When the media had enough: Watergate, Vietnam and the birth of the adversarial press

Vietnam, Gary Powers, Watergate -- when the media stopped transcribing and started analyzing, America changed

Published October 10, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (Warner Bros. Pictures)
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Excerpted from "The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975"

“The media”: these two words, yoked together, name something new in the world. They turn the many organizations that constitute what was once more commonly called “the press” into a single looming, forbidding entity, implicitly offering it criticism, even disdain. The press had long offended, of course. But something about the media got worse in the 1970s, even in the eyes of journalists. “The media,” wrote Washington-based British journalist Henry Fairlie in 1983, was a term whose current meaning could not be found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1966. But soon thereafter the term came to be widely used. The media were not, Fairlie argued, “just an extension of journalism.” The media were (or “was”—there remains even now complete confusion about whether the term should be treated as a plural noun or not) somehow new and different, and Fairlie was unsparing in his contempt: “The more dangerous insects who infest Washington today are the media: locusts who strip bare all that is green and healthy, as they chomp at it with untiring jaws; those insatiable jaws that are never at a loss for a word, on the screen or on the platform, and occasionally, when they can spare a moment for their old trade, in print.” Fairlie returns to his entomological sneer at the end of his piece: “The media settle on the White House and Congress to strip them like locusts, for the purpose of advancing themselves on television and the lecture circuit, and year by year they complain at the debility of the political system.”

William Safire, in remembering his time as a White House speechwriter for Richard Nixon, provided a more conspiratorial account of the term “the media.” He recalled, “In the Nixon White House, the press became ‘the media,’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation, and the press hated it.” For Nixon, journalism was an “enemy” to be defeated; Safire heard Nixon declare “the press is the enemy” a dozen times. So the Nixon White House insistently used “the media” because to refer to journalists as “the press” handed to these miscreants an aura of rectitude and First Amendment privilege that gave them an emotional advantage, while to call them “the media” took it away. We have “the media” not only for the reason Fairlie focuses on—the mutation of (a few) reporters into obnoxious and ever-jabbering TV celebrities—but also because powerful politicians sought to paint journalists as the misleadingly human faces of an impersonal and insatiable monster.

With the rise of the media, Fairlie argued, the primary activity of Washington switched from governing the country through legitimate political institutions to “the sustaining of the illusion of government through the media and in obedience to the media’s needs and demands.” This position or something like it, shared by many other distinguished figures both inside and outside journalism, is an important clue to a social change that, among other things, decisively promoted a culture of disclosure in American politics. But in the end, the claim that public officials in the 1960s and 1970s shifted from governing to public relations is not credible. It would be convenient if there were a sharp break between the (good) old journalism and the (bad) new media, the (good) old politics of men dedicated to public service and the (bad) new politics of men and women devoted to seeing their own faces on television, but what happened in the 1960s and 1970s was far more subtle than critics of the day acknowledged. One part of Fairlie’s observation is surely correct—that the media became more central to the operation of Washington. Only this is not proof of what he assumes to be an unquestionably “debilitating” impact. It is proof of impact. It is proof that journalism was taking a more independent, less deferential stance toward power. Journalists would have to be reckoned with. This has had effects both good and ill.

No specific moment, case, or condition made all the difference. Not the rise of network television news, important as that was for giving the media a unified national identity. Certainly not Watergate; Watergate was a capstone to a journalism that had become increasingly assertive in the Vietnam years. Vietnam is not sufficient explanation, either. Journalists grew disillusioned with the war in Vietnam in the mid- to late 1960s, but a growing critical edge arose at the same time, if less intensely, in European journalism. An increased media presence was not uniquely American. It was a generational change, an educational change, a cultural change. And while the media were very much agents of that change, it is likewise true that they were responding to something in the air, something that, in the American case, began to take shape in the late 1950s, gathered momentum in the early 1960s in the usual sites of political power— Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court—and was reinforced and extended by popular action in the streets by the late 1960s as well as by a new sophistication, a new capacity, and a new arrogance in journalism.

Consider the following tale: Peter Buxtun, a young employee working for the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1960s, learned about an experiment the service was conducting on the long-term effects of syphilis on African American men if left untreated. This study had begun in the 1930s and more than a generation later was still in operation. One of the mysteries about this is that a cure for syphilis had become available in the interim with the discovery of penicillin and its wide availability after World War II. Buxtun contacted his superiors in the Public Health Service, convinced they would shut the study down if only it was brought to their attention.

But they did no such thing. Instead, they treated Buxtun as a troublemaker and successfully stalled him. Buxtun put the matter aside for several years, but he could not put it out of his mind. He tried again to sound the alarm with the Public Health Service’s Communicable Disease Center (later the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC). Again he made no headway. At that point he went to the news media. He contacted an AP reporter in San Francisco, Edie Lederer. Lederer was leaving for a trip to Europe but promised Buxtun she would pass on the materials he provided to another AP reporter. En route to Europe she stopped in Miami, where her colleague Jean Heller was covering the 1972 Republican National Convention. Lederer provided Heller the materials Buxtun had sent to the CDC and the CDC’s reply to them. Heller and her husband, Ray, also an AP reporter, thought the CDC response indirectly confirmed Buxtun’s charges—or at least did not flatly deny them. She decided this was well worth following up.

Heller had grown up in Ohio and attended the University of Michigan, studying history and English, but transferred in her junior year to Ohio State, where Ray, her high school sweetheart, was studying. There she minored in journalism and fell in love with it. The dean of the School of Journalism, a former AP bureau chief, helped her get a position in New York with AP Radio in 1954. She went to Washington in 1968 when AP created—for the first time in its century-long history—an investigative reporting team, to which she was assigned.

Thanks to Peter Buxtun and Edie Lederer, the story of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment had just fallen into Heller’s lap. It did not require her investigative skills. The CDC told her she could see any records she wanted. The story she produced was sensational. She knew it would be. She and her colleagues wanted to be sure that, for maximum impact on Washington policy makers, it would appear on the front page of a Washington newspaper—either the Post or the Star. They chose the Star because at the time the Post “was just consumed with Watergate” and they were not confident it would give the story a front-page spot. So they promised the Star they would release the story “on the p.m. cycle if they could guarantee page one.” Heller herself opposed the deal because “I figured if it was page one in the Star it would never be page one the next day in the Post.” She was wrong about that. The story appeared the next day all over the country, including in a bylined story in the New York Times. Heller was on the phone that night with the Times because that paper wanted to do its own reporting and rewrote the story, cutting out, among other things, the potent phrase Heller had used to describe the black Alabama men who were the subjects of the study: “human guinea pigs.”

It was July 25, 1972, when Heller’s story ran in the Star, telling the world that some 600 African American residents of Macon County, Alabama, in a study begun in 1932, had become human guinea pigs. While suffering from syphilis, they were told only that they had “bad blood,” and though they were treated for other everyday medical complaints, they were not treated for syphilis. About one hundred people died from this deliberate decision to leave their syphilis untreated.

Heller went to visit her parents in Ohio not long after. “My folks’ best friend was a doctor—his response was ‘That’s not true.’ . . . That’s how I had felt, too. I had this pedestal the medical and legal fraternity stood on. . . . It was quite a rude awakening for me. The scales fell from my eyes. It’s a terrible cliché, but—this was an evil I couldn’t comprehend. What were these people thinking? It was the end of naivete.” For the next two years, Heller said, “I wrote about nothing else.” She followed the lawsuit, dozens of meetings of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and related topics.

One more story. In Wheaton, Illinois, 1961, a top student at the local high school gave a graduation speech largely devoted to attacking the federal government. The high schooler’s father was the town’s leading attorney, a conventional Republican and a pillar of the community. Inspiration for the speech came from Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican senator from Arizona, whose The Conscience of a Conservative was published in 1960. The young student himself had favored Richard Nixon in the Kennedy-Nixon contest for president in 1960. Eleven years later, this onetime Nixon and then Goldwater fan, Bob Woodward, would start working on a story for the Washington Post about a burglary in the Watergate apartment and office complex.

The rest of that tale is the best-known story in the history of American journalism. Watergate did not simply influence journalism; it galvanized the journalistic imagination. Investigative journalism became the definition of great journalism. Of course, reporters prized the “scoop” long before Watergate, but journalists can get scoops with little more than a well-placed and well-timed interview. But at the moment Woodward and Carl Bernstein began to cover Watergate, there was already a lively new interest in investigative work. Newsday had put three reporters, an editor, and a researcher on an investigative “team” in 1967. The Chicago Tribune began an investigative task force in 1968, and so did the Associated Press with its “special assignment team.” The Boston Globe began its “spotlight” group in 1970 on the Newsday model.

But this was not the beginning of a new mood in journalism, either, not the point when journalism began to be more open, more inquisitive (and even inquisitorial), more aggressive, more negative. There is no definitive point of origin. Even in 1953–1954 and 1960, when Bernard Cohen interviewed foreign correspondents, he found them attached not only to a role of neutral observer but also to a role of “participant.” The latter, however, was still a “bootleg” journalism that, “like illicit liquor . . . is found everywhere” without being publicly acknowledged. But disquiet among journalists grew, a sense that the country’s leaders were not leveling with them, either on the record or in confidence. The support that reporters and editors provided John Moss for his efforts to pry public information out of the executive branch of government is one indicator. Another was the public scandal over President Eisenhower’s initial, embarrassing lies about the downing of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960. Administration spokesmen at first declared that the U-2 was a weather plane and denied Soviet charges that the plane was engaged in espionage. The Soviets, however, were correct. Roger Mudd, later a prominent national correspondent for CBS, was then a reporter for a local television station in Washington. He recalled later that veteran Washington correspondents were shaken that the government had straight-out lied to them. Most journalists in 1960, he said, were “trusting and uncritical of the government; they tended to be unquestioning consumers and purveyors of official information.”

Just a few months after the U-2 incident, the first of the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates took place. Although presidential debates would not be repeated until 1976, they were an important symbol of a new media power and at the same time a novel pressure for a new transparency—staged transparency, to be sure, but nonetheless a site available for surprise and spontaneity. As media scholars Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz have argued, these first TV presidential debates were among those “media events” that “breed the expectation of openness in politics and diplomacy.” Media events “turn the lights on social structures that are not always visible, and dramatize processes that typically take place offstage.” As people around the world took up television, expectations of openness spread globally, almost as if bundled into the technological package.

A presumption of openness carried on into the Kennedy administration. Kennedy’s critics charged, and many of his friends conceded, that this was more style than substance. But, as historian Cynthia Harrison writes about the Kennedy administration, “style and substance are not unrelated phenomena.” Most of Lyndon Johnson’s impressive success in domestic legislation grew out of Kennedy administration initiatives, including, notably, both civil rights legislation and engagement in Vietnam; in Harrison’s words, “in both cases the ‘style’ was an authentic political event. It encouraged national energies that continued beyond Kennedy’s life, through the 1960s, facilitating movements for women’s rights, consumer rights, ecology, and mental health services.” As indicated in the work of Esther Peterson and Philip Hart, the hand of the Kennedy administration was visible in encouraging consumer reforms and women’s rights, and it also played a significant role in abetting environmental awareness and environment-centered legislation.

As virtually all accounts by journalists and historians attest, news coverage of government, politics, and society opened up in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not the jousting on Capitol Hill before the Moss Committee, nor the U-2 incident, nor the TV debates; it was not any specific skirmish or even the sum of the confrontations between the press and U.S. military spokesmen in Vietnam as the war there dragged on; and it was not the rise in the 1960s of irreverent underground publications or the growing respect for maverick reporter I. F. Stone, who became a hero for politically committed young reporters of the day. It was all of this and more. There was a generational change, and there was a broad cultural change that made the news media a chief constituent of the opening up of American society and not simply its transcriber (although “transcribing” is never as simple as it sounds). The change in the media’s role was the joint product of several closely connected developments: government— especially the federal government—grew larger and more engaged in people’s everyday lives; the culture of journalism changed and journalists asserted themselves more aggressively than before; and many governmental institutions became less secretive and more attuned to the news media, eager for media attention and approval. As the federal government expanded its reach (in civil rights, economic regulation, environmental responsibility, and social welfare programs such as food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid), as the women’s movement proclaimed that “the personal is political,” and as stylistic innovation in journalism proved a force of its own, the very concept of “covering politics” changed, too.

News coverage became at once more probing, more analytical, and more transgressive of conventional lines between public and private, but this recognizes only half of the influence of a changing journalism. The other half is perhaps even more important, if harder to document: not only did the news media grow in independence and professionalism and provide more comprehensive and more critical coverage of powerful institutions, but powerful institutions adapted to a world in which journalists had a more formidable presence than ever before. Of course, politicians had resented the press much earlier—President George Washington complained about how he was portrayed in the newspapers; President Thomas Jefferson encouraged libel prosecutions in the state courts against editors who attacked him and his policies; critics in the 1830s bemoaned that the country had become a “pressocracy”; and President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the great manipulators of journalists, famously castigated the negative tone of reporters he dubbed “muckrakers.” Even so, Washington politics remained much more exclusively an insiders’ game than it would be later. The Washington press corps was more subservient to the whims and wishes of editors and publishers back home than to official Washington, and in any event, politicians in Washington kept their jobs less by showing themselves in the best light in the newspapers than by maintaining their standing among their party’s movers and shakers in their home state. Members of the U.S. Senate were not popularly elected until 1914; before then, a remoteness from popular opinion was a senator’s birthright. And while in the early twentieth century a small number of writers at the most influential newspapers and a small number of syndicated political columnists came to be influential power brokers, the press as a corporate force did not have an imposing presence.

Presence is what the media acquired by the late 1960s. Presence meant not a seat at the table but an internalization in the minds of political decision makers that the media were alert, powerful, and by no means sympathetic. In a shift that was partially independent of how journalists covered Washington (and other centers of political power), those who held political power came to orient themselves in office or in seeking office to public opinion and to their belief that the media both reflected and influenced it.

The story of a transformed journalism has been told many times before, but it has generally failed to specify what exactly the transformation looked like in the pages of the newspapers. Much attention has focused on the very important growth of investigative reporting. But the quantitatively more significant change between the 1950s and the early 2000s has been the rise of what I call contextual reporting, following research Katherine Fink and I have conducted. In contextual reporting, the journalist’s work is less to record the views of key actors in political events and more to analyze and explain them with a voice of his or her own. More than other concurrent changes, this one altered the front page, putting a premium on the stories behind the story. This shift, like that toward investigative reporting, made the news media a more assertive presence in American public life, and helped make the press implicitly an evangelist for openness, through its own vigor. The press became an explicit advocate for practices premised on a cultural or philosophical, if not legal, right to know in promoting FOIA and later in editorializing on behalf of “sunshine” rules in Congress. But much more generally, the move from writing down what political leaders said to contextualizing what they said and did, and why, offered a new model of journalism. The new model seeped into the work of journalism with little fanfare, barely even notice. Journalists continued to defend their work as “objective” or “balanced” while, in the newsroom, the new model transformed what they meant by such terms.

Excerpted from "The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975" by Michael Schudson. Published by Belknap Press. Copyright 2015 by Harvard University. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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