The two newspapers I make a point of seeing each day are The Washington Post and The Austin American-Statesman. I read the one for its national coverage, and the other for its reporting on state and local events, as well as for those service features, from grocery ads to movie listings, that make such a difference in day-to-day life.

In most respects the two papers could not be more different. The Post is powerful, rich, and famous; the Statesman is none of those things. The Post is part of a communications empire that includes Newsweek and several broadcast stations; the Statesman is on its own. The Post is respected even where it is not loved; the Statesman has no honor even in its own home town, since its editorial policy is so far to the right of prevailing attitudes in Texas’ most liberal city as to be something of a standing joke. (To give one example, the Statesman regularly endorses the Republican candidates in general elections, and the Republicans regularly go on to collect 25 or 30 per cent of the vote.) Many people think the Post is the best paper in the country, and most others would at least rank it with The New York Times as one of our two truly “national” newspapers; when the Statesman was left off [MORE]’s recent list of the ten worst papers in America, several readers wrote to protest.

Comparing these two papers, which I am about to do, might seem to be a sitting-duck exercise, like asking whether the Soviet Union or Norway has the better army. The point of the comparison is that each paper tells a little part of the story of the profession—the Statesman about the bogs which a good many newspapers fall into, and the Post about the limitations, often so similar to the Statesman‘s, which not even the best papers have learned to transcend.

As evidence for this proposition, I offer a two-week sample of both newspapers. These two weeks, beginning on Sunday, September 29, 1974, an d running through Saturday, October 1 2, have the two advantages of being far enough away from the fall elections that campaign reportage does not totally dominate the news pages, and of being free of the cataclysmic events which can skew a paper’s balance. On the national level, the most exciting things that happened during this time were President Ford’s economic message (the one with the WIN buttons), Wilbur Mills’ Tidal Basin incident, and the beginning of the Watergate trial. In Austin, the big news was a shoot-out in which police killed a Mexican-American man, a local bank’s clandestine destruction of a historic building, and the aftermath of the academic-political coup which deposed the president of the University of Texas, Stephen Spurr.

Before going any further, I should emphasize what kind of comparison this is not going to be—one between the different views of world and national events a reader would get from the Statesman and the Post. There is a difference, but it is not a very surprising one, and besides, it doesn’t reflect the real nature of the papers. The Statesman, like 95 per cent of the papers in the country, does not pretend to make national news a specialty. If its readers are interested in more than the brief reports the Statesman gives, they will buy a Houston or Dallas paper, get The New York Times or the Post by mail, read Time or Newsweek, or even watch the TV news. What the Statesman does emphasize is reporting on local and state events, and that is the coverage to compare with the Post‘s national news.

Two-fingered Journalism

To begin with the Statesman‘s two weeks, what is most impressive is how fully they embody the canons of traditional “objective” journalism. This creed has its reasonable version in the idea that newspapers should do two things—report the events that actually happen and report them in as fair and balanced fashion as possible. If a paper can’t do this, it can’t meet its minimum responsibility, let alone do anything more, just as a pianist won’t ever play Prokofiev if he can’t first play the scales. The problem is that for many journalists this minimum becomes their maximum ambition, so that when their profession’s own performers step onto the stage, they expect to hear not the journalistic equivalent of Prokofiev but two-finger exercises.

Of the two versions of objectivity, the Statesman sticks closer to the unreasonable kind. It is so faithful to its duty of chronicling events that it very rarely steps back to assess important developments which can’t be hung on one specific newspeg. In nearly every one of the 200-odd stories the Statesman published during this period, the event which justified the coverage is immediately apparent: “Governor Briscoe announced Friday ” “Cost and geography are two strong arguments for the IRS headquarters remaining in Austin, State Rep. Sarah Weddington has told IRS district director Richard Stakem in a letter.”

The Statesman also maintains a determined “balance,” in the sense of that term which TV news has made famous. If it is all too easy to imagine CBS news covering the Crucifixion by interviewing, in sequence, Jews, Barabbas, and Pontius Pilate, the modern equivalent of that outlook is every day apparent in papers like the Statesman. The reporter who operates in this world does not set himself up to judge the facts or assess their plausibility, but only to pass them on to the reader. His purpose is to serve as a kind of podium, which each side in a debate can mount to make its case. The assumption underlying this philosophy is that there are two sides to every case and that the public will be able to choose between the sides on the basis of the evidence presented to it.

There are stories in which this assumption is justified, in which the reporter tells us everything we need to know simply by letting each side speak its piece. On October 2, for example, the Statesman‘s John Sutton reported that the state attorney general’s office had reached an out-of-court settlement with the milk producers’ group, AMPI. The attorney general agreed not to prosecute AMPI on antitrust charges, and AMPI agreed to come up with $32,000 in fines. From the simple facts presented in the story, few readers would have difficulty understanding just what kind of pro-forma gesture the AMPI attorney was making when Sutton quoted him as saying, “AMPI does not agree or admit to the attorney general that he could prove the violation.”

But more often the situation is not so transparent, as another of Sutton’s stories illustrates. This one was on the October 4 front page, and it began:

The outgoing Travis County Grand Jury strongly implied Tuesday that Sheriff Raymond Frank is not doing his job and called for his ouster at the polls if he neglects his duties. Frank called the grand jury report politically motivated. As one of its ‘grave concerns,’ the grand jury expressed its alarm that the 12-member panel had been advised that 90 per cent of the drugs within the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and the Houston area come from Travis County.

There could be no doubt about this story’s significance, especially since the Sheriff was an elected rather than an appointed official. While the reader would not want Sutton and the Statesman to tell him how to vote when the Sheriff came up for reelection, he would at least expect the paper to present enough information to suggest which of the two possible explanations was nearer the truth— that the grand jury, for reasons of its own, was exaggerating or even inventing evidence, or that the Sheriff was huffing and puffing to save his own skin.

Although Sutton and the Statesman devoted dozens of inches to the story in the next few days, the reader never came any closer to knowing what was really going on. In the first day’s article a few additional paragraphs elaborated on Sheriff Frank’s side of the story: “Frank said, ‘I think there’s some politics involved in this grand jury report.’ He denied that his office is slack in carrying out any of its duties.” The first follow-up story, on October 5, concentrated on the fact that a controversy was going on, but not on its substance. It began, in prose not untypical of the Statesman, “The contents of the pot that the outgoing grand jury put fire under when the 12-member panel in effect called for the ouster of Sheriff Raymond Frank have boiled over into the political gutters and public name-calling has started.” In this story, as in the others in this series, the readers found large patches of contradictory quotes and accusations from each side, but absolutely no guidance about whether the Sherrif was doing a good job.

Other than the unbelieveably clotted prose, there was little out of the ordinary in the Statesman‘s coverage of this dispute. These journalistic blinders are not purely a phenomenon of the Statesman staff however, one need only recall the dressing-down NBC’s Cassie Mackin got in the fall of 1972 when she examined some of the Nixon campaign rhetoric and found it deceitful.

None of this is to say that straight news is useless. There is nothing more maddening than to have to wade through a dozen paragraphs of “mood” or “color” writing before you can find out the score of the football game or how many people survived the plane crash. But if it takes good factual reporting to fulfill the paper’s purpose of informing and educating its readers, it takes something else as well, which often involves breaking through the barriers imposed by the “objective” mind set. There was no reason why the Statesman should not have looked hard at Sheriff Frank and the grand jury to see who was telling the truth.

There is also no reason why papers like the Statesman should not decide on their own to undertake, for example, an assessment of the various state agencies and the way they are performing their jobs. In fact, this may be the most significant thing local papers—especially capital-city papers—across the country could do.

“Assess” and “evaluate” are two of those magical words with the power to confer instant boredom on the reader, but a few examples may clarify what they mean. Although Texas, with its oil wells, is second only to Kuwait as the preferred spot for sitting out the world recession, the state does have its share of problems. The public schools are financed on a woefully inequitable basis, with some districts having $10 million in taxable property per student and others having $5,000. For reasons never fully explained, the state has a much higher per capita prison population than the rest of the country, and according to a recent legislative study of the prisons, they illustrate every abuse from surgery performed by inmates themselves to forced labor in rooms so full of dust that guards refuse to stay inside. The University of Texas, which has more money than any school except Harvard, has several good graduate departments but a quite mediocre undergraduate program. The air above Houston would choke a citizen of Los Angeles—and besides that, Houston is sinking into the sea. This is not even to mention the food price and mortgage money crises that Texans share with their fellow Americans. In short, there is no scarcity of questions about which the citizen is curious to know, “What the hell is being done?”—by the state, by the feds, by anyone. The Washington Post is not going to tell them and neither is Time, so that leaves it up to the Statesman.

The Statesman does, from time to time, go out on a limb with a non-newspeg story of its own, but the straitened circumstances in which it does so are in themselves evidence of how powerful “objectivity” can be. The first category of these “created” stories, which deserves mention mainly because it is in such stark contrast to the severely abbreviated national news stories on the front page, consists of leisurely, often arcane reports from Europe, Asia, and points beyond, which the Statesman picks up from the Christian Science Monitor, the Manchester Guardian, and other wire services. These dispatches—”Russian Dream Coming True: More Cars on Way,” “Swedish Sex Ed Studied”—fill the back sections of the Statesman‘s thick Thursday and Sunday editions, and, while enjoyable in themselves, give the impression that they owe their existence to the need for a decent margin of type between the furniture ads.

The second and more significant category is the “human interest” stories produced by the paper’s own staff. The news content of these stories is so soft that the paper can throw aside all conventions of balance and neutrality without raising suspicions that it is treating hard-news subjects in a slanted way. There are examples in nearly any day’s edition, but here is just one: on October 3 the Statesman‘s city page featured a story entitled “Harmonica Reflects Church Janitor’s Thoughts: 011ie Bonner Uses Harp for Relaxing.”

The third and fourth categories are different from the first two in that they deal with the hard-news topics the paper is handling on its front page. The third category consists of “news analysis” stories; the fourth, special series of “investigative” or interpretive articles on subjects which are not fast-breaking news stories, but which are clearly different from the 011ie Bonner profiles—the structure of the city government, for example. The Statesman runs a respectable number of stories in these categories, and it published two special series during the two-week period, which was two more than the Post. But in the way it handles the subjects and the limitations it imposes on itself, the Statesman again illustrates the bonds of “objective” journalism.

What the Statesman, and most other papers, mean by “news analysis” might more properly be called “more news” or “extra details.” Most of the stories add material which fleshes out, rather than criticizes or truly analyzes, the front-page reports; the impetus behind them seems to be the reporter’s feeling that he cannot tell the story within the conventions of the pyramid style. This is a perfectly worthy form of journalism and has its place in every paper, but in the Statesman it becomes a substitute for anything more thoughtful than simple explanation. On October 2, for example, Tom Barry wrote a “news analysis” of the city’s water and sewer systems—a subject of considerable interest, since the city council was preparing to approve an enormous rate increase. But the analysis consisted of a lot of extra facts about the utility system (“In 1970-71, there were 1,281 miles of water pipe serving city customers; next year there will be 1,624. There were 75,817 meters in 1970 and will be 91,825 next year. . . “) and one “analytical” sentence: “There are a number of reasons and justifications for the [rate increase] proposals.” Whether the system had been run well or poorly, whether the rate structure was discriminatory or fair, whether there was an alternative to steps the council was about to take—these questions were all left unanswered.

The same dread of analysis and independent evaluation recurs in the paper’s special series. The Statesman‘s editors showed good judgment in the two subjects they chose for special examination. One of the series, a three-parter beginning September 30, was on the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), an enormously powerful but rarely visible public agency which built the man-made lakes that dominate the local landscape, and which is now responsible for flood control and the generation and distribution of electric power. Questions of energy use, environmental protection, and long-range development of the Central Texas region are all connected to the LCRA.

The other series, which ran on October 7 and 8, set out to examine Austin’s city-manager form of government. In an introductory note published with the first installment of the series, the editors indicated that they knew the right questions to ask: “Today’s story casts an eye at the nuts and bolts of the municipal machinery, and Tuesday’s installment answers the question, Does it work?”

Tuesday’s installment, however, did nothing of the kind. Like the most balanced and noncommittal news story, the article made a determined and successful effort to resist conclusions and analysis and instead relied on predictable quotes from recognized authorities. Dan Davidson, the city manager, went on and on with insights like:

‘The council-manager plan combines the strong political leadership of the elected officials with the strong managerial experience of a city manager. The council makes the decisions, and the manager is the full-time executive charged with carrying out those decisions.’

Davidson said he ‘sincerely believes’ the form is the best for Austin. `It has worked well in Austin and I think it’s working now, he said.’

The LCRA series was out of the same mold. The first article, “LCRA’s Birth a Vignette in History,” was a chatty backgrounder; the second, “LCRA Challenges Immense,” described rather than analyzed some of the agency’s economic and political problems; and the third, supposedly the summing-up of the series, ended with these words: “LCRA officials continue planning for the future and ways to continue serving an ever-growing area.” Running through both these series, and from the Ollie Bonner stories to the too-laconic news reports, is the most fundamental problem of the small-time press—its inability to see past the blinders of “objectivity.”

Going Beyond the Facts

It does not take a wizard to spot the differences when we turn from the Statesman to the Post. The Post runs its share of straight-news stories, but after putting the facts on the record, its writers usually go on to explain what the facts mean. On October 1, for example, a front-page story by Victor Cohn, entitled “Surgery Study Hit,” began in the classic, “objective” style:

“Many of the women who cooperated in a landmark study of breast cancer surgery were not fully told that a computer would decide which operation they would get, a public interest law firm has charged.

“The charge is denied by doctors involved.. .. ”

Within a few inches, however, Cohn burrowed into the evidence to show why the doctors’ denial could not be given full credence, a step the Statesman would never take. Cohn quoted the doctors’ side of the story:

“The surgeon who headed the study, Dr. Bernard Fisher of the University of Pittsburgh, strenuously denied in an interview last week that any of his 196 Pittsburgh patients and any he knows about elsewhere were less than fully informed.” But Cohn then went out to interview three Pittsburgh patients chosen by Dr. Fisher and found that two of them “did not understand what they had consented to, including the fact that their treatment was to be chosen at random.” This did not prove the case one way or another, but it gave the reader some reasonably solid clues.

The Post is also more willing to go after stories on its own, instead of simply responding to events. In every edition during these two weeks there were at least two, and more generally five or six, “created” stories, the result of initiative and foresight on either the editors’ or the writers’ part. As illustration, the front page of the September 29 edition included “Black Pupil Suspensions Up” by B. D. Cohen and “Siltation on Occoquan River Basin Perils N. Va. Water Supply.” These are the kind of softnews stories the AP or the Statesman might run—but only if there were a newspeg, only if the lead could be, “Suspensions of black pupils are rising, the director of the state education agency announced yesterday.” Neither of the Post stories depended on a newspeg, although Cohen’s report on the schools was based on “official school studies obtained by The Washington Post.” The next day the front page carried a story by Harold Logan about the difficulties building-code inspectors were having in getting the courts to back up their orders. Logan interviewed a Maryland inspector who told him, “There’s not been a successful prosecution in a building code violation in the twoand-a-half years I’ve been here,” and explained how and why the problem developed. On October 1, “School Crime, Security Cost U. S. $500 Million,” by Richard Prince, another thoroughly researched non-newspeg story which examined a significant but under-reported trend, was on the front page. The examples could go on and on but the point should already be clear: while the stories, taken one by one, may not be of breathtaking urgency, they reveal a pattern of looking past the breaking news to the more basic sources of change.

It is this kind of performance that people have in mind when they say that the Post is one of the best papers in the country, and it is precisely the fact that the Post avoids the more obvious Statesman-like errors that makes its remaining blind spots significant. They can’t be written off to the peculiarities of one small paper or to the slow pace at which new journalistic theories have percolated out to the heartland. The Post is supposed to be the best, the place where theories percolate from, and if it is still groaning under the burden of old-style “objectivity,” that is a matter of more concern than whatever the Statesman is doing.

Serving up Scandals

The Post has dispensed with one form of “objective” blinder, but it still wears another. A lot of what the Post was serving up during this period is something the Statesman‘s editors would be perfectly comfortable with, if only they had the money to pay for it. That something is “investigative reporting,” in the most vulgar—and, unfortunately, the most commonly accepted—sense of the term. One of the saddest by-products of the Woodward- Bernstein-Redford-Nixon phenomenon is a one-dimensional notion of how the press, Guardian of Freedom and Enemy of Corruption, should use its investigative resources— that what merits attention is bribes and burlesque, overt conflicts of interest, and other potential candidates for the scandal sheet or the federal courthouse. No one would deny that these things are worth exposing, but after a while one might start wondering about their proportion. For every story the Post published during these two weeks like Lawrence Meyer’s examination on October 7 of why building costs were rising so outlandishly, there were two emphasizing scandal and chicanery. On October 6, for example, the front page carried four non-newspeg stories, three of them about scandals (one at the Lorton Reformatory, one in the real estate business, and one, under the headline “Scandal Rocks Placid Pa. Town,” in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League). The Rockefeller gifts, the Wilbur Mills story, and the hoopla about the Watergate trial only increased the bulk of the scandal stories.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with reporting scandals of public importance. The danger is only that as the journalistic pack sets out on the trail of the felon and the lecher, it will neglect more important developments which lack the crucial spice of scandal. The Mills case is an excellent example of what can happen then. As Walter Shapiro pointed out in last month’s issue of this magazine, it’s good fun for everyone to jump on Mills now that he’s in a ludicrous position, but one does wonder just where the press was back when Mills still had his public dignity but was gutting tax reform bills.

Another illustration of how the scandal mentality can get out of hand is provided by Washington’s Fund for Investigative Journalism. The Fund was set up several years back to distribute foundation money to journalists working on “investigative” articles—a category which, in one of the Fund’s first great coups, meant the scandal and cover-up of My Lai. But “investigative reporting” could conceivably mean something else, too—traveling around the country to find out why the Agriculture Department has so totally missed the boat on its crop-support programs, or finding our how much help entrepreneurs get from Small Business Administration loans. Both of these projects involve “investigation,” but unless you could promise a scandal, neither would get a penny from the Fund.

What the Fund means by investigation is finding somebody with his hand in the till or the suppressed documents in his desk drawer. At its noblest, this can mean stories like Seymour Hersh’s on My Lai, but more often it simply rules out a lot of significant stories which just don’t happen to be scandalous. The Fund, it should be remembered, is not some fly-by-night outfit whose ideas are a wild departure from prevailing journalistic norms. Its board of directors includes such respected writers as Milton Viorst, Jules Duscha, and James Boyd; like the Post, it’s an institution that other journalists look up to, try to emulate.

Bradlee as Billy Rose

Given the examples of the Post and the Fund, it’s no surprise that so many papers rely on the scandal mentality instead of developing any sense of purpose about what they should be saying, any concept of system or direction about where to apply their talents. On the basis of this two-week sample, the Post‘s editor, Ben Bradlee, doesn’t have a much clearer sense of his papers’ role than does the Statesman‘s Sam Wood. One member of the staff, who is understandably reluctant to be quoted by name, says, “All Bradlee and Simons [the managing editor] care about is the daily production, the fast story, the whole “Front Page” approach. Grace of writing, depth of thought, the long-range direction of your work—none of that stuff matters if it interferes with turning out the quick story.”

Bradlee himself has a slightly different view of things. He said in an interview, “You’re telling me that Austin paper had more series than we did? I can’t believe it—well, you saw the papers, so you know, but, shit, we kind of feel like pioneers in this field. We have 10 or 15 reporters working all the time on stories like that”— which, at Post salaries means an annual investment of at least a quarter of a million dollars. Bradlee rattled off some of the projects that were in the works: “We’ve got one coming up on the insurance industry, something on the Kennedy assassinationRobert’s—there’s an overseas series we’re working on, a brand new look at the Greek Cypriots, a long investigative piece on the Marriott family. We’ve got two guys working on the oil lobby, a three-part series on the Interstate Commerce Commission, one on new towns—hell, there are others, I can’t even remember. We’ve got one on Detroit, America’s pivotal industry.”

Despite a touch of the scandal mentality in the Kennedy and Marriott pieces, this is a relatively impressive list—and Bradlee says that 80 per cent of the ideas come from the editors, not the reporters. But while stories on insurance are relatively fertile turf, other topics on Bradlee’s list represent rather uncreative thinking on the Post‘s part—the auto industry has been done to death in the last few months, and “new towns ” are a favorite set-piece for analytical articles titled, “New Towns: Ten Years Later.” Moreover, choosing the right topic is only one step in producing a useful series. After all, even the Statesman thought of the LCRA and city council stories.

What Bradlee does have—and what makes the Post different from the rest of the field—is something else altogether: the ability to recognize talented people, and through big salaries and other attractions, to keep them at the Post. Under Bradlee the Post often seems to be working on the old Billy Rose principle of putting on a show—if you find enough brilliant people, bring them together under one roof, and then just give them their head, every so often you will have a great show. When Rose produced “The Seven Lively Arts” in the midforties, it had music by Cole Porter and Igor Stravinsky, book by Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, and Ben Hecht, performances by Bert Lahr and Bea Lillie, dancing by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, music played by Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Red Norvo, chorus directed by Robert Shaw, set by Norman Bel Geddes, and costumes by Valentina. It didn’t really matter that Rose had no clear idea of what he wanted all these people to do; when he put them all together he could count on something to work out.

Bradlee’s great achievement at the Post has been to bring together journalism’s equivalent of a Billy Rose crew. The paper’s staff includes David Broder, Sally Quinn, Morton Mintz. Haynes Johnson, William Greider, Nicholas von Hoffman, Jules Witcover, Bernard Nossiter, John MacKenzie, Sanford Ungar, Colman McCarthy, Jim Hoagland, Marilyn Berger, Ronald Kessler, Stephen Isaacs, Maxine Cheshire, Meg Greenfield, Don Oberdorfer, and William Raspberry—not to mention Woodward and Bernstein.

With a cast like this, it doesn’t seem to matter that Bradlee isn’t sure what the paper should be saying. He has stacked the odds so heavily in his favor that whatever show the staff decides to put on each night is usually good. The fact does remain, however, that each time grace of writing and depth of insight do turn up, they are acts of serendipity rather than design. Because the Post has writers like William Greider, who can apparently grind out elegant copy while the night editor is screaming “Deadline” in his ear, it becomes a graceful, literary newspaper—and not because the editors are spending a lot of time worrying about the quality of the prose. And because the Post has a demon investigator like Ronald Kessler—whose 1974 series on the U.S. Postal Service was a classic of how a newspaper should evaluate public institutions, and whose earlier series on local hospitals was marred only by a touch of the scandal mentality—on the days when Kessler produces, it looks like the best paper in the world. And because the Post‘s Metro staff is crammed with people who would be stars on most other papers and who are desperate to show their talent, more creative thinking and innovative stories show up on the Metro page than in the big leagues of the national section. While the national reporters were following President Ford across the country or hanging on Henry Kissinger’s every word, the Metro staff was out developing stories about how certain communities had reversed the trend of urban decay, and what the various departments of the city government actually did on a given day. Unfortunately, since Metro is as short on purpose and overall direction as the rest of the paper, numerous stories turn up in which the poor writer tried to wring 200 per cent more meaning from some event in Prince Georges County than was really there.

Seven Weeks Late

One big problem with being Billy Rose is that sometimes your stars don’t come through. The Post‘s September 29 edition, with its frontpage story by Lou Cannon, illustrates how badly the show can flop when that happens. Cannon’s story was a very long account of the last days in the White House bunker before the Nixon resignation. It was a competent enough job in itself, but an utter embarrassment for the Post, since virtually every other paper in the country had had the account weeks earlier. For the previous two years, the Post had been living off—and, of course, backing up—the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein for stories in this vein. But this time the two young reporters weren’t exactly stumbling over each other in their eagerness to get the inside account to Bradlee. This time they had signed up to deliver the story to their publishers in New York, where it would be turned into a sequel to All the President’s Men, to the delight of the book-reading public but the irritation of the readers of the Post. Whatever this said about Woodward and Bernstein, it said that Bradlee and Simons had a less than perfect understanding of the role that “instant histories” have come to play in interpreting major events.

The long background article, giving a how-it-happened account of a big event, such as a political convention, has long been an item in the traditional journalist’s repertoire. But only in the last few years has instanthistory of a more analytical sort emerged as a widely accepted genre. Journalists have learned that after an event of obvious importance—the spring 1968 decisions on the war, for example, or the “Saturday Night Massacre” of Archibald Cox in 1973—starts to calm down, they can look back at the episode as a source of instruction. By explaining how it happened, they can help us understand, and perhaps avoid, the worst mistakes, and profit from whatever bright spots there may be.

Newspapers have no monopoly on this genre; Aaron Latham of New York came out with the first good instant history of the Saturday Night Massacre, which put the pieces of the story together even though it contained not a bit of analysis. From 1968 onward many books and magazine articles were published about the Vietnam war; two examples which will be familiar to readers of this magazine, Daniel Ellsberg’s Papers on the War and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, showed how much an “instant history” could reveal through, in Ellsberg’s case, rigorous analysis, and, in Halber stain’s, detailed factual reporting. As soon as Nixon resigned, most newspapers recognized the importance of the instant-history approach—even the Statesman reprinted an inside-theWhite-House story of the events of the resignation week. But the Post was not so quick to respond. When Post readers hooked up winches to haul the special “resignation” issue of the paper into the house, they could leaf through it for hours and find every story except the one they wanted— what had really happened in Dick’s final days. Within the next few days, first the Knight papers, then The New York Times, then everybody else came up with the story, but it was seven long weeks before Cannon came through for the Post.

Leave the Routine to the AP

The more profound problem with running a Billy Rose operation is that the show could often be so much better if only you gave your stars some direction. If only the background and analysis stories were the result of some systematic idea of what the paper should examine, rather than being unexpected treats from bright reporters; if only Kessler and others like him got some support from the editors, instead of being harassed for taking so Iong to produce; if only the Post realized that it, of all papers, could afford to run AP stories on congressional hearings or White House press conferences instead of tying up some of its best reporters; if only it did some or all of these things, the Post would not only be “better” than its competitors, but would be rendering a public service proportional to its great potential.

One way to see just what kind of service the paper could render is to consider the small matter of inflation which has recently come to our attention. It has been clear for at least a year that one of the largest single reasons for the general price rise is the increase in the cost of food. Some of this, no doubt, is the result of Malthus on the march around the world, mowing down Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution boys; but part of it has had to do with the previously mentioned crop-support policies. If the Post would assign two of its best reporters to spend two months going around the country to see how the government is affecting crop production, it could tell us how much we should blame Malthus and how much the clownishness of the Department of Agriculture. What we would lose is the routine daily stories the reporters would have churned out: what we would gain is some idea of where the changes must come in food policy. Also on the inflation front, the papers might examine the recent outrageous assertion by the oil companies that they will have to “pass on” the extra ransom that the sheiks have decided to charge for their oil. The companies will do this with tears in their eyes, we may be sure, but with no alternative but to enlist the rest of us in their sacrifice. These are the same companies whose profits rose by several dozen percentage points last year, and the papers might look into the questions, “Where is the money going?”

Here is a second suggestion—the papers might really examine defense spending instead of leaving it to the think-tanks and the disarmament groups. Recently William White of the Brookings Institution published a study showing how dramatically the costs of tactical aircraft have risen. The defense correspondents for the Post and the Times must have had access to the same information, but if they have presented it in their reports, they have been very quiet about it. Except when one of the services leaks a bad-mouthing report about one of the other services’ projects, the papers almost never carry critical assessments of the costs and purposes of specific military programs.

The Post‘s Pentagon correspondent, Michael Getler, had a story nearly every other day during the two-week sample. Most of them were straightreporting jobs obviously based on newspegs the generals were hoping someone would use—”Soviets Increase Size of Missile Firing Sub,” “Army Finds Tanks Can’t Be Built Fast Enough,” “Clements Sees Viet Arms Need,” “Joint Chiefs Indicate Budget Cuts, Inflation May Change Strategy.” Although Getler’s stories contained just enough on-the-other-hand material to save them from being Pentagon shills, the sad thing is that he and his counterparts on other papers so rarely step back to do a detailed evaluation of defense spending. Several times a year, at least, they should be able to write ab initio studies of how and why the Pentagon is spending money; as White did, they could contrast the cost of one means of defense with the costs of alternate approaches. Familiarity with the confusing lexicon of defense is rare enough outside the military that the defense reporters should, as a public service, make better use of it than to write “Clements Sees Viet Arms Needs” stories, which could be left to the AP.

A third example of areas for possible exploration is the schools—public and private, elementary-level as well as institutes of higher learning. Most papers do have regular education coverage, but it usually concentrates on newspeg accounts of changes in funding or personnel, or new technical innovations rather than independent critiques of how different approaches are working out. This, like food and the common defense, is one of the central concerns of our daily lives, but the papers rarely face it head-on.

Here is another example, which the Post actually published in December: Why so many airliners have flown straight into hillsides and even level ground without any evidence of mechanical failure. More than 1,000 people have been killed in this kind of crash during the last three years, the 92 most recent victims dying in a TWA crash outside Washington’s Dulles airport. After that accident, Paul Clancy of The Charlotte Observer wrote a special report for the Post which showed that nearly all the disasters could have been prevented if the pilots had been more careful or if the Federal Aviation Administration had been more diligent about requiring installation of a relatively cheap warning device.

For other examples, one only need run down a list of institutions which have had a major effect on our daily lives—the banks (which Martin Mayer has examined in his new book, The Bankers), the food companies (even those not involved in the “scandal” of the Russian grain deal), charitable organizations, large law firms, small consulting firms, professional crime, doctors, even the press. Most of these under-reported subjects come from the “private” sector—which reflects one imbalance of current journalism. Of the two great blocs which shape events—the public institutions of government, and the private institutions of the business and professional world—we now get perhaps one-tenth as much thoughtful reporting as we need about the public bloc and, at best, one-thousandth as much on the private. What Du Pont or Safeway does is at least as important as what the Democratic Party does at its miniconvention, but it is not treated that way in the papers. In its handling of business news, the national press, most closely resembles the “newspeg” mentality of the Statesman, since it takes something catastrophic, like a Franklin National Bank Failure or an antitrust suit against AT&T to get business onto the front page.

One possible explanation for the papers’ reluctance is the curious concept of journalistic expertise. By their nature journalists are inevitably experts in a process—that of inquiry, analysis, and communication—rather than in any particular subject matter. In this sense they are no different from the lawyers who try a medical-negligence suit this month and a case involving business codes two months from now. The difference is that something in the lawyers’ training gives them confidence that within a reasonable time they’ll be able to bone up on a subject and deal with the real experts, while something about journalism produces a mortal fear of expertise. “Journalistic” is still a nasty thing to call a piece of writing that purports to be serious, and no one is more aware of that fact than journalists themselves. Their most frequent reaction is to avoid situations where the experts might embarrass them; they will not assess classroom education, for example, because they don’t have master’s degrees from the Harvard Education School. The tragedy is that the only people who will face the experts on their own ground are experts themselves, whose reports and evaluations are so clotted with sociologese as to lose nine-tenths of their value.

Another explanation, and perhaps the most significant, is that stubborn remnant of demon objectivity, the principle that “fact” and “opinion” must be kept in sterile isolation from one another in the newspaper. Opinion is banished to the arid wasteland of the editorial page and the daily columns, where there is virtually no fresh reporting and where the absence of fact makes the opinion hopefully flaccid. The news section also suffers, because it lacks the intellectual core around which it could arrange the facts in the most powerful and significant way. When “opinion” and “analysis” is added to the newspage, it needn’t be done in a sneaky way, or at the cost of the necessary straight news reporting. As long as the reader is warned by an “analysis” slug or any other signal that something other than the Five Ws may be on the way, the paper should feel free to put all manner of interpretation and argument on its newspages.

The Post will always come closer than the Statesman to running the right kind of stories, because it has the all-star cast. But it won’t come as close as it could unless it develops a clearer sense of purpose than it now displays. That is the sense which Billy Rose never had.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.