Apr 1st 2017

The media: Still Afflicting the Comfortable

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The international media – particularly U.S. print and broadcast outlets -- are accustomed to high tension with the governments they cover in Washington. The press has always relished its adversarial, intrusive and disruptive role, and presidents have never liked it. In the 1930s H.L. Mencken defined the mission of the press as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”.

And yet a strange peace is now emerging between the reporters and White House spokesman Sean Spicer. At the level of press briefings, the hostility is easing off. I have been monitoring these daily confrontations for two months and can sense a working relationship in the air. There is much laughter at Spicer’s quips. Questions from journalists seem less charged with suspicion. Reporters are getting on with their jobs. And they can count on the president’s ill-considered Tweets for daily headlines.

David Halberstam, by Michael Johnson

David Halberstam, who died in a car accident just ten years ago, would have been intrigued. For his 771-page book The Powers That Be is an extended chronicle describing where the U.S. media came from, who the key innovators were and how their foresight has stimulated and directed public discourse. His narrative is the story of confrontation dating back to the birth of a powerful U.S. press in the 1920s.

Presidential politics loom large in this narrative. The book reads as a freshly told tale of high anxiety in Washington partly because history has a way of repeating itself. In many eerie passages, he echoes current controversies. He could almost be talking about the jittery climate around the administration of Donald Trump.

Speaking of White House press corps:

“The entire national waited on him; if newsmen misread the rules or transgressed even slightly, he could come down hard and quickly, indeed quite brutally, on them… He tried to shape every story. … He was so confident of himself, so sure that he was the ablest man in the country to govern, so aware in his own patrician way of his right to be doing what he was doing, that he seemed totally natural as President; it was a great art and he made it seem artless.”

His subject, Franklin Roosevelt.

And whose White House is he describing here?

“ … it was a new kind of presidency, with far more potential for manipulation and far less accountability, far more able to dominate the landscape, with a capacity to transmit its will far faster and more directly. The new conditions also meant that the inner texture of the President himself and the state of his psyche became ever more important, because the possibilities of abuse were greater than ever …”

Not Trump. His subject was John F. Kennedy and the sudden impact of political television.

Some of the great egos of the 1970s emerge vividly too, especially when performing at White House press conferences. Former CBS reporter Dan Rather felt the wrath of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson for betraying his origins and adopting East Coast ways. As Halberstam told it:

“The first White House press conference Rather covered, Lyndon Johnson simply refused to see him or acknowledge his question … All (Rather’s) bosses were watching. A lot of institutional manhood was riding on it, it was imperative for Rather to show that he had the clout to do his job.” 

Rather was never given a chance to ask his question.

Regrettably Halberstam is not around to write an update but 17 years ago he looked backward. He took a dim view of what has changed, mainly in the loss of individuality and panache. And he noted that media companies were more hungry for profits than Pulitzers Prizes. Indeed, he said, Time, Inc., had become – through acquisitions and investments – a forest products company with a magazine appendage. He said he felt his big book seemed as if it had been written 200 years ago, not 20.

Halberstam was a star reporter in his days at The New York Times, having made his name covering the Vietnam War. His skeptical coverage won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. He deserves credit for standing up to the good-news generals and politicians during his tour there, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He asked McNamara on a Saigon whirlwind visit whether the struggle in Vietnam was not a “bottomless pit”. McNamara, still trying to be hopeful at this stage, quipped, “No David. Every pit has a bottom.” Halberstam knew better. He had done his reporting.

Those habits served him well in backgrounding this complex story of the media as in the rest of his oeuvre that covered all his passions – some 20 books on such diverse subjects as baseball, basketball, the Kennedy-Johnson years, the Korean War and various social trends.

Halberstam was an old-fashioned reporter. He had no internet, no Google searches, no Wikipedia to rely on. He spent five years interviewing about 500 people, most of them face to face. He modestly called it “straight legwork”, for which there is no substitute. Reporting at his level was and still is a rigorous and demanding profession, nothing less than a constant search for truth.

The Powers That Be – out of print but available on AbeBooks.com for a few dollars --  is especially valuable for its historical sweep. We forget that the media once did not monopolize our attention as the 24-hour news cycle of today’s cable television does. Halberstam noted that in the 1920s the Washington press corps consisted of half a dozen men “all gentlemen … the beau ideal of their time, very properly dressed, men who wore fedoras and carried walking sticks”. They packed calling cards and they never ran from one office to another. There was plenty of time to do their reporting and anyway the government was “so small”.

He looks back to the fathers and grandfather of the major publishers and editors to help explain their origins and their devotion to sound journalism. The main players made for a colorful cohort: CBS founder William Paley, Time founder Henry Luce, Adolph Ochs of The New York Times, Philip and later Kay Graham of The Washington Post, and the Chandler family of The Los Angeles Times.

Halberstam’s technique was to devote pages and pages to family background and personality, then delve into the organizations they built. It’s a sprawling theme for one book but with the help of his editors he delivers a story that drives relentlessly forward. The big events of the six decades are retold through their treatment in the media and the tension that resulted between media and government – the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy era, the invasion of Cuba, the Kennedy and Johnson period, the Nixon years and – one of the strongest chapters – the Watergate scandal.

Halberstam’s detailed portrait of Paley, son of a Russian Jew, a cigar maker, reveals a young man hooked on early radio. He built his own private radio set before receivers were available to the general public. As time passed, he was able to establish CBS as a leader because “he was so much smarter than everyone else in the business, so much more subtle, he could sell not just entertainment and products but an aura as well, the idea that CBS was different, somewhat classier, more statesmanlike…” Paley was also so handsome and rich, that enthusiasm “seemed to jump out of him”.

The story of CBS News revolves around ex-New York Times editor Edward Klauber, whom Paley recruited to build up a strong news operation. Klauber’s credo included this basic duty:

“(Reporters) should point out the facts on both sides, show contradictions with the known record and so forth. They should bear in mind that in a democracy it is important that people not only should know but should understand, and it is the analysts’ function to understand, to weigh and judge, but not to do the judging for them.”

This corporate ethos guided Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, William Shirer, Alexander Kendrick, Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, David Schoenbrun and others as CBS grew to dominate the competition.

American journalism was always run by men, but in one of the most interesting chapters Halberstam focuses on Katherine Graham, the first woman to break through the glass ceiling. When her husband committed suicide, she found herself in the publisher’s chair in 1963, the first woman to run a major paper. She was not interviewed for this book, at least not on the record, but Halberstam pieced together an image of how panicky she felt on her first days in her new role:

“There were men everywhere. That was the first thing about the new job. She had to deal with men who were quick and verbal and ambitious and self-assured and who had risen through the ranks against other men who were also smart and ambitious. These men seemed to know what they were doing at all times and always had the answers and they talked in a kind of insiders’ shorthand. It was easy to feel slow among them. They were not just men, that was bad enough, but a special breed of high-powered men who were always ahead of the game, always on the inside, always in the know…. They sometimes terrified her and she felt unworthy….”

She grew The Washington Post into a business so important that it was listed among the Fortune 500 companies as measured by revenue. As business ballooned, many of the editorial staff lost respect for management, including Mrs. Graham, despite the courageous confrontation with Richard Nixon’s White House and finally exposing the crimes of Watergate. Even during the Watergate investigations, Halberstam wrote, she was not sure the crusade would end well:

"She had no illusion about how little support the Post had among other newspapers; since Watergate began, she had been isolated and snubbed by most of her colleagues, treated at various professional meetings like a pariah. It was clear that most of them did not like papers like the Post and the New York Times , and it was also clear that they approved far more of Richard Nixon.”

Indeed, amid the investigations, Nixon was reelected by a landslide, only to be forced to resign as more Watergate details poured forth.

Business goals also clash with editorial goals, and here was a once independent and idiosyncratic newspaper being treated as a giant corporation. The new goals

“resembled … those of other giant corporations on that list. For a highly individualistic profession like journalism, there was an inherent contradiction in this. … Reporters were aware that in recent years Kay Graham had committed herself more and more to profit, to winning Wall Street’s approval.”

In one unforgivable gaffe, she told a group of business leaders that she dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize for business management.

David Halberstam was a stickler for accuracy. His double-checked facts made his career. When the current White House started attacking media for dishonesty this age-old contentious relationship descended into another uncomfortable period. A New York Times columnist recently bristled over the tone and content of the attacks.

“Fact-based journalism is a ridiculous, tautological phrase,” wrote Roger Cohen. “There’s no other kind. Facts are journalism’s foundation the pursuit of them, without fear or favor, is its main objective.”

And what would he make of the eclipse of the television and print dinosaurs by social media? He would have a field day.

 

Another version of this article appeared in the March edition of
www.openlettersmonthly.com

FOR FACTS AND ART'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER, PLEASE CLICK HERE.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACTS:".....there is plenty of space to scale. For internet-based businesses, the addressable total market is often large. In many areas, such as software, it spans the globe. Chinese estimates indicate that the average distance between seller and buyer on e-commerce platforms is roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), compared to five kilometers for a traditional retail or service business." ------- "While the internet has removed many geographical barriers, high-growth companies cannot emerge just anywhere. In fact, though such firms can be found in more countries than ever, they remain concentrated in entrepreneurial hotspots. For example, of the 24 unicorns in Germany (as of March 2022), 17 are based in Berlin and five in Munich. Of France’s top 24 unicorns, 19 are based in Paris and one in a Paris suburb." ------ "Tech entrepreneurship has become global, but its beating heart remains local."
Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."