All the Congressmen's Men

excerpted from the book

Buried Alive

Essays on Our Endangered Republic

by Walter Karp

Franklin Square Press (Harper's magazine), 1992


Publisher Walter H. Annenberg

" [The American press has] at least as much power in determining the course of the republic as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches set forth in the Constitution.

William Rusher, publisher of the National Review

The American press exercises [perhaps the greatest power there [is] in politics: the power to define reality.

... who decides what is news in America?

The answer lies right on the surface, as obvious as Poe's purloined letter. Reporters themselves know the answer, and talk of it candidly enough in their memoirs. Newspapers carry the answer in almost every news story they publish. What keeps us looking in the wrong direction, as I recently discovered while wading through an ample supply of media studies and books by working journalists, is a deep seated linguistic habit. Instead of speaking of news, we speak of "the press" and "the media"-corporate entities with wealthy owners, paid employees, profits, holdings, forests in Canada. And, thinking of these, it is almost impossible not to speak of "the press" doing this or that-which is exactly what hides the purloined letter. For to say that the press does things conceals the fundamental truth that the press, strictly speaking, can scarcely be said to do anything. It does not act, it is acted upon.

This immediately becomes dear when one considers how and where reporters find the news. Very few newspaper stories are the result of reporters digging in files; poring over documents; or interviewing experts, dissenters, or ordinary people. The overwhelming majority of stories are based on official sources-on information provided by members of Congress, presidential aides, and politicians. A media critic named Leon V. Sigal discovered as much after analyzing 2,850 news stories that appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post between 1949 and 1969. Nearly four out of five of these stories, he found, involved official sources. Had Professor Sigal limited his study to national political news, and had he been able to count all the stories that had been instigated by official sources who went unmentioned, nearly five out of five would probably be dossier to the truth. The first fact of American journalism is its overwhelming dependence on sources, mostly official, usually powerful. "Sources supply the sense and substance of the day's news. Sources provide the arguments, the rebuttals, the explanations, the criticism," as Theodore L. Glasser, a professor of journalism, wrote in a 1984 issue of the Quill, a journalist's journal. To facts derived from sources, reporters add "a paragraph of official-source interpretation," according to Wicker, for powerful people not only make news by their deeds but also tell reporters what to think of those deeds, and the reporters tell us.

David Broder, in his recent memoirs, recalls that while covering the Democratic Party for The Washington Post in the late 1960s he learned that the grass-roots rebellion against President Johnson and the Democratic Party establishment, as he then put it, "degrades the Democratic Party"-having been told so by his sources, that is, by members of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic leaders in Congress, and local party officials. Covering Congress means talking to the most powerful legislators and their legislative aides. For years, recalls Broder, the Associated Press covered the House of Representatives for scores of millions of Americans through daily chats with Representative Howard W. Smith, a conservative Virginia Democrat who chaired the powerful Rules Committee. Covering the White House means dancing daily attendance on the President's aides and spokesmen. "We're in small quarters with access to only a small . number of official people, getting the same information. So we write similar stories and move on the same issues," says a White House correspondent interviewed in The Washington Reporters. A dozen great venues of power and policy-Defense, State, Justice, Central Intelligence, FBI, and so on-form the daily beats of small claques of Washington reporters "whose primary exercise is collecting handouts from those informational soup kitchens," as Alan Abelson once put it in Barron's.

Sources are nearly everything; journalists are nearly nothing. "Reporters are puppets. They simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings," Lyndon Johnson once said. Reagan's secretary of state, Alexander Haig, explained to an interviewer in March 1982 that "even if they write something that I think is terribly untrue, I don't consider that it was a writer who did it. It's always someone who gave that writer that information." So pervasive is the passivity of the press that when a reporter actually looks for news on his or her own it is given a special name, "investigative journalism," to distinguish it from routine, passive "source journalism." It is investigative journalism that wins the professional honors, that makes what little history the American press ever makes, and that provides the misleading exception that proves the rule: the American press, unbidden by powerful sources, seldom investigates anything.

Under the rule of passivity a "leak" is a gift from the powerful. Only rarely is it "an example of a reporter's persistence and skill," as William S. White noted in Harper's Magazine more than thirty years ago. "Exclusives" are less a sign of enterprise than of passive service to the powerful. When Reagan's State Department wanted to turn its latest policy line into news, department officials would make it an "exclusive" for Bernard Gwertzman of The New York Times, former State Department spokesman John Hughes recently recalled in the pages of TV Guide. Hughes could then count on "television's follow-up during the day," since TV news reporters commonly used the Times reporter as their source, knowing that he was the trusted vessel of the highest officials. It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most senile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the "best" sources.

So passive is the press that even seemingly bold "adversarial" stories often have the sanction of the highest officials. In December 1982 Time questioned President Reagan's queer mental equipment in a cover story entitled "How Reagan Decides." This was the first such story given prominence in a major news outlet. Yet the story's source, it turned out, was none other than the President's own White House aides, who thought it would help them club Reagan awake. Without White House approval the story would never have run, as the Time editor involved, Steve Smith, told the inquisitive Hertsgaard. Five months later, with an economic summit conference scheduled for Colonial Williamsburg, the same White House aides set about repairing any damage to Reagan's image they might have inflicted in December. To make sure that the President's fictive competence would be the media's line at the conference, Reagan aide Michael Deaver invited Hedrick Smith, a star reporter at the Times, to lunch at the White House in order to press home the point. This kind of source journalism is almost irresistible to a reporter. As Wicker tells us with admirable candor, "I regret . . . to say I have on too many occasions responded like one of Pavlov's dogs when summoned to the august presence of a White House official; whatever information he had for me, I usually grabbed and ran," knowing full well that it was almost certain to be "a self-serving bill of goods." Hedrick Smith, author of The Power Game, did likewise. "A few days later the Times ran a page-one story on President Reagan's vigorous preparations for the summit," The Wall Street Journal reported. "But the real payoff was how

Mr. Smith's piece set the tone for the television networks' coverage of the summit. All of the TV broadcasts conveyed the image of a President firmly in charge." As Lyndon Johnson once remarked, "There is no such thing as an objective news story. There is always a private story behind the public story."

While serving as Reagan's treasury secretary, James Baker promoted Third World debt policies that were profitable to himself. Yet that gross impropriety, though part of the public record, went completely unnoticed by the press for nearly two years, and continued unnoticed while the Senate was ostensibly examining Baker's appointment as secretary of state. The new secretary had no sooner entered upon his duties, however, when "someone in the administration"-White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, as it turned out-peached on Baker to the press, thereby turning the newsworthy into news. For some reason one of President Bush's White House henchmen had used the press to humiliate the President's most powerful adviser. That was the private story, now becoming public, seen darkly through the looking glass of news.

The private story behind our national news is usually found in Congress. The powerful sources seen darkly through the glass of news are congressional leaders telling the press what to think and say about anything that happens in the capital and anyone who matters in the capital-excluding themselves. "This is a well-known 'secret' in the press corps: Washington news is funneled through Capitol Hill," notes Hess, rightly italicizing a secret well worth knowing: that congressional leaders make and unmake the nation's news.

As long as Congress made aid to El Salvador contingent on improvement in human rights, Salvadoran death squads and political crimes were news in America. To keep well supplied, the Times put a local investigative reporter on its staff. As soon as Congress lost interest in El Salvador, in 1982, the murderous regime virtually ceased to be news; the Times investigative reporter-Raymond Bonner-was promptly replaced by a reporter more amenable to the new congressional line.

For some years evidence of Pentagon waste and corruption had been available to the press in the uncommonly graphic form of $660 ashtrays and $7,622 coffeepots. Yet this well-documented information lay in a sort of journalistic limbo until mid-September 1984, when certain political leaders held a well-orchestrated Senate hearing on Pentagon waste. Thus licensed as news, outrageous ashtrays became common knowledge and struck home with extraordinary force. The entire country was so enthralled and appalled that the wanton arms buildup stood in political peril. Something had to be done to stanch the flow of enlightening news. At the urgent request of congressional leaders (frightened perhaps of their own temerity), President Reagan established in mid-1985 a bipartisan commission to take charge of investigating Pentagon procurement. In typical mock deference to lofty presidential commissions-those black holes in political space- Congress fell silent about defense corruption. No official source remained but the Pentagon soup kitchen, which ladles out no news of Pentagon malfeasance. Once again minus its congressional news license, Pentagon waste and corruption disappeared into journalistic limbo. On matters of public consequence, it is not news editors but the powerful leaders of Congress who decide what is news and how it will be played.

Do we harbor a clear and distinct impression about national affairs? Quite likely it comes from congressional leaders. "To a large extent, the reputations of Presidents and their top political appointees-cabinet members, agency heads, etc.-are made or broken on Capitol Hill," Broder notes in his memoirs. The "news" that President Carter failed to "consult with congressional leaders" came to us from congressional leaders. (The truth of the matter was quite another story.) Similarly, the preposterous "news" that President Bush was haplessly "adrift" six weeks after his inauguration was whispered to reporters by congressional Democrats and "Republican insiders"-leading politicians of both parties. That is surely Hertsgaard's "power to define reality," and just as surely, that power is not in the hands of a passive press and its source-bound reporters. The myth of media power is nothing more than a political orthodoxy that conveniently masks the purloined truth: the professional politicians of Washington quietly shape our national news to suit their interests. It should not come as a surprise that an orthodoxy so useful to the powerful (not to mention flattering to the press) has achieved the prominence it has.

The passivity of the press is commonly - and mistakenly - called "objectivity," the ruling principle of American journalism ever since World War I put an end to the Progressive revolt against oligarchy, monopoly, and privilege. The code of "objective journalism" is simplicity itself. In writing a news story a reporter is forbidden to comment on his own, or draw inferences on his own, or arrange facts too suggestively on his own. Yet even in the most "objective" story, as Wicker notes, nothing can be said "unless some official-enough spokesman could be found to say so."

In 1984 the President and Congress were in agreement that a large voter turnout in El Salvador's presidential election would prove that "a step toward democracy" (as The New York Times would later characterize it) had been made, justifying massive aid to the ruling faction. The turnout proved large; the results were hailed and Congress voted increased military aid at once. In the vast farrago of El Salvador news one fact was missing: voting in El Salvador is compulsory. What rule of objectivity kept the American press from telling us the simple, salient, objective fact that gave the lie to the whole futile policy? None.

On February 25, 1986, The New York Times reported, a presidential panel investigating the crash of the space shuttle Challenger proved incapable of explaining "the cause of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's apparent insistence that the liftoff proceed on Jan. 28." According to the Times, the panel was baffled by NASA's "changed philosophy" of launch safety and puzzled by its sudden decision to put engineers "in the position of proving it was unsafe [to launch], instead of the other way around." What went unmentioned in the Times story of official bafflement was a fact formerly known to all-that on the night of the ill-fated launch President Reagan had planned to deliver a State of the Union paean to "America moving ahead" (in the words of a Reagan aide explaining why the speech was postponed). What rule of objectivity required the Times to omit mention of this "coincidence" and so shield its readers from the blatant dithering of a presidential panel? None, of course.

There is no public information more objective than an official government document, yet "few Washington news operations have their own facilities for serious documents research," notes Hess. Even when there is time, there is a "shunning of documents research." What rule of objectivity accounts for the shunning of unimpeachably objective sources? None, yet even the most newsworthy documents disappear into journalistic oblivion at the mere behest of the powerful. On February 26, 1987, Reagan's "special review board," known as the Tower Commission, issued its long-awaited report on the Iran-Contra scandal. An hour's reading revealed a President obsessively concerned with, and intensely curious about, Iran-Contra matters, and determined to keep those matters in the hands of close personal advisers. To the press, however, the three members of the commission said exactly the opposite. In public statements, interviews, television appearances, and private meetings with leading editors, they insisted that Reagan was victimized by a "management style" that kept him in complete ignorance of everything blameworthy. That disgraceful lie, which in effect accused the President of his own defense, was endorsed at once by Democratic leaders and duly became the day's news, as if the report had never been written. When the Iran-Contra committees of Congress issued their report on the scandal, congressional leaders told the press at once that the whole sordid chapter was closed. The press did as instructed and closed the books at once on the most extraordinary abuse of power in presidential history. The report itself was ignored; a wealth of newsworthy information, impeccably "sourced," sank into journalistic limbo. The report termed Reagan's private war against Nicaragua "a flagrant violation of the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution," but that grave charge, worthy of blazing headlines, was scarcely noticed in the press and ignored entirely by the Times. What rule of journalism dictates such base servility to the powerful? No rule save the rule of the whip, which political power cracks over the press's head.

"Aggressive challenges to the official version of things" arouse what Wicker calls "Establishment disapproval" and bring down the Establishment lash: "lost access, complaints to editors and publishers, social penalties, leaks to competitors, a variety of responses no one wants." "To examine critically the institutions and mores of government," notes Leonard Downie, Jr., managing editor of The Washington Post, "might mean breaking friendships with trusted government contacts, missing the consensus front-page stories everyone else is after, or failing to be followed down a new path of inquiry." Punishments need not be draconian. "Manipulating access," says Wicker, "is the most standard means of stroking and threatening, and by all odds the most effective, even against bold and independent reporters." If draconian methods are needed, political leaders do not scruple to use them. When Halberstam's Vietnam reporting for the Times angered President Kennedy, his White House henchmen whispered to Wicker "the slander that Halberstam was a Saigon barhopper who had never been to the front." Twenty years later, Robert Parry's Central America reporting for the Associated Press ran afoul of Reagan's State Department, which launched a whisper campaign against him, accusing Parry of being a Sandinista sympathizer disguised as a journalist.

Self-serving politicians bully and threaten the publishers' employees, hinder their work, and weaken their stories, yet almost no audible protest comes from the "super-rich and powerful businessmen who ultimately controlled the U.S. news media." Slandered by State Department hatchet men, Parry discovered that, as he told Hertsgaard, "if you don't succumb to all that, you get the line from your editors that maybe they should take you off the story, since you seem to be pursuing a political agenda. When the government attacks you, even your colleagues begin to doubt your credibility." Assigned by the A.P. to the Pentagon beat in the 1960s, a young reporter named Seymour Hersh sidestepped its informational soup kitchen, found his own high-ranking official sources, and duly infuriated Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Sylvester, master of the soup kitchen at the time. Sylvester phoned Hersh's boss to complain about the "little ferret," as he was known in the Pentagon, and out went the inquisitive Hersh. The fact that his stories were impeccably "objective," that the A.P.'s member newspapers had been pleased to publish them, meant absolutely nothing. The Pentagon had spoken, and the A.P. obeyed. The obligation of a free press to "act as a check on the power of government" is checked instead by the power of government.

Fearful of losing access, "beat reporters must often practice self-censorship," notes Gans, "keeping their most sensational stories to themselves." Fearful of offending the masters of the soup kitchens, they "have little contact with an agency's adversaries." Servile by need, Washington reporters all too often become servile in spirit, like prisoners who come to side with their jailers. "You begin to understand," as I. F. Stone once put it, "that there are certain things the people ought not to know." For nearly twenty years reporters covered the FBI beat without reporting that the bureau was engaged in massive domestic spying under the transparent guise of "counterintelligence." For ten years reporters covered the CIA without reporting on the agency's own illicit domestic spying operation, although they surely had wind of it. For the "myopia of a Washington political beat," says Broder, "there is no sure antidote." Were the power of the media anything more than a shabby fiction, there might be some real hope. In fact, there is none.

The political whip that falls on reporters also falls on the media "powers that be." The publisher or broadcaster who allows his reporter to delve into the forbidden mores of government or to challenge the official version of things by making "controversial charges . . . quoting unidentified sources," says Wicker, "is likely to he denounced for 'irresponsibility.' " His patriotism may be questioned, his advertisers roused against him. He can be held up to public contumely as a prime example of unelected elitist power, with what effect on profits the "powers that be" do not wait to find out. "All too many of [them] are fundamentally businessmen," says Wicker, and nothing scares more easily than a billion dollars.

After President Nixon assailed the Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, "the nation's most influential newspaper," as Rusher calls it, grew so frightened that "we bent over backwards trying to cultivate Nixon," in the words of Max Frankel, now the executive editor of the newspaper. After the Reagan White House publicly scolded CBS for its vivid prime-time documentary on the plight of the poor in 1982, "CBS News management," reports Hertsgaard, "began pressing journalists . . . to tone down criticism of President Reagan."

CBS was the protagonist, too, in one of the most telltale stories of political power and the national news media. On October 27, 1972, CBS News carried a fourteen-minute survey of the Watergate scandal as it stood after four months of brilliant investigative reporting by The Washington Post, which had dared treat the break-in as a crime to be solved, even without official approval. Elsewhere in the media, however, the story had been "bottled up," notes Halberstam in his account of the episode. The rest of the press treated it as mere partisan bickering; the Times, for its part, was still "bending over backwards." Now millions of CBS viewers heard Walter Cronkite describe in detail "charges of a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history." A second installment on laundered money was scheduled to follow. At the White House, a coarse-minded scoundrel named Charles Colson was in charge of intimidating the press for the President. The day after the broadcast he telephoned the great power-that-be William S. Paley, board chairman of CBS, to hector and berate him. If Paley did not stop the second program, warned Colson, CBS would be stripped of the licenses to operate its five lucrative television stations. A frightened Paley tried his best to carry out the White House order. His newspeople, to their credit, resisted, and a compromise was reached: the second show was cut nearly in half and substantially weakened.

That was not compliant enough for the White House, however. A few days after Nixon's reelection, Colson called up Paley's longtime lieutenant, Frank Stanton, to issue a still more sweeping threat: If CBS persisted in broadcasting hostile news about the President, the White House would ruin CBS on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. "We'll break your network," said tyranny's little henchman. Stanton suppressed his rage. Paley, deeply ashamed, told no one of Colson's threats. Why didn't these two media magnates turn those threats into news? What else is a free press for if not to help a free people hold the powerful to account? Yet here was a President grossly abusing the power of his office (which was newsworthy in itself) in order to censor the news (which was doubly newsworthy) so that the electorate might not hold him accountable at the polls-which was newsworthy three times over.

In John Adams's thunderous words, a free people has "an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers." Now a ruler was subverting our inalienable right to dreaded knowledge of him. Surely that was newsworthy, yet it didn't become news. It rarely does. The news media in America do not tell the American people that a political whip hangs over their head. That is because a political whip hangs over their head.

"The Washington politician's view of what is going on in the United States has been substituted for what is actually happening in the country," former president of the A.P. Wes Gallagher pointed out in the mid-1970s, a time when the press enjoyed a brief hour of post-Watergate freeness. And why would Washington politicians want us to know that our knowledge of them comes from them? That is the kind of knowledge that awakens a sleeping people, that dissolves political myths and penetrates political disguises. To keep all such dreaded knowledge from the rest of us is the "information policy" of those who rule us. And so it is we hear, from the left as well as the right, the steady drone about media power.

From the "frightening information policy" to the impeachable offenses documented in the shunned Iran-Contra report, the private story behind every major non-story during the Reagan Administration was the Democrats' tacit alliance with Reagan. It is this complicity, and not the Reagan Administration's deft "management" of the news we hear so much about, that explains the press's supineness during the Reagan years. As usual, it was Congress that was managing the news.

"It was very hard to write stories raising questions about Reagan's policy, because the Democrats weren't playing the role of an opposition party," said the A.P.'s Parry, explaining to Hertsgaard why the press seemed to be "on bended knee" during the Reagan years. Congress, said Leslie Stahl of CBS News, "has not been a source for the press in the whole Reagan Administration. They don't want to criticize this beloved man." Even good stories fell flat, said Jonathan Kwitny, a Wall Street Journal reporter at the time, because "there is no opposition within the political system." When the Times, to its credit, reported on August 8, 1985, that White House aides were giving "direct military advice" to the President's private Contra army, Reagan replied at a press conference that "we're not violating any laws." Democratic leaders asked the President's national security adviser, Robert McFarlane (later convicted for his answer), whether the President was Iying, after which they assured the press there was nothing to the report. And for many months one of the most momentous stories of our time "just went nowhere," as Larry Speakes, Reagan's press secretary, boasted to Hertsgaard.

Even stories with eminent sources "just went nowhere" during the Reagan Administration, because the political leadership in Congress, unwilling to challenge the President, refused to license them. For nearly six years New York's Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan charged in numerous speeches and op-ed articles that our present paralyzing budget deficits were deliberately created by President Reagan and his faction. By slashing taxes (not to mention doubling military spending), they planned from the start to "create a fiscal crisis," Moynihan said, and use that crisis to force the country against its will to reduce "social spending" for years to come. The indictment was truly grave: an American President conspiring to deceive the American people in order to achieve goals he would never have dared avow. The would-be source was impeccable: a prominent senator, respected, reflective, and uncommonly eloquent. Yet Moynihan's indictment never became news, not even in the spring of 1986, when David Stockman's astonishing memoirs substantiated that indictment in dense and vivid detail. Instead of turning the former budget director's memoirs into momentous news, Washington's press corps attacked Stockman for writing them. "In all this torrent of comment about the book," noted James Reston of the Times, "there is very little analysis of his indictment of the methods and men who are still deciding the nation's policies." The press fled from the story, Moynihan said, because "the political class cannot handle this subject." Against a political establishment resolved to keep dreaded knowledge from the country, not even an eminent senator can make that knowledge news on his own.

For eight years the Democratic opposition had shielded from the public a feckless, lawless President with an appalling appetite for private power. That was the story of the Reagan years, and Washington journalists evidently knew it. Yet they never turned the collusive politics of the Democratic Party into news. Slavishly in thrall to the powerful, incapable of enlightening the ruled without the consent of the rulers, the working press, the "star" reporters, the pundits, the sages, the columnists passed on to us, instead, the Democrats' mendacious drivel about the President's "Teflon shield." For eight years we saw the effects of a bipartisan political class in action, but the press did not show us that political class acting, exercising its collective power, making things happen, contriving the appearances that were reported as news. It rarely does.

On May 8, 1969, the Times reported, none too conspicuously, that President Nixon was bombing a neutral country in Southeast Asia (Cambodia) and making elaborate efforts to conceal the fact from the American people. The Democratic Congress ignored the story completely, and without a congressional news license, perforce, it "dropped out of sight," as Wicker notes. The entire party establishment had tacitly rallied around a President who harbored dangerous ambitions. That was what had happened, but it wasn't news. Instead of revealing a would-be tyrant in the White House and his congressional allies, the news showed the American people nothing. Think of it: nothing. Our divine right to dreaded knowledge of our rulers, far from being indefeasible, could scarcely have been said to exist.

Three and a half years later, the same congressional leaders decided to delve into the Watergate scandal, almost certainly to check Nixon's careening ambitions. Yet how many Americans know that a bipartisan political establishment had actually made such a decision, wise and prudent though it was? All too few. How many Americans believe that an "imperial press" had taken it upon itself to drive a President from office? All too many. And how many Americans have the faintest idea that "the earliest and most serious blow to Carter's credibility," as Broder recently recalled, "came from the way Democrats in Congress had described to reporters their early disillusionment with the President"? The fact of Democratic hostility would have been dreaded knowledge, indeed, in 1977: an "outsider" President, newly inaugurated, is assailed at once by his own party's "insiders." But that, too, never became news. Instead, the press reported the hostile jibes of Democratic leaders as if they were impartial judgments rather than blows struck in a political struggle. The "insiders" probably altered the course of our history, but thanks to a servile and subjugated press, we scarcely knew they existed.

So it has continued day after day, decade after decade. Our rulers make the news, but they do not appear in the news, not as they really are-not as a political class, a governing establishment, a body of leaders with great and pervasive powers, with deep, often dark, ambitions. In the American republic the fact of oligarchy is the most dreaded knowledge of all, and our news keeps that knowledge from us. By their subjugation of the press, the political powers in America have conferred on themselves the greatest of political blessings-Gyges' ring of invisibility. And they have left the American people more deeply baffled by their own country's politics than any people on earth. Our public realm lies steeped in twilight, and we call that twilight news.

Buried Alive

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