Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Hodding Carter III,

Anchorman and Chief Correspondent - PBS' Inside Story
April 6, 1984

by Hodding Carter III

Thank you very much. I'm glad that seven weeks late I'm finally here for the Landon Lecture.

Harry Marsh's piece in this morning's paper has made things very easy for me, in that it acknowledges my age so I can use my glasses. It also helps to some degree to explain why it is I have any qualification whatsoever to speak on this subject.

I was, for awhile, the State Department spokesman under Jimmy Carter, and there were those who wondered how it was that I got that job. Because I am here at a university, I thought that I would offer a multiple choice test to all of you to explain it. You may make your own choice, of course. I will not be grading the paper. The first possibility that I would offer to you is that I was chosen because, in the course of writing editorials over some 17 or 18 years in this business, I had concentrated on flood control and race relations and the agricultural economy and the statehouse in Jackson and the national Democratic Party, and those qualifications entitled me to speak on the foreign policy of the United States in Washington. That's option one!

Option two is that I was chosen because in college I had written two junior papers on foreign policy matters which produced the lowest grades I ever made and hysterical laughter from my professors. And that's option two!

The third option is that I was a political coordinator for Jimmy Carter in 1976. You'll have great difficulty, I know, with that one. The press corps of Washington also had great difficulty with the possibility that the small-town editor from Mississippi would be trying to explain to them the permutations of policy. Happily for them and happily for me the Senate of the United States, in its infinite wisdom, took four months to confirm me in my post, which gave me an opportunity to find out what foreign policy actually was. I'm not sure it gave the Carter administration time to find out what it was as well, but we tried as hard as we could over that period.

I have been in this business of press critic or observer now for a couple of years and have discovered what all observers have told me forever that a lot of people in my profession are extraordinarily thin-skinned. In fact, when speaking to press audiences in particular, I often feel very much like the knight who went riding out one day to do his quest for his king and for honor and for glory and was gone for two years. And then one day the watchman from his tower saw this battered figure swaying in his saddle, riding across the plain toward the castle. And they let down the drawbridge and the emaciated horse clattered across and the knight fell at the feet of his king in the courtyard. And the king looked down and said, "Sir knight, what has happened to you? Where have you been?" And the knight said, "Sire, I have been to the East, murdering and pillaging your enemies." And the king said, "But I have no enemies to the East." And the knight said, "You do now, Sire."

I discovered that what I do believe to be a great and fine tradition that is to say a great and fine profession, is one which, great and fine though it may be, is somewhat defensive about its errors.

But let me not masquerade under false colors here today. While I function as a part-time press critic, I have spent most of my life as a practicing journalist. I still think of the newspaper world as the best old place of all, as we once sang of my college, for reasons which are clear from heritage as well as practice.

My three and one-half years in the State Department did not make me an embittered former public servant. I did not discover things there that I didn't know before. I was not suddenly made aware of the vagaries of the press. Most of what I discovered there simply reinforced old values or old perceptions. There was no journey to Damascus for me. I fell off no ass, and I experienced no blinding revelation.

Much of what follows is based upon my cumulative experience in the news gathering and news dissemination business, both as newspaperman and as government official. While that experience goes back some 26 years, emotionally it goes back a lot longer. Because I grew up in a newspaperman's house and learned most of what I know about ethics and the practice of journalism from my father.

In the course of those 18 or so years that I spent in Greenville, Mississippi, as a practicing newspaperman, I wrote about 6,000 editorials, which says something about their quality. And in the course of those 6,000 editorials I would guess that one-third or so were dead wrong. I say that now not to tell you that I'm embarrassed by that record though I'm somewhat embarrassed by the arrogance that promoted anyone into believing that he could write 6,000 editorials but only to tell you that being wrong, and correcting it, is not something which bothers me.

In the course of the three and one-half years that I was at State, there were plenty of times that I had to go back out on the day after a briefing and say, "Sorry folks, I messed up and here's the correct word. We had it wrong." And that doesn't particularly bother me, either.

The reason neither one of them bothers me is that in the course of those 26 years, both as government flack and as editor and reporter, what I had to apologize for might have been error, but it was not deliberate error. I was never required to lie as a government spokesman. I never, I would like to believe, deliberately lied or misspoke in the editorial columns of our paper.

But both experiences provided me with a very healthy sense of my own fallibility and an equally healthy skepticism about any kind of revealed truth offered from any source. And that is enough of my public mea culpa. Let me simply say that you might listen with a grain of salt to what now follows, having heard what preceded it.

If journalism is my first love, why then play the critic?

Precisely because it is my true home and first love. This profession, this business, this whatever it is, has an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility because of the First Amendment. And the gap between the responsibility and the opportunity is as enormous as both.

Besides, press criticism is an honorable calling. Memorable people in our nation's history have engaged in it with some fervor. It was Mark Twain, after all, who remarked of newspapers, "The only thing you can believe in the newspapers are the advertisements."

Or Harry Truman, who wrote at one point, "I really look with commiseration over that great body of my fellow citizens who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time."

And if Newton Minnow at the FCC under John Kennedy, could see television as a vast wasteland 20 or so years ago, President Nixon's designated hit man, Patrick Buchanan, saw it in other, but equally familiar, terms about a decade later. As Pat wrote in a speech he gave somewhere in the latter days of the Nixon era:

"Is it just and tolerable in this democratic republic that three cartels, headquartered in a single borough of a single city, should control the medium of communication upon which 60 percent of the nation depends as the primary source of news about their nation, government, and world? Is it politically healthy in this pluralistic society for a tiny clique of like-minded men to decide in perpetuity what is 'the news'?"

And finally, to keep this bipartisan, there is former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz who wrote:

"The imbalance in the media's coverage of achievement and good on the one hand, and disaster and evil on the other, contributes significantly to the cultural depression of the national spirit. The stock explanation that press and television and radio are simply giving their audiences and customers what they want leaves serious questions about how much these appetites have been conditioned by the available diet."

But these are all other voices and other criticisms. My thesis today is somewhat different. It is that the press does not provide adequate continuity and context for the raw material of information upon which the citizens of a democratic republic must depend for their basic decisions. There is a corollary, with which I will deal first and perhaps more quickly, which is that the major institutions of this society, whether they are government or business or professions, fail the same test, except in spades.

Why is it that government, the professions, business, all of us treat information so often like a deep, dark state secret?

Well, I made some observations while I was assistant secretary for public affairs, a time when a number of functions came under my control: freedom of information, communication with the public, answering the letters, our publications generally, daily briefings and the like. And the observations go something like this:

People in any institution, government included, tend to focus on the current crisis, putting almost all other efforts aside while dealing with it. So that while there are vast swatches of territory of vital interest to all of us, we are consumed by the one nearest at hand.

There is a lingering predisposition by almost all practitioners of specialized subjects to believe that their subject matter is so subtle, so complex, the practitioners so sophisticated, that there is no way to explain what they do to the great, unwashed public.

There is that normal belief that all of us have that we work best without somebody looking over our shoulder, constantly kibitzing while we try to work.

There is in government a deep and profound we-they syndrome, which sees the press much as other Europeans once said of the Germans, that they are either at your feet or at your throat.

There is an equally normal inclination always to put the demands of the job before the demands of accountability.

And, in my old business as in others, there was a well founded fear that distortions could destroy sensitive talks, distort sensitive information, and finally, destroy hard won efforts before they could run their course.

There is behind what I believe to be an insane classification system, a number of not insane rationalizations and reasons. There is often a desire to cover up mistakes, a human enough notion to prevent embarrassment, political or otherwise, to minimize political loss, and quite honestly and quite necessarily, to guard national security.

There is sometimes the desire to guard against criminal prosecution for misdeeds. But despite our national paranoia from time to time, that is the least important reason for the tight hold that is held on information in so many quarters of national life.

And finally, the really important reason why information is so often treated so severely: there is the desire to accumulate power by restricting the flow of information.

In bureaucracy, in any institution, knowledge is power. And the control of its flow is one of the true signs of power in the governmental apparatus.

To hand into the hand of a clerk or an official the right to stamp "CONFIDENTIAL," "SECRET," "TOP SECRET," "LIMITED OFFICIAL USE," is to hand power to that person. In a nation whose government is as segmented as ours the control of that flow of information really means the control of decision-making. It is a heady, heady kind of power and unfortunately is one which is more respected in this administration than in several of its predecessors.

I can say in all honesty to you that in that brief period that I was in government in my last incarnation, and the brief period that I was in government before that, 90 percent of all the classified documents that came across my desk could have been unclassified with no threat to the national security.

When I was a Marine communications watch officer in the Second Marine Division in 1958, the first thing that I learned, having been given my highly prized, top secret clearance, was that over half the coded material that I was breaking for relay to my commander were digests of the New York Times reports on what was happening in Lebanon at the time. This is a true and honest story.

And again, when I was at the State Department, much of what passed for classified information was material which simply was somebody's idea of a way to build a little empire of information.

There are seriously important secrets which must be protected. And they are not protected well by a system that classifies everything. Because as four different commissions have said in the last 25 years, a system which classifies everything ensures the classification of nothing. A system which says all information is important, makes most people view with contempt all classification.

There is a way to guard the truly significant. It is not by guarding the trivial.

But enough of government, about which I could go on for some time. Let me instead come to the subject at hand, which is the working of this institution called the press, and how good or how poor a job it does in reaching you, the public.

Well, the errors of the press, when it comes to us the public or you the public, are largely those of form and habit and journalistic convention. And then something different. But first, those of form and habit.

We live in a society which is in continuous flow, in which yesterday affects today and today affects tomorrow, and last week has something to do with today and last year has something to do with tomorrow. But the press deals with information as though you were all geese arising in a new world every day. And not only a new world every day, but every 12 hours. The news cycle in and of itself is an artificial distortion of reality, so when we write a new lead on old information, pretending that it has something to do with a new world, we are perpetrating a fraud on you. When we tell you something about the temperature today, as though it had something to do with the climate, we perpetrate a fraud. When we take a picture of a train in transit, and with that picture purport to tell our people that it says something about where the train is coming from, where it is going, the condition of the roadbed, who's on it, why it is taking the journey, and indeed why that railroad line is there to begin with, we perpetrate a fraud on the people. When we live within the constraints of a system which makes no sense in terms of the way people actually live, we distort by our very nature of operation.

We were out in Tanzania once during the 17-year-long effort to find some resolution in what was called the Rhodesian Crisis in those days and which led to the creation of Zimbabwe as a nation. There was a meeting going on between the British and the United States and the front line states and the patriotic front, and it was a 36 hour meeting. And in the course of that 36 hours, the finest reporters I have ever met said the following things about that meeting to the American people and a world audience generally. First, that that conference had collapsed. Second, that the conference had scored a major breakthrough. And third, that the conference had stalemated. This, in 36 hours, about a conference that did none of those things whatsoever. The conference simply added a small accretion to a process which two years later resulted in the change of condition of an independent Rhodesia to an independent Zimbabwe. And the reporters who wrote those leads, knew it. But they were dealing with forms and conventions which demanded that they have something new to say about information which was not new or necessarily even capable of analysis.

There is the fond belief in television that there is no story that cannot be told in 90 seconds. I ask you, I ask you as human beings, whether practitioners of journalism or other, whether you would wish to have the slightest element of your life in relationship with others presented to the world in 90 seconds and then have it said that this was the definitive statement about your life. Does anyone seriously believe that you can tell, in all its aspects, anything more complex than a one car accident with no injuries in 90 seconds? But 90 seconds is a long time on television. On national news, 90 seconds is an eternity. They often don't give 90 seconds to the budget.

Ah, but we on the print side, we are stuck with a hangover from the days when we had competitive newspapers in all our towns, and we had to sell our papers on the streets. And we had to grab people's attention. And so we still play with headlines which compress and thereby distort leads, which compress and thereby distort stories, which compress and thereby distort reality. We play with forms that have nothing to do with the fact that monopoly ownership is a reality in most towns, and not competition, because we are unable, apparently, to break them.

Television itself is lightning flash journalism, which is to say it illuminates a little bit right in front of you, keeps everything else in the dark, gets your attention with a loud snap, and because it gives the impression that you are seeing a great deal, basically misleads you about the reality that it presents.

And then there is the last aspect of my new profession that worries me the most. We had a long briefing for a lot of the people who travel with the Secretary of State once in Amman, Jordan, about some issue that involved King Hussein, as usual. Two of the three networks had a rough approximation of what we had tried to explain, and the third network's anchorman came on and led the news that evening with an item which was absolutely contradictory to everything that had been said. That was all right. We could have been wrong. But he made no mention whatsoever that there had been a briefing by the Secretary of State which suggested something quite the contrary. And I went running up to the reporter, furious in my ignorance and my naivete in my new position, and said, "How can you do this?" And this famous, renowned television diplomatic correspondent said to me, "Come on, Hodding, you know it's all showbiz." And there is, unfortunately, deep at the heart of this, my new profession, the very sure sense that indeed it is showbiz. And what that does to the information provided the people speaks for itself.

There is the problem of the inadequate training of reporters for highly specialized jobs. All of us in this business, of my age, came up believing and knowing that the fast track to success was as a generalist, usually as a courthouse reporter, someone concerned about politics and the like. We live in a world, of course, in which while the generalist likes to believe he can cover anything, he can't. In which we need more specialists, better trained in fields ranging from education to science to medicine to business. And still, too often, we turn out the generalists and tell them to go out and do their job and it will be good enough.

There is abdication of responsibility by people in my profession which, if politicians do it we call it gutlessness, and in our case, we call it wisdom.

We take polls of our readers and say, "Tell us what you want and we'll give it to you." We do audience surveys, and the audience surveys say that people don't care about foreign policy matters, and so we don't give it to them.

We are the only profession, or presumed profession, which allows those who are the recipients of our work, to dictate what determines our professional qualifications.

At a moment in time which our involvement in the world has never been more important, the major news organizations of this country have reduced, rather than expanded, the number of people they have abroad covering that world because, they say, you are not interested in it.

Well, I often think about Greenville, Mississippi, where I was and where we had a paper and where we often did an inadequate job of covering these very subjects. And sure enough, down there the folks would tell you every time they didn't care about foreign policy, they didn't care about "that mess over there." Until, of course, you started breaking it down a little bit. And then it turned out that husbands and wives and children and those who had loved ones did care about the possibilities of war, of nuclear Armageddon. They did care about what might be happening in the nuclear arms race, though they knew little about the abstraction called SALT.

They cared about dying, even in some far off place called Afghanistan, a word which in my profession used to be lengthened into "Afghanistanism" a description of the irrelevant made manifest in newspapers. There is some irony in that as a matter of fact: Afghanistanism as a symbol of the irrelevant.

They cared about the price of the suits and the shoes that they bought even if they didn't know anything about something called the Tokyo Round. They cared about the sale of cotton and rice and soybeans abroad, even if they were turned off by reports of trade talks given to them in indecipherable ways. What they wanted, what they needed, was what we didn't give them. And that was information made relevant to their concerns and decipherable in terms not that could be read by the reader of Foreign Policy magazine, but by somebody in Greenville, Mississippi.

One of the dirty secrets of the business I am in is that we talk in closed circles. And we talk too often. What we are doing is transmitting information between elites who already know about the subject, relaying messages back and forth to each other, and not enough talking in terms that are relevant to our readers and our viewers.

This is a digression from text for a moment but the use of the anonymous source is the best example of that closed circle of the practitioners talking to the practitioners I know. Because those who are in government know from whence cometh those anonymous sources. Often those who are in Washington or in Jackson know who it is who is being quoted. But we don't out here. We don't know that the guy who just lobbed that grenade into the White House washroom is a person violently opposed to the position of the President. We don't know where he stands or she stands. But those who read it in the corridors of power do. And it is a communication for the initiated by the initiated to the initiated. And it's a fraud on you, the people of this country.

There is a problem in this flow of information in the long term which ought to be of concern to all of us. And that is the centralization of ownership of the major media of this country. This is not now the theorizing of some wild-eyed radical. We sold our paper to a chain. It is a reality nonetheless which should concern us because the basis of the First Amendment in this country was the notion of multiple outlets competing in each market loudly and vigorously. And the kind of progression that has taken place in the print medium today is such that within ten years, four major operations will control the vast majority of all newspapers of any significance.

There is, when it comes to news, the smugness of those of us who are increasingly the fewer and fewer who control the more and more. They know they're big players in the big arena. They know that presidents and governors and local industrialists come to see them because they are the gatekeepers. And they become enamored of being big time players and forget what their big time mission really is. They begin to see themselves as participants in the power game rather than reporters of the power game to those the power effects. And it hardly matters where that game is.played, in Greenville, in Jackson, in Washington, in the world. Too many of us in the news business think of ourselves too often as assistant secretaries of state, or intimates of the President, or the governor's right-hand man, or whatever it may be, forgetting what our real task should be.

Some time ago during the Pentagon Papers fight, Alexander Bickel, who was a law professor at Yale and no raving liberal, said, "The press' chief responsibility is to play its role in the conflicts of government and press, for it is the contest that serves the interest of society as a whole, which is not totally identifiable with the interests of the government alone, or of the press . . . the presumptive duty of the press is to publish . . . not guard security."

There is a problem for us again when it comes to what we do. We forget that we are a large and powerful institution and so perceived by you, the public, and that we should be a great deal more accountable than we are. That we should be more responsive to concerns.

Frankly, it interests me that my profession, which is so good at criticizing every other business, it so tender about criticizing itself.

I write a column for the Wall Street Journal and I'm rather proud of the Journal because with a vigor matched only by its assaults on things Democratic, it attacks other newspapers for their perceived errors. If there were more of that, and less of that gentlemen's club approach to our own errors, the public might see us less as arrogant and isolated, and more as honest and open. Because we are big and because we are powerful and because we are so tied to the order of things as they are, the media in this country have seen not one coming wave of my lifetime. Whether it was a civil rights revolution, the women's movement, whether it was the rising religious fundamentalist backlash among people deeply and sincerely concerned about the trends in their own country, whether it was the possibilities of outsiders such as Carter or Reagan, the press has not foreseen one of the truly major events of my time. Tied as we are to the way things are and to those who have a stake in it, we are blind until the explosion bursts upon us.

There is an unwillingness, finally, to come out from behind the veil to demythologize ourselves, to make explicable to a public what is absolutely inexplicable, which is why we do things the way we do, how it is we do them, why it is that we get things the way we do. We absolutely quail at the idea that there ought to be some measure in which we can be held responsible.

So there was an attempt for ten years to have a National News Council, which none of you, I expect, know anything about because the press did a very good job of keeping it a secret. And the council, fearful of the press" reaction, did a very good job of being too passive.

A news council whose whole purpose was to allow you to come forward and complain about accuracy and fairness, to have a hearing and to have a finding which would be published, which it rarely was, across the nation. I was once told when some of us were trying to put together the national news council that, "ombudsmen would be the wave of the future." Every organization would have its own reader representative who would speak for the public inside those institutions. When they said that, there were two dozen ombudsmen in America; today, there are 30 ombudsmen in America. A true wave of the future; 1,760 or so newspapers, 30 ombudsmen, a handful of local news councils and that's it.

Back at a time when the public was about as mad about the press as it is today, which is to say in the early '70s before the press became elevated to Olympus by Watergate, there was a writer for the National Observer called James Perry who wrote something that I am fond of and use often. He said, "So, what we have to do is stand hard on our First Amendment rights try to explain our position to a skeptical outside world as best we can. But I think we have to do more than that: we are awfully big and very powerful, and I think, we must let the drawbridge down more often. It's our castle, alright, but we ought to have more visitors' days."

Back at a time when the public was about as mad about the press as it is today, which is to say in the early '70s before the press became elevated to Olympus by Watergate, there was a writer for the National Observer called James Perry who wrote something that I am fond of and use often. He said, "So, what we have to do is stand hard on our First Amendment rights try to explain our position to a skeptical outside world as best we can. But I think we have to do more than that: we are awfully big and very powerful, and I think, we must let the drawbridge down more often. It's our castle, alright, but we ought to have more visitors' days."

Then finally, a something which has nothing to do with the flow of news and a lot to do with the center of a newspaper for me. The editorial page. In a nation which basically needs an ongoing debate about all issues, they are too often flat, dull, and namby-pamby, and if they wish to say anything, they hire their guns from the syndicated columnists and let them speak in well modulated tones.

My dad wrote something, in a book of lectures about Southern journalism called Their Words Were Bullets, which I always thought was a nice description of what a newspaper ought to be all about, what it ought to be trying to do. He wrote that they should "keep me informed, make men think, make men ashamed, and keep men free."

The press today is essentially the largest unregulated public utility in the country. The power we deliver is more basic than the power from electrical generating plants and the like. The power we deliver is essentially more and more concentrated. The worst/possibility that could happen is that the public would decide that because we are not doing a good enough job or too unfair a job, that this utility, like others, should be regulated. But the reality is, terrible as that might be, and it would be as bad an answer as I could think of, there is something the people know about the press which is fundamental. It was fundamental to those who wrote the First Amendment. The news does not belong to the press; information does not belong to the government. It belongs to the people. And if the people feel that they are not being served by those who control the flow of that news, then they will surely regulate it.

Thank you very much.

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

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