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Remarks From Sarah McClendonRemarks by Sarah McClendon to PNClassroom Editor Chris Long
April 28, 1997
I think the public is very dissatisfied with the press' performance in covering politics and government. And in large measure it's justified.
We should realize that in recent years there has been a concerted campaign to make the public feel badly toward the media--to blame the media. This began most noticeably during the Nixon administration. What I observed was the wide criticism by columnists and commentators and people outside the White House, particularly those lobbyists for various conservative organizations, who were making a point against the press because the press was opposing them. I don't think it had much to do with Watergate. It had to do with the fact that the criticism and poking were aimed at the Republicans themselves, and they wanted to have a better image. In some respects, they were being treated unfairly.
This campaign, as I observed it, was very well planned and it was strategic, done by the Republicans to a great extent because they felt that they were not getting the best of the criticism in the paper. It was done because they wanted to hurt the press. It has increased since then, and they have persuaded a lot of people to hate the press. I don't think the public had any notion of how they were being taken.
Some of the reporters became sensitive to it and worried about it, some did not. But I think some today are very worried about it. Today we have a very timid Washington press corps. In my later years, I'm doing a lot of investigating of government crimes and government injustices and I find that a lot of reporters are afraid to hear about this. They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to add to the coverage of that story because they think that someone will accuse them of believing in conspiracies. Believing in conspiracies has become a very bad term here in Washington. The Washington Post, for example, seems to think that anyone who believes in conspiracy is a nerd.
It's the editors and publishers who are losing their nerve. They have more and more control over the reporters. The reporters are scared to death of the editors and publishers. And they don't want to be sneered on by their peers. They're scared of their peers. And they're timid about asking a question of the president or his press secretary at a press conference.
They're worried about what their bosses might say. And their bosses may be very narrow minded. You don't see a lot of editors who go out in the community and mix with the people. They often stay right on the desk and then go home, or to a party, or to Europe with their wives. They don't mix with the community enough. I've been in journalism since 1931 and there are so many times when the editor on the desk doesn't really know what's going on in his own home town.
The editors and publishers don't want any criticism of themselves. The big networks we have now are owned by corporations. The corporate people don't want any criticism of themselves. There have been many instances where reporters who came out and started digging and investigating something about the corporations lost their jobs or their programs on the air.
Watergate changed the attitude of reporters to a great extent. The findings of Woodward and Bernstein were largely done outside the White House press corps and largely because of the courage and nerve of Katharine Graham, who deserves a lot of credit for doing this, for permitting this to be uncovered. I think Woodward and Bernstein gave reporters a feeling that we can do something, that we can be aggressive. We don't have to be nice and polite to the people in the White House anymore. We can really go after them.
We cover a lot more stories and a lot more subjects than we used to cover, thank goodness. At the same time, we have this timidity on the part of reporters, and this lack of desire to expand their investigation. They take the announcement from the White House about what's going to happen and they pretty much stop right there. The reporters covering the White House don't know enough about Congress and following through these stories in the departments of government. It takes a lot of time and lot of effort.
It's incredible how much there is that can be written about here that's not being covered. Take the National Institutes of Health, for example. There have been wonderful stories for years out there but that's 16 miles from Washington, DC, and very few people go out there to cover it.
Now something good is happening: we have a lot of this investigation of corporates being done by nonprofits who have a lot of press conferences and seminars in Washington. Sometimes there are three good things going every 30 minutes and you want to go to all three of them but you can't. I think what Ralph Nader has done, what Common Cause has done, is very good.
The press is editorializing in political reporting to a terrible extent. You can barely read the front pages of a few of the newspapers without, after a few paragraphs, they've started giving some their objections and criticisms of the Clinton administration, and it's pretty brutal.
The Clinton administration isn't very good at dealing with the press. They're dumb. They're not good at publicizing their own good things, the things they do that are interesting, that are constructive. There's a summit coming up on getting more volunteers to work and we had to struggle to find out how it was organized and what was going on. For example, I was finding out today that it's largely being run outside the White House, by corporates and by nonprofit organizations. And the White House is being blamed for some of the faults here that actually the White House doesn't have that much to do with.
I have found the public so incredibly ignorant of the way the government works. I think we had a long period where people didn't look at government, where they felt they couldn't do anything about it. I think when they wrote the Constitution, they felt that the people would be educated, that they would keep up with government. But somehow they just let it go. Too much entertainment, too much sports.
I think that the concentration of media in the hands of the few may be uprooted by the Internet. The content that will come out on the Internet is already overwhelming, and so varied. I think it may inspire further reading of newspapers because they'll want to see more about what they heard on the Internet.