slowly but surely learning that those inflated claims need to be treated modestly. So when Paula Jones came along and had a story, she could top Jennifer Flowers, we gave it short shrift. But in due course, this thing can explode in the society, because others don’t practice the same restraint. And then the president replies. Now, what do you do if you’re a newspaper and the president is replying to something that you don’t fully understand, and he’s beginning to hire fancy lawyers, and it’s becoming an issue, a legal issue, as to whether or not he can be sued? Now, you can’t just pull the wool over your eyes or your readers’ eyes. They deserve to know what’s going on. So, what at one moment is not fit to print can, a week later, be very important to print.
HEFFNER: Would it be fair to say, or unfair to say, that probably in time just about anything with that definition becomes fit to print? Because somehow or other it becomes integrated in the public concerns.
FRANKEL: Yes. And especially when people who know how to play the system are throwing oil on the flames.
HEFFNER: So what does that mean about the newspaper of the future?
FRANKEL: A newspaper has to hold its wits about it and its bearings. I mean, a good example, the most dramatic example – and we practice the same thing, but people may not notice it so readily – but take The Wall Street Journal. It only publishes Monday to Friday. The world doesn’t stop on Saturdays and Sundays, but The Journal says, “Our readers, they take the weekend off.” The Journal does not deal with most news on its front page. It is examining important trends in business, in finance, in society. It does witty articles. It’s a very good newspaper. But its front page is, by and large, quiet. It doesn’t use photographs. It says, “We know our readers. We have trained our readers to enjoy what we have to offer. And that’s what’s fit to print elsewhere doesn’t necessarily belong in The Wall Street Journal.” We do the same thing. We don’t look like The New York Post. We don’t even look like Newsday, which is a responsible kind of tabloid half the time. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: But you sure as hell don’t look like The New York Times I read as a boy.
FRANKEL: No, because we are serving a vastly more curious, vastly more educated audience than when you and I were boys. And when you and I were largely coming out of the war and concerned about governmental action and official action. And now we’re interested in what causes prostate cancer, and how do you deal with your doctor if you have a misdiagnosis, and what is the origin of the universe, and what do I do with my few savings, and who is stealing my bonds because they’re speculating on the stock market. So many more complicated aspects of society are governing our lives. And the job of the newspaper, at least as we have defined it for our kind of readership, is to try to understand and explain. And all of official government, and all the military, and the Pentagon, and the White House, is only a small facet of what we regard as now fit and necessary to print.
HEFFNER: You know, look, there’s no secret about the fact that The Times has been pilloried in the last decade for becoming less and less only the newspaper of record and more and more a popular journal. I’ve sympathized with those concerns, and yet I know full well that you, of all people, have your good and plenty and realistic and important and acceptable reasons. But I’m disturbed by the fact that The Times deals on the front page with different kinds of things. It follows the crowd, if you will. And, in a sense, you’ve said that you’ve got to be there where the crowd is. Give me a response that I can give to others who say, “Look what’s happened to your Times.”
FRANKEL: No problem. First of all, you’re dealing, all of us who deal with the past, are dealing in fictions. If you read The New York Times of 1930 and of 1925 and 1920, you would be shocked at how opinionated and how wild it is, and its lead stories on bizarre local crime cases, highly opinionated dispatches from all around the world, correspondents writing what today would be unacceptable even as editorials. But let’s leave that in the past. Our memories are clouded because World War II, when the entire country was devoted to a single, unified mission of defeating the enemy, and when we were covering our good government, and it was waging our battle on our behalf, the newspapers that recorded the maps and the battles and the speeches and the glories and the medals took on a nostalgic and sentimental notion of what the press was like. Also, as a paper of record, when I joined The New York Times, late ‘40’s, early ‘50’s, we were already breaking down the notion that everything that happened of an official nature had to be “recorded.” We’ve strayed farther and farther from that, because that’s not where the readers are, and that’s not where their curiosities are.
But let me go to the current situation. I very deliberately changed the front page of The New York Times in my years as editor.
HEFFNER: God, that burned me up when you did. (Laughter)
FRANKEL: Not the content of the newspaper. I merely reshuffled the deck. For instance, I did not take the most official kind of story – “Congress is going to come into session next week. They are assembling,” one day, we write. The next day, “They are going to meet on Tuesday, and they are going to do this.” All front-page stories. On Tuesday, “They met and they did this.” On Wednesday, “Having met, they have now done it.” One serial installment of insignificant, small steps, or a major piece of legislation, every day, it is in committee, it is being discussed in committee, it is being acted on in committee, it has been amended in committee, it has come to the floor, it is being discussed on the floor, it has been debated on the floor. Not what’s in this thing, not so much of what significance does it have for my life, not what forces are behind various portions of this bill; but the routinized governmental, step-by-step business was the front-page diet of too many governmental stories. We carried some of that information, but we put it where it belonged, inside the paper, and we took it out at what we called “the moment.” Is this the moment when the reader should be paying attention because this bill is coming to a climax? Is this the moment because we have suddenly learned who’s really behind this bill and the hidden paragraph and what it will accomplish? That’s the moment when you pull it out. That’s one level of treating official government stories.
Inside this paper we had wonderful articles. One day it discovered that all the skirts were going to come up on women’s clothes. And I said, “Why isn’t that front-page news? If you’re sure that it’s really happening, that all the long skirts are being burned, that all the designers, whether by conspiracy to sell more clothes, or whether by some magical seizure of the public mind and taste, every woman in America is going to have to either run to the tailor and change the wardrobe or throw out everything that’s hanging in the closet and start spending a lot of money changing fashions. In return the stores will or will not respond, they will or will not die or live by this new trend in fashions.” It is a moment. It is a trend. It sounds soft and weird and crazy, but it goes to the heart of our lives and the heart of our economy. It is a story worth calling attention to. So that, whether it is a trend in the way we eat and in the way we dress, in the way we think, in the bigotry we practice, why isn’t that news as much to contend with as whether this or that bill is coming out of a committee in Congress.
FRANKEL: So, the whole point was to turn the front page into a richer reflection of what was already in the paper, but to advertise it in poster-like fashion so that the front page is not just the slave of the government, of the president, and the mayor and the governor.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny, my – if you’re interested – my response to that. Not response, my reaction to that, is: God, that’s persuasive. Why hasn’t Max said that before? Or if he has said it or written it, why am I not familiar with that? Because the debate – and I have to say, you know that I can’t accept it – but it’s intriguing, and it has the ring, for me, about it of something very real. Why has this debate not been public, this point of view not been?
FRANKEL: Oh, it has been. In our circles, in press circles …
HEFFNER: That’s not public.
FRANKEL: … and within our staff. Well, but the public that we are ultimately accountable to are the wonderful people who buy our newspaper.
FRANKEL: And they have, the eight years over which we got …
HEFFNER: The circulation has gone up.
FRANKEL: The circulation has shot up. And anecdotally, I know, the people, they didn’t know why. They came and said, “Gee, I’m reading more. It’s a more interesting paper.” It wasn’t radically different from what we offered before, but we dressed it up a little differently, and we advertised.
We removed the more boring stuff to the inside, and we took out other subjects. And we said, “A great piece of theater opening on Broadway.” It was never on the front page before. And we had trouble figuring it out, because we don’t want to put a negative or positive criticism on page one. But it is a major cultural event. If the opera redoes Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for a portion of our readership, that’s an important cultural development. It happens once every 50 years. Why isn’t that news?
HEFFNER: I have to ask you a follow-up question though. And that is: What happened in terms of the presentation – you say you moved it to inside the paper – what happened to the presentation of that other news and to its audiences? Was there as much involvement, is there as much involvement with the hard news? You’ve explained why soft comes up front and has its proper place. What happened to the stuff that was hard in a society that is becoming softer and softer?
FRANKEL: I have to change your vocabulary.
FRANKEL: I did too, at the beginning, talk about “hard” and “soft.” What journalists mean by “hard news,” if you think hard about it, is that which happened yesterday. An event. Half the time staged for us. A news conference, a meeting, a summit meeting, a bill signing. That used to be called “hard news.” And “soft” was something where, as I say, we discovered an important trend in the lives of our society, where suddenly we discovered that people were or were not turning away from the Democrats, people were or were not turning against the idea of busing to schools. If you’ve discovered a trend, and at that moment kind of put the knife into the cake and opened it up and said, “This is what it’s made of,” that was soft. Because why? Nothing happened. That’s been the only difference between soft and the hard news. And I submit that what happened yesterday, the word “yesterday” appears still in about half the stories on the front page of The New York Times. But it used to be on every story, and there used to be 15 of them. And most of them were what have been rightly called pseudo-events. Events largely staged either to fool the people that things were happening, or to lure the press into forcing attention onto some event. They’re not real events. And why what is happening should be less important than what happened, I’ve never understood.
HEFFNER: Yes, but that’s your definition of “hard” and soft.”
FRANKEL: Of course.
HEFFNER: I respect it. Others would define “soft” as materials that really don’t impact upon life and death. Maybe hemlines, etcetera, and you can stretch it out to the economy, to the impact upon people’s jobs, etcetera. I grant that. But I think what most of us have felt is that soft stuff is not day-before-yesterday rather than yesterday, is not tomorrow’s trend; it rather is the inconsequential as opposed to the very, very consequential. Is that …
FRANKEL: No. Unfair and … First of all, we don’t know consequence. The one thing we don’t do in the newsroom, believe it or not, is sit around and say, “What will be the consequence of our publishing this or of our putting it on page one or putting it on the inside?” Because, one, we don’t know; two, if we think we know – sometimes we whisper about that – we’re usually wrong …
HEFFNER: Oh, I didn’t mean the consequence of where you put it. I meant this is an important item for the people of the United States. Consequential. Consequent in that sense.
FRANKEL: Oh, I daresay that the front page of The New York Times, for well-educated readers who are willing to give us a half-hour or 45 minutes a day, is overwhelmingly devoted to things of consequence, in world, national, business, social, cultural affairs. Overwhelmingly.
HEFFNER: Well, you see, that was my other question. The question has to do with, in your analysis of what your readers do with The New York Times, is there as much interest, is there as much attention paid to the, let’s say political, not the stage, necessarily, but the political, the, I guess I don’t know how to do it because I think of my own definition of “hard,” the hard stuff.
FRANKEL: Well, but you see, the hard stuff itself, what’s happened, you can’t divorce all this from what’s happened to society. My editorship happened to coincide with the end of the Cold War. And I devoted my entire life to reporting the Cold War, both in Moscow, abroad, in Cuba, and in Washington. The fear of war was drained from Americans’ psyche in these last ten years. That is a profound event, first of all, that has to be reported and analyzed. The dangers of isolation on the one hand, and the shift to economic concerns as opposed to military was dramatic in those ten years. And that was the mission of a conscientious newspaper. We literally wrote memos to one another and to our foreign correspondents. And we said, “As this happened, what is important now in France is not whether their Communist Party is still going to be revived, because the grant seat of communism has collapsed. And therefore, whether some Communist is elected mayor in some city, and therefore possibly the French government is going to go weak on NATO, is hardly of great moment. “But how the French are dealing with nuclear power in their society and whether they are building reactors safely, and whether they have anything to teach us, how they treat the elderly, and whether wine, I daresay, ruins your health or is good for you, as our doctors are suddenly claiming, those are important things in the lives of Americans. And therefore, the nature of the news of France is going to change. We have as many, indeed, we have more people in France than we had at the height of the Cold War. We’ve got a cultural correspondent in Europe who’s looking to see what’s going on on the stages and in the institutions of the opera houses and the theaters all across the continent. That’s news. There was no room for that when we were all busy fighting for Berlin. But the nature of society, the nature of events has changed, and we’ve got to respond. Our foreign correspondents have to learn economics. We’re dumb about international trade. We really don’t understand how the Japanese evolved and got crawled into our society and are taking over half of Asia, and what the Chinese are going to do with their economy and what that’s going to mean for jobs in America. Those are the things that are now news. And they’re slow-burning trends. And no one in Beijing is calling at press conference to say, “We will bury you.” But they might, if we don’t report those things.
HEFFNER: The fascinating thing, to me, is that you’ve said here in different ways, “We’ve got to respond, and you can’t separate it out, what we do, can’t separate it out from what’s happening to society.” The dumbing-down, as it has been called, of society. Do you think that’s a fair description of what’s happening to society, to some extent, there’s been a dumbing down of American society?
FRANKEL: There has been a multiplication of the broadcasting of the dumb things that always existed in our communications, yes. But there has been a multiplication of everything. The nature of communications is exploding in such a way, there is so many hours to be filled by people who are prattling and claim to have something to tell us. Whereas what it is they have to tell us has not grown nearly by that amount. That the dumber things keep reverberating, that is true. And certainly, if you turn on television from morning ‘til night, the proportion of dumbness to anything of consequence and meaning. But it wasn’t any different back in the days when you and I were scoffing at The Daily Mirror or the Journal American, the yellow press.
HEFFNER: Yes, but Max, that was different. We could scoff at the Mirror and the News and the Journal, the yellow journal, and a lot of those papers; not at The New York Times. We could never scoff at anything that appeared there. So the question that I’m really putting to you: Does the dumbing-down have to be reflected, by definition, when you …
FRANKEL: Oh, I don’t think The New York Times can be fairly accused of having dumbed-down. Not at all. On the contrary.
HEFFNER: It smarted-up.
FRANKEL: It smarted-up. Absolutely. It is engaged in a perpetual chase with the nature of knowledge in our society. It is, as an editor, the single most frustrating thing was that, every time we hired three smart people to go and learn about microbiology, you know, Natalie Angier, she’s a poet telling us about what’s going on in molecular science. You hire her and you no sooner find out that astrophysics is the next frontier. And who knows from astrophysics? And the same is true in business, and the same is true in international relations, because I said, it’s gone economic from diplomatic. And we’re well stocked with people who know all about missiles and who finally have learned how to cover the Pentagon and who finally know how to get the truth about a military operation. And the next thing you know, we’re really dealing in the American content underneath the hood in some automobile, and whether it should be allowed in with this much tariff or that much tariff. And that’s the war of today. And are we well-staffed? The nature of what’s important to know. We are forever chasing it. Because, after all, we don’t just change staffs every day. We try to keep people for a career. And knowledge and news is exploding away from us, and we’re in a perpetual race. So, to the extent that we are dumb, it’s because we aren’t smart enough to understand the difficult and intellectual subjects that we need to master and somehow turn into understandable news. If that’s what you mean by “dumb,” we are often wrong and infantile in that sense. But not in the sense that we’re going tabloid or soft or weak in our curiosities.
HEFFNER: You’re so wonderfully, wonderfully articulate, Max, you need a person who’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am to, not necessarily counter, but to ask you the hard next question, which I can only ask and you can’t answer, because we don’t have time. That is: What is the impact upon the paper, the content of the paper, of the hunt, the search for circulation? That, I wish you’d stay around and do another program with me, and discuss that, because that is the big issue of our times, isn’t it? Survival?
FRANKEL: Not circulation.
HEFFNER: What is? Ten seconds.
FRANKEL: The willingness of the reader to pay for what it costs us to give them the information we need. Whether we’ve got a million or 1,500,000 is not the issue. But the advertising has gone to other media, and will the reader support us in what we’re doing.
HEFFNER: Max, you put a nice finish on it. Thank you for joining me today.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”