For most people, daily newspapers or television news programs are lifelong textbooks. In their own fashion, journalists are the world's teachers who present "lessons" in the form of news stories. The picture that emerges from these lessons is not unlike what emerges from most high schools and colleges: disjointed stories with no apparent connections. What daily journalism offers is not, strictly speaking, news (important changes in the status quo that can be verified), but gossip. The changes that are reported are not really changes, or they are not really important, or they are too-soon shown to be unimportant. In short, the daily journalism textbook is a random sample of incomplete information. It lacks completeness because it is all flat surfaces, and no foreground, my word for the unknown, still-to-occur events that would shed some light on the real changes and true importance of today's events. It is this failing that helps to strangle the chance for a science of journalism.
If one believes that there is some way in which somebody is not hurt by inflation (he's) mistaken. Everybody is hurt by inflation. If you really wanted to examine who percentagewise is hurt the most in their incomes, it's Wall Street brokers—I mean, their incomes have gone down the most…if you want to be statistical.
—Alan Greenspan, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
That's the whole trouble with the Administration—Wall Street brokers.
—George Hardy, president of the AFL-CIO Service Employees International union.
PARLEY INCENSED BY GREENSPAN
—headline, Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 20, 1974.
Only in the darkness of journalism practice does the furor over Alan Greenspan's comments before an Administration conference on inflation make any sense. The conference was for persons in the social services, education and health fields. Politicians such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, and others representing various fiscal constituencies turned the meeting into a "sounding board for protests" of spending cuts that were expected to be felt by these fields. The meeting was one of a series, and largely symbolic.
So what happened to turn it into a news event? By a consensus of accounts, Greenspan gave a routine explanation of inflation, and then, while discussing the effects of inflation on the elderly, made reference to stock brokers' incomes—as an aside, really—to "illustrate that all segments of society were being harmed by inflation," according to the New York Times.
Later, reporters in their stories would paraphrase Greenspan as having said that percentagewise, stock brokers were "hurt the most by inflation" (Sun-Times) or were "suffering even more in loss of income" [than the poor] (Wall Street Journal). One Washington newspaper correspondent called Greenspan's remark "stupid" on national television.
But if Greenspan's remark was stupid, what of the journalists who reported it? One could ask of them: why has so little effort been expended by journalists (not government committees or foundations) to determine on whom the impact of inflation falls, and to what degree? Or: which journalist last examined the effect of inflation—as distinct from that of naturally-depressed markets—on the incomes of stock brokers? Why is there so little time for this kind of reporting, one might ask, and so much time to report the latest observation of Senator Kennedy, who said at the conference: "We need positive action and vigorous leadership now."?
But there is a deeper problem that goes to the concept of news itself. Journalism is a craft that thrives on conferences, asides, charges and countercharges—in short, on the subjective comments of others. News seems to be nothing more than "something new" (Edith Efron) or "what I say it is" (David Brinkley), and with little protest. It is as if a physician were to define a healthy person as "when I say he is healthy."
If news were nothing more than "something new," there would be no such commodity and no newspapers. The desire for news indicates that it is something distinct and defined. I believe it is a change in the status quo that can be independently verified to some degree by a journalist. If I am right, there is a deeper problem in the Greenspan episode than simple journalistic misparaphrasing. The question should be raised: are symbolic conferences and economists' asides news, or merely one piece of a story—the effect of inflation, the Ford Administration's plans to deal with inflation, the effect of cutbacks in social service grants, the plight of the stock broker—that may or may not be news? To answer that question, one has to step back and look at journalism in context.
The more things change, the more journalism remains the same. In the newsroom, most print journalists are still using pen and paper to do what tape recorders could do more quickly and accurately. They are still chasing fires and politicians. The end product—news—has never undergone any kind of thorough examination, and no one knows exactly why political speeches get covered and technological advances do not. News still is: what happened today, usually in government, or the courts, and usually fed to journalists through press conferences or official statements of approved sources.
No one seems to be satisfied with this arrangement. The local and national journalism reviews, a sounding board for complaints, are filled with carping about it. After all, what value is there in reporting in detail what television performers ("electronic journalists") have captured inevitably in greater detail and without the tedious and often useless "backgrounding" that print journalists offer?
The central function of a journalist is to decide what is news, and which details about the news get through the "gate" of editorial judgment. Because of their aphilosophy about news, journalists are never fully able to satisfy this "gatekeeper" function. They don't know when to open the gate, and when to keep it shut. They don't know how long to keep it open. What results is false news, pseudo-news, news-today that is contradicted by news-tomorrow, or news that is long but incomplete, raising more questions than it answers.
Journalists will never solve their problems until they begin thinking outside the square of tradition. The craft lacks an essential element which makes "gatekeeping" possible, and without which that metaphor is empty: foreground. Which means: what is to happen when the news—the change in the status quo which journalists are supposed to search out and verify—graduates from gossip to information? Foreground (not to be confused with "nearness," but contrasted with "background") provides the evidence which journalists and editors need to decide what deserves coverage, noncoverage, and mere attention. Foreground is necessary in order for a journalist to make editorial judgments—is it news? what kind? how important? how much?—and not necessarily for presentation in the story. Without foreground, sociologist Robert E. Park's 50-year-old judgment about newspapers remains correct: "The first newspapers were simply devices for organizing gossip," he said, "and that, to a greater or less extent, they have remained."
One looks back with embarrassment at some of the inflated coverage and distorted conclusions of journalists—but there is also compassion. Journalists are operating in a Now universe, where they are required to make midstream judgments about events or issues that have not yet generated sufficient evidence for those judgments. What is the importance, beyond the moment, of Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation? Thomas Eagleton's? Of the Pentagon Papers? Clifford Irving? The meat boycott? The Peace Corps? Bridey Murphy? Sherman Adams? The Atlantic Charter? All of these go through the editorial meat-grinder and all come out looking…alike. What results is a grab-bag of uncorroborated detail wrapped together with important words like "unprecedented" or "historic." But how is a journalist to know that much of this is public relations trivia? The answer is: he couldn't possibly know. Without foreground, without information, without evidence—there is no news because there is no way to judge its credibility (i.e. relationship to truth). It can't be news until you have evidence. It isn't news until it has foreground.
It is this process—requiring that "news" be published before there can be news—which historian David B. Fischer tries to describe in his book, Historians' Fallacies, when he writes:
"Academic historians are often contemptuous of the historical interpretations of journalists and properly so. Those failings are attributable not to the cultural barbarism of the fourth estate, but rather to the scheme of periodization which is forced upon it. Time, for a newspaperman, is measured in intervals between editions. His often desperate effort to find some significant happening in each of these periods explains his shallowness, rather than ignorance or illiteracy or the company he keeps."
The process of publishing "news" before it is news, or of publishing items as news, is repeated, because current news standards require its repetition and bind the daily journalist to it.
That is the real lesson of the Greenspan episode. Reporters were sent to the meeting to shed some light on the effect planned cuts in social service, health and education expenditures by President Ford would have on these fields. They came away with subjective opinions from self-serving lobbyists and politicians, and with a misinterpreted aside about stock brokers. But even if both these elements had not been present, and the meeting were more than a crude attempt to symbolize an "open" Administration, journalists could not have had enough information about any changes in the status quo on the basis of one meeting. As a matter of fact, without foreground, without information to-come, there is no way to tell if the undetermined cuts would have much effect at all.
For example: the Pentagon Papers. On June 30, 1971, the New York Times and Washington Post devoted much of their dwindling paper supply to the "historic" decision of the Supreme Court, which revoked restraining orders against the two papers for publishing selected portions of "History of U.S. Decision-Making Process in Vietnam Policy."
Later, as the "emotional heat of victory receded with the cool light of reason," according to lawyer-journalist Jack C. Landau, writing in The Quill magazine, the decision would be seen as one in which the government failed to substantiate its case that the "national security" was endangered by publication of the documents. Subsequent analyses put the decision in an even dimmer light. Many of the facts which would have enlightened as to what the government meant by "national security" are "forever sealed in secret briefs and transcripts of closed hearings" says Landau. Because of this, and the fact that no light was shed on what burden-of-proof standards are required for government attorneys to prove their case, not one guideline emerged for the Pentagon Papers decision that will influence future cases.
The decision was "historic" only in the sense that it occurred in the past—but it will have minimal influence on history or the future. There is not even the saving grace of intense public interest in the Papers; as a matter of fact, Edwin Diamond's lookback at the Pentagon Paper's around the first anniversary of the decision, reveals a short memory for such an "historic" event.
Writes Diamond—"A year ago, the newspapers and the television were full of the big Pentagon Papers case with its weighty issues of secrecy, morality and the First Amendment and freedom of the press. But when the jury was being selected a few weeks ago for the Los Angeles trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, the lawyers had no trouble finding 'pure' jurors: Only one or two of the panel had ever heard of the Pentagon Papers."
Remember Thomas Eagleton's resignation? The Chicago Sun-Times news account reported Sen. Eagleton's "historic withdrawal from the vice presidential race, the first ever (sic)" because of disclosures of previous treatment for mental health problems. The resignation was prompted by Democratic Party candidate George McGovern's judgment that "the issue of Sen. Eagleton's past health has blotted out the war, economics, and other major issues of the campaign." Blotted out? In the media, of course. Reams of copy, dripping with background, forecasts, and stumbling over each other with duplicate "leaks" [see New York Times, Aug. 2, 1972] were all based on a prejudgment that could have been substantiated only by still-unavailable evidence. Today, it is doubtful that Eagleton's presence on the Democratic ticket would have helped McGovern much. But Diamond points out: "Certainly there was a real story, somewhere, under all the layers of media events. But the key questions—is depression like the flu, or are people susceptible again like heart-attack victims? Was Sen. Eagleton's real illness his ambition?—were never properly answered. Instead, the public was treated to nose-counting (is he hurting the ticket?) and scapegoating (who goofed on the McGovern staff?)."
Forecasting future importance, without evidence, and then using this as the rationale for extensive news coverage, has been described by historian Fischer as the "prodigious fallacy." This is the error of mistaking sensation for significance. Fischer writes:
"Today, this form of error is widely disseminated by the mass-media. Journalists use the word 'historic' to describe earthquakes, hurricanes, five-alarm fires, floods, state funerals, typhoons, train wrecks, quintuplets, transatlantic canoe trips, and other curiosities or catastrophies which are chiefly remarkable for the fortunate fact that they rarely occur, or for the unfortunate fact that they occur at all."
Fischer points to Vietnam war coverage as a case of journalists attempting to differentiate one military operation from another, essentially similar one. "One expects to see this sort of thing on the sports page, where history is made by an infield triple, or a one-armed shortstop, or the most Texas-Leaguers in a ten-inning game. But somehow it always comes as a surprise to find it on the editorial page of the New York Times, where the defection of Stalin's daughter was played up for many months in 1967 as one of the 'historic' events of the century. And it is even more disconcerting to hear a good journalist-turned-historian, William Manchester, saying that 'the abdication of Edward VII…was the greatest story since the Resurrection.'"
Because news plays itself out, gradually, the journalist must guess at what is important. Because news does not occur daily, but periodically, the journalist takes what he can get. The news is determined, not by journalists, but by public relations departments.
Notice how the "revolutions" that had captured the media have disappeared, or now appear reduced in size. The "campus" or "youth" rebellion that had forecasters talking about the "greening" of America has fizzled. Now the "feminist" movement is getting equal attention—even while it is unclear how basic are the changes in male and female attitudes about masculinity and femininity. Most important, the evidence is mixed on male and female attitudes concerning careers (vs. hobbies) for women.
The most publicized—and least questioned—"revolution" is the sexual one, and every newspaper worth its circulation has periodic multi-part series on "teen sex," "college sex," and "swinging singles." After analyzing the circumstantial evidence (open society, acceptance of abortion, rapid change in attitudes about pornography, etc.) for the sexual revolution thesis, and after examining the data on past and present attitudes about the critical factor—pre-marital and nonmarital sexual intercourse and stimulation—the "revolution" falls flat. First, the change in attitudes is not sexually-based, but the product of a gamut of new ideas about the female role, of new technology (the Pill), better education, increasing youth population, new ideals generally, and a new philosophy ("live for the moment"). Nor has any "revolution" occurred: there has been no drastic overthrow of prior mores, but a gradual evolution since the 1920's. And don't look to the campuses for help. According to Charles Winnick, professor of sociology at City University of New York:
"The studies' findings have followed a somewhat consistent pattern; they suggest that the great increase in nonmarital sex that has been reported in the mass media has not occurred. There has, however, been a genuine liberalization in costume, speech and the arts…it has no necessary connection with…coitus or other sexual acts."
What is common to these examples is that journalists are sent "here and there for this and that," in the words of Irving Kristol. They report what they see and hear. Occasionally, they include background in their stories. But they never consider foreground. Many of the errors made by journalists—mistaking change for crisis, social adjustments for revolutions—are not due to bad reporting, but to standard journalism practice which requires reporters to assess the news value of immediate events without the evidence to do so.
OUT OF CONTROL
With this handicap, journalists are out of control and at the mercy of whoever controls the Moment. This can lead to panic in the streets, or at least at the gasoline pumps, as it did February 1974 in Chicago. During one week many of the problems of traditional journalism were telescoped into one event—the oil shortage. This is what happened:
A shortage of gasoline for automobiles threatened most of the country, but it was unclear how severe the shortage would be in the Midwest. Service station attendants painted a bleak picture, but the information was mostly anecdotal. Seemingly, journalists had no way to determine the dimensions of Chicago's problem.
But they had Robert Jacobs. Described by one journalist as "fast-talking" and "hyperbolic," Jacobs was an accredited news source because of his position as head of the Illinois Gasoline Dealers Association. Statistics poured out of Jacobs, who predicted that "400, 500, maybe even 800" of the area's 4,900 service stations already were closed due to the gasoline shortage, and that 100 more stations would close every day until the shortage let up. Sound fishy? I mean, the difference between 400 and 800 stations closing is 100 percent. But Jacobs said more: "I predict that this coming weekend is going to be the driest weekend in the history of America. By Friday," he said, "everybody will be walking."
True? False? At the time, who knew? But the effects were immediate after the news stories were published—long lines at service stations, blocked traffic and bus stops, and cut-throat competition—among customers!—for gasoline.
Jacobs later admitted to overstatement. The Midwest was not severely short of gasoline. But Jacobs told journalists the problems that week were their fault, and he was right. "I did say all those things," he told the press. "But I just didn't think you guys would spread it all over the front pages."
Obviously, Jacobs doesn't understand journalism as it is practiced today. Nor do journalists, who blunder forward without evidence. There is no stopping them. One month later, following the Jacobs' incident, a Chicago newspaper published a story under the headline: ADLAI SAYS OIL FIRMS, GOP BEHIND ENERGY, ECONOMY ILLS. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III (D-IL) had said in a speech that "The major oil companies threaten to bring down our economic house." True? False? Who knew?
With hindsight, we now can say that the impact of the oil shortage—and whether it would "bring down our economic house"—was overestimated. Economists formerly had no clear picture of price elasticity of demand for gasoline. Later developments seem to show that the shortage caused a decrease in 1974 demand, even with five percent more automobiles on the road than in 1973. Furthermore this decrease in demand was a worldwide phenomena. In the U.S., it brought the return of gasoline "price wars" among independent and major oil dealers—a "war" many were saying was in our past for good.
The role of the journalists in all this is to report verifiable changes in the status quo—What is the nature of the Arab oil embargo? What are the prospects for finding new sources of oil?—and to close the gate on unverified assertions and predictions about conspiracies to topple the U.S.A. and about permanent crises. Journalists ignore the Communist-conspiracy charges of the John Birch Society; why pay any more attention to Senator Stevenson?
And why publish stories about the effect of the oil shortage when the information behind such stories can only be available later, in the foreground of current events? For example, if a journalist were to write now about the oil shortage's impact, he would have available new information about price elasticity of demand, and about the hazards of "cartelizing" oil supplies by cutting back on supply, as the Arabs have done. In short, journalists could be expected to give an accurate picture of the problem. My guess is that they would find that there is no energy crisis, but rather a temporary oil shortage caused by a cartel and by a long history of government controls in the U.S. that have combined to keep the price of oil artificially high and the supply of oil artificially low.
Most other interpretations of the function of journalism make the reporter a patsy for politicians, who are beginning to recognize standard ways of using the press for their advantage. The press conferences, with for-background-only, not-for-attribution and other rules, end up making journalists instruments of government. Trial balloons are now commonplace. When a President wants to gauge the public reaction to a proposal before he proposes it, he "leaks" the information to the press, where it is dutifully reported. Polls are taken, newspaper editorials analyzed, and then the real decision is made.
A more sophisticated technique is the Conference-Document Syndrome, which never fails. The rule is that the conference is held in secret, between representatives of the "Superpowers." But secrecy is not absolutely essential. The point is that the conference—or "summit"—is attended by Important People (preferably "heads of state"), and that journalists do not hear the deliberations, which are followed by an "historical document."
The journalist's response to all this is predictable. He jumps at the historical moment, writes a "major news story," followed by "interpretations" and assessments of it all, but with very little evidence to support any of the statements. Partly this is due to the fact that the purpose of the document is not the stated one, which becomes clear later on.
In 1941, this Syndrome was perfected by a Democratic President who was setting the stage for U.S. entry into World War II. When the American people first learned that their President had been at sea for 11 days, and as a major European war raged and rumors were spreading that the United States was about to join in the war, the Atlantic Charter was announced.
The Charter was a joint declaration, issued by Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain. It consisted of eight points, called "common principles in the national policies of their respective countries" which were to guide the world "after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny." It called for an end to all aggrandizement, "territorial or other"; self-destiny for all countries; equal access to trade and raw materials; collaboration among all nations for improved standards of living; peace in secure boundaries and unhindered sea and ocean travel, and "abandonment of the use of force"—a plea for disarmament.
The American press, which was not allowed on board the cruiser Augusta, where the conference took place, was no less enthusiastic. The New York Times editorialized: "This is the end of isolation…the beginning of a new era." Time magazine wrote—a little less certainly, since Roosevelt had not yet released all the information about the document—"At that meeting—if it was held—the strategy of winning the war for democracy was born."
On examination of the Charter, however, the event to which Americans were deprived of "thrilling" turned out to be a dud. Even those who believed the Charter was an important document agreed that it contained many ambiguities, which there was little time for journalists to assess. Afterwards, a British Lord urged that a commission be established in Great Britain to discuss "implications of the Atlantic Charter," and said: "The people want to know how these promises are to be implemented. They are apt to look askance at slogans and declarations unless they are told how these things are to be accomplished."
A year later, on the anniversary of the Charter, the New York Times began to hedge:
"Those who wish may still quibble as to the exact meaning of certain phrases [in the Charter]. It may be as different after this war as it was in 1919 to draw a map of Poland, Czechoslovakia or Austria in accordance with 'the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.' It will be hardly expedient to permit the people of Germany a Nazi form of government in the unlikely event that they would willingly choose it. Our own tariff system and the British perference system do not jibe with 'access on equal terms to the trade and raw materials of the world.'…This would mean a departure from the principles agreed upon in the Atlantic Charter."
To a journalist, the Atlantic Charter was simply…the Atlantic Charter. An event. Important people. A statement. Yet the impression that now seems clearest (even today the reason for the Charter's existence is not clear) is that the Charter was a medium for one message: that the United States was about to enter the war. H.V. Morton, the British journalist on board at the signing, wrote: "What we had all hoped for, and not, perhaps, entirely subconsciously, was a declaration that America was coming into battle with us." Prime Minister Churchill referred to the Charter as a wartime document. The Charter itself said that its goals were to be put into effect "after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny." But journalists, working fast on what seemed important, were easily thrown off the scent after Roosevelt told them after the conference that the United States was no nearer to war.
As a matter of fact, outside of the press, enthusiasm for the Charter was nowhere to be found in the United States. Two national magazines reported no excitement over the Charter in Washington, and one called the reaction "curiously lethargic." The other said: "This nation's morale is classified by highest and best informed officials as being low."
Editorials often provide key information on news judgment between the lines of dull-as-dust prose. On the day the Charter was announced, the New York Times expressed its editors' assessment of the Atlantic Charter:
"The great winds of history blew the two gray ships together in the shadowy lanes of the North Atlantic.…It is a joint declaration without precedent in Anglo-American history, made formally by the leaders of the two English-speaking democracies…in one of the great crises of history.…This is the end of isolation…the beginning of a new era."
Just that quickly—even in the world of journalism—the Charter disappeared. Subsequent articles—the few that there were—dealt mainly with conflicting interpretations of the document. Those close to the Charter signing have indicated that they prefer the issue to be dropped from history. Both Elliott and Mrs. Roosevelt, in their books that touch on the Charter, have very little to say about the signing. To this day, the Charter's goals still seem remote. Writing in 1959, George Crocker commented:
"Two decades have now passed. The Atlantic Charter is seldom spoken of any more. Its very mention is an embarrassment to all who were in any way connected with its spectacular origin or who once glorified its maker. Shy at appearing ludicrous, friendly biographers, and even many historians, are found to skirt around its phrases and avoid serious consideration of it. Schoolteachers and professors have little, if anything, to say about it to their students. A sampling of college students today will disclose that the majority cannot even identify this strange international compact, which at its birth was heralded as one of the most memorable in the history of the world and the beginning of a new era. Not one in twenty has more than the vaguest knowledge of its contents."
Another assessment—by a journalist of sorts, or at least a person with experience in editing—was made on October 1, 1941, and is startling in its insightful analysis of the Charter's historical significance:
"To brew an Atlantic Charter together is, of course, very simple. Of course, such stupidity shall have validity only for a few years. It shall simply be abolished by the duress of facts."
That was said by Adolph Hitler at a rally in Berlin.
The Atlantic Charter "lesson" has not taken hold on journalists or on the public relations machines that dominate journalism. Historian Daniel Boorstin's description of pseudo-events, which generate pseudo-news, is accurate because news lacks foreground. The Atlantic Charter was a pseudo-event, a "dramatic performance in which 'men in the news' simply act out more or less well their required script." It is "not spontaneous" and often becomes "self-fulfilling prophecy." In short, the Charter is a way to make news by appearing to do something important, because journalists operate without any mechanism that would tell them otherwise.
The lesson has not been lost on politicians. On May 29, 1972, President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed a document called "Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics," which promised that both countries would "seek to promote conditions in which all countries will live in peace." Sound familiar? This signing also received extensive news coverage. One year and six months later, the Soviet-backed Arab countries started war in the Middle East, prompting Theodore Draper to say of the "Basic Principles": "As a compendium of illusions and effusions, it reminds one of the Atlantic Charter."
Students of journalism philosophy and practice have tried to correct some of the shortcomings of their craft. At various times, they embrace "interpretative" reporting (analyzing cause-and-effect), "backgrounding" (providing history) and the current fad, "new" journalism (non-evidentiary opinions and doctored stories). By and large, editors have never grappled with the key questions: what is news? what is important and how do we know?
The strategy of journalism practice should be governed by the nature of the product: news. If news is an important change or potential change in the status quo that can be independently verified by journalists (and I have not seen a better definition), then that change must run a certain course in order to provide evidence that it is indeed a change (a new policy, not another governmental "trial balloon"), and that it is important (preparations for war, not mere troop movements). To the extent this must be verified (obviously, weather reports need less verification than pronouncements by a Ralph Nader study group), and to the extent the daily event is part of a larger issue, the item needs time to become news. How to determine whether former Vice President Spiro Agnew has broken the law, and how to treat various opinions on the matter, without evidence? How to know whether daily Middle East bluster and troop movements threaten war, or are attempts to satisfy domestic military opinion before sitting down for peace talks, without evidence?
How would foregrounding the news work in the real world of daily journalism? Certainly there would be a danger of ignoring or giving too-brief treatment of important events. In 1903-4, all newspapers, including the local Dayton Journal, ignored the Wright brothers' first flight in a powered machine heavier than air (thinking it was no different than previous balloon flights). But what of the standard, breaking news story—such as the Arab-Israeli post-war strategies? This has been one of the most difficult assignments for a good journalist to cover (the bad ones simply report anything). Take the period between Nov. 5-9, 1973, a week in which the fighting has stopped, and Henry Kissinger, now U.S. Secretary of State, is jetting back and forth from Egypt to Israel trying to arrange a permanent cease-fire. All the while, both sides are charging the other with engaging in ominous troop movements and sporadic fighting, and both are predicting renewed war.
The Chicago Sun-Times, a typical example, gave extensive coverage of these events—lots of backgrounding leading to an impression that war was near again. The headlines were bold: RENEWED WAR IS THREATENED IN MIDEAST (Nov. 5); EGYPT ATTACKS ALONG SUEZ: WAR TALK INCREASES (Nov. 6); ISRAELI FIRST STRIKE TRY AGAINST EGYPT FEARED (Nov. 7). Then, a change: EGYPT AND UNITED STATES RESUMING DIPLOMATIC TIES (Nov. 8), and finally, MIDEAST PLAN—ISRAEL, EGYPT OK 5 POINTS (Nov. 9).
Meanwhile, another newspaper with a different philosophy about journalism, the Wall Street Journal, faced the same problem. The editors of the Journal, which is no longer a strictly business newspaper but a continuing experiment in objective journalism based on verifiable evidence, have expressed a philosophy which includes foregrounding the news. "It isn't news we print," one editor has said, "it's information." During that week in November, the layout and focus of the Journal directed most of the major stories of the Sun-Times to one, two and three paragraph news "briefs" in its page-one "What's News" summary. In that summary, Journal editors were also caught short—"New Mideast fighting was threatened" reads a Nov. 5 lead-in; "Israel officials doubted peace is near" reads a Nov. 8 lead.
But in its major news stories, the Journal was providing foregrounded "Information" about the Middle East. On Nov. 5, a page-one lead article explained the curious pro-Arab attitudes of prospering Arabs living in Israeli-occupied territory. Two days later, (while the Sun-Times preoccupied itself with the cosmetic resumption of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Egypt), another page-one "leader" explored why AS FIGHTING WANES, SO DOES FERVOR OF AMERICANS IN ISRAEL. In the meantime (Nov. 7), editorial page columnist Vermont Royster provided interpretation ("as matters now stand, the only potential winner discernible is the Soviet Union"), and on Nov. 6, correspondent Ray Vicker covered AN ARAB OIL SQUEEZE THAT WORKS (explaining the mechanics of the oil embargo and how American oil companies "help" by providing oil shipment records to the Arabs to insure the boycott's success, and to avoid blacklisting by the Arabs).
Of course, in the following weeks, the Nov. 9 "peace plan" would be given full news treatment by the Journal, but in the meantime, one can ask: were Journal readers misled or shortchanged about news occurring during that week? Does a philosophy of waiting for evidence before judging news importance aid or hinder the credibility of journalism? Which newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times or Wall Street Journal, is credible?
Many who think about daily, print journalism are aware that its main problem is its biggest selling point: credibility. And they also agree with sociologist and political advisor Ben Wattenberg that the cause of the problem does not rest in the personalities or political affiliations of the journalists, but in the mechanics of daily reporting, mechanics which are a function of philosophy. Says Wattenberg: "Everybody that I've known who has ever worked on a political campaign—right, left or center—comes up with the same basic viewpoint—that what you read in the media isn't what's happening. It's a fairy tale. It's distorted. I think most of us know members of the press who are good, honest, loyal, wonderful people, but there's something in the mechanism of having to write a story, of having to file daily, of having to find news where sometimes there may not be very much news, that produces a picture for the public that does not coincide with the reality of either the candidate or the campaign."
The only way out is for journalists to make evidence—not personal conviction, ideology or conventional wisdom—the base for all news judgments, including the most important one: what is news? News begins and ends with evidence, and foregrounding the news consists of withholding news judgment until sufficient, verifiable evidence is available to order to make judgments on the basis of what is known to be the case. Even if this means that journalists must accumulate their own statistics on such complex, developing stories as the "benefits" of urban renewal or what the general black population—not its "leaders"—really want, the success of the Wall Street Journal is reason to believe that the rewards are worth the effort.
In arguing for journalists' undertaking such "systematic, fact-finding efforts," Knight Newspaper national correspondent Phillip Meyer writes in "Precision Journalism": "Such a suggestion may seem to be a plea for a reactionary return to the old ideal of objectivity, but it has this difference: instead of reporting competing viewpoints for what they are worth, we could make an effort to determine just what they are worth. It is not necessary to turn our backs on interpretation. It is necessary to reduce the size of the leap from fact to interpretation, and to find a more solid base of fact from which to leap."
Meyer's own reporting is a good example of this principle. When most journalists were reporting windy, (and usually positive, though not always) opinions about the "war on poverty" programs, Meyer was examining the evidence available on the effectiveness of the poverty programs, and reporting that the goals of the Job Corps programs were becoming more difficult to accomplish and more expensive than anyone had planned, and that Head Start, the most popular poverty program, was not showing itself to be effective in any long-term sense. The stories were based, not on personal conviction, but on cited research. And they were written, not in 1964 when the "war" was declared, but many years later when students of the program had an opportunity to assess it.
Meyer's position is really a re-statement of H.L. Mencken's old essay on "Journalism in America." Most news stories, said Mencken, comes from press agents, and the "machinery for scrutinizing it is lamentably defective." This "stuff," he wrote, is "quasi-news," and "half-baked and still-dubious news" which "ought to be clearly differentiated from news that, by an overwhelming probability, is true." Such a policy "may result in less news in the papers, but it will at least have the merit of being true."
In some minds, no doubt the question remains: but how do editors know (i.e. have absolute knowledge about) what is news? Listen carefully: The answer is: they don't, but they make judgments about importance based on evidence which they have verified and which is often available only in the "foreground" of events.
Dennis J. Chase is a correspondent with an international news organization, and is currently based in London. A frequent contributor to local and national publications, he is the author of "Up from Journalism," which appeared in REASON's September 1973 issue.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Foregrounding the News".