Lou Boccardi

The Press, Politics, and Power

VTR Date: November 2, 1991

Guest: Boccardi, Lou


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Louis D. Boccardi
Title: “The Press, Politics and Power”
VTR: 11-2-91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and there are so many things I want to discuss with today’s guest, that he’s already agreed to settle in so when we finish this program we’ll just move on to the next, always with our focus on the media in America.

For as President and Chief Executive for some years now of the Associated Press, the world’s largest news-gathering organization, Louis D. Boccardi plays an enormously important role in helping determine what we Americans know – and what we don’t know! – about the world around us.

And about the importance and power of the press – both print and electronic – Lou Boccardi has even moved somewhat over the years I’ve known him from the newsman’s traditional insistence that “there’s no one in here but us chickens”, that the media really only report and reflect the contemporary world…they don’t at all mold it.

Indeed, a few years ago, at Columbia’s School of Journalism, Lou Boccardi quoted a distinguished journalistic friend as insisting that the press has lost power in America to politicians that “the press has unknowingly relinquished its historic agenda-setting role to the political leadership…that…thanks to the sophisticated tools of advertising, now politicians too often set the terms of our national debate…that the press has increasingly lost some of its relevance to society…and that politicians, not editors, make our major decisions”.

But, ever fair-minded, my guest also quoted some historian and academic as noting instead about the press: “It defies imagination even to measure the power – greater with each passing year – of those who report and select and interpret what alone we see and hear and come to think we know of the world around us…and by that very power mold what we imagine, too. Never has such great power rested in so few hands, power that ultimately finds no real counterpart anywhere else in American life”.

And I want to ask my guest whether both aren’t correct…that the President and the politicians are ever more powerful, but largely because they have learned to control the press in their way, the press that itself in turn exercises ever greater power as the mechanism or the means for setting our national agenda.

Mr. Boccardi has commented on the incredible “intensity” of the American press. Well, isn’t that “intensity” the very means of press power that has itself come to be the plaything of the political community, that is the object of politicians’ “spin control”? They are more powerful because it is more powerful…and only the citizenry is ever less so…increasingly demonstrating that sad fact with ever increasing political apathy. So, Mr. Boccardi, I begin by asking whether both points aren’t true. Sure, the politicians have become more powerful, but hasn’t the press, too, in its way?

Boccardi: I, I know I risk spoiling the rest of the conversation by asking you to cite for me the speech in which I said “nobody’s here but us chickens”, or maybe we should go, go on beyond that. You like to use the word “power” in this context, in these conversations. And I would prefer to talk in terms of “reach” and “intensity” and even a kind of omnipresence that the media have today as there are ever more means of disseminating news and, and information. I don’t think that “power” is exactly the word that, that describes the function we play. I have said in the past that one of the complaints about the media is that the media is everywhere. Ungrammatical, maybe, but not, not far from, from the truth. So, yes, there’s pervasiveness, especially at the time of a major news event. You, you can’t escape it because it comes at you as a citizen from so many directions. So, yes, intensity…absolutely. A greater reach…absolutely. Power in the same sense that the public official, the President, the Senator, the Secretary of something or other can exercise power…I’m not ready to sign on to that.

Heffner: When you say “intensity”, and I think it is a darn good word, “impact” perhaps…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …but aren’t the politicians now learning to use that intensity? Aren’t they using, with their spin control what it is that you and the press can do? I, I…someday you must tell me why you don’t like the use of the word “power”, but maybe that’s because you think hat power may tend to corrupt, and you don’t want to think of the press that way.

Boccardi: Someone said that.

Heffner: I think so. I think so.

Boccardi: I, I think it’s true that the politicians are becoming more skilled at, at using the press. But that’s not something that was invented in the 70s or 80s or in the first year of the 90s. There are the “spin doctors”. There is a higher level of sophistication to the management of the media aspects of a political campaign, or political career. It’s our job to do what we can to make sure that those devices are not more successful, but less successful.

Heffner: Well, what do you mean “less successful”?

Boccardi: That we find ourselves better able to detect the “spin doctor” and his prescription and that we provide to the people who are the ultimate target of that the antidote which in, in the case of political “spin doctoring” might be the real record of that individual…might be what, what really has this person done in office, as opposed to what those commercials would like you to think.

Heffner: But, there have been those who have said that the press is, of necessity, so much now in them, in the position of searching out mass markets…searching out mass audiences…maybe that’s what television, the electronic press did to the print press…that it must respond to the politicians manipulations and that it responds much more now than it did, let’s say 50 years ago. You say it’s not something new. Is there no qualitative difference in the control that the politicians have now over the usage of the media?

Boccardi: I, I react a little bit, again, to one of the words you used, and that is “control”. I wouldn’t agree with the notion that the politicians control the media, and I think if next week, or the week after you sat a politician here and asked him about that, I think he would find the notion unrealistic. They, they are not “controlling”, they are more skilled at manipulation and it’s our job to make sure that it doesn’t succeed.

Heffner: But, but…you see you don’t like the use of the word “power”, and you don’t like the use of the word “control”, but there is a kind of relationship and if I, as a politician know what is going to make you jump, of necessity, because you must feed your print customers, or you must feed your electronic customers, don’t you follow suit? You, you…I think you’re taking the word “power” or the word “control” and making them into evil words.

Boccardi: There’s an assumption in what you said there, Dick, that our need to, to find an audience, our need to serve an audience is served only if we jump at whatever it is this manipulator tries to foist on us. I think the opposite is true. I think our value to that audience goes up to the degree that we can help the audience cope with whatever it is that’s being manipulated or foisted or, or put forward by the politician, or any of the other manipulators. We seem to have seized on politicians, but there are so many interest groups and believers in this or that cause. It’s the same process. It’s not just the politicians that we’re talking about.

Heffner: Yeah, but analysts of the press seem to feel, as the person you quoted at Columbia…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …that it is the politician who now, and particularly the White House, that now calls the shots. And you think not.

Boccardi: The White House is in many respects, the news center of this country, and that’s not because we in the press have, have somehow gotten together and then had some secret meeting and made that decision. What happens in the White House affects everybody in this country, and in many respects everyone in the world. So it is a news center. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that there is this great emphasis on what happens there. For us the issue is what you do with what happens there. If there is one of these…to pick up a phrase from a few campaigns ago…a “rose garden campaign”…what do we do about that? We go out and try to report, through our own initiative some of the things that are not being raised in the campaign. So, you know, it’s as though we sit waiting for someone to, to dictate a tune to say, “Okay, here’s what you all should do today”. It’s not like that at all.

Heffner: No, I…and it never occurred to me that it was like that. It never occurred to me that there was a meeting of the press moguls who said, “we’re going to do this, or we’re going to do what’s…But it seems to me that the dynamics of American life today dictate that what goes on in the Rose Garden is of such enormous consequence to you in the press. For instance, alright, we’re talking together here…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …at the very end of 1991. Soon we’ll be faced with another Presidential campaign…were you satisfied, personally, professionally, with journalism’s response to the campaign four years ago?

Boccardi: I don’t know anyone who was satisfied, fully, with the, the journalistic side of that campaign, or for that matter, any of the campaigns that I…that my memory can, can stretch across. There’s a curious thing that happens there…immediately after the campaign there’s this…a great introspection, and a pledge that next time we’re going to try to do it differently. And next time comes, and for all of us, I’m not speaking just now of our own efforts…for all of us, next time it gets a little bit harder to make it different and better than it…than we thought it might be right after the last one. There is a lot that we need to do differently and better in Presidential campaign coverage. Principally, we need to, to be able to do a more thorough job on issues, less subject to some of the image work, and manipulation and to make sure that we stay focused on matters that really have some resonance among the voters as opposed to the, the surface of the, the image of the piece of manipulation that may be somebody’s idea of how to get somebody elected, but may not be really serving the interests of the people in whose name we keep saying we do all, all that we do.

Heffner: Well, you know, I’ve been reading over the last 24 hours a number of Louis D. Boccardi speeches, and I thought I detected something that you just referred to here, very clearly. I remember when James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has been at this table. As a great historian he wants not to follow only the political deeds of the past, but he wants to bring the historian closer to what the people are thinking, what is going on with the people, what is of interest to them, what was of interest to them. That’s what you’re saying now, too, aren’t you? You, you’re…is it a populism on your part…how do you…how do you interpret this emphasis?

Boccardi: I never thought of it in terms of populism, but I think it’s a matter of…and you alluded to this a few minutes ago…a matter of serving the audience. We are in the news business, and it is a business, and if the audience is not, does not feel that it’s being served by what we do, it’s going to drift away. So, there’s an imperative that we try to meet the need…try to understand first, and they try to meet those needs. How do we understand? Well, you understand by looking at polls and the, of course, opens up another issue…whether there are too many of them, whether they are misinterpreted, and how they are interpreted and so on…you look at what the polls tell us, there…the, the interest areas are, and maybe the areas of confusion or the areas where we think we can contribute something by shedding some light on something that perhaps is misunderstood. You listen as much as you, as you possibly can. You read broadly in journals and the newspapers themselves. You listen to the commentators on, on the air. You try to develop some sense of the texture of this campaign, and try then to illuminate those pieces of it that it’s …that perhaps aren’t getting the illumination that they should.

Heffner: Do you feel that there is now, and will be in the New Year a different texture to this campaign then to the last or the last several?

Boccardi: Well, I…

Heffner: In terms of public feelings.

Boccardi: …Well, I think clearly economic issues will be a major piece of the next campaign. You don’t need to be a very astute political analyst to, to understand that. The tone of the campaign will be set, I think, somewhat by who the candidates are and the strategy that each side takes. You know the, these powerful forces do play against each other and do react to teach other a little bit. And I think that sets the tone of, of the campaign to some degree. I sense on the, on the part of the press – print and electronic – a greater determination this time to try to do some things differently. There was one effort, you may be familiar with it, with public television which did not advance for reasons that I don’t have a detailed understanding of, but there are some things emerging that, that say that there is going to be an effort to try to do this campaign from our…from the press perspective, with a little bit greater understanding. Now that doesn’t mean that on a given day when one of the candidates comes up with a great idea for a media event that we’re all going to sit home and say, “Oh, no, no that’s a media event, and we’re not going to go”. The likelihood is, is we’ll be there. I think we ought to be judged by what else we do.

Heffner: Now wait a minute, “ought to be judged by what else you do”?

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: But there are only 24 hours in a day, the last time I looked…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …and isn’t that just the trouble, that an event can force you to focus on what happens in the Rose Garden, or any place else? And that…

Boccardi: For some…

Heffner: …so that, that’s what I meant before, Lou, I wasn’t’ trying to say “those evil so-and-so’s in the press”.

Boccardi: That would be so unlike you.

Heffner: (Laughter) No, you think that that’s what I mean. I know you think that. It isn’t what I mean. What I’m interested in here are the dynamics of it.

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …whether perforce you mustn’t go where…in this instance perhaps the President of The United States takes you.

Boccardi: Sure. If the President of The United States decides to go and sit in a classroom in Maryland, if I’m remembering back a month or so correctly…we’re going to be there. And I think we should be there. Is there some image-making going on there? Absolutely, and we should be there to record it. But there are 24 hours, not 30 seconds, and there are a lot of other things you can do with the rest of that time. And that’s the piece I was talking about.

Heffner: And you’re suggesting that the press will treat the rest of the time differently in 1992…

Boccardi: I’m suggesting…

Heffner: …than they did in ’88.

Boccardi: Well, I’m suggesting that there is…I perceive a greater determination to do that this time. Whether it will be successful and how it will play out…I, I get paid to report what happened, not to predict. But there is a determination I think to try to do this one differently and better.

Heffner: But, Lou, let me ask you about that. Why? Why is there that determination? What has brought that about?

Boccardi: A lot of the things that you’ve said in the form of questions and comments here.

Heffner: You mean I wasn’t totally wrong?

Boccardi: Oh, you’re never totally wrong.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Boccardi: Just wrong enough to make a conversation worth having.

Heffner: Well, go ahead. What…what has brought that about? I mean why would you…this concerns me very much and I’m sure it does our viewers. Why would you do things differently now than in ’88?

Boccardi: Because I think there’s clearly a sense that there were issues insufficiently explored in ’88…the, the point you made a few moments ago about the “spin doctors” and the, the effort to, to cast…to, to shape a campaign without…with first reference to the political interest of one group or another. I think there’s a sense in the press that there was not enough independent work, not enough getting behind those…as we call them “photo ops”, and image…efforts at creating, cultivating images. We have an obligation to try to do more than that for the people in whose name we keep invoking when, when some press right is challenged. I think the people want us to do that. And that’s not partisan. That doesn’t mean that anybody has set out and said that “Boy, this time we’re going to do thus and so to George Bush”, or “Wait till the Democrats nominate whoever and we’re going to go do this to, to him”. This has…does not have a partisan context to it at all. It has much more to do with our trying to pierce the, the efforts that some people will make, and that’s not secret that they make them, to shape campaigns. We need to get behind those efforts to the degree that we can. And it’s very difficult. There are the cost pressures, there are time pressures, there are lots of reasons why it doesn’t always unfold the way we’d like to. But I’m describing what I think is a greater determination…what I perceive, anyway, as a greater determination in many facets of the press to try to do this one differently.

Heffner: You know, I knew that if I waited long enough that my own Aesopian language would fall by the side and you would say much better than I do, what it was that I meant to say. And, and you have…but, now…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …face up to this…are you now saying that you ladies and gentlemen of the press have made this decision, or are you really saying, and can you point to evidence, that the people you want to serve have really said to you, “Come on, fellas, do a different, a better job”. Now which, which, which is it, really?

Boccardi: I think there’s some of both. I cannot point to you…point out to you a, a finding that we saw and having seen that we then decided that there should be these other, these other efforts. And, and I want to resist a little bit the notion that there has been this grand meeting of the minds where we got together in a meeting which we, of course, didn’t report, and, and plotted this campaign. I’m talking about an emerging sense that I perceive and among my friends and cooperators and competitors in the press a sense that’s emerging of a determination to, to make the next campaign the best covered from our perspective. You, you don’t have to go very far to find people who, who say that they don’t find that the things they read about or see on television address what they’re really concerned about. We don’t have to go very far to find people who say, ”Well, yeah, it was in the paper but it’s the same old stuff”. You don’t have to go very far to find people who feel that somehow the, the press is just repeating what the politicians say and not getting behind it. So it’s not a single finding. I think I’m reflecting a sense that we all have. That we, we need to try to do the next one better. I guess listening to what we’ve said in the last few minutes, one could get a sense that the last ones have been absolutely horrible, that ’88 was no good and ’84 was worse and ’80 was terrible. I don’t think that’s quite the case, either. There is lots of good campaign coverage. There’s good issue coverage. But dull issue coverage is, is its own problem. You know it’s one thing to do it in a way that professors of economics would admire, but if it does not mean anything to the, the mailman or the, the secretary or the account executive then ewe haven’t gotten very far.

Heffner: But you see, my question really had to do with whether you have identified that the mailman and the secretary and the account executive, that they have been dissatisfied or are you and our colleagues, not in some grand conspiracy again, but one by one simply feeling a little distressed about what you have done, and have not done, and that you’re working this out as some, some grand demand by your constituency, by your public, by your readership, by your listener ship?

Boccardi: I think there’s some of both…I think there’s some sense on our part that we…as we look at what we do, and we are in many ways our own harshest critics, although some of the critics are pretty harsh. I think it’s a combination of, of that and, and also what we perceive as we look at discussions of, of the press by people not in the press. As we look at polls, as we…newspapers do focus groups, and, and look at, listen to what people say about what’s in the newspaper. So there isn’t a finding to which all of this is a reaction, there is more, I think, a, a general sense on, on our part that we need to try to make this one better. And we’re going to try.

Heffner: Lou, we’ve known each other for a long time and you’re the nicest gentleman I know. And…

Boccardi: You must not know very many. But…go ahead…

Heffner: Look…the question keeps coming up in my own mind: if you decide this is “spin control”…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …and we’re not going to respond to it, we’re just not going to…do you really think that you can withstand, for very long, the power of the Presidency, in particular to bring to the public an eagerness to know exactly what went on in the Rose Garden?

Boccardi: Oh, absolutely. Oh, absolutely they can. And we should report what went on there.

Heffner: Tell me what…yes, you should report, but you talk about emphasis.

Boccardi: We should report it, but we might also do a better job of explaining how that is a piece of spin control or whatever it, it appears to be. And if that’s a piece in, in the Rose Garden to do with some economic issue of some sort, let’s us also go out into the country and look at that issue. Or, whether it’s a matter of the geography…into the rest of the country, or, or simply stepping back and saying, “Now, here, dear reader (or viewer), are a few facts you might want to know while you watch this ceremony”. I, I think that’s an appropriate kind of response. I hope that nothing I said suggested that I think that we, that we are beyond being manipulated in the sense of an event being created that we must cover. There are so many examples of that…the whole question of terrorism…events are created that must be covered and, and we, we cover them. But in the political context, the issue is “Well, what else do you do? How do you help that reader or listener or viewer understand that issue”? Not in a partisan way, I think that’s the…that’s for, for objective journalism that’s a terrible trap and we must stay out of it. But if there is one of these grand events, let’s step back a bit and say, maybe after the sixth one, “Dear reader, this is, this is the storyline…here it is”.

Heffner: Lou, we’ve reached the end of this program, but I want you to know: a) that I’m going to be looking to see whether the press…how successful the press will be in doing that. And two, or b) I’m glad you said that you would stay here so that our viewers next week can watch us doing some kind of exchange over the media and the military. Thanks for joining me today.

Boccardi: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.