Last month, E. J. Dionne Jr. gave the Theodore White Lecture at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, and delivered the following speech.
The Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics
The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government
November 16, 2006
I've been talking about the election to a lot of groups in the last week and I must say that introduction was much kinder than the introduction I recently received which ended: "And now for the latest dope from Washington, here's E.J.Dionne."
What a joy it is to be here, and to see so many dear, dear friends. If I listed them all, I would leave someone out. But I do want to thank Walter Shorenstein, whose company I have enjoyed so much over the years and who last night rightly celebrated the anniversary of this great center he did so much to create in honor of his dear, warm and talented daughter. Marvin Kalb, the first director, put this institution on the map and did something far more difficult than getting Democrats and Republicans to get along. He got journalists and academics to get along. And to work together profitably. He did so because both worlds respect and admire his journalism and his scholarship. And Alex Jones did one of the world's hardest things. You want to take a job after someone has failed, because then you can't help but look good. Alex took the leadership here after Marvin's successes, and what a magnifiecent job he has done. Alex is brilliant and gifted, but, more importantly, he is a very good human being.
And I just must mention family, including Teddy White's family. It means so much to me that my friend David White is here with his wife Margaret. David has been a friend since we were in college together. Because of David, I had the chance to have dinner with Teddy White, in their New York City home, while White was finishing The Making of the President 1972. For me, a kid from Fall River who had been a political junkie since the age of eight, that was like having dinner with Bill Russell or Carl Yastrzemski. David and I also worked together as interns in the Paris Bureau of The New York Times in the summer of 1974. And if you want to roll on the floor laughing tonight, ask David later about the hardest task of his journalistic career: having to transcribe an interview that Flora Lewis, who hired us both, did with French President Valerie Giscard D'Estaing who insisted that the interview be done in English, a language he kind of, sort of spoke. I admire anyone who speaks in a second or third language, but imagine deciphering what the president meant when the tape recorder had him saying (pronounce in the accent) "Constant Moving Change." David recovered to become a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and is, as always, a dear person.
Finally, I want to send my love to my sister, Lucie-Anne Dionne Thomas, and to her husband Drew Thomas, and to Bert Yaffe. Lu and Drew have both lawyers who have served their country for over a quarter century in the Navy, first on active duty and now as Captains in the Navy Reserve. I always have to salute them. Lu, bless you for being the warm and responsible older sister to a spoiled younger brother. And Bert is my informal second father. I always tell my kids that I was blessed with having great parents, but also blessed that, when my died died when I was a teenager, I found a great second father in Bert, who has been in public service since he was a tank commander in Guam, Bougainville and Iwo Jima and became, as I wrote into every press release on any subject for his valiant 1970 campaign for Congress here in Massachusetts, a "decorated Marine combat veteran." I love you, Bert.
I appreciate that Jeanne Shaheen, the former Governor of New Hampshire and the director of the Institute of Politics, is here tonight. There is the story of a paper in New Hampshire so proud to be first with the news that it boasted one day: "We were the first paper in New Hampshire to report the news that Governor Shaheen about to resign. Later, we were the first newspaper to report to its readers that this report was utterly without foundation." That story would not survive fact checking, but it is a nice parable on the wonders of journalism.
But we can be thankful we can tell jokes about our politicians and our media. The dictator of the old East Germany Walter Ulbricht was to said to have asked Chancellor Willy Brant of West Germany if he had any hobbies.
"Yes," Brandt replied, "I collect jokes that people tell about me. And what about you."
"Well," replied Ulbricht, "I collect the people who tell jokes about me." And sure enough, when a man in East Germany discovered that his parrot had flown out the window, he rushed to the offices of the secret police to say: "I want you to know that I absolutely do not share my parrot's political opinions."
What a privilege it is to be able to give this lecture in honor of Theordore White, one of the most creative and thoughtful political journalists in our nation's history.
White is often criticized for having a romantic view of great leaders. But he was realistic when it came to the general run of politicians. "By and large, more were grubby, shortsighted or cause-gripped people as they entered politics, cutting deals and paying with favors and honors for the money that financed them," White wrote in America in Search of Itself, published in 1982. But for White, that was not the end of the story. "A handful grew by experience to become larger people than when they entered," he went on. "Only the tiniest few survived the process to become men of state, worth remembering. It was this sifting process that fascinated me then, and fascinates me even more now." The very phrase "men of state" sounds almost antique today, but the idea that some men and women engaged in public service are "worth remembering" is still the right idea, even if it goes against the grain.
Yet White carries a larger burden than the accusation that he was a sucker for politicians. He has been repeatedly blamed for a style of reporting that has supposedly sent political journalism off the rails.
White was formally given credit for transforming American political journalism in Timothy Crouse's wonderful book The Boys on the Bus, an account of the campaign press's role in the 1972 election. After White's first election volume, The Making of the President, 1960, Crouse argued, political reporting would never again be the same. White got into the back rooms of politics and described their workings in fascinating detail. He made clear that while there was a hidden campaign, its secrets could be discovered by a normal (if gifted) journalist willing to ask the right questions of the right people and go to the right places at the right time.
After White, it was impossible to ignore the snows of New Hampshire and the even earlier phases of electioneering that had, before him, received modest attention. It was even more dangerous for reporters to ignore the genius of particular political aides. White, for example, helped make famous the brilliant conservative operative and Barry Goldwater strategist F. Clifton White. In book after book, White described the shrewdness of certain strategists and the foolishness of others, and no self-respecting journalist would ever miss those stories again.
Albert Hunt, one of my favorite journalists, admired White, but did not always like how journalists applied White's legacy. "The press gets so caught up in trying to report the story behind the scenes," Hunt wrote after the 1984 election, "that major speeches or position papers of the substance of a campaign receive relatively little attention."
Whole books, and good ones, have been written in reaction to White. After the 1980 election, Jeff Greenfield wrote The Real Campaign: How the Media Missed the Story of the 1980 Campaign. His point was straightforward: that "the flow of ideas and the underlying political terrain" had more to do with the results than all the inside moves of the inside strategists. Working on the same premise, the conservative writer Richard Brookhiser wrote a book on the 1984 election called The Outside Story, the title itself a conscious rebellion against the growing journalistic tendency to tell, Teddy White-style, "the inside story." Brookhiser's perfectly sensible idea was that if you wanted to understand what happened in 1984, you needed to look at what Ronald Reagan said and did and at what Walter Mondale said and did in, of all places, public.
The doubts about White's legacy are an enduring refrain in post-election discussions of the press and politics, including at distinguished institutions such as this one. To pick just one example: in 1996, John Buckley, the communications director, in Bob Dole's campaign, told The New Yorker's Ken Auletta that he ascribed journalists' fascination with polling, campaign personnel and political processes to the influence of White's The Making of the President, 1960.
Now if White really is responsible for encouraging us to forget the importance of ideas, to ignore what candidates say in public and to disregard the central role that voters and their moods and convictions play in deciding elections, he would indeed deserve all the criticism he gets and much more.
But this is a dangerously misleading caricature of White's work. Yes, he did get us into those back rooms, he did help us to understand better how campaigns worked and to see that it was not all magic. (What, pray, is wrong with that?) But much of what White did was to attend to what politicians said and to set their campaigns in historical context. Paying attention to these parts of White's achievement is precisely what political journalism needs to do now. One thing White knew for certain was that politics is more than a back-room game and politicians more than back-room dealers.
Thus, no one paid more attention to the words spoken in public by politicians than White did. His books are full of lengthy quotations from campaign addresses. You will find few nine-word ink bites in them. More than that, White took the words seriously enough to ask all the time: What do these words mean? What is this politician trying to tell us? What are the implications of these words for the country?
White did something else with campaigns. He treated them as an occasion for describing the state of the nation. He assumed, correctly, that election years are occasions when the country takes stock of itself and Americans try to figure out who we are and where we are going. White demonstrated that journalists are foolish if they don't use campaign time as an occasion to ask bigger-than-usual questions and paint larger-than-usual portraits of their nation.
White's book on the 1960 campaign used that year's U.S. Census to describe the momentous changes in the country since the war, when America was transformed from a nation defined by its cities into a nation defined by its suburbs. His 1964 book took the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. as central participants in the year's political fights. White devoted many of his brilliant pages to trying to understand not just how civil rights "worked" as a campaign issue, but why the civil rights struggle had changed the country and its people. If you take White seriously, it's easy to have arguments with him - about his political views, about his judgments on particular politicians, about his vision of what America is, isn't and should be. It would be hard to find anyone who agreed with White on everything because his convictions were so particular, so rooted in his own reporting and his own personal story.
But the simple fact is that if reporters today learned all the lessons White tried to teach about the potential richness of political writing, American journalism would get a whole lot better.
Because I hold this view of Teddy White, because I believe he was so gifted at spotting and describing large turns in American public life, I began thinking about what White would make of the new back rooms in American politics: the offices and kitchen tables of those Andrew Sullivan described as the pajamahadeen, the bloggers, and the other technological developments that have challenged the journalism and the old ways of doing politics. What would he make of the fact that the two most powerful outside influences on my son James' politics -- I say "outside" because I pray we parents still have some modest influence -- are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (I confess I don't mind that a bit.) What would he make of the conflicts between the so-called old media (or the so-called mainstream media) and the new media?
There is some hostility between the two breeds of communication and tonight, in the spirit of bi-partisanship that everyone is talking about in Washington after the last election, I want to suggest that the two forms can complement each other and have already begun doing do. If I may summarize what I have to say, I believe that it is absolutely essential to preserve the financial base that supports independent journalism, that pays for good, old-fashioned reporting and investigation that citizens, whatever their political views, can rely on. We need to support the courageous work of reorters in Iraq, Afghanistan and in so many other places where journalists take great risks to keep free citizens informed. Careful, accurate reporting takes a lot of time and a lot of money. We dare not lose this great work supported by our great media institutions.
But one can assert this and still welcome the work of the new media, of the opinionated bloggers and activists - and even the talk radio and television shouters, some of whom I disagree with emphatically. In my view, the new media forms are answering a great need that traditional journlism was not answering. Though as a consumer of blogs from left to right, I often get important and accurate information from their work, they do not exist primarily to inform. They exist to engage citizens in the obligations and magic of politics. They draw people into the fight. They have made millions of people feel that their voices will be heard somewhere and, when aggreghated together, can have a real influence on the outcome of policy debates and elections.
In fact, the opinionated forms of journalism are not new to the media or our public life. They take us back in our history to a time when most journalism was partisan and raucously engaged on one side or another in our political battles.
The current structure of the media is the product of the last great overturning of political institutions during the Progressive Era. We are now in the middle of a new revolt against the journalistic order. To understand how we got here, it's worth examining the last great revolt at the turn of the century.
From the beginning of our republic in the 1790s until the turn of the century, American newspapers were, for the most part, the organs of political parties. There was no ideal of "objectivity." On the contrary, the purpose of the newspapers was to mobilize support for parties all year round. But during the Gilded Age, as the historian Christopher Lasch pointed out, parties got a bad name. Reformers who looked for "professionalism" (as against "bossism") in politics eventually turned to seeking "professionalism" in journalism. Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential journalists in American history, led the way to a redefinition of journalism's role and the journalist's responsibilities. The notion that newspapers should be "objective" rather than partisan was the product of Lippman's admiration for the scientific method, his skepticism of ideology -- and, his critics would argue, his less than full-hearted faith in democracy.
Could democracy survive, Lippman asked, when "the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise"? He argued that "the quack, the charlatan, the jingo and the terrorist can flourish only when the audience is deprived of independent access to information." Lippman scolded journalism this way:
The cynicism of the trade needs to be abandoned, for the true patterns of journalistic apprentice are not the slick persons who scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is. It does not matter that the news is not susceptible of mathematical statement. In fact, just because the news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest of the scientific virtues.
Who knew we journalists, we ink-stained wretches, were like physicists, biologists and chemists?
But more was going on in journalism than a shift in philosophy. As Paul Weaver points out in his provocative book News and the Culture of Lying, Joseph Pulitzer, the great American press lord after whom our most pretigious journalistic prizes are named, revolutionized journalism by fully understanding its commercial potential. He not only helped move journalism away from political parties, but more generally away from public affairs as defined by the major public institutions of his day. "Pulitzer was taking events out of their official context and framing them in stories with sharp dramatic focus that suggested intense public interest ...
He achieved this effect by incorporating into journalism the elements of drama. . . . character, action and plot."
That sounds pretty good, but as Weaver points out, Pulitzerian journalism moved the craft away from politics.
"[I] addressed, not the citizen and constitutionalist and partisan, but the private pre-political human being. Where the old journalism had invited its readers to step into, and renew their commitment to, constitutional and political processes, the new Pulitzerian journalism was inviting people to turn away from formal institutions and focus instead on the community evoked by the storytellers of the newsroom."
One of the main effects of this change, Weaver concludes, was to transform newspapers from a "reader-focused, reader-driven business into an advertiser-focused, advertiser-driven business." As Michael Schudson notes in his excellent history of American newspapers, "Most leading newspaper proprietors of the late 19th century were businessmen rather than political thinkers, managers more than essayists or activists." By being nonpartisan and "objective," newspapers did not offend half or more of their potential audience. Historian Michael McGerr cites Whitelaw Reid's loving description of independent journalism as "passionless ether," which inadvertently also suggested the problems caused by the decline of the partisan press. It was not much noted at the time that a decline in the press's partisan passions might also have negative effects on democratic politics.
However contested "objectivity" might have been as a philosophical principle, it did not come under sharp practical challenge until the 1960s. Journalism was no less susceptible than other institutions to the dissenting currents of that time. The critique of allegedly "apolitical" journalism that arose then is summarized nicely by Schudson. Journalists, in this view, were inevitably "political," even if "unwittingly or even unwillingly." He goes on:
Their political impact lay not in what they openly advocated but in the unexamined assumptions on which they based their professional practice and, most of all, in their conformity to the conventions of objective reporting. In this view, objectivity was not an ideal but a mystification. The slant of journalism lay not in explicit bias but in the social structure of news gathering which reinforced official viewpoints....
If there was a critique of the establishment media from the left, there was also a critique of the liberal media from the right that began to take hold after Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Conservatives have been enormously successful in getting editors and producers to look over their right shoulders, and it was not until the last five years or so that liberals and the left managed a genuinely effective counter-attack - largely through the new media.
Now consider again that phrase "passionless ether." If there is a problem with traditional, just-the-facts-m'am journalism and its twist-your-self-into-a-pretzel effort to appear non-partisan or bi-partisan, it is that such journalism was in many ways demobilizing. Because journalists could not declare that they were Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, they often went out of their way, sometimes unconsciously and unintentally, to sell a variety of ideas that actually drove people away from politics. You couldn't be partisan, so you said they were all crooks or liars. (Every once in a while, you even got the "they are all good men and women" stories.) You couldn't be partisan, so you said there was no difference between or among the politcians - or, alternatively, that they were all too extreme.
But pure non-partisanship, bending over too far to seem to be fair, can mislead reporters. Let me offer a couple of extreme cases. I hope no reporter ever wrote the sentence: "A spokesman for Mr. Hitler denied he was an anti-semite." Or: "An aide to Mr. Stalin who asked not to be named said the Soviet leader in fact opposed building the Gulag." It's more important to care about what's true than to worry if someone will see you as too partisan.
Nancy Pelosi once said that she was always amazed the same voters could say that they didn't like politicians because they always fought with each other and because there were no differences among them. (Of course, maybe they were fighting all the time about things that didn't matter to that voter.)
My hunch is that this voter and millions like her were looking for something neither journalism nor politics promotes enough: genuine argument. But what is that? In real argument, as the late historian Christopher Lasch nicely put it, "we have to enter imaginatively into our opponents' arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable and therefore educational." Arguments are not won, Lasch noted, "by shouting down opponents." Rather, "they are won by changing opponents' minds-something that can happen only if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments-"
Lasch referred back to debates during the 1920s between Walter Lippmann and the philosopher John Dewey. Dewey insisted, against Lippmann's skepticism, that democracy was a practical as well as a noble system of government. Dewey did so in part because he had enormous faith in the educational functions of free and open debate in a democracy. Where Lippmann believed that facts and information were more important than argument, Dewey believed, as Lasch put it, "that our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action."
The real issue confronting modern journalism is thus a paradoxical one. There is a need to resurrect a concern for what's true---to draw clearer distinctions between fact and opinion, between information and mere assertion. At the same time, there is an urgent requirement that the media take seriously their obligation to draw people, as citizens, into the public debate, to demonstrate that the debate is accessible and that it matters. What is needed, in other words, is both a strengthening of the older professional ethic involving accuracy and balance and a new engagement with the obligations of journalists to democracy.
For all of its shortcomings, the success of opinionated journalism on the radio, cable television and the blogs reflects a public thirst for debate and argument that goes beyond the confines usually imposed by conventional definitions of news. The lesson is not that all should copy their style of argument, but that argument and engagement are very much in demand. For the established media, this will mean going back to the original debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. The objective should be to salvage Lippmann's devotion to accuracy and fairness by putting these virtues to the service of the democratic debate that Dewey so valued.
In broad terms, the media need to help us recover what Lasch called "the lost art of argument."
I believe that if the old media do their jobs properly, and the new media do theirs right, we will be able to draw on the best aspects of both Lippman and Dewey - to find the right balance between the thirst for accurate information and the hunger for engagement, between a journalism that tells hard truths even if partisans don't like them and a partisan media that sometimes tells hard truths about the mainstream media (yes, we can get things wrong) and that assimilates real information into their passionate forms of advocacy.
Now let me be clear: In arguing that the new partisan media -- from Captain's Quarters and Powerline to Bullmooseblog to Daily Kos, Huffington Post and TalkingPointsMemo, among many others -- are playing an important democratic role, I am emphatically not saying that they are any substitute for the old media. On the contrary, the old media are more important than ever in this happy, if sometimes angry, partisan and ideological cacaphony.
I think The New York Times' brilliant literary critic Michiko Kakutani got it absolutely right 12 years ago when she wrote: "Throughout our culture, the old notions of `truth' and `knowledge' are in danger of being replaced by the new ones of 'opinion,' 'perception,' and 'credibility.'" She argued that "as reality comes to seem increasingly artificial, complex and manipulable, people tend to grow increasingly cynical, increasingly convinced of the authenticity of their own emotions and increasingly inclined to trust their ideological reflexes...." In such a situation there are no arguments in the sense of an engagement over ideas and evidence but simply a clash of assertions. In this climate, said Kakutani, "the democratic idea of consensus is futile." We are witness to the creation of "a universe in which truths are replaced by opinions."
Kakutani points to a crucial aspect of the media's problem. Many of the partisan arguments we experience on television and radio amount to set-piece blather. People play roles instead of offering real arguments. They can be indifferent to facts. They can engage in cheap ridicule and empty bloviation. One of the reasons Stewart and Colbert are so popular is that they so brilliantly poke fun at the junk that so often passes as serious political discourse.
And, yes, there is a problem with an increasingly balkanized information world in which partisans get more and more information from sources that reinforce rather than challenge their own commitments.
It's also important to recognize that many of the new media are largely parasitic on the news gathering of the older media. I use parasitic in a descriptive, not judgmental, sense. With rare exceptions, the new media do not finance news gathering or reporting. They largely rely on the older institutions to support the reporting. They either use this work themselves, or criticize it - or both. At the same time, the new media challenge the financial base of the old news organizations. The older media themselves have been forced to challenge their own financial base. They have set up internet operations which have yet to create revenue streams comparable to what these organizations earn from their older products, such as newspapers and network broadcasts. Yet these competing outlets within the same organizations can undercut the readership and viewership of their flagship enterprises.
So we need to pray that the old media find ways of navigating the difficult financial waters in which they now find themselves. But we should also welcome raucous argument because it is one of the gifts of a democratic republic.
Christopher Lasch put it well. "If we insist on argument as the essence of education," he wrote, "we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment."
If the media fail to nurture the educational spirit that ought to lie at the heart of democracy, what exactly is the point of what we journalists do? Journalism is more dependent upon the democratic idea than almost any other trade or profession because we journalists actually believe that people care enough about their society, their nation, their world to take the time to understand what is going on around them. By what we do, we reject the idea that knowledge, and the right to make decisions on that knowledge, ought to be confined to an elite.
It was once said that "status quo" is Latin for "the mess we're in." The media are in a bit of a mess in significant part because our democratic systems are in a bit of a mess. But I prefer to end on a hopeful note: Let those of us in traditional journalism not shrink from the challenges of the new technologies, of the blogs and of the new opinionated journalism. Let us welcome those challenges and their potential contributions. If a dry or detached or apolitical press threatened to demobilize citizens, the world of opinionated journalism might offer new opportunities to encourage citizens to engagement, to action -- yes, to good citizenship. The blogs in particular have developed an audience because there is a demand, as John Dewey would understand, for a medium that prizes commitment and engagement. That there is such a thirst for this may bother those who worry about excessive partisanship, but engagement is indispensable to democratic politics. And the proliferation of new outlets -- the rebirth of what my friend Tom Rosensteil has called the "pamphleteering" tradition -- could democratize both politics and the media.
But there is also an obligation not to confuse partisan media with independent media. There is an enormous need for information that is developed outside the confines of political struggles. Honest debate requires at least some consensus on what the facts are -- and honesty, not obfuscation, where there is genuine confusion over the nature of the facts.
What we need, in other words, is to welcome the newly partisan and participatory outlets while finding ways to nurture and improve independent journalism. The two are very different forms. They need not be enemies, even though they should and will correct and criticize each other. If we see one as an alternative to the other, we will be wrong analytically, and we will miss a great opportunity. If we see them as complements to each other, we arrive closer to answering Christopher Lasch's demand that democracy live up to its vocation of being the most educational form of government.
Because this is the Theodore H. White lecture and because we are at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, I thought it appropriate to close with Teddy White's reflections of Kennedy, offered in a chapter called "Death and Unreason" in The Making of the President 1964. White wrote:
The dogmas of his antagonists made clear the quality of the protagonist. For John F. Kennedy, above all, was a man of reason, and the thrust he brought to American and world affairs was the thrust of reason. Not that he had a blueprint of the future, ever, in his mind. Rather his was the reason of the explorer, the man who probes to learn, the man who reaches and must go farther to find out. . . . He was always learning; his curiosity was total; no one could come out of his presense without coming away combed of every shred of information or impression the President found interesting....
That is a remarkably good definition of what should excite a journalist, which Kennedy, briefly, was.
I think there is in the country right now a thirst for reason and reasonableness. It's not a timid desire simply for peace and quiet, but, as White said of Kennedy, for the reason of the explorer who probes to learn and to reach and to go farther. If the voters said anything last Tuesday, it is that they want their country to think and act anew.
In that quest, we need both reason and passion. Reason without passion is lifeless. Passion without reason is dangerous. I think that if we are lucky, we will see in the media world a balance between the two: the old media standing for fact, independent inquiry, courageous and expensive news coverage in war zones and in places such as Darfur where the oppressed need witnesses and solidarity. The new media will encourage a passion for enagement and a commitment to the continuing work of democracy.
One of Harvard's great teachers, the political philospher Michael Sandel, has said that when politics goes well, "we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone." Together, the new and old media might encourage us to seek that good in common by arguing together and reasoning together. The various media forms might also find a good in common that they cannot know alone.