Talking About the News
By Timothy Cook
Sunday, August 4, 1996
The Washington Post
Journalism is a curious profession. Unlike doctors or lawyers, few journalists are educated at professional schools, belong to professional associations, use a technical language to carry out their job or are licensed to practice their trade. And nobody can define just what is and isn't news. Consequently, much writing about the media inevitably raises questions: What is journalism, and who are journalists anyhow? Who are the exemplars, and what are the legendary achievements that are the role models of journalism? And where can we draw the line, given famous media workers who are not quite entertainers, not quite political figures in their own right, and not quite journalists either?
Before the late 19th century, famous editors, not reporters, were the center of newspaper life. But when newspapers became big businesses and sought mass circulation, journalism turned to fact-filled narratives that both informed and entertained -- and provoked the reader to return for more. One reporter who emerged from anonymity and built an impressive career was Frederick Palmer, a self-styled war correspondent whose coverage spanned the turn-of-the-century wars of the Ottoman Empire to World War II.
In his foreword to Fifty Years at the Front: The Life of War Correspondent Frederick Palmer, CNN correspondent Peter Arnett lionizes Palmer and points out his risk-taking, scoops and battles with authorities (both politicians and editors), which, to Arnett, conjure up contemporary bravado like David Halberstam's and, immodestly, his own. It is good to be re-introduced to Palmer's career and his stylish, often insightful and prescient writings. But journalist Nathan Haverstock's book is so dependent on Palmer's own writings (around half of the book consists of direct quotations) that we have little sense of Palmer as a person. Instead, he comes across as something of a journalistic Zelig, whose career is enlivened more by whom he met than what he did.
Another legend crops up with the 25th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, a case that not only set crucial judicial precedent against prior restraint of publication but also has come to symbolize a mission for the news media as an independent, adversarial institution. In retrospect, it is odd that the Pentagon Papers provide such a landmark. The stories in the New York Times and The Washington Post recounted history from an enormous leaked document, rather than the more typical use of person-to-person interviews to narrate ongoing events. Nevertheless, the legend persists, pitting boldly public-minded reporters and editors against the Nixon administration's callow exploitation of this case as an excuse to intimidate the press.
As law professor David Rudenstine's excellent book The Day the Presses Stopped makes clear, the history of the Pentagon Papers was rather more complex. His compelling account of how the Times and Post came to publish the papers, and how the Nixon White House decided to try to prevent them from so doing, reveals that everyone was motivated by a mix of principle, careerism and opportunism. As Rudenstine convincingly demonstrates, the case was never open-and-shut; both newspapers came perilously close to not publishing, and the Nixon administration might well have legitimately won in court had it not relied on an extreme view in favor of prior restraint.
Especially in its early chapters, this book is a rare combination, painstakingly scholarly and also a page-turner. The book does bog down in legal minutiae as the case goes through the courts, and Rudenstine's keen portraits of journalists and politicians turn fuzzy when he turns to judges, who seem more philosopher-kings than flesh-and-blood individuals. But Rudenstine's fresh evidence, stimulating conclusions and effective writing make this a thought-provoking book for students and practitioners of journalism.
One of the most celebrated journalists currently working is Ted Koppel, and rightly so. "Nightline" is probably today's best example of what television journalism -- commercial or not -- can do. It manages to avoid most journalists' preoccupation with storytelling in favor of thoughtful, literate analysis and discussion of issues, while keeping a large audience interested and tuned in. In Nightline: History in the Making and the Making of Television, Koppel has now co-authored, with former "Nightline" producer Kyle Gibson, what amounts to an official history of the show. It is a good book, particularly the opening sections recounting the unexpected beginnings of the show during the Iranian hostage crisis and the sometimes confused attempts to improvise a format.
But later chapters flirt with hagiography. Not only does the book imply that "Nightline" shows in the Middle East and South Africa moved along the later peace processes; when lapses are recounted, they are chalked up to failures of technology or planning, not of judgment. "Nightline's" dependence on Washington insiders as sources and its increasing move from live shows to taped, edited interviews go unnoticed.
Still, Koppel's musings on interviewing are particularly, if unintentionally, revealing. He tries to have it both ways. He claims, "It is our job to go in and listen," but also reveals how he works to "control the conversation." Or he refers to himself as the "surrogate" for a smart audience but later suggests they may be inattentive or distracted. These admissions prevent Koppel and Gibson from considering the political power that "Nightline" ends up exercising. If the show's motto is, as the book echoes many times, "bringing people together who are worlds apart," we have to question the position of the news media as the principal public arena of speech and examine how journalists decide who will speak and on what.
Alongside these journalistic legends come two books about the borders of journalism -- which variously includes trash TV, tabloid journalism, talk radio and "infotainment." Journalists are discomfited by -- and seek to distinguish themselves from -- media personalities who can't be pinned into a nice neat category. But the line is not clear, as one can see from considering a list that would include, say, Hugh Downs, Joan Lunden, Larry King, Don Imus, Geraldo Rivera, Deborah Norville, George Will, Tabitha Soren and Rush Limbaugh.
Whatever the rubric, the radio personality Howard Stern is front and center, with his scatological, cynical, angry-white-man edge. Certainly, Stern would not proclaim himself to be a journalist. Yet he manages a public forum of sorts, and his recent political forays (most notably his short-lived spot as Libertarian nominee for governor of New York in 1994) make him something more than just an entertainer. Battles over freedom of the press have moved on from the high-minded questions of security vs. publicity that characterized the Pentagon Papers. Stern's run-ins with the FCC in the late 1980s made him, in his words, "the last bastion of the First Amendment." And as radio reporter Paul Colford aptly demonstrates in Howard Stern: King of All Media, Stern's success may be an omen of the future.
Stern's popularity with crucial audiences (high-income young men during "drive time," in particular) fits perfectly with increasingly profit-minded media. In fact, Stern's sole career roadblock arose when Grant Tinker fired him at WNBC, a network-owned and -operated radio station peripheral to NBC's bottom line. The future of the media may well be captured in Stern's defense, quoted by Colford: "I see nothing wrong with filth and bad taste. It's made me a very wealthy man." True, this "unauthorized biography" is no expose apart from revealing Stern's vanilla home life, and much is of interest only to Stern's fans. But it is a breezily written and skillful depiction of how one modern media star was born.
Can one mention Howard Stern in the same breath as a devout and lifelong Catholic priest? Sociologist Donald Warren's new book, Radio Priest: Father Coughlin, the Father of Hate Radio, evokes another remarkable radio career, that of Charles Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich. Shortly after launching this parish in 1926, Coughlin pioneered religious broadcasting. Then he turned his pulpit toward political pursuits with a populism that, at its height, was rivaled only by Huey Long's, with huge audiences and attention. Coughlin was probably the first to build political power almost entirely from a radio show, and his example was undoubtedly instructive not only to broadcasters but also to politicians to follow.
How a young priest beginning with homilies based on papal messages could quickly gain such mass-media clout is a fascinating story. But apart from persuasively showing that Coughlin was always an anti-Semite with strong sympathies for (and links to) European fascism, Warren's study is oddly unfocused. He gives no sense of what encouraged Coughlin's rise or precipitated his fall. The political and economic contexts of broadcasting, the apparent power of Coughlin's rhetoric, and even his political and psychological motivations are notably missing. While Coughlin may be, in the subtitle of this study, "the father of hate radio," Warren does not show how others picked up on his legacy. It is a disappointing book.
Today is not an easy time to be a journalist. The media face two potential futures. One is captured in the stories that journalists like to tell of adventure, initiative, coolness under pressure, unwillingness to buckle to authority. But another future may await reporters as the bottom line looms larger for a rapidly consolidating and ever more profit-minded media industry and as a variety of entertainers, politicians and activists infringe on or take over journalists' jobs. Whether the journalism exemplified by Palmer, Koppel and the reporters behind the publication of the Pentagon Papers can continue in this environment, or whether the heirs of Father Coughlin and Howard Stern will increasingly crowd them out, will remain worth watching. n
Timothy Cook, professor of political science at Williams College, is co-author, most recently, of "Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates and the Media in a Presidential Campaign."
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