Sydney Gruson

The Press

VTR Date: August 20, 1982

Guest: Gruson, Sydney


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Sydney Gruson
Title: ”The Press”
VTR: 8/20/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Perhaps now, more than ever before, thoughtful Americans are concerned about the power of the press, convinced that it must be exercised fairly and responsibly, for we recognize now that in so many ways, our very sense of ourselves, our ideas about and knowledge of the world around us, about right and wrong, derive from the press. It may be, after all, as Will Rogers used to say, that “All we know is what we read in the papers”. And today, of course, what we hear on radio and see on television as well. These are the great gatekeepers between us and the real events of the real world. If they are fair and responsible and free, our chances for becoming a people informed and educated sufficiently to survive the incredible challenges of our times may become acceptable. If the media are not fair and responsible and free, if these gatekeepers are not straight and balanced and measured in their presentation of what little we can know about eh world outside. If, in presenting and interpreting the news, the press, print and electronic, brings us, is not honest as well as unbridled, accurate as well as probing, then indeed, we are in jeopardy. As I think we will be if the press does not recognize and take responsibility for its own power, with something other than wishful thinking and fancy words. That’s why, on The Open Mind today, I’ve invited a journalist long associated with a newspaper that I suppose more people have identified with real power than any other print medium of our time. Sydney Gruson joined The New York Times nearly 40 years ago, has served it as reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor. Today he is vice chairman of the board of The New York Times Company. Thanks very much for joining me today, Mr. Gruson.

Gruson: Nice to be here.

Heffner: I was reading from the teleprompter and I wasn’t looking at your face when I was talking about this “great power”, and therefore, the great responsibility of the press. But I know that many of my people who are friends, who are in the print media and in the electronic media, don’t like the notion of how much power they have. Are you one of those? Does it make you uneasy?

Gruson: No, it doesn’t make me uneasy. I was interested, in listening to your opening there, to hear you say “the press” repeatedly, and then you added “radio and television”. And I’m wondering if the question shouldn’t be turned around a little bit: Is the power of the press today what it was, say, 25 years ago; or are more Americans finding out about the world they live in and the things they want to know about from television rather than the press?

Heffner: Do you think that’s true?

Gruson: Yes, I think it’s true. I think probably most news garnered by Americans is gotten on the television screen, and not from the daily newspaper.

Heffner: But where does the television screen get the news?

Gruson: Well, it gets it from a variety of sources. Partly, of course, from the press. Partly, of course, from its own people in the field. Partly from the same variety of sources that the press gets it. A large part of it is configured, perhaps, by what the New York Times puts on its front page, which does tend to give you a sense of the importance of the paper. Those of us who have worked on the paper a long time, I think, have that sense of importance in reality, however.

Heffner: Could i…that’s really what I meant when you say, “Well, let’s look at the electronic media”. And I’m glad I paid my respects to the electronic media, of course. It seems to me that so often they get their clues from the printed press, from, in very large part, the New York Times or the Washington Post or…

Gruson: Well, let me turn around this situation and ask you a question. Do you think, for example, that the bulk of opinion on Vietnam was formed in America by the press or by the pictures they saw on their screens in their living rooms every night? Or, for example, what happened and what has been happening in Lebanon in the last few weeks. Has American public opinion been formed primarily, you think, by the press, the newspapers, or by the television pictures? It’s an interesting question, actually.

Heffner: What is your answer?

Gruson: My answer is probably, in both cases, that the television screen had more to do with forming the mass of public opinion than the newspapers had. Perhaps the most important opinion – if you can separate opinion into categories like that – perhaps the most important opinion was formed by those who read newspapers and read the length of the stories that we, for example, put into the New York Times, and the detail and the background. I think even the best television people would tell you that the national news broadcasts, in 30 minutes to cover what they have to do, is really the headlights or the headlines of the stories that have to be covered. And they, themselves, would suggest that if you want to be – I think they would suggest – if you want to be fully informed, if you want to know the details and the background of a story, that you pick up your daily newspaper and read about it.

Heffner: Mr. Gruson, you sound as though you’re torn a bit between indicating that when it comes to responsibility, let’s look at the electronic media, because they are the ones that have conveyed so much information or so many notices to the American public; on the other hand you also want to indicate that it is the printed press – to a very large extent, the New York Times – that has paved the way, set the theme.

Gruson: No. I don’t see how you can consider the influence of the press today without considering the influence of television. And I am split and torn, as you suggest. I am torn between knowing that we have an enormous amount of influence. We’ve seen it in any number of occasions, going back perhaps – in all my time on the New York Times, I’ve always heard about the power of the New York Times. I’ve seen it less influential than some people have believed at various times of my career. I’ve had some administrations in Washington complain about the reporting I did, saying that it was influencing the policies of the governments of the countries in which I reported, and therefore influencing American policy. I never really believed that. I think what they were concerned about is my premature disclosures, from their point of view, of stories they didn’t like, and that prevented them, perhaps, from carrying out or making a policy that they wanted to make and have bottled up before it got public. But I am torn – to go back to the original suggestion – between the effect of television and the effect of the newspapers. I think the mass of American opinion is formed primarily by the pictures they see on newspapers, particularly on national and international issues. I think the daily newspaper – not talking about the New York Times now – but the daily newspaper throughout the country has a powerful effect on local issues. On the questions that are in front of people’s minds about their daily lives and the communities in which they live. I think we have probably a bigger influence on the major national questions and the international questions.

Heffner: Of course, I began the program as I did by trying very carefully to talk really about the news media and to talk about the press, both in its print and in its electronic form. So that I wasn’t trying to distinguish between them. Rather, trying to lump them together. Distinguishing between them, certainly the Roper Polls, over the years, have shown that most people who have been polled say they get most of their information – increasingly they say this – about the world around them, from television. And they get it, indeed, from those seven o’clock nightly news broadcasts. But I think the point is also that if we leave the question of which of the media are we talking about, and deal with the news media generally, come again to the question of responsibility, whether it’s…

Gruson: is it responsible press, the American press?

Heffner: That’s the question that I want to ask you.

Gruson: Yes. On the whole it is a responsible press. Is it a perfectly responsible press? No, it isn’t. Is there a large amount of room for improvement? Yes, there is.

Heffner: Could I ask a different question?

Gruson: Yes.

Heffner: Is it sufficiently responsible?

Gruson: In my opinion, yes, it is sufficiently responsible, given all the circumstances that surround it. I want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding. There’s a large amount of room for improvement. But given the circumstances under which it works, day by day, trying to produce a product – I hate using the word “product” for a newspaper – but trying to produce a newspaper every 24 hours, as we do, for example, given the care – and now I’ll stick, I think, to the New York Times – given the amount of care that we try to put into it, given the checking effort, the editorial effort, the willingness we have to expend whatever amounts of money are necessary to cover the news as we see it fairly, honestly, completely and so on, I think we’re about as responsible as we’re going to get. The effort is always made to improve it, but i think we’re at a level that’s very hard to improve.

Heffner: do you think that’s true of the printed press generally?

Gruson: Well, I don’t know as much about the printed press generally as I know about the New York Times.

Heffner: But you know a good deal.

Gruson: I know a good deal, and I go across the country a fair bit, and I read a lot of newspapers. Am I happy with all the newspapers I read crossing the United States or going down into the South? No, I’m not. I think there’s a lack of concern among the papers for the coverage of the most important international news. There’s a lack of coverage for the most important national stories. There is an emphasis on a kind of journalism that i don’t particularly like, myself; but I understand why publishers conduct it. It’s appealing to people who want a quick read, who want an easy fix for their troubled minds, if you want, who want to read about the sensational events of life, who are more titillated by political chitchat than by political who-done-it-to-whom in Washington sort of thing. Says what they want instead of taking the time if you want to read a story about what went on in the Cabinet o what went on in the administration before a tax policy was evolved, and what influences went into the making of that tax policy.

Heffner: It’s interesting that you formulate it that way, because you talk about political chitchat. Certainly, the New York Times has changed since I first began to read it. My wife occasionally says that if I had to go to that proverbial deserted island that I would take one item with me, and it would be the New York Times. But if I took it today it would be far different than if I had taken it when I was a younger man and might have chosen some other medium. Seriously, there is so much by way of chitchat now, even in the respectable, good, gray New York Times. How come?

Gruson: There’s nothing wrong with chitchat.

Heffner: So there is nothing wrong with it?

Gruson: Well, there’s nothing wrong with chitchat in itself. What I was complaining about was the fact of how much of a newspaper is given over to chitchat. Take the New York Times. From the time I started in 1944, I believe, the paper had a different look, a different feel, a different heft to it, as it were. It was a paper, if you want, much more thoroughly tuned in to the graver events of life. We’ve changed considerably, as you’ve said. We now have, every day, as you know, a supplement – I guess you’d call it a supplement – Living section on Wednesday, Home section on Thursday, and Weekend on Friday, Sports Monday, and Science and Education on Tuesday. Not all of these are chitchat, but they are sections devoted, not to chitchat, but to servicing the read, if you want, to giving him information that makes his life easier to lead, more comfortable, gives him a little fillup to the serious side of the newspaper. In doing that, however, I think the important thing to remember is, I do not think we’ve dropped any serious side of the paper or the profound side of the paper. Whatever word you want to call it. The responsible side of the paper.

Heffner: You mean that nothing went out when all of that came in?

Gruson: Essentially, no. I’ll tell you some of the differences from the time I started on the paper and today. When I started, the Belgian foreign minister would make a speech, and the Times would devote perhaps half a column, three-quarters of a column to it. Because what the Belgian foreign minister said had a certain amount of importance in the world. Today, that won’t get covered. Or, it if does get covered, it will get covered by a paragraph or perhaps wrapped up into some other story. The way news is presented has shifted. The importance of news has shifted. But I don’t think that we would lose anything by the way we have changed our coverage of the news. You won’t miss the half column about the Belgian foreign minister’s speech, because what the Belgian foreign minister has to say today, while it is important in Belgium and perhaps in the neighboring countries of Belgium, does not really have that importance for the United States today.

Heffner: Did it then?

Gruson: Yes.

Heffner: And not now?

Gruson: Europe was a different power then. Europe had a different meaning at that time. Europe was the power, for example. It was only after World War II that we emerged as the dominant power in the world. The relationship to Europe changed enormously between World War I and World War II and then after World War II.

Heffner: What country then would you say today is the parallel in importance and significance to Belgium, and does it get the same coverage today that Belgium did then?

Gruson: I don’t know how to answer the first part of the question, but you can see by looking at the news, what happens now is covered extensively. And I suppose what country has the same importance as Belgium today? Japan, for us, if you want.

Heffner: Alright.

Gruson: Japan plays an enormous role economically, politically, for the United States today. We give Japan a great deal more coverage today than, say, from in between the wars until the crisis with Japan started in the 30s. But the Middle East is a different factor for the United States.

Heffner: The question really is, I think: Is the Times as much the paper of record as it was when we began to read it?

Gruson: Well, in the sense that it was when you began to read it, no, it isn’t. And we don’t pretend that it is. I think the paper of record was something put on us rather than claimed by ourselves. But I don’t think ever said we were the paper to record every single event in the world. I don’t think we ever did that. W recorded many more single events than we do now. I don’t think, if you look at the overall paper, that we, in one form or another, cover as much as we ever did in a different form, that we wrap many more things together to give people an idea of an issue. Rather than separating the issue out into a number of different countries, we’ll have a correspondent in Bonn or Paris and London, or maybe take that issue and wrap the whole thing up, rather than on a day-to-day basis, on a week-by-week basis. Not country by country, but on a whole area.

Heffner: You know, what I’ve done, of course, is just exactly what I didn’t want to do.

Gruson: You’ve got to the paper.

Heffner: I’ve talked about the Times, in particular, but got to it by asking you questions about this matter of responsibility and power. And I wondered, sometime back – and I did a program with him here—mike O’Neil, who had been the editor of his Daily News, as his farewell address…No. no. in his farewell address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, had some interesting things to say about what the press has done, taking a little more of the blame for our lot today in this nation than it seems to me you are willing to discuss. I’m talking about the adversary situation.

Gruson: I’m not unwilling to discuss it. It may be more of the blame than I’m willing to give it, but not to discuss.

Heffner: Well, what about that? Are you, when you said before, by and large, you’re satisfied with your own newspaper and the way it meets its responsibilities? You said less so with some papers in other parts of the country. What can be done, if anything, about those dark areas? They may not be black, but they’re gray. What would you do about them?

Gruson: You can either have people create such a pressure on the newspaper that the newspaper will be forced to improve, to change its ways, to take a more serious look at the world they live in or that their community lives in, and in the world they are trying to cover for that community, or you can have the papers get better from within. I would hope that…I don’t really find much reason to have hope that the first way will happen, that people will exert such pressures that they will let newspapers know that they better get better or else. After all, people have a way of voting on newspapers that they would practically nothing else. Any single day, you can decide whether you want that newspaper or not. You can go and pay your 15 cents, 20 cents, or a quarter, and you can let that paper know very easily that they’re not pleasing you. And the one thing they will pay attention to is the loss of customers, the loss in circulation.

Heffner: Well, that’s making the assumption that we care about shoddy in the area of information as perhaps we don’t care so much about shoddy in other consumer areas. You’re saying, “Let the buyer beware”.

Gruson: No, I’m saying it’s one-way. Now, the other way is…

Heffner: But the other way you’ve rejected.

Gruson: No, I haven’t rejected it. I said the other way is for editors to become better, for the newspaper itself to become better. I said there was lots of room for improvement earlier on. Let the newspapers become better, have better people being the editors of the newspapers and demanding more from their reporters and from the owners of the paper, if you want.

Heffner: But, Mr. Gruson, I don’t know what you mean by, when you say “Let them”. Of course, let them. But by and large, what the complaints have been focused on has been those areas of irresponsibility in the press; and saying, “Let them correct themselves,” isn’t really saying very much, is it?

Gruson: Well, now, are you talking about specific areas that the press commits, or are you talking about what kind of a press we have?

Heffner: Well, let’s talk about what kind of press that has increasingly put its emphasis upon the adversarial proceedings that seem to exist between the press and government, that seem to exist between the press and the rest of us outside of the press. Certainly – well, I would hope tat – you would concede that at times this posture of the press has gone too far, has not done us as much good…

Gruson: In its role as adversary to the government, to the administration? I don’t think you can ever go too far.

Heffner: You don’t?

Gruson: No. how can you go too far in, in effect, setting yourself up as the watchdog of government?

Heffner: Well isn’t one way by setting a climate of watchdogism, setting a climate of disbelief and lack of faith in those whom…

Gruson: Where we fall down and create the atmosphere of disbelief, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I think the – if you want to call it – the “Janet Cooke Scam” in Washington, of the Washington Post, the Cambodian scam in the New York Times Magazine, cause us, in the newspaper profession or industry or whatever you want to call it, terrible problems, because it did establish an atmosphere of disbelief among people. It had to. That maybe every story is tainted that way.

Heffner: Well, you’re talking about disbelief in the press on the part of the public that comes to know that mistakes were made. I’m talking about the kind of disbelief that Mike O’Neil spoke about when he talked about the disbelief that the press seems to generate in our public officials, and the feeling at large because muckraking has become so much the theme of the press in the past decade or so, perhaps since Watergate and Vietnam.

Gruson: Well, I’m interested that Mike would have taken that position, because it seems to me to hark back to the old idea of blaming the messenger for the news. This is the…there is something prevalent among people who study the press, is that because a situation happens, it’s the press’ fault. If that newspaper just had not written about that story, it never would have happened. I don’t believe that’s ever true. I think we do create, generate some extra add-on to certain stories, but the basic story happens not because of the press.

Heffner: You’re satisfied then, for the press in general, that in this country it simply reports, it does not too largely generate an atmosphere, an adversarial atmosphere, to permit our present political system to survive, to continue? Because it is based upon…

Gruson: I would argue it the other way. I would argue the other way. That if you did not have it, that the present political system would be endangered.

Heffner: But do we have to have it or not have it? Can’t we have a press that perhaps does not go, hammer and tong, after our…

Gruson: Why would you want it?

Heffner: Why I’d want it…

Gruson: Why would you not want a press looking as hard as it can at what the government is doing? The government is doing it for you, to you, by you. But why wouldn’t you want a press out there looking at what it’s doing? Would Watergate, would that whole thing have happened if the press hadn’t decided to look into it? Would what has been revealed have been revealed if it weren’t for the press? Was it good or bad for the press to have done it? My answer to all that, of course, is a very positive thing, that what the press did in Watergate. You’re suggesting that it wasn’t.

Heffner: No. what I’m suggesting is that one doesn’t have to give up the positive aspects of what a free press has done for us in this country if one gives up the less pleasing, the less pleasant, the more undermining aspects of press coverage. And that doesn’t, I think, cover Watergate alone. I don’t think it covers only the reporting on Vietnam.

Gruson: I lived in countries where there are only positive aspects of the press. And you wouldn’t read a story except when it suited the authorities. The purpose is for you to read that story. You would not read anything negative at all. And everything that’s presented in those newspapers created the most beautiful of worlds. It all happened to be wrong and untrue. It didn’t happen that way. That was not the life that h people of those countries were leading.

Heffner: Let me ask you about Mike O’Neil’s statement that “The media, in short” – and he covers television and radio and the printed press – “made a considerable contribution to the disarray in government, and therefore have an obligation to help set matters straight, or at least to improve them. The corollary of increased power is increased responsibility. The press cannot stand apart as if it were not an interested party, not to say participant, in the democratic process”. And he says his, or writes this, after he says that, “The extraordinary powers of the media, most convincingly displayed by network television and the national press, have been mobilized to influence major public issues and national elections, to help diffuse the authority of Congress, and to disassemble the political parties; even to make presidents or to break then. Indeed, the media now weigh so heavily on the scales of power that some political scientists fear we are upsetting the checks and balances invented by our forefathers; the power of the press”.

Gruson: Well, I just don’t agree with mike. You see, he’s told about a political process somewhat corrupted by the power of the press. And that hasn’t happened. If the process has been corrupted, it has been corrupted because the politicians have seen the power of a certain medium, and have seen what that medium can do, and have developed a political life concentrated on making that media, if you want, happy or satisfied with the way things are run for it. Now, are you going beyond that, or is Mike trying to go beyond that and saying that within this that the press has been responsible for a deterioration of certain standards within the political life?

Heffner: I think what he is trying to do is say, as others had said before him, that power tends to corrupt, and that…

Gruson: Somebody said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Heffner: Or tends to. And no one says that is has in the press. But I think Mike is saying – and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he seemed to have put the words on paper – that things aren’t quite as copacetic as you indicate, and that you seem to be more unwilling than he was in this…

Gruson: You say, “Unwilling” as though I believe something and I’m not willing to state it. I believe that the press is fairly responsible…is responsible in this country. And I said very early on, within the limits possible to it. I think you have a large section of the press that is as responsible as nay press in the world, and maybe more so because it’s freer than practically any press in the world. And for that freedom, those of us who read the press, those of us who work on the press, are going to have to take some limitations on that responsibility as it is exercised, because not all papers exercise that responsibility equally. But if you ask me to generalize – on an issue that large, I have to tell you that I think it is the most responsible press in the world, , that it does an amazingly good job, with all its faults, and they are numerous. And I go back each time to tell you that I think there is a vast amount of room for improvement. But, given that caveat, that press does an astonishingly good job. It makes people more honest I mean, people who are running this country. It makes people that have to deal with all the facts of life that affect all the millions of the people in this country take a second look at what they’re doing and then at whether they’re doing it. Can they now “get away with it”? And they have a different attitude towards governing the people, towards wanting to be a governor of the people, than they had many years back before the press took this, if you want to call it, adversary role. I don’t think there’s any other role for the press to play vis-a-vis the government.

Heffner: You’ve certainly made me feel much better, because I haven’t heard many people before who I respect as much as I respect you express such a positive point of view about the press today. Thanks very much for joining me today, Sydney Gruson.

Gruson Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again here on the Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”