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

Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” "
Feb 4th 2020
EXTRACTS: "In my many visits to Michael’s studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time.............."Armageddon Yacht (2019)". The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson’s work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth."
Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."