Were Journalists Better in the Good Old Days?

by Christopher Harper | January 17th, 2017

Readability

Were Journalists Better in the Good Old Days?


As I pre­pare to teach the his­tory of jour­nal­ism this semes­ter, I’ve been think­ing about whether reporters used to do a bet­ter job.

The notions of objec­tiv­ity, fair­ness and bal­ance are stan­dards that occurred in the 1950s when lead­ers of the media sought a more favor­able impres­sion of jour­nal­ists as pro­fes­sion­als. The stan­dards also aimed at a bet­ter busi­ness model by get­ting all sides to read a story. Many Euro­pean jour­nal­ists eschew such an approach, pro­vid­ing a set of facts and then argu­ing from a dis­tinctly par­ti­san point of view.

I like the Euro­pean approach much bet­ter. That way I don’t have to parse the polit­i­cal lean­ings of a jour­nal­ist who’s hid­ing behind the alleged stan­dards of objec­tiv­ity. I think jour­nal­ists should admit their biases and their par­ti­san beliefs. I like accu­racy and trans­parency as bet­ter stan­dards for good journalism.

For exam­ple, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which chron­i­cles the sto­ries of six sur­vivors of the atomic bomb, is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the finest work in jour­nal­ism dur­ing the 2oth cen­tury. The arti­cle and book are not bal­anced. The story describes the hor­ror of what hap­pened and how peo­ple lived and died in hor­rific conditions.

Paul Fussell, the late aca­d­e­mic who might have been one of the esti­mated one mil­lion Allied casu­al­ties had the bomb not been used, offered a use­ful and not-​so-​objective look at the alter­na­tive in his 1981 essay in the New Repub­lic, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb!”

In his excel­lent book, “Get­ting It Wrong: Debunk­ing the Great­est Myths in Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ism,” Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor W. Joseph Camp­bell dis­pels a num­ber of myths held strongly by reporters. For exam­ple, the evi­dence that Richard Nixon won the 1960 first debate with John Kennedy on radio and lost among tele­vi­sion view­ers has lit­tle basis in fact. The evi­dence sim­ply does not exist.

Camp­bell argues suc­cess­fully that Wood­ward and Bern­stein did not bring down Nixon as a result of their Water­gate report­ing. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s efforts dove­tailed with the work of Con­gress, the judi­cial sys­tem and other per­haps more impor­tant actors in the scandal.

I would add some other exam­ples of get­ting it wrong. The Tet Offen­sive got wide­spread atten­tion as an exam­ple of how the United States was los­ing the war in Viet­nam. In fact, the Viet Cong suf­fered huge losses — a fact that did not get much play in the media.

Joe McCarthy may have used extreme tac­tics in his attack on Com­mu­nism. But his under­ly­ing belief that Com­mu­nists had infil­trated the U.S. gov­ern­ment after World War II proved to be accu­rate once Soviet archives became avail­able. Based on doc­u­ments made avail­able after the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. Library of Con­gress his­to­rian John Earl Haynes con­cluded that of the 159 peo­ple iden­ti­fied as sub­ver­sives on lists cited by McCarthy, nine had almost def­i­nitely aided in Soviet espi­onage (and many oth­ers could be con­sid­ered secu­rity risks for var­i­ous reasons).

Nev­er­the­less, I found some of the writ­ing of left­ists of bygone eras much more palat­able than today’s screeds. For exam­ple, Martha Gellhorn’s account of the bomb­ing of Barcelona dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War pro­vides a great deal of insight into the “col­lat­eral dam­age” of that war.

Gell­horn, an avowed left­ist, got it right in my view when she declared that objec­tiv­ity was non­sense, par­tic­u­larly when she was report­ing about the Nazi death camps.

Jimmy Bres­lin, another lefty writer, was able to talk with ordi­nary peo­ple — an abil­ity lost by the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of reporters. “It’s An Honor” is Breslin’s account of the death and bur­ial of Kennedy in which one of the key char­ac­ters is the guy who dug the grave for the assas­si­nated pres­i­dent. Here is the col­umn: http://​www​.news​day​.com/​o​p​i​n​i​o​n​/​d​i​g​g​i​n​g​-​j​f​k​-​g​r​a​v​e​-​w​a​s​-​h​i​s​-​h​o​n​o​r​-​j​i​m​m​y​-​b​r​e​s​l​i​n​-​1​.​6481560

Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 elec­tion cam­paign, “What It Takes,” is a far more insight­ful analy­sis that any­thing we have seen since then, par­tic­u­larly his evis­cer­a­tion of Joe Biden, the pla­gia­rist who became vice pres­i­dent. Cramer’s book is also far bet­ter than the acclaimed “Mak­ing of a Pres­i­dent, 1960″ by Theodore White about JFK’s cam­paign, which we now know had widow Jacque­line as the chief archi­tect of the book’s meme.

You have to respect some­one like the recently deceased Nat Hentoff, a lefty who also opposed abor­tion despite los­ing many friends and some writ­ing gigs because of his pro-​life stance.

All told, jour­nal­ists did seem to be bet­ter once upon a time. At least my stu­dents and I will be able to delve into what once was to deter­mine if we can use the lessons of the oldies but good­ies to adapt to today’s environment.

Note for trans­parency pur­poses: W. Joseph Camp­bell is a friend. I knew Richard Ben Cramer.


Christo­pher Harper is a long­time jour­nal­ist who teaches media law and his­tory of journalism.


As I prepare to teach the history of journalism this semester, I’ve been thinking about whether reporters used to do a better job.

The notions of objectivity, fairness and balance are standards that occurred in the 1950s when leaders of the media sought a more favorable impression of journalists as professionals. The standards also aimed at a better business model by getting all sides to read a story. Many European journalists eschew such an approach, providing a set of facts and then arguing from a distinctly partisan point of view.

I like the European approach much better. That way I don’t have to parse the political leanings of a journalist who’s hiding behind the alleged standards of objectivity. I think journalists should admit their biases and their partisan beliefs. I like accuracy and transparency as better standards for good journalism.

For example, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which chronicles the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb, is generally considered the finest work in journalism during the 2oth century. The article and book are not balanced. The story describes the horror of what happened and how people lived and died in horrific conditions.

Paul Fussell, the late academic who might have been one of the estimated one million Allied casualties had the bomb not been used, offered a useful and not-so-objective look at the alternative in his 1981 essay in the New Republic, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb!”

In his excellent book, “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism,” American University professor W. Joseph Campbell dispels a number of myths held strongly by reporters. For example, the evidence that Richard Nixon won the 1960 first debate with John Kennedy on radio and lost among television viewers has little basis in fact. The evidence simply does not exist.

Campbell argues successfully that Woodward and Bernstein did not bring down Nixon as a result of their Watergate reporting. The Washington Post’s efforts dovetailed with the work of Congress, the judicial system and other perhaps more important actors in the scandal.

I would add some other examples of getting it wrong. The Tet Offensive got widespread attention as an example of how the United States was losing the war in Vietnam. In fact, the Viet Cong suffered huge losses—a fact that did not get much play in the media.

Joe McCarthy may have used extreme tactics in his attack on Communism. But his underlying belief that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government after World War II proved to be accurate once Soviet archives became available. Based on documents made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. Library of Congress historian John Earl Haynes concluded that of the 159 people identified as subversives on lists cited by McCarthy, nine had almost definitely aided in Soviet espionage (and many others could be considered security risks for various reasons).

Nevertheless, I found some of the writing of leftists of bygone eras much more palatable than today’s screeds. For example, Martha Gellhorn’s account of the bombing of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War provides a great deal of insight into the “collateral damage” of that war.

Gellhorn, an avowed leftist, got it right in my view when she declared that objectivity was nonsense, particularly when she was reporting about the Nazi death camps.

Jimmy Breslin, another lefty writer, was able to talk with ordinary people—an ability lost by the current generation of reporters. “It’s An Honor” is Breslin’s account of the death and burial of Kennedy in which one of the key characters is the guy who dug the grave for the assassinated president. Here is the column: http://www.newsday.com/opinion/digging-jfk-grave-was-his-honor-jimmy-breslin-1.6481560

Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 election campaign, “What It Takes,” is a far more insightful analysis that anything we have seen since then, particularly his evisceration of Joe Biden, the plagiarist who became vice president. Cramer’s book is also far better than the acclaimed “Making of a President, 1960” by Theodore White about JFK’s campaign, which we now know had widow Jacqueline as the chief architect of the book’s meme.

You have to respect someone like the recently deceased Nat Hentoff, a lefty who also opposed abortion despite losing many friends and some writing gigs because of his pro-life stance.

All told, journalists did seem to be better once upon a time. At least my students and I will be able to delve into what once was to determine if we can use the lessons of the oldies but goodies to adapt to today’s environment.

Note for transparency purposes: W. Joseph Campbell is a friend. I knew Richard Ben Cramer.


Christopher Harper is a longtime journalist who teaches media law and history of journalism.

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