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Max Frankel

Some Old and Some New Views on the News, Part II

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, Part II
VTR: 12/9/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’ve just finished two of the most interesting program tapings I’ve done in a long, long time with Max Frankel, the retired executive editor of The New York Times who now does, in retirement, a column in the Sunday Magazine section. And having finished the two programs, I prevailed upon Mr. Frankel to stay with me to do another one, wing another show. Because I think the question of news and news coverage in America is so important. So, here we are.

Max, thank you for joining me again today.

FRANKEL: It’s a pleasure.

HEFFNER: You know, we’ve touched on so many questions here, I don’t even know which one, I don’t know how many of the others that I have left to ask you about to start with. But we talked about the importance of the news, and you’ve talked about keeping up with the nature of society. One of the things, one of the questions that has come up so often has to do with the fairness of the media. I mean, people asked about the fairness of the media frequently come up with very negative responses. And I wonder what your own sense about that is, print, electronic, alike.

FRANKEL: First problem is “the media.”

HEFFNER: You don’t like that phrase?

FRANKEL: No. There’s no substitute. I find myself using it after long resisting it. No, the problem is it’s plural. And it’s so fast that people’s impressions are created, it’s no different than “the crowd, the mob.” “I can’t stand the traffic in New York.” Well, there are lots of places where you can walk quietly. The media are, in the aggregate, quite responsible. That is to say, my colleagues in television, whatever the limitations of the medium, and however insufficient the amount of good reporting that goes on in television, Rather, Jennings, Brokaw, these people, McNeil, they’re fair-minded people, they’re honest, hardworking people, they understand the issues. But along can come a Geraldo, and appear to be doing a news interview with some sleazebag, and that also is “the media.” And all of us are painted with this brush of irresponsibility or triviality or whatever else we’re being accused of. That’s one answer to the question of fairness.

The other is, “What do people really mean by ‘fairness’?” When I was growing up, we all could very quickly, on a newsstand, pick out the newspaper that best reflected our prejudices, or the limits of our own understanding and education. And, you know PM or The Star in New York City for the lefties; and The Journal American and The World Telegram and Sun for the righties; and The Herald Tribune for the suburban businessman; and The New York Times for the Columbia University professor. And we all had our spectrum to choose from. And we all felt that we were being well served. And the fact is that most of these newspapers were looking at the world through different glasses. And as long as the reader felt his or her outlook was being reflected, they saw fairness. What has happened in the printed press is that, as competition has driven out most of the press, as much of the news interest and much of the entertainment value of newspapers has gone to radio and then to television, we’re left – New York City is the exception; we’ve still got four or five vibrant newspapers, and we’ve got a wonderful ethnic press in the wings – but in most American cities now you’ve got one local newspaper, and it is trying to march down the middle of the road, and it has to suit the lefties and it has to suit the righties, and it has to suit the less well-educated, and it has to meet the needs of the elite. And the result is that no one finds it satisfying, and no one finds it fair enough, because their own points of view and their own outlook on life is not well enough represented.

So, when you take that sentence and try to parse it, “the media,” what are you talking about? Which one? And are they fair? What do you mean by “fairness”? Do we look at the world the way you do, or the way a blue-collar, unemployed fellow does? Those are radically different outlooks. And their sense of fairness is different.

HEFFNER: What’s your sense of fairness?

FRANKEL: Oh, ho.

HEFFNER: It’s a fair question, now, Max.

FRANKEL: My sense of fairness is that all that journalism can accomplish is cumulatively to peel the onion of understanding, and to keep correcting, day by day, our sense of what is going on and why it is happening, as it affects our lives and our understanding of the world around us. The most important word in what I’m saying is “cumulative.” On any given night, the best of, most brilliant of our reporters, and the best that ever lived, at five p.m., when that reporter is through running around town and reading books and looking up things in a hurry and interviewing people, that reporter, he or she, sits down, they don’t know the half of what they’re writing about. And all they can say, in effect, is, “As of this hour, dear reader, it seems to be that this and this is happening. And it seems to be this is why it’s happening. And it may be that so-and-so is not entirely happy with what is happening.” And then tomorrow we learn that six more people are unhappy with what’s happening, and that the consequences of that situation are evolving. And we go on and on and on. And some days all of this turns out to be trivial, because nothing happens. We have written, say, about health insurance, for 30 years, and it somehow doesn’t get into the hearts and minds of the population or into the political debate, and so all that newsprint and all that energy is largely wasted because the receptivity isn’t there. Communication is a two-way act. Most people say, “You’re telling me,” the media, “You are doing this to me.” But in fact, we, in the media, can’t do anything until you’re willing, really, to listen. Just buying the paper or turning on the TV isn’t enough. You’ve got to be ready for that particular issue at that particular moment as explained by that particular writer or commentator or reporter. The best example in our lifetime was Vietnam. A lot of the reporting that we can look back on, which was quite brilliant, about how we weren’t winning the war and what were we doing there anyway, fell on very limited number of ears. It was all in the paper. It was all on page one. David Halberstam and others later became heroes because of what they did, or Homer Biggert. Most people don’t even remember that Homer Biggert was in Vietnam for The New York Times. Because those were the early stages. Why? No one was being drafted. No one was being, the ground forces weren’t being sent. The body bags weren’t coming back. The receptivity of the audience is radically different.

Now, let me take you to my favorite example of what’s fair. The least fair portion of any newspaper in America is the sports section. Because it is cheering for the home team. It is writing about the Mets or the Jets in New York, or about the Redskins in Washington, the way we all wrote about our boys in World War II. Are we winning, or are we losing? There was a contest. There were two sides to the battle. But we were interested in the fate and welfare of our side. But what would happen, imagine, if the Mets and the Yankees were in the World Series? Suddenly The New York Times would be schizoid. Suddenly The New York Times’ sense of fairness would have to leave the Yankees, which it had followed faithfully, or the Mets, which it had written about in their league, and suddenly presented the contest as fair, write about it in a very different way than we would if the Yankees were playing the Redsox in that World Series. What has changed? The sympathies and the biases of the audience have changed. And although they are not writing to us; we are addressing them, the nature of that audience, the receptivity and its biases will affect almost overnight the way in which we address them. If everybody is against racial prejudice in the North, we write about what’s going on down there in those terrible states in the South in one way, but if you’re a newspaper, even a very progressive and liberal newspaper, in the South, back in the days of official racial segregation, where the pillars of the community are endorsing Jim Crow laws, you write about it even if you’re against it. In a very different tone of voice. Because the nature of your audience is different.

So what the audience demands – they may not believe it, and I know that I would be pilloried for this point of view – but I’m, say, arguing, that the nature of the fairness or unfairness, and perception of fairness, depends in very large degree to whom you are addressing and how that audience is perceived by the medium that is addressing them. It’s a very complicated, interactive system, even though people don’t see it as interactive.

HEFFNER: Why did The Times oppose the National News Council, which, after all, was simply trying to assure us to the best of its minor ability of some modicum of fairness?

FRANKEL: The Times, actually, you know, The Times was many voices. Abe Ruskin and lots of other people at The Times not only favored the National News Council, I think Abe, when he retired, went to work for them.

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

FRANKEL: Abe Rosenthal, my predecessor as editor, and I, were philosophically opposed. And here comes the other part of our freedom-of-press issue, and that is the relative absolutism of our belief in a fair press. A National News Council, by our standards, will sit down and try to adjudicate the fairness or the unfairness of this or that newspaper. By whose standards? Does the National Inquirer – to make it a little more difficult – does The New York Post have a right to steal our news stories and rewrite them? Do they have a right to print half-naked girls? Do they have a right not to send correspondents around the world and not to give their readers any sense of foreign affairs? Do they have the right to pretend to be a newspaper, when, by our lens, by our lights, and by our standards, they’re not even fit, you know, to light the fire with? Free press. Whose standards? We didn’t want any self-appointed group of people to decide what the right standards are for free expression in this society. It’s a big, philosophical debate. I’m, I remember back in high school when I was first assigned a speech on the issue of censorship, on a tough case, they gave us a very tough case, young minds were being despoiled. Of course I’m for censorship, in many circumstances. But I couldn’t think of anybody I would ever trust to be the censor. So, of course, I’m for standards in newspapering and in speech. But I can’t think of anyone, not even myself, that I would trust to be the arbiter of what’s right and wrong.

HEFFNER: Was it really so much being the arbiter of what’s right or wrong, or being the inquirer, being the vehicle through which a newspaper or another journal could be questioned about, “How did you get to this point, not because we can punish you or anything of the kind, but to help you self-examine?”

FRANKEL: But that’s happening. Fortunately, there are enough journals of criticism, there are enough commentators. I mean, I think you and I have already discussed how a few modest decisions about changing a few of the stories on page one on The New York Times have made us the subject of attack, everything from going soft, we’re going tabloid, we’re being criticized left and right for being multicultural, for being too politically correct, and all the other charges leveled at us. There is much lively discussion about who we are and what we do. The Columbia Journalism Review, the American Journalism Review, within the profession. And most of all, we are responsive in ways that most people, I think, don’t understand, and that is to our readers. The fact is that because everything we do is public, and because it is on the record, unlike television, where, if you weren’t watching that 30 seconds, it’s gone, we’re there to be passed around, to be xeroxed, up and down the halls of General Motors. And if we offended anybody at any level of that corporation, they have organized lawyers, and they have public relations people, and they are after us. And many is the day when I would spend half a day finding out why the hell that story was sloppy in the sixth paragraph, because all hell was breaking loose. Or at the White House. My God, minions by the hundreds chasing down every last sentence as to whether Maureen Dowd chose the right adjective in describing the president’s hair or haircutter. That process of challenge and self-correction, the next day or the next week, when we find out we better do it again and do it right. We are more critical of ourselves than anybody can understand. I used to say that the only time I can enjoy The New York Times is when I’m not at work, because it’s a wonderful paper, but the minute I set foot in the office as editor, all I heard about from morning to night was what had gone wrong. Which story had misfired.

HEFFNER: Let me ask a question that I asked you before in one of our previous half-hours. And that is: Why is there such a reluctance to share this self-examination with the public, not internally, but externally? Because there is that sense of media arrogance? New York Times arrogance? Yeah. Media arrogance?

FRANKEL: Well, again, it’s media, media, media. In our case, we feel very strongly that, more than any other newspaper, not only is every word that we utter in print and out there for all to see, keep, treasure, repeat, and pass around, that all the rest of the stuff is backstage stuff. That, you know, how many times I ream out a reporter, and how we go about the process of self-correction, if we don’t satisfy the reader, we haven’t done it. It doesn’t matter that we feel we’ve been fair or we’ve done it right. If the story out there finally hasn’t got General Motors in the right perspective for most of our readers, whether Mr. General Motors is happy with us or not doesn’t matter so much, because fortunately we are rich enough not to depend upon his advertising alone. But if we feel and the broad mass of our readers feel that the way we are covering General Motors or Wall Street or Clinton or Bush doesn’t meet their needs, that’s all that matters. We can do all the explaining we want to. We can tell them that backstage we’ve spent billions putting on this theater for you, but if the songs are no good, what the hell are we going to accomplish? It’s our compact with our readers that ultimately matters. And they either feel satisfied or frustrated. And they’ll let us know.

HEFFNER: Max, you debated in high school. Every debater is trained to take the opposite point of view. If you were to argue for some kind of, let’s say, not the National News Council as we knew it, some kind of professionalization of the individual journals’ responsibilities, how would you …

FRANKEL: Where would I start?

HEFFNER: Yeah. What would you say?

FRANKEL: I would challenge every newspaper and every news medium to try to define their own standards for themselves, but to articulate it and to try to make it public. We’ve never done that.

HEFFNER: Why, by the way? All we read is “All the news that’s fit to print.”

FRANKEL: One, because it’s constantly changing; and two, because it is a very difficult thing to do, except by the case method. We all can realize … I mean, 20 years ago our reporters were taking favors from the people they write about. Trivial. They were accepting an extra seat in the theater if they were covering the theater, they were taking their brother-in-law to the basketball game if they were covering the basketball game. At a certain moment it dawned on us, or through various incidents it might have dawned on some other newspaper, that this was not only very compromising, but it exposed a complicated relationship, a symbiotic relationship, where we need the people who run the enterprises that we cover for information, but on the other hand, we need independence from them to be perceived of writing about them fairly. So the whole issue of how we relate, at the most trivial level, to a sports team. Nobody ten years ago would have sat down and written out that complicated relationship in a way that satisfied our standards. And if they had, it would have changed within two, three years as something happened.

HEFFNER: Like The New York Times Stylebook?

FRANKEL: It is … Oh, yes. The New York Times Stylebook is basically, I think you can still buy it in print, but we’ve got it on a computer that’s being updated constantly.

HEFFNER: But there it is. Style more important than standards?

FRANKEL: But it changes every two days.

HEFFNER: So?

FRANKEL: No. You can’t anticipate. What do we do now? You know, the President of the United States calls up and says, “I hear you got a story about a submarine that we found, a Russian submarine that we found near Hawaii. I want you to hold up printing that.” What are our standards? Our standards are to sit down and examine that request. Usually in great urgency and with much excitement and tension as to how valid it is and why and what, where, what do we live by and how much do we owe our government and how much do we owe our readers and how do we know at any given moment what is the right thing to print. Very hard to codify that in advance. You can codify simple things, and those we’ve done. We will not go through the world, you know, pretending to be who we’re not. We will not disguise ourselves to get the news. But if another newspaper wants to put on a costume and disguise itself and come up with an interesting story, that’s their standard. Who are we to give definition or limitation to the First Amendment.

HEFFNER: You know, Max – I say this to my students, I say it to anybody who will listen – I’m an old man now. I’ve lived through a lot. I haven’t been involved in a tremendous number of public events, but in each and every public event, when I’ve read the reportage …

FRANKEL: No good.

HEFFNER: … no good.

FRANKEL: Right.

HEFFNER: Absolutely no good.

FRANKEL: Sure.

HEFFNER: Just a fact of life?

FRANKEL: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That anybody is going to feel that way?

FRANKEL: I’m an old man, and I don’t even recognize my voice when I hear it played back on a tape. My God, is that what I sound like?

HEFFNER: Oh, come on. That …

FRANKEL: No, no, it’s true. It’s absolutely true. How we perceive events. I mean, what goes on in your mind when you make a speech? You have words, you have motive, you have appearance, you have a sense of audience, you have a hidden agenda as well as a public agenda. When you decide with your family where you’re going to go on vacation, look at the compromises and the complicated maneuvering that goes on. Who, and how is a third party who stumbles upon that event going to report it? It will never seem to you, a participant, the way it does to that. In the most elementary journalism schools, you know, they stage a little event. Two people walk in front of a classroom and bump into each other and get into a fight. Twenty conscientious, honest students sit there with no hidden purpose except to report accurately what happened. And they’ll give you 19 versions of what happened. Maybe two of them will be alike.

HEFFNER: You know, Max, in the three half-hours we’ve done – and this one is almost over – there’s no answer that sounds quite as unsatisfactory that you’ve given me …

FRANKEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … as that one. You know, there remains so much. We’ve talked about fairness, we’ve talked about the National News Council. Overall, it seems to me that the largest question we have before us is what – you used the word “trivialization,” I didn’t use it, at one time – the sense of trivialization of news. And I asked you the question about dumbing-down. And you answer is terrific: You’re not dumbing down you’re not dumbing down at The Times; you’re smarting-up. You think, as one looks at American society you can say, “Yes, there’s something to, a lot to this phrase, ‘dumbing-down’?”

FRANKEL: No, I think the nature of what it is that we are capable of learning and understanding is getting so vast that in relation to it we are dumbing-down. That is to say, we’ve built a Tower of Babel. That is to say, we’re reaching up to the heavens of understanding life and understanding the nature of life and the nature of human beings, even though we still don’t know how the brain works and the mind works and so on. And look how each of us, the brightest of us, how dumb we are about so many things. That’s the problem.

HEFFNER: Max, one minute left to this. Tell me about circulation and its role, dollars, their role in this great newspaper, The New York Times.

FRANKEL: We are fortunately – knock wood – running a very good and successful business. But it keeps getting more and more expensive. And the nature of business, the nature of technology, is changing. After all, what is a newspaper? It takes trees in Canada and chops them down and ships them to Times Square and pours words over them and puts them on the backs of trucks and starts chasing readers that keep moving farther and farther away from us. That’s a very expensive process. Our future, I hope, is that all of the delivery of the news will become cheaper and more electronic, and we will reach our readers by much less expensive ways, and that more and more money can be devoted to the gathering of information, to the hiring of talent, and to the more intelligent presentation of news.

HEFFNER: Electronic from the reporter to the paper, to go into print, or electronic …

FRANKEL: Both.

HEFFNER: … from The Times to the reader?

FRANKEL: That first part is already happening.

HEFFNER: Right.

FRANKEL: But to the reader, I would think in the next few decades methods will evolve by which you will get some kind of a wonderful newspaper – it may not look much like the present one – in your home, or even to take with you on the bus, that will be essentially electronic. That isn’t for a long time. The New York Times is still worth investing in and buying, it’s a wonderful thing. But most of all, what The New York Times is is a way of looking at the world intelligently, and it does not and will not always depend upon the trucks racing around Times Square.

HEFFNER: Max Frankel, thank you for joining me today. All I can say is I’m glad I won’t be around in that electronic future.

FRANKEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But thanks.

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.”