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Remarks From Sarah McClendonRemarks by Sarah McClendon to PNClassroom Editor Chris Long
April 30, 1997
Like Ed, I think the corporatization of the media is very serious. I did quite an analysis of Westinghouse, and why Westinghouse wanted to buy CBS and what Westinghouse was doing to reporters all over the country. Westinghouse has a big budget, I understand, that it sets aside to go after reporters who criticize it. There's a lust for power on the part of the big corporations taking over the media. There's no doubt in the world about what they control. All the big broadcast media are owned by corporations.
Television has changed reporting in Washington so much. We have very little say-so now about where we sit at a press conference. We have to get there early to sit ahead of them, or they make so much noise with their equipment or take up three-quarters of the room. Everyone bows to TV, gives them the best assignments, the best timing, the best access. They really have crippled us in the print media considerably.
Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, was the best press secretary I've ever seen. He was an experienced newspaperman, second generation I think. He was a calm, cool man, very polite. He didn't make fun of us, wasn't sarcastic like Roosevelt often was. He really gave out information. And he had some very difficult situations to deal with. Castro and Communism were coming on. Hagerty came to me one time and told me "Sarah, we will always take your questions." And I said, "What prompts this?" He said, "The Cabinet told Eisenhower not to take any questions from you anymore. That they didn't know who you are, that you're new, and you write for little papers, and papers they're not familiar with, and besides you're from west of the Mississippi." These were mainly East Coast men. He said, "From the back of the room, a man who was two or three levels down, said, 'Mr. President, I know this woman, and she will always be asking you questions about the grassroots. And Mr. President, you need to know what the grassroots are thinking." When Nixon came in the first thing he did was take me to the side and tell me "Sarah, I will always take your questions." I couldn't say anything, I was so dumbfounded.
I think we should know much more about how the White House operates. It's very difficult now to find out who heads an office. If you want to find who is responsible for one section of the White House, you would have a very hard time. You would have a hard time even getting that telephone number. They just try to keep all that secret. They try to keep any blame, any connection that would bring blame to an individual, to be nullified. Government's gotten very big but when it comes to vital offices that control things, like the White House, it's not so big that we couldn't find out all about it and understand it--if they'd let us.
Clinton doesn't come from the sophisticated East Coast where they've been manipulating the press and knowing how to handle them for years. George Bush had plenty of that sophistication in his administration, Carter had practically none. And those that don't have any experience like that suffer. Clinton doesn't have any real deep, heavy advisor. Sometimes I feel so sorry for him. I feel like I should go down and advise him myself.
Lyndon Johnson always had trouble with the press. He tried to manage the news. Johnson was so powerful, he was always trying to make deals with the press. Bill Moyers when he came to Washington, came as sort of a chaperone for Johnson on his night trips when he was traveling with his secretary and his wife didn't go along. Bill Moyers became his press secretary finally. He kept trying to tell us what were his ideas, his opinions when he couldn't get anything out of Johnson. We didn't want that. We wanted to know what Johnson was saying. The press secretary has to keep himself out of the picture. We often paid no attention to what he said.
As for the future, the print news media will never have the status it once had. I've talked over with my colleagues what the role of print is to be in the future and we all seem to think it will have a place, an important place. People will hear about something, very short and brief, on TV and then they'll want to read about it in detail to find out exactly the facts. It comes over so quickly on TV that you can't get it all. For that reason, print will continue to have a very important role.
The Internet is wonderful. These publishers and editors who kept stories out of the papers, they can't control it anymore. The Internet is open for everybody. I also realize the Internet is open to charlatans but we'll just have to depend on public opinion and democracy to weed things out. Public opinion, by and large, is better than not giving them the news.