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Journalists and power

Print edition : Mar 12, 2004 T+T-

IN India, interest in issues of freedom of the press waxes and wanes. Reassuring outburst of outrage at gross violations are followed by indifference to smaller but menacing breaches. Issues of journalistic ethics receive even less attention. There is not a single good book on the record of the Indian press since Independence, documenting its achievements and failures. The fraternity of journalists is reluctant to discuss at all - let alone discuss calmly and objectively - issues of the relationship of journalists to men in power. The state wields enormous influence and power. It can befriend the pliant and punish the errant ones in very many ways. To go no further, Article 80(3) of the Constitution empowers the Union government to advise the President to nominate a person as a member of the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, if he has "special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as the following, namely: literature, science, arts and social service". The grouping is itself suggestive enough to rule out journalism. But journalists have been nominated and - they have merrily accepted the favour.

No journalist, be he editor, reporter or columnist, can function in isolation. Interaction with men in power is not only inescapable, but desirable. In its train, this raises myriad issues of access and independence; of self-imposed disqualification (recusal) on a matter on which the journalist has ventured advice, solicited or other.

In India and abroad, journalists have carried messages in the national interest without inviting reproach. There is the cool professional who is detached and has no particularly strong convictions. He is to be respected as a useful craftsman committed to his work and to the ethics of the craft. The one with strong commitments is no less worthy of respect. But he is faced with problems no less agonising; perhaps, more so than his detached colleague. He can nail his colours to the mast for all to see and follow the hallowed tradition of pamphleteer. The reader knows where he stands. Objectivity lies not in shunning preferences, but in respecting the sanctity of facts. These issues bear study and debate. Glib answers are misleading, if not self-serving.

This book should be read by every sensitive and thoughtful person who writes for the press and should be prescribed as compulsory reading in schools of journalism. It has lessons for all - editors, bureau chiefs, reporters and columnists. Russell Baker called James B. Reston as "probably the best newspaperman the 20th century produced". Prof. Hans. J. Morgenthau, one of the most original and influential thinkers on the enduring verities of the international order, called him "the most brilliant, competent and trustworthy of diplomatic correspondents". The occasion for this high praise is noteworthy. It was a dispatch in The New York Times of March 13, 1950, datelined Washington D.C. under the title "Soviet Move Seen for Deal with U.S. to Divide World". It was a proposal by the Soviet Union to the United States to demarcate spheres of influence between them globally just as Churchill and Stalin had done in respect of Eastern Europe in Moscow on October 9, 1944; perhaps less crudely. The deal was recorded on a piece of paper indicating the percentages of rival influences in each state.

A correspondent who is imparted such information as Reston was must be one who enjoys trust and respect not only for his integrity but also for his discretion and competence. Reston did not put in print all he was told. His interlocutors trusted him to use his discretion and they knew that he was knowledgeable to understand and weigh what he was told. A reporter must not serve as any one's mouthpiece or public relations officer. He must bring to bear independent and informed judgment on what he is told. This is particularly true of the vanishing tribe of the diplomatic correspondent. He must know the whole records to be able to judge each move and each policy pronouncement independently. Doubtless, independence can impair access. That is where ethics come in and that is what distinguishes a diplomatic correspondent from an unofficial spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs for whom proximity to power and access on its terms are all that matter.

John F. Stacks' description of the true craftsman is apt. "The good reporter needs to read more than he writes, to learn the antecedents of the story at hand. The reporter needs to be a striver, a person who wants to raise himself up, if not to the high status and accomplishments of top experts, at least high enough to reduce the gap of information and understanding between the source and reporter.

"A master reporter must stay outside the story, independent enough to make judgments about the truth of the matter, the wisdom of the participants, the likely consequences of events being reported. At the same time, he must be far enough inside the process to be known by knowledgeable sources, to be trusted, to have access to those who know the story" (emphasis added, throughout).

It must be a blend of "ambition and restraint", of the desire to reveal and the good sense to know what must remain confidential. The judgment must be his. "For the reporter, there is always danger lurking. Writing a story that is factually wrong can be damaging. Being seen as a propagandist for a particular source or a particular point of view is like-wise extremely destructive to the journalist's reputation. The combination of error and special pleading for a source is ruinous. These dangers increase in direct proportion to the fame and status of the reporter." But journalists there have been who have used fame and success as stepping stones, not to great access, but to a small place within the power structure.

John F. Stacks reported for Time for three decades and supervised its coverage of Watergate as News Editor in the Capital. He rose to be its Deputy Managing Editor. Reston has in him a biographer who is sympathetic and objective; neither a hagiographer nor debunker. He is conscious of Reston's greatness but critical of his lapses, He describes his fall from grace fully but fairly; with understanding and compassion. In doing so, he describes poignantly how it mirrors the rise and fall of American journalism itself. "Reston was the best journalist of his time, and perhaps the best of any time. He was a reporter of amazing skill, able to relieve powerful men of their most important secrets. He was a writer of easy, graceful prose who revolutionised the style in which American newspapers are written. As a columnist, he was a shaper of public opinion, an explicator of the Byzantine politics of Washington and the world. In his heyday, he was read by more Americans than any other single writer on public affairs. As a newspaper executive, he recruited men of enormous talent into the previously rather shabby career of journalism and inspired an entire later generation to join the trade. Together they raised the quality of journalism beyond what it had ever been. He was sceptical without ever lapsing into the current disease of American journalism: unrelieved cynicism. Men whom Reston recruited or supported became household names; to wit Anthony Lewis and David Halberstam.

Stacks' is not a biography in the grand tradition in which Ronald Steel wrote his classic Walter Lippmann and the American Century. But it is, within its framework, a first class work. Lippmann once said: "Newspapermen cannot be the cronies of great men... there always has to be a certain distance between high public officials and newspaper men. I would not say a wall or a fence, but an air space; that's very necessary."

But, as Reston wrote in his memoirs Deadline, "he was always lecturing me on the virtues of detachment - of avoiding personal involvement with influential officials or politicians. `Cronyism is the curse of journalism', he would say. But actually, he was more involved with them than any other major commentator I knew."

Lippmann left Washington when Lyndon B. Johnson began treating him to ridicule because of his opposition to the Vietnam war. Reston survived the antipathy but was cheated by Kissinger whom he had unwisely come to trust on the December 1972 bombing of Vietnam. Stacks mentions the fall early in the book and proceeds to show how it came about after a glittering career. "For more than three decades, nearly all his professional life, Scotty Reston successfully walked this thin and difficult line, an outsider-insider, trusting and being trusted, close to power but not seduced by it.

"But then, near the end of his career, some of Reston's greatest virtues became liabilities. He trusted the untrustworthy, apparently believing he was too important to be lied to. His commentary and reporting became suspect. He was seen as toadying during a very tense and dramatic time. Rather than the very model of what young reporters wanted to be, Reston became a symbol of what they didn't want to be: a shill and an apologist. The reputation he had built and sustained throughout a stellar career was sadly tarnished. His own colleagues, men whose careers Reston had nourished and supported, turned on him in public. He became in some circles, even among colleagues still working on the newspaper he helped make great, the personification of what the true journalist should not be."

The truth is that Reston was a centrist. In his heyday the big divide that disrupted the political process after Watergate did not exist. There was "a sense of common purpose with the government and political leaders", of the kind that existed in the Jawaharlal Nehru era and in Lal Bahadur Shastri's time. Indira Gandhi's autocratic ways disrupted that. Before we could recover, Advani - with Vajpayee in tow - created another divide to grab power - the Hindutva ideology. The middle ground suffered in space and content.

RESTON was so much the centrist that people wondered whether he would have probed the Watergate scandals as aggressively as The Washington Post did under the editorship of Ben Bradlee with the full support of the publisher Katherine Graham, a close friend of Reston.

Reston supported publication of the Pentagon Papers and fully backed David Halberstam who John F. Kennedy wanted to be removed from Vietnam as the Times' correspondent. "We can't buckle in that kind of stuff," Reston said.

But "the increasing polarisation of American politics was crowding out the moderate, establishmentarian approach that had made Reston such a powerful figure in the American press". Power had come with trust. Reston would file away for private use memos of talks that were unprintable. At a dinner Dulles mused about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union.

Immediately after his bruising encounter with Khruschev in Vienna in 1961, Kennedy met Reston alone, by prior arrangement, rather than any colleague. He was visibly shaken. He told Reston that Khruschev had "savaged me". But what he added shook Reston. "Kennedy went on to say that to counter the battering by Khruschev, which he attributed to the Soviet leader's underestimation of Kennedy's resolve, the United States would have to stand more firmly against the Soviets' demands in Berlin and against the mounting Communist insurgency in South Vietnam". Reston wrote later that he was "speechless" when Kennedy mentioned Vietnam, since Vietnam was at that point "nowhere near the heart of the Cold War conflict and, in Reston's estimation, did not carry much weight in the superpower tug-of-war".

David Kaiser's book American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War demolishes the myth that Vienna led to the debacle in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Kennedy was anxious to make Khruschev understand that he could not block the West's access to Berlin. He wanted to avert war by miscalculation and invited Reston to Cape Cod. He told Reston that it would be "helpful" if he wrote on his own authority what Kennedy's firm position was. In a Column on September 6, 1961, ostentatiously datelined Hyannis Port, Reston did just that. "Nuclear war in such circumstances is not `unthinkable'."

Stacks comments: "The President of the United States had used Reston to send the most apocalyptic message imaginable: the United States was willing to go nuclear over Berlin. It certainly wasn't the first or last time a President had employed a newspaperman to play a card in a tough game of tacit bargaining. But the stakes in this game were the highest possible, and it was Reston who was the natural messenger. The column he produced is a masterpiece of balance... " Both Kennedy and Reston appreciated the need to put the message absolutely correctly. To ensure that, Reston submitted the column, or at least the critical warning paragraphs, to the White House for approval. He told his editors in New York he was doing so, and they agreed. As far as can be determined, this was the only time Reston ever did such a thing. Normally, submitting a written piece for approval by sources is among the most forbidden of all journalistic practices. Reston said later he was "not happy with this selective cooperation between officials and reporters". Stacks opines that the subject was of incredible sensitivity. "It is hard to argue with what he did, given what was at stake."

But Reston was not seduced. He was disturbed by Kennedy's hold on the mass media, especially on television and remarked presciently: "As this trend continues, the dangers are obvious. The opposition can continue to express its feelings on the floor of the Congress, probably in the presence of a handful of members and spectators, but the President has an audience of millions at his command any day he likes. It is not a situation that promises to maintain a political balance of power in the United States." In the U.S. the opposition was able later to use this very medium against the government. Can such a thing happen here?

Scotty, as he was called because he was born in Scotland, had deep insights. On JFK's assassination, he wrote: "The worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order."

RESTON acted as a messenger too when he met Fidel Castro. "Mr. President, do you mind if I change my hat. I'd like to put on my diplomatic hat, because I have a message for you from the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He wants to begin negotiations to normalise relations with Cuba." The two decided that perhaps Ambassadors of their respective countries could meet in Madrid. He was neither the first nor the last journalist to undertake such a mission in the national interest. If overdone, such missions can blur the distinction between the reporter and the player. Stakes holds that the line was erased "dismayingly with his relationship with Kissinger, when he had come off the bench and onto the field. He was no longer an outsider with superb connections on the inside. He was a full-fledged insider, the wrong place for a respected journalist to be". How did that happen?

Reston had failed in New York as Managing Editor of the paper for which he was unsuited. His were gifts of reportage and analysis. He excelled as bureau chief in Washington and as diplomatic correspondent. A different situation greeted him when he returned to the capital. Nixon, who detested the press, was President and his cronies like H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman were real sources of information. Kissinger was the only source available and he was a splendid interlocutor - urbane, witty and relatively accessible. Reston moved far too close to him than was good for his reputation. Worse, he suspended disbelief.

Nixon had been re-elected. Kissinger returned from Paris with a peace deal. Reston praised him highly. Nixon, however, decided to bomb North Vietnam to demonstrate his support for the South. Reston did a story on December 13, 1972, based on his talks with Kissinger citing obstruction by Saigon, which was true. But he did not, could not, report what Kissinger had suppressed from him - he was privy to the decision to bomb Hanoi. That happened five days after the story was published. Kissinger now tried to distance himself from it and Reston was taken in by his claims. Kissinger "undoubtedly opposes" the bombing, he wrote and tried to explain Kissinger's compulsions. Reston's line had not gone unnoticed. The December 13 column was the last straw. It harmed his reputation. Reston had spiked the Pentagon reporter's story because it conflicted with his perceptions. The reporter was proved right.

Stacks writes: "Young journalists coming to Washington, especially in the Kennedy and Johnson years, aspired to be Scotty Reston. But then, as those in power fell under suspicion and Reston came under attack for defending the powerful, it was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the relentless reporters who helped expose the Watergate cover-up, who became the role models for young journalists everywhere." In 2002, Woodward emerged as a PRO for George W. Bush with his disgraceful book Bush at War (Frontline, January 31, 2003).

BILL CLINTON'S presidency established a new order. There was "systematic lying from the highest official in the land, hounded by a mean and destructive press". Cynicism is reciprocal. Stacks laments: "Today's leaders' first instinct is to `spin', which is a nice way of saying that they refuse even a modicum of candor... . The press itself doesn't provide much reason for hope. The ethic of disbelief in politicians and their pronouncements is still powerful. Much of the press is now part of huge corporate enterprises. This often produces coverage that is either sycophantic, to protect those corporations' relationship with the government or stupidly sensationalistic, in order to pump readership and revenue."

But the palm must go to his subject James B. Reston for a brilliant description of Johnson's tragic blunders in Vietnam. They were fuelled by a "combination of ignorance, vanity, and booze - increasingly from booze as his disappointments mounted. First, he knew little or nothing of the enemy or the guerilla war he was fighting. Second, he had supreme confidence that the United States could do anything it set its mind to, and thought money and machines were the answer to any test of power, and third - a touch of racism here - that America was superior and that `these little brown men", as he called the Vietnamese, would run into the rice paddies at the sight of American troops and modern weapons". Omit, the booze which belongs to his past - and you have a strikingly accurate description of the ruin wrought by George W. Bush, a much smaller man than Johnson, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sadly the ones who perform in the American press today cannot even be called the poor man's James B. Reston. It says a lot for the man's insights that in a column published on August 21, 1983, he wrote: "We have won the Cold War and don't know it." He explained why: "The Soviets are the most spectacular failure of the century. The Russian people don't believe in them. The Communist parties of Western Europe no longer regard Moscow's economic theories as a model for their societies." This was well before Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and 18 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

SCOTTY: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism by John F. Stacks; Little, Brown and Company; pages 372, $29.95