mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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On Reporters: Steve Talbot interviews Mark Hertsgaard

(Talbot) On Bended Knee has become a sort of classic book, I
think it’s fair to say, in courses on journalism these days. The
argument in your book was in part that Reagan was so charismatic,
so powerful, and had won by such a large vote that the Press Corps
in Washington was intimidated by him, and no one dared criticize
him. What about the Press Corps today?

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(Hertsgaard) Clinton has had a much tougher time with the Press than
Reagan did, and part of that is the charm that Mr. Reagan had. But
that was always much overstated, as was his supposed popularity. If
you really go and look at the statistics, Reagan was not so
popular.

Essentially in Washington what you have is a Palace Court Press.
And they reflect the views within the palace that is known as
official Washington. And essentially they report the spectrum of
opinion from Democrat to Republican, which many Americans have now
come to recognize, is not a very broad spectrum.

This was very good for Reagan, because Reagan really faced no
opposition party. The Democrats were really, as I say, very cowed
by his supposed popularity, and indeed, often agreed with him
outright.

Now Bill Clinton faces a very different position. Clinton comes
to power at a time when the opposition party is extremely
passionate, extremely confident, extremely aggressive. And as a
result, they are frequently on the offensive. And they’re feeding
all kinds of information and quotes to the Press. And so the press
coverage of Clinton has reflected that.

What do you make of the consistent charge of
conservatives that the press has a liberal bias. Does it have a
liberal bias?

That is the oldest canard, I think. This idea of a liberal
bias is now, twenty almost thirty years old. Nixon started talking
about that with Pat Buchanan as his speechwriter.

You know, first of all, who do they work for? They work for the
biggest corporations in the country…..not exactly inclined to
tearing down the established order. But more importantly, look at
the coverage. And that’s really, I think the most persuasive proof
that this idea of a liberal press is really poppycock.

As I say, the press in this town tends to reflect the views of
the powerful… Russell Baker had a great line in one of his
columns the other day, “Nobody in America calls themselves a
liberal anymore.” No politician calls himself a liberal. None of
the reporters do.

When you look at statistics of the coverage, they’re certainly
not doing what a Liberal-quote-unquote would do. For example, you
look at, in particular, the minimum wage vote, which came up this
summer and will finally be implemented next summer. We’re talking
about a 90 cent increase in the minimum wage, from $4.25 an hour,
to $5.15 an hour. The way that the press reports this is: That’s
the choice. We can either stay where we are, which is the
Republican position, or go to $5.15 an hour, which is the
Democrat’s position.

Well, nobody ever tells you that $5.15 an hour will still leave
a family of four beneath the poverty line. Now why does nobody tell
you that in the Press? Because there’s nobody in Washington, not
the President, no significant power bloc in Washington who is
making that case. And as a result, it doesn’t get into the
media.

If there’s not a liberal bias, what kind of bias is
there? Is there a sort of pack mentality of this press
corps?

Of course, there’s a pack mentality. I don’t think it’s
because they’re close personally, so much. It relates to a lot of
other factors, for example, this absolute mania to only deal with
what is new. To be first, even if it’s by 20 seconds. You know, the
AP reporter and the UPI reporter will run down that hallway after
the Presidential Press Conference to be 20 seconds quicker on to
the wire.

So they’re not trained to think for themselves. You don’t get
here by being terribly independent. You don’t become a reporter at
the White House if you’re going to go off in your own direction.
So, they all tend to follow the same perception. Partly it’s also I
think intellectual insecurity. You know, they see the other guys
doing it, and they say, “Oh, well, you know, if it’s in The Times,
then I guess we better take it seriously.”

Especially the TV reporters, they all rely on the same sources
of information, and they all tend to have pretty much the same view
of the world. They all tend to agree with what’s important…

But above all, they take their cues, again, from officialdom.
Their definition of news is basically what government officials are
saying and doing today. Now that’s not entirely unfair. It is very
important to know what President Clinton or Speaker Gingrich is
saying about welfare or Medicaid or Star Wars… of course. But,
where the Press drops the ball is when they stop with what the
President says and what the Speaker of the House says. And if
neither one of those guys is talking sense, the American public is
left with a lot of nonsense and nobody pointing out that the sky is
blue.

And that’s one of the problems with reporters — they literally
cannot report that the sky is blue if they can’t cite a government
official saying it.

You wrote this summer in The Nation about one example of
this, Star Wars. Why don’t you tell us about that.

Star Wars is, I think, the perfect example of the idiocies
of the Palace Court Press. You’ve got a situation where Bob Dole in
order to get the Republican nomination has got to pass the right
wing test, and they believe in Star Wars, and have ever since
Ronald Reagan.

And there’s a problem with this, which is that all of the
physicists who studied it have concluded, not only is this system
utterly impossible now, but there’s no reason to think that it will
ever be possible. We are talking about levels of technical
sophistication that are just aeons away. That’s why in 1987, the
American Physics Society said, “It’s going to be ten years before
we can even know whether this will ever be possible.”

However, as I said, Dole wants to get the Republican nomination
so he begins talking about Star Wars, and he wants to show that
Bill Clinton is weak on defense. Bill Clinton, of course, doesn’t
want to be painted as weak on defense, so he fights back with a
speech at the Coast Guard Academy saying, “We’re not going to waste
money on Star Wars the way that the Republicans are. We’re going to
build a missile defense when we know how to do it. And so we’re
going to continue our research and development, but we’re not going
to build it right away. We’re going to wait till the year
2000.”

Now, you know, the hole in the middle of all this argument is
that the system won’t work. So we’re talking, and the press is
presenting this as an argument between Dole and Clinton: When do we
want to build this? Do we want to build it right away? Which is
what Dole wants to do. Or do we want to wait a few years? Which is
what Clinton wants to do. And nobody points out that, “Hey, this is
a ridiculous conversation to be having. Because in fact it doesn’t
work.”

All right. If you refer to this as a Palace Court Press,
isn’t Bob Woodward the prince? Twenty-five years ago, he was an
inspiration to a whole generation with his Watergate reporting with
Carl Bernstein.

I think Bob Woodward is a very sad example of what happens
to reporters who are seduced by the blandishments of the Palace
Court society, known as official Washington.

Here’s a guy who made history, with Carl Bernstein. History.
Very few journalists ever do that. And made history in a very grand
and noble fashion…. the best of what journalism’ is supposed to
be about. And, as you say, inspired an awful lot of people… set
off a whole revolution within the Press.

And now you look and it’s 25 years later, and he’s basically
become a stenographer to power. And “The Choice” is not the first
book, where you see this coming. His book on the Gulf War also was
very insider. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about writing
an insider book, but it is extremely limited.

And essentially what he does, he’s kind of like a tour guide to
the White House. And you get enormous, enormously interesting
detail of who’s sitting where and who said what. But no critical
distance. And obviously Watergate had quite a bit of critical
distance. And unfortunately, he seems to have lost that
interest.

He says, if you ask him “What is journalism about?” He says,
“It’s about ‘the truth.'” There are very few journalists in
Washington who could get away with saying something quite so
self-important: “The Truth.” But it’s quite right. That’s what
we’re supposed to be about. I think that his truth, though, is a
very narrow vision of things. Why? Because it is told in the words
and from the perspective of the power-wielders, and with no view
from outside the wall.

And that’s really I think in a nutshell, the problem with so
much of the coverage in Washington. Is that the habits of mind that
inform it, the sympathies that inform it, are all with the people
at the top. And not with the people outside the Palace.

And that’s who we journalists are supposed to writing for. We’re
not supposed to be writing for the powerful. We’re supposed to be
writing for the citizens of this democracy, who rely upon us to
tell them what’s going on here because they can’t be here
themselves. They have jobs, they have kids, they have all these
things they’re supposed to be doing. We as journalists are their
surrogate to tell them what’s going on in their government, in
their democracy.

What happened to the ideal, at least for my generation,
of an I.F. Stone kind of figure. Of the outsider. Who doesn’t go to
the Georgetown dinner parties, is not part of the either
reverential or snarling press pack at the White House. Are there
any people around like that? Is that still something that someone
might aspire to doing?

I think, sure, there are people who aspire to Izzy Stone’s
example. Many of us. But you know, none of us are as good as Izzy.
That’s the short answer to that. And also it’s a different
technological world now. You know, when Izzy was doing the I.F.
Stone Weekly, that could have a much bigger impact on opinions
within the sort of liberal side of the equation, than it would
today. Simply because of the reach of television which was much
more restricted then.

Is TV the culprit here? I know that you’re a print
person.

Au contraire. My father did television. I think this idea
that the problem is television is such a dodge.

Television… It obviously has different characteristics than
print. But I’m finding television can do a much better job at some
stories. Tianamin Square, for example, is a story where television
was absolutely essential. It brings you there. It shows you what’s
happening.

It’s not enough. You have to have the deeper and more considered
and nuanced coverage that print can offer. But television’s very
important. And very capable. And never let it be said, either that
because Ronald Reagan was able to run rings around the television
network, that they were somehow helpless before him.

Television, and the television networks are as powerful as the
President. Because they decide what is political reality in this
country. That’s the number one power of the press. Is they decide
what matters. They decide what people talk about.

Also you look at our network anchors — Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather,
Peter Jennings. I’m sure they all consider themselves journalists,
and I’m not saying they’re not. But first and foremost they are
actors. And that is what determines their audience, and the reason
that they are on the air is how well they look into that
camera.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. In the BBC, their
television, they call them “news readers.” They are not big stars.
And they didn’t used to be big stars. But here, television has been
made a profoundly commercial profit- making enterprise, an
entertainment enterprise, so we have made these reporters into
stars.

Let’s remember here the public airways are ours. They belong to
the people of this country. They don’t belong to NBC and CBS. And
in theory, we could very well say to them, as the 1934
Communications Act originally implied, that, “Look, if you want to
be able to make hundreds of millions of dollars of profit every
year, well then,you have to give something back to the community.
And one of the things you can give to the community is not just 22
minutes of happy talk news every night, but 30 minutes or 60
minutes and you can’t sell ads.” There is nothing technological
about television that keeps it from doing a good job. That is the
pursuit of profit speaking. Not the requirements of the television
technology.

What’s with these Sunday talk shows here? I mean, you’ve
been out of the country for awhile and you’ve come back, what’s the
role of these Sunday morning political talk shows in this
town?

Well, they haven’t gotten any better. I’ll tell you that. I
think that they are the most over-rated things. The only people who
pay attention to that, to those shows on Sunday mornings, are here
in Washington. You know, and the occasional political junkie out in
the country.

That’s again something that’s very important inside the Palace
Court because you can go to the cocktail party and these people
watch the weekend shows — the Georgetown set and the journalists,
they all take that stuff seriously. On the other hand, because the
Press takes it seriously, those shows often do end up helping to
set the agenda for the news of the week. The White House in
particular, in the Administration and leaders of Congress like Mr.
Dole, have learned over the years to manipulate those settings.

Why do you think the public has low trust in the
press?

The reason that the people don’t like or trust the Press is
precisely because the Press doesn’t respect them. The Press gives
them all this pseudo-news, superficial and not about the real
issues. The people are concerned about job security and economic
opportunity and all those bread and butter issues and the Press
wants to talk about seances. And it’s no wonder, I think that the
public looks at them and says, “We don’t trust you. We see you and
you’re no different from the politicians. You’re all rich. You’re
all powerful. You have no conception of what life is like out here
for all of us.”

And you know, it’s all very well. I agree with Paul Taylor that
it would be nice to break down the cynicism. And one can hardly
disagree with his idea of whatever it is, ten minutes or five
minutes a night in September to have the candidates come on and
talk straightforward to the public about this.

But it’s a little like, you know, bailing out the Titanic with a
teacup, to think that that is going to change the presentation of
this election, when you consider what else is happening in the
media.

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/FRONTLINE

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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