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

Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Eliot remarked that Shakespeare's greatness not only grew as the writer aged, but that his development became more apparent to the reader as he himself aged: 'No reader of Shakespeare... can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind.' "
Aug 25th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I moved here 15 years ago from London because it was so safe. Bordeaux was then known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). It's the wine capital of France and the site of beautiful 18th century architecture arrayed along the Garonne river." ---- "What’s new is that today lawlessness is spreading into the more comfortable neighborhoods. The favorite technique is to defraud elderly retirees by dressing up as policemen, waterworks inspectors or gas meter readers. False badges including a photo ID are easy to fabricate on a computer printer. Once inside, they scoop up most anything shiny as they tip-toe through the house."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran ushered in a period of exploitation and oppression that has continued – despite a subsequent revolution that led to huge changes – for 70 years. Each year on August 19, the anniversary of the coup, millions of Iranians ask themselves what would have happened if the US and UK had not conspired all those years ago to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Edmundo Bacci: Energy and Light, curated by Chiara Bertola, and currently on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, is the first retrospective of the artist in several decades. Bacci was a native of Venice, a city with a long and illustrious history of painting, going back to Giorgione and Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo. As a painter, he was thoroughly immersed in this great past – as an artist he was determined to transform and remake that tradition in the face of modernity and its vicissitudes, what he called “the expressive crisis of our time.” That he has slipped into obscurity affords us, at the very least, an opportunity to see Bacci’s work essentially for the first time, without the burden of over-determined interpretations or categories."
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Is Oppenheimer a movie for our time, reminding us of the tensions, dangers and conflicts of the old Cold War while a new one threatens to break out? The film certainly chimes with today’s big power conflicts (the US and China), renewed concern about nuclear weapons (Russia’s threats over Ukraine), and current ideological tensions between democratic and autocratic systems. But the Cold War did not just rest on the threat of the bomb. Behind the scientists and generals were many other players, among them the economists, who clashed just as vigorously in their views about how to run postwar economies."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "We studied 55,000 people’s dietary data and linked what they ate or drank to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Our results are now published in Nature Food. We found that vegans have just 30% of the dietary environmental impact of high-meat eaters. The dietary data came from a major study into cancer and nutrition that has been tracking the same people (about 57,000 in total across the UK) for more than two decades."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "Art historians have never understood economics, and as a result they believe they can ignore markets: in their view, the production of art can be treated in isolation from its sale.  This is of course disastrously wrong.  But their ignorance has led to a neglect of the economic history of art. "