Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Media Sometimes Isn't Quick To Recognize The Truth Even When It Comes From Their Own Reporters

Harrison Salisbury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, once remarked that he had learned his own editors weren't always ready to hear the truth. A foreign correspondent had to be careful the way he presented the truth to them, he said.

It was, in fact, a New York Times columnist, C.L. Sulzberger, who was one of the few reporters of foreign news who grasped in the 1950s that Charles de Gaulle was likely to return to power in France. Sulzberger used to periodically interview de Gaulle when he was out of power. In fact, the general was one of his favorite interviews. De Gaulle, he said, had once been close to returning to power. But he came up to the Rubicon only to dangle his fishing line. The next time, Sulzberger predicted, de Gaulle would cross the Rubicon.

Sulzberger turned out to be right in May, 1958 when the rebellion of French settlers and Army commanders in Algeria brought de Gaulle back to power. But the columnist, who happened to be the nephew of the New York Times publisher, seldom got credit at his own newspaper for such prescience. He was routinely dismissed as vainglorious and not much appreciated there.

Another NYT columnist who turned out to have a good eye for comers in foreign affairs was William Safire. He sized up Israel's Ariel Sharon as a comer and frequently was one of the few American newsmen that Sharon would agree to talk to. When Sharon became prime minister, and one of the few leaders in the world whose tactics have proved successful in reducing the number of suicide bombings, Safire continued to have him as a source, not that it was much appreciated at his newspaper, which continued editorially to be very critical of Sharon.

This morning, in the Los Angeles Times Opinion section, various people who guessed rightly or wrongly who "Deep Throat" was are quoted. Well down in the list presented is James Mann, a former reporter and foreign columnist for the L.A. Times. Mann wrote of Deep Throat in the Atlantic Monthly in 1992, "He could well have been Mark Felt, who admitted that he harbored ambitions to be the FBI director."

While this turned out to be right on the money, Mann was not sufficiently appreciated at the L.A. Times, despite the fact that his column on foreign affairs was one of the best. When the Tribune Co. purchased the paper, in fact, he was one of the many columnists dismissed by the new Times editors. Mann, disgusted, left the newspaper.

Ed Guthman, a talented National Editor at the L.A. Times who was often right about national political issues, was treated badly by colleagues Mark Murphy and Frank Haven, when he directed the paper's national political coverage, and finally driven to take a job as editorial page editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It was Guthman who warned me in 1976 when I was covering the Carter campaign for the Presidency that Carter might not be too effective a President. He would be too inclined to use Georgia cronies in the White House rather than Washington insiders, said Guthman. By that time, Guthman had been eased aside from control over national campaign coverage. He was right, but nobody at the paper, including myself at the time, much listened to him.

I was correct myself in writing several months before the 1984 Olympic Games, based on an anonymous source at the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, that the Los Angeles organizers had a much bigger surplus of money than they were publicly letting on. The editors of the Times thought so little of this story that they ran it on Page 3, when they were accustomed to run almost all major Olympic stories on Page 1.
They were scared of the story, though it turned out to be true.

In the fall of 1972, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were writing stories, based on what Mark Felt was telling them anonymously, that the Nixon White House was deeply involved in the Watergate case, the Post was running them prominently, but the L.A. Times, which shared a wire service with the Post, was literally burying their historic stories, running just a few paragraphs of them in obscure back pages, and, at that moment, the New York Times wasn't paying much attention either.

The night the Watts riot erupted in Los Angeles in 1965, L.A. Times police reporters covered it, but their story ran on an inside page.

Of course, hindsight is 100% accurate, and papers can't be expected to be right all the time. But often, the papers do have reporters, or even editors, who do know what's going on but can't very prominently get it into the paper.

And sometimes, even when a paper has been persistently wrong editorially, as many of the British papers were about Hitler in the 1930s, there is some grudging recognition that a politician's warning deserves attention.

When Churchill gave his great Munich speech in October of 1938, warning Parliament that in allowing Czechoslovakia to be dismembered, Chamberlain had suffered "an unmitigated defeat," the Daily Telegraph did observe that Churchill's warnings about Hitler "verified by events, have entitled him to be heard." But the Daily Express called the speech "an alarmist oration by a man whose mind is soaked in the conquests of Marlborough," and the London Times said that Churchill had treated the House of Commons to "prophesies which made Jeremiah appear to be an optimist."

Within a year, Hitler had begun World War II.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home